The Encultured Brain – Part One on the San Francisco AAA Conference

Our double session on the Encultured Brain: Neuroanthropology and Interdisciplinary Engagement was quite a success. The room was full, the papers well delivered, the discussants provided both constructive criticism and encouragement. Greg and I even got congratulations from people who heard about the session through meeting buzz. Never had that happen before!

So all that was great. But it’s not what I plan to dicuss here. The session, and ensuing conversations, pushed my own thinking, and I want to provide my general take on the session.

The place to begin is with the end, I think. In his comments Robert Sapolsky highlighted two important points. First he emphasized our changing view of the brain, with the main emphases in neuroscience now being the twin concepts of plasticity and connectivity. Genetic programming and innate modules are relics of past thinking. How neurons connect up and how neural function is shaped by other parts of the brain and by the environment now play a central role in understanding what our brains do. Not including these two basic concepts – with clear links to development, activity, experience, and culture – means missing the boat on where neuroscience is at and the potential lessons it carries for other fields.

Sapolsky’s second point was to not get caught up by the technical brilliance (or mirage, depending on your perspective) of neuroscience. Its technical prowess also carries large constraints, such as being limited to animal models or neuroimaging, extreme cost, and being confined to the laboratory. These technical aspects are largely problems of neuroscience, and should not carry over to anthropology (neuroanthropology or otherwise). Our focus on behavior, our work with people and primates in natural settings, our ability to focus on how people actually live – these are our strengths. We can flesh out what plasticity and connectivity – the interactive brain – mean for people and primates.

In her comments on the session, Naomi Quinn pointed out that we as anthropologists still have some way to go in this new endeavor. She highlighted the eclectic nature of the panel as one demonstration of that (who us, all over the board?). But the more serious point she had was our lack of a common language. Without a common set of ideas and a core set of references, we risk continuing to be all over the board rather than building the innovative research program that appears in our rose-colored dreams. Part of adding flesh to brain research means developing some shared meaning among ourselves about the different parts in play. Quinn’s challenge is an important one.

So that’s part one of my reflections. I’ll link to other parts here as I build on specific talks to discuss how to think more specifically about plasticity, connectivity, and common language. As a whole, the talks themselves present some powerful synergies – if we can just see our way to that.

2 thoughts on “The Encultured Brain – Part One on the San Francisco AAA Conference

  1. This is well stated. However, when you say balance between cultures and equilibrium training, do you have some suggestions, insights, tools and techniques in mind?

    Language, religion and history have created cultural imbalance and yet we are talking about the same one brain that has produced all this. After all we are learning today that all human beings share the same genetic make-up except for the microscopic difference between individual persons. What about the left-brain and right-brain imbalance? Do you see cultural imbalance as a result of humans functioning predominantly from the left side of brain or the right side of brain. To paraphrase what Norman Doidge, M.D., has writes in his best selling book, The Brain That Changes Itself (2007),”genetics and brain produce culture and culture changes the mind.”

  2. Dear Charles —
    I’m afraid you might be disappointed, but check out my piece specifically on equilibrium, that is, the sense that keeps us upright. I don’t really mean balance and imbalance in a metaphoric sense, but in the literal sense that has to do with falling over or staying upright. I don’t really see this as a ‘left brain/right brain’ issue, nor do I really see any particular culture as ‘imbalanced.’

    To me, the implication is a bit more radical; that there is not in fact ‘one brain’ shared by all human beings because the neural architecture varies for all sorts of reasons, including, but not limited to: genetic differences, epigenetic development in utero, ex utero developmental environment, explicit training, perceptual experience, emotional experience, endocrine conditions, chemical or drug exposure, traumatic events, nutrition, disease, and likely a lot of ways in which small differences in one (such as genes) are compounded by reinforcement from others (say a gene that affects the brain’s ability to use certain nutrients or an endocrine condition that exacerbates the effects of traumatic events).

    “Culture,” in the sense of induced patterns of variation from social groups, is likely to be on a lot of levels, some of them explicit and some of them so subtle that they basically seem like ‘natural environment.’ Cultures are the environments in which different brains grow, but that doesn’t mean that they are categorically different between cultures, nor utterly uniform. For example, an emotional desire for certain kinds of structure might lead a person, no matter what society he or she was born into, to seek out regimented daily life and clear standards for conduct, leading that person to gravitate toward certain kinds of religion or total institutions, but winding up in very different kinds of ‘cultural’ institutions.

    The Doidge paraphrase is fine as far as it goes, but the Devil is in the details and it’s pretty broad. I’m not convinced that the ‘brain/mind’ distinction, for example, is helpful at all. I can see no good that can come of it as it just allows sloppy thinking back in.

    So, yeah, I see that there are lots of tools for equilibrium training, but I doubt very much that they’re the kinds of things you’re thinking about. Check our site though for a number of pieces on meditation and compassion training and modes of dealing with stress. Daniel and I are both frequent posters on these sorts of topics.

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