Prehistory of ‘neuroanthropology’: Charles Laughlin

One can point to many intellectual predecessors to neuroanthropology: cognitive anthropologists who paid attention to discoveries in the brain sciences; phenomenologists who followed Merleau-Ponty’s example (not just his texts) and brought together philosophy of mind with a range of data from cultural studies and psychology to neural imaging, artificial intelligence, and robotics; psychologists (ecological, developmental, and others) like Esther Thelen and Susan Oyama who worked with dynamic systems models of human emergence….  I could go on.  I wound up here through the influence of all of the above as well as cellular biologist and feminist, Anne Fausto-Sterling; mathematician and systems modeler, Peter Taylor; anthropologist Tim Ingold; my informants in Brazil; and my colleagues, especially the good anthropologists at the University of Notre Dame.

But the term, ‘neuroanthropology,’ has an older pedigree in anthropology than the one I offered in my opening description.  Although I picked it up from Dominguez and Mason, the term appears in at least two separate contexts, one less relevant (although inspiring) and the other more directly applicable to this.First, the term, ‘neuroanthropology,’ has been associated with the work of Oliver Sachs, one of the more riveting science writers and humanist observers of the damaged human brain.  Sachs is the neurologist responsible for such wonderful books as The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, and An Anthropologist on Mars.  In his hands, ‘neuroanthropology’ is a kind of subject’s-eye-view of neurological anomaly.  Although there are many ways that Sachs inspires, one of the most relevant is that he attends, not only to the organic causes of disorders, but also to their phenomenological affects. 

The other predecessor for the use of the term, ‘neuroanthropology,’ however, is Emeritus Prof. Charles Laughlin, of Carleton University.  His works on the subject, and on neurophