Early Oliver Sacks and Neuroanthropology Today

Here’s a 1986 video with Oliver Sacks, where he discusses his work and his early book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

I found his description of his approach striking:

As a neurologist, as a physician one is concerned with patients and with people in jams, in predicaments. In particular predicaments that are being caused by their nervous system acting up, either their brain, their spinal cord, their peripheral nerves, maybe some disease, maybe some damage. As a neurologist you want to find out what exactly is the matter for the nervous system and what you can do about it, but you are equally concerned with the effect of this on the person, how it may alter their world, their inner experience and if need be, how they can cope best, live and survive in an altered world. And so this way you have to be equally sensitive and equally knowledgeable about the anatomy and the chemistry of the nervous system but also to all the things that make a life and make a world for an individual… One is rooted in the neurosciences at one end and in psychology and in phenomenology and in just what it is to be a person.

In some ways the patients I write of can seem very remote from ordinary life and from normality. But in other ways I think one can… I think as a physician one has to be able to, one has to try to imagine what it is like for them and enter into their situation and their world and relate it to one’s own.

That same impulse inspires neuroanthropology—the bringing together of our nervous systems, individual experience and coping, and our surrounding world, the consideration of the things that make a life. That really is the core of it.

What has changed in the twenty plus years since Sacks spoke is that we are now in the position to take this impulse and direct it into our scholarship. Rather than individual cases and rare neurological problems, we can now speak of establishing a field of inquiry that addresses how we are human through this synthesis.

So what has changed to make this possible? I see the development of four areas as making our work possible. Take one of these four away, and we probably wouldn’t be speaking about neuroanthropology right now. These bases make possible what we now want to do.

The explosion of brain sciences, in particular the shift from a hard-wired view to the recent emphasis on plasticity, and the increasing detailing of mechanism, processes and interactions. Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself captures the shift to plasticity well. On the processes side, I rather like David Linden’s The Accidental Mind.

What about the implications of changing notions of biology for how we think about ourselves? Here we come to new epistemologies which have challenged the assumptions behind the hard-wired and cause-effect approaches in earlier science. If I were to pick two representatives here, I’d go with Susan Oyama and her book The Ontogeny of Information and Andy Clark and Supersizing the Mind. The first takes aim at the nature/nurture dichotomy and the second at the view of the mind as an insular, brain-only phenomenon.

Those two developments only get us about half-way. On the anthropology side, the development of biocultural approaches has been crucial for two reasons, first as an alternative to evolutionary psychology and other reductive approaches to human behavior and second by placing biology within those life worlds that Sacks mentions. Melvin Konner’s The Tangled Wing is foundational here. Not quite as accessible, but directly on topic is the introduction to a special issue on biocultural anthropology, Biocultural Dialogues: Biology and Culture in Psychological Anthropology (scribd).

The final piece is the continued growth of psychological anthropology. After symbolic and cognitive anthropology provided the connective basis to consider culture and life worlds, psychological anthropology has increasingly focused on the problem of the person. Person-centered ethnography, embodiment, the importance of practice, the focus on experience and phenomenology – together these provide the scholarly tools to do research that takes the person and his or her life as seriously as those concrete, interactive brain processes. There is no one work that brings all those together. But Daniel Linger’s Anthropology through a Double Lens is a good work. For a more general overview, there is the recent A Companion to Psychological Anthropology.

6 thoughts on “Early Oliver Sacks and Neuroanthropology Today

  1. Very nice overview of some of the important developments in bioculturalism – thanks for that! I’m glad to see Oyama’s work mentioned in this context.

  2. I’m an ap psychology student, and there’s one question that has been on my mind since the beginning of this class but which is so interdisciplinary that it’s very hard not only to find a context for the question but to sort out a wording that actually makes any sense. First of all, in the course of this class there is a unit which involves Neuroscience, which both surprised me and didn’t surprise me. Obviously if you’re going to discuss the brain you’ll have to discuss neuroscience to some degree, but I had always thought of psychology and Neuroscience as separate but related topics. Now I’m confronted with the implication that one is a subset of the other, but which is which? Or are they both subsets of another topic, such as biology or epistemology (the latter seems a bit of a stretch to me). Secondly, one of the reasons I took psychology is that I’m interested in trying to understand humans as a whole, as an integrated being or subject, for the lack of a less detached phrase. But both my psychology and philosophy classes are approaching the subject in a separated, split way; perhaps a better word would be an organized but fractured manner; which is giving me the impression that human beings are rather like the stained glass windows that you see in cathedrals and churches: carefully divided pieces which make a synthesized whole. But if you delve into the intricacy of any one of these subjects–personality, memory, neuroscience, social psychology, etc.–you know this can’t possibly be true. Which is leading me to suspect that the overall question that I signed up for psychology hoping for some kind of answer–or beginnings of an answer to–is the one that everyone in their various fields is trying to answer.

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