New features on Neuroanthropology

Just a quick note because I still have relatives staying with me (so I can’t get to a more serious post on Bruce Wexler’s book, Brain and Culture, to the collective memory conference I attended, or to the piece I’m working on about the equilibrium system and diverse physical training regimens). They go home tomorrow, so I should be able to present something substantive in the near future.

The first announcement is that we’ve added a Bibliography page that will try to keep a running list of the academic resources referenced in the postings.  Although I’m likely to fall behind from time to time up-dating it, my goal is to create a kind of ‘annotated bibliography’ with links back to postings or notes that discuss the readings.

In addition, Daniel Lende has generously put together a page of ‘web resources’ with links to things like news in the neurosciences and tutorials on brain architecture and function.  Especially for those of us in anthropology who are trying to better engage with the brain sciences, I think it will be an invaluable resource.

Finally, I’ve decided that we’re going to start using the icon from for blogs about peer-reviewed research.  You’ll see a small icon along articles that really discuss peer-reviewed research (rather than some of the ones we do about news or academic conferences or the like).  I’ll be happy to take care of providing the code, which I’ll just insert in appropriate posts.  It’s one more way that we can signal to our readers the nature of what we’re doing, and to let people in other fields know how research is being received and discussed among anthropologists.

Sorry I’m making you wait on other posts, but I promise more soon.

Paul Mason on Neuroanthropology defined

Our colleague, Paul Mason, sent the following post in from fieldwork in Indonesia. He apologized to me for it being ‘rough,’ and I still have to get a bibliography off him for it, but I thought it was well worth posting, especially because it does a great job of highlighting a whole host of intellectual precursors for what we’d like to do. Paul worked in the brain sciences, including in brain imaging, before we lured him over to anthropology, so he’s especially well positioned to help us carve out this new space. I think he brings a whole host of elements to the table that someone like me, trained in cultural anthropology primarily, can’t help but find fascinating and informative. So here’s his original text, with his apologies that it is ‘rough’ (we all know what it’s like to try to write from the field).

The brain is the organ of society and the biological vector of culture (Mason 2006). Neuroanthropology, a field of enquiry at the intersection of science and culture, is “The study of the cultural basis of mind and the biological basis of cultures” (Mason, 2005). Oliver Sacks is perhaps the most famous neuroanthropologist bringing fame to the field through his work on the ‘Neuroanthropology of Tourette’s Syndrome’ for which he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989. The first proponent of the merging of neuroscience and anthropology was Ten Houten (1976) who defined the field as “the investigation of the cultural determinants of the ways in which our brains are developed historically and put to use” (p. 506). The research field was later defined by Laughlin, McManus and d’Aquili (1979) as, “The study of the relationship between the brain and sociocultural behaviour.” Neuroscientist, Jean-Pierre Changeux, has also advocated the unification of neuroscience and anthropology in his book, L’homme Neuronal (1983). The merging of neuroscience and anthropology is not altogether new. Paul Broca, a neurologist, famous for the discovery of Broca’s area of speech production in the brain, was also an anthropologist (Monod-Broca 2005). According to Couser (2001) neuroanthropology aims to study both how culture shapes neurological processes and how neurological substrates may produce distinctive cultural behaviours.

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Cave men in classrooms by Prof. Roger Schank

Roger Schank, founder of the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, John P. Evans Professor Emeritus in Computer Science, Education and Psychology, and author of about twenty books, gives us an offering on evolution and education on The Pulse, the blog of District Administration, an educational organization. His posting, Cave Man Didn’t Have Classrooms, borrows from the idea that we are gastro-intestinal ‘cave men’ eating twenty-first century (read: ill adapted) diets, using it to criticize the Western approach of education. As he puts it, cleverly, we are ‘still’ cave men (we’ll be back to that point): ‘We just wear better clothes.’

I take seriously the idea that, biologically, we are still cave men. And, mentally we are cave men as well. Just as we were evolved to live off the land without excessive alteration to what we find there, so have we evolved to think and learn in a certain way, a way that may not be consonant with how we think we think, and how we learn in the modern world.

He goes on to paint absurdist images of ‘cave men’ learning through lectures in class rooms to highlight the fact that human brains may not learn well by sitting quitely and listening. Prof. Schank writes:

Why do these images seem absurd? Because, we imagine, that cave men taught their children by example. We imagine that they took them along on the hunt when they were ready and that they practiced, by playing, prior to that. We assume, that learned to build shelters by doing simple tasks first and that they learned to defend against predators by watching and later helping. We don’t really have to imagine this very hard, as there are primitive societies where this still takes place today. In fact, prior to the idea of mass compulsory education, like that of mass feeding, we knew how to educate children properly, that is in the way that their minds were set up to work after 1,000,000 years of evolution. Instruction in cave man society, indeed in all societies until very recently, was by long-term apprenticeships. Knowing was not valued. Doing was seriously valued.

