Charles Whitehead: Social Mirrors

In the depths of the Bad Semester (how I now refer to the last four months), Dr. Charles Whitehead contacted me to share notes on neuroanthropology. I’m trying to catch up with the immense backlog of material I need to work through, but I thought I would post a short note and a link to his website, Social Mirrors. It’s a pretty interesting spread of thinking, and Dr. Whitehead has provided numerous links to his papers and other material.

Dr. Charles Whitehead
Dr. Charles Whitehead

I especially like his piece with Prof. Robert Turner, downloadable here, on the effects of collective representations on the brain. In particular, the Turner and Whitehead article argues that the idea that certain areas of the brain are networked into a ‘social brain’ — implying that the rest of the brain is ‘not social’ — is hard to support. I’ll admit that I don’t necessarily use the same language or conceive of how the brain works in the ways described by Turner and Whitehead, but it is well worth the read to check it out, if for no other reason that it provides a corrective to some emerging ways of theorizing brain enculturation.

Turner and Whitehead take the multiple senses of the word, ‘representation,’ especially the conflicting use by anthropologists and social scientists, on the one hand, and brain sciences, as a point of departure. Normally, I just find the overlap annoying and have argued that it is one reason that anthropologists don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to neurosciences (for example, in Beyond Bourdieu’s ‘body’ — giving too much credit?). But Turner and Whitehead have something more constructive to say about the unstable term (from their conclusion):

We have tried to emphasize the contingent nature of much of our experience as social actors — which must qualify the way that we perceive ourselves, each other and the world — as we refer to a collectively defined system of concepts, rules, beliefs and even physical structures in order to givemeaning to our actions and find meaning in each others’ actions. Durkheim characterized this system by the term ‘collective representations’. In neuropsychology the term ‘representation’ has become commonplace for the action of the brain in forming material counterparts for mental processes, and so it is attractive to consider the relationship between these two types of representation: the collective and the cortical. We think it is well demonstrated that some collective representations can have well-defined cortical representations. (Turner and Whitehead 2008:54-55)

One section I did strongly agree with discusses the evidence for the idea that the same skills can be achieved through different areas of the brain, depending upon how a person learns a task (see page 52).

Dr. Whitehead’s own research is on play, social display, Some of the pages aren’t yet fully functioning, but it looks like he’s going to take on some topics that I fear to broach, including religion and ‘anomalous experience’ from a neurosciences, anthropological, and evolutionary perspective. From his bio:

Charles Whitehead was creative director of an advertising agency for twenty years before gaining his PhD in social anthropology at University College London. He teaches anthropology to cognitive science students at the University of Westminster, and is currently involved in brain imaging research on pretend play at the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience. His research interests include self-consciousness, social display, and the evolution of the human brain. A central aim is to bridge the extraordinary conceptual gulfs dividing the various disciplines that attempt to understand human thought, behaviour, and consciousness.

Turner, Robert, and Charles Whitehead. 2008. How collective representations can change the structure of the brain. Journal of Consciousness Studies 15 (10/11): 43-57. (download pdf)

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

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