Neuroanthropology and Everyday Design

Today’s article by John Tierney, Why Nobody Likes a Smart Machine, from the Tierney Lab illustrates several points that neuroanthropologists should pay attention to.  It’s about the work of Donald Norman, best known for his book “The Design of Everyday Things,” and his analyses for why modern technology often frustrates people so much.  (By the way, I just bought my wife one of those picture frames mentioned in the article for Christmas—ah, a bundle of frustrating joy.)  So, in the course of the article, Tierney and Norman mention four different aspects of how we relate successfully or unsuccessfully to machines (and, from my point of view, much of the world).  They are: 

-Predictability (the pedestrian who keeps walking so the bicyclist easily avoids him)

-Being Understandable (human-sized signals like the whistle from a tea kettle; having an intuitive feel—read, culturally modeled, metaphorically presented, and visually and tactically available)

-Control (the clever solution to wrapping a wet paper towel around the electronic sensor on the bathroom faucet)

-Feeling Helpless (computerized shades that worked on their own without being able to be locally manipulated) 

These factors are tied up into three related phenomena—evolution, culture, and the brain—at the core of neuroanthropology.  In this case, they are (1) achieving behavioral success in often stochastic evolutionary environments, where acting on environmental information in goal-directed ways often led to good things (like food) (the evolutionary problem), (2) how culture built off human tendencies—our ability to apply learned, controllable, regular solutions in novel ways (but not badly designed ways—hence the problems with some technology) (the cultural side), and (3) the brain systems that handle stress, where unpredictable, uncontrollable stressors are the ones that make us react the most (the brain).  Hence, the predictable line of frustration, anger, and then simply giving up and making do the best you can with the present situation. 

Plus Norman did participant observation and interviewing as his methodological approach!  If you want to talk more, just email me at dlende@nd.edu.  Best, Daniel Lende

Keeping Brains Agile

This article from The New York Times, Mental Reserves Keep Brains Agile, illustrates a central point that Greg Downey and I want to make with neuroanthropology.  First, what you do with your brain, how that doing plays out in an environment, and how that playing out feeds back into the workings of your brain are a central part of what makes us human—and thus is a central part of how anthropology should approach the study of ourselves. 

What You Do: Having an active brain over your life course means that less neurons are likely to be lost and more connections actively generated and maintained.  The brain, like your muscles, is use-it-or-lose-it—we have the most neurons that we’ll ever have when we are children, and as children, we go through a lot of “selective pruning”.  That said, research has also shown the we keep producing new neurons throughout our lives, overturning a long-standing idea that we only get one set of neurons for life. 

Doing in Environment: As the article notes, “there is no ‘quick fix’ for the aging brain, and little evidence that any one supplement or program or piece of equipment can protect or enhance brain function — advertisements for products like ginkgo biloba to the contrary.”  Despite our wishes to the contrary, we need to do plenty of stuff in a challenging environment to maintain our cognitive reserves. 

Playing Back into the Brain: Both social relationships and physical activity make a difference to your brain.  Greg likes the physical side, so I will just highlight one quote here: “Long-term studies in other countries, including Sweden and China, have also found that continued social interactions helped protect against dementia. The more extensive an older person’s social network, the better the brain is likely to work, the research suggests.” 

That said, we can also draw two other lessons from the article.  First, as I pointed out briefly in my Introduction, we should avoid over-localizing function and pathology in any one area.  Brains are not as hard-wired as computers; people’s physiology is variable (including their brains).  We are soft wired, or “wet wired” to draw on the metaphor of a 1995 book.  As the article states, “up to two-thirds of people with autopsy findings of Alzheimer’s disease were cognitively intact when they died.” The second point, and a crucial one for neuroanthropology, is the implicit framing of the article.  The title reads “Mental Reserves Keep Brains Agile,” re-using a very old mind/body metaphor.  While Jane Brody speaks of social and physical activity, the main causal concepts are cognitive and physical: the cognitive reserve, the number of neurons present.  Subsequently, Brody has our social, physical and symbolic worlds revolve around the mind/body dichotomy.  Neuroanthropology needs to develop the research, the language, and the popular models to show what this article actually tells us: people’s social lives, from walking in malls to playing bridge, make a difference in the blood flow and neuronal connections of the brain.  Our lives play back into our brains.

Introductions: Daniel Lende

Growing up I remember large poster boards covered by brain maps from localization studies in mammals.  The maps were odd, parts of the animal protruding, others minimally present, as if the raccoon or the opossum had stood in front of one of those twisting carnival mirrors.  Or been drawn by a caricature artist, emphasizing the parts of the animal that played a central role in their lives, their nose and whiskers, their paws, the parts of their bodies they used to interact with the world.  Those maps came from my father’s research; he was both a neurosurgeon and neuroanatomy researcher.  They showed the brain not as hard-wired circuits but as interactions.  They were also strikingly artistic, stark black and white prints mixed with surreal transformations.

In college I studied biological anthropology, interested in human evolution and animal behavior.  In the late eighties we had not hit the decade of the brain in the United States; I was more interested in evolutionary theory, psychological mechanisms and decision making.  The great expansion of the human brain during our evolutionary history, the importance of both tool making and sociality, the comparative approach of placing humans and other animals in the same framework to understand similarities and differences—these are lessons from that time that stay with me.

I lived in Bogotá, Colombia for several years after I graduated college.  I worked as a drug counselor and researcher, and earned extra money as a freelance journalist with articles mostly on business and tourism.  Those years impressed on me the power of culture, embodied in the new language I learned and the class differences that marked the geography of cities and homes alike, in what symbols people argued over and why the long Saturday lunch was such a cherished custom. But I didn’t forget my biology either, and I realized that for the problem that interested me—addiction—I needed to bring culture and biology together.  One of the main clues was in the descriptions boys provided to me about why they used drugs, the compulsion, craving (or “ansiedad” there) and desire they felt.  Addiction was “wanting more and more.”  These descriptions flew in the face of the then-current disease model of addiction, which was based on tolerance and withdrawal.  Withdrawal was tough, but it was the intense wanting, both while using and later, that seemed so destructive.  Thankfully these descriptions matched up with an emerging view of the brain and addiction based on the work of Terry Robinson and Kent Berridge at the University of Michigan, particularly a 1993 article on drug craving.

In my doctoral research, among many other things, I worked to link emerging conceptions of mesolimbic dopamine function with ethnographic descriptions of wanting and craving.  I worked with adolescents in Bogotá who ranged from non-drug users to people addicted to multiple substances.  The ethnography and the brain science matched up in three areas: intense desire for drugs, an urge to go towards drugs, and shifts in awareness towards drugs in the environment or how drugs could change one’s present feelings.  This view is not based on the essentialized “function” often proscribed onto certain parts of the brain (particularly as brain imaging elides into “seeing is believing”).  This reductionist view does not match up with the neuroanatomy or the experimental data.  Indeed, the overall mesolimbic dopamine system goes from some of our most ancient evolved brain systems to our most recent, with multiple projections that can have varied impact on on-going behavior and brain functioning.  And vice versa, as our bodies and environments can have varied impacts on brain functioning and behavior as well!

To summarize for now (I’ll hopefully expand later), the brain, grounded theory that works from people’s experiences and behavior, and the thick description of symbol systems can all hang together.  And you can even show that these things hang together with quantitative work, which I used by incorporating a new scale that formed part of my epidemiological work in Colombia.  This work is presented in my 2005 article in Ethos.  I remain deeply interested in this sort of integrative work, particularly how it plays out in multiple human domains, including addiction, anorexia, and sexual desire.I also haven’t forgotten my roots in biological anthropology.  Another part of my graduate work was to bring together evolutionary and cognitive neuroscience views of addiction.  My graduate mentor Neal Smith and I created a synthesis of evolutionary theory and neuroscience which describes a biopsychosocial approach to addiction.  I’ve just published a chapter that updates theses ideas, and provides clearer links to cultural anthropology, in the volume Neal edited on Evolutionary Medicine and Health.

At present I see an urgent need for theoretical mediators and ethnographic methods that help us work between what we know about our brains and what we know about our behavior and culture(s).  One rich area of work in this area centers on embodiment, and I hope that we will have a discussion on that topic as part of neuroanthropology.  Applied science or practical or engaged work also offers us another lens, whether it is figuring out how to make someone a better athlete or competitor or in trying to understand how to help someone who has a behavioral health problem.  So the applied side of neuroanthropology is another way we can draw on our ethnographic expertise, while also reflecting on and making a difference through what we do every day—live our lives through an encultured brain.

 If you want to reach me, please email me at dlende@nd.edu