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.