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Mirror effects in neurons learned?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchLike many observers of the neurosciences from other fields, I have watched the debate about the function, origin, and nature of ‘mirror neurons’ with no small amount of interest. Since their discovery in the early 1990s by Giancomo Rizzolatti and his research group at the University of Parma, the ‘mirror system(s?)’ in primates and humans have been extensively explored and discussed.

For anyone living under a neurosciences rock, ‘mirror neurons’ are typically premotor or parietal neurons that are active both when a subject perceives and executes an action. In a host of research projects which I’ll probably try to discuss later (I wrote a lengthy piece on them that was recently rejected by a major anthro publication, and I’m considering posting the original in the anthropology open source archive and then doing a MAJOR revision to seek publication elsewhere). Anyway, mirror neurons have been linked to action understanding, empathy, imitation (a personal interest), language, and ‘mind reading’ (not a sixth sense, but the abiltity to understand other’s intentions and perceptions).

A new paper by Caroline Catmur, Vincent Walsh, and Cecilia Heyes (one of the really innovative scholars working on mirror neuron research) in Current Biology has some fascinating implications for neuroanthropology(abstract or pdf download). In particular, the article suggests, in the words used in the abstract:

…it is unclear how mirror neurons acquire their mirror properties—how they derive the information necessary to match observed with executed actions. We address this by showing that it is possible to manipulate the selectivity of the human mirror system, and thereby make it operate as a countermirror system, by giving participants training to perform one action while observing another. Before this training, participants showed event-related muscle-specific responses to transcranial magnetic stimulation over motor cortex during observation of little- and index-finger movements. After training, this normal mirror effect was reversed. These results indicate that the mirror properties of the mirror system are neither wholly innate nor fixed once acquired; instead they develop through sensorimotor learning. Our findings indicate that the human mirror system is, to some extent, both a product and a process of social interaction [please note I’ve removed citation numbers that appear in the abstract].

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Two podcasts on neuroplasticity

I’ve got some longer things to come, but I wanted to draw attention to two podcasts on neuroplasticity that I found through Scientific American‘s Mind & Brain blog.

The first podcast is Brain Science Podcast #10 Neuroplasticity, a presentation structured around the book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves, by Sharon Begley. Begley is a science writer for The Wall Street Journal, and she builds the book around a discussion of the effects on the brain of meditation. As a summary of the book describes:

Is it really possible to change the structure and function of the brain, and in so doing alter how we think and feel? The answer is a resounding yes. In late 2004, leading Western scientists joined the Dalai Lama at his home in Dharamsala, India, to address this very question–and in the process brought about a revolution in our understanding of the human mind.

The second is an interview with Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. As Ginger Campbell, an emergency physician and the interviewer, describes:

We talk about the obstacles that delayed this important discovery. Dr. Doidge shares the stories of three of the scientists featured in his book: Paul Bach-y-Rita, Edward Taub, and VS Ramachandran. We also talked about how these discoveries might influence both patient care and future research.

I’m new to podcasts as I just bought myself a little iPod shuffle to listen to them on while I work out (and haven’t been doing too much of that with all the physical labour involved in farm-related projects, like building a sandstone wall and getting my veggie garden back under control after it was neglected for three weeks while traveling in the US). Ira Bashkow, an old friend from days with a dissertation reading group at the University of Chicago, suggested it as yet another way to cram information into our aging cortical regions, and I’m looking forward to trying.

Nice to be noticed

Our little youngster, Neuroanthropology, just got a mention at Savage Minds. It’s not entirely unexpected as I posted an announcement on Culture Matters, the applied anthropology blog sponsored by Macquarie University’s Department of Anthropology. It was a bit of PR and may have been premature, but I think that Daniel Lende has taken to posting such high quality stuff that I didn’t want to wait any longer.

Many thanks to Christopher Kelty for the notice and the encouragement for the type of intellectual project it represents. Kelty offers encouragement, but he also gently points out some of the challenges of the vertigiousness inter-divisional collaboration that something like ‘neuroanthropology’ demands. He writes:

There is room for a new kind of medical and bio-cultural anthropology for people willing to connect—- though it does depend on finding the brain scientists willing to meet the cultural scientists halfway, which is no mean feat.

To which I would merely add that finding the anthropologists amenable to this collaboration is also no mean feat, especially judging from the savaging I just received for a submission on the topic to a major anthropology journal. Admittedly, the article needed a bit of work, but I don’t think it was EIGHT REVIEWS worth of bad.

Having Savage Minds notice you, however, if you’re an anthropology blog, is a bit like getting a cool older kid’s attention at school, so I’m pretty happy about that. More soon, too, on my recent presentation on equilibrium as a culturally variable dynamic neuro-behavioural system.

Again, I’d encourage those who are interested in participating to contact me directly.