Dear Loyal Readers (and Passers By) —
It gives me great pleasure to announce that you can apparently now access streaming .wmv files of the four long-format talks that were given at The Encultured Brain Conference at the University of Notre Dame in October 2009. No, you do not have to rush out to your video store, nor do you need to send me a stamped self-addressed envelope as well as a surprisingly large fee for ‘postage and handling.’ Yes, it has taken a while, so file this in the ‘much better late than never’ box, and enjoy.
At the moment, we do not yet have them posted on YouTube, but we are working on that, so there will likely be a second message very soon (maybe more) with the videos. I’d like to write some commentary on each as well, but I want to watch them again before I do so. The reason I say ‘apparently’ the videos are accessible is because I am a bit of a slow adapter, and between my computer and my current from-home Internet connection, I cannot watch them, but I’m certain our readers are more technologically sophisticated and media savvy than I am.
The talks can be linked to through:
Daniel Lende, Opening Address: “Neuroscience and the Real World”
Patricia Greenfield, Keynote Address 1: “Mirror Neurons and the Ontogeny and Phylogeny of Cultural Processes.”
Harvey Whitehouse, Keynote Address 2: “Explaining Religion.”
Greg Downey, Closing Address: “A Brain-Shaped Culture: Ambitions, Acknowledgments and Opportunities.”
If you want to read more before committing your computer to a streaming video, the abstracts for the talks are below the fold.
Patricia Greenfield (UCLA), Mirror Neurons: The Ontogeny and Phylogeny of Cultural Processes
The mirror neuron system enables both monkey and human to produce intentional motor acts and to respond when observing the same acts performed by another. This presentation will demonstrate the importance of these neurally grounded behavioral competencies for the evolution and ontogenetic development of two key aspects of human culture, tool use and language. The analysis of ontogeny draws upon observations and studies of the development of language and tool use in human children. The analysis of phylogeny draws on comparison of chimpanzees, bonobos and humans, in order to derive clues as to what foundations of human language may have been present in our common ancestor ﬁve to seven million years ago. Such foundations would then have served as the basis from which the ontogeny of human language and the ontogeny of complex tool use evolved in the following millions of years.
Harvey Whitehouse (Oxford), Explaining Religion
Much research in the cognitive science of religion emphasizes that some features of religious thinking and behaviour are universal, arising from our species’ evolutionary history. Examples include certain qualities attributed to supernatural agents (e.g. gods and ghosts), which humans everywhere appear to recognize with minimal need for instruction. But there is also growing evidence that many religious concepts require considerable cognitive, social, and technological resources to create, remember, and pass on. Cross-culturally variable aspects of religion arise in part from the evolution of cognitive systems devoted to connecting concepts (e.g. through the formation of novel analogies) and storing them (e.g. in semantic memory) and in part from the historically changing sociopolitical conditions in which such systems can be exploited. Only a coordinated, interdisciplinary effort that takes into account the role of both evolved cognition and human ecology in religious innovation and transmission will be sufficient to provide the broad empirical and theoretical base necessary for explaining religion.
OPENING AND CLOSING ADDRESSES
Daniel Lende (Notre Dame), Neuroscience and the Real World
In recent decades a new view of the brain has emerged that stresses plasticity over hard-wired approaches. At the same time, the social sciences have moved away from top-down concepts like “culture”, “social structure” and “ideology” to an emphasis on practices, cognition and embodiment. The time is ripe for a synthesis of these new views of neural function and social life. Using examples such as craving, stress, and neuroengineering, this talk outlines five ways to approach the encultured brain: (1) the examination of human behavior, experience and meaning; (2) the interaction of social inequality and the brain; (3) how ideas about and manipulation of the brain are used socially; (4) using neuroscience to inform social theory; and (5) using social theory to inform neuroscience. For all five, the study of people – examining the real world – is central. Real people help us avoid a return to brain- or culture-centered views of human life. Moreover, research on people, particularly ethnographic research, provides the data to examine the specifics of how brain function intersects with social life.
Greg Downey (Macquarie), A Brain-Shaped Culture: Ambitions, Acknowledgments and Opportunities
The human brain and nervous system are pre-eminently cultural organs, malleable and responsive to conditioning but also crucial in producing patterned behaviour. But what does culture look like from the perspective of the brain? That is, most anthropological models of culture derive from the study of sociological patterns, observable behaviour or conscious thought. Neuroanthropology offers an opportunity to work from the evidence of the encultured nervous system toward a better understanding of larger-scale patterns of induced human variation.
As a reflection on the first Neuroanthropology conference, this talk sketches out some of the resources for a brain-based account of culture, drawing on earlier cognitive and psychological anthropology, but also touching upon some of the areas yet to be explored. Understanding how the nervous system might be encultured highlights that a brain-shaped culture might be significantly broader and more complex than many contemporary anthropological accounts of cultural variation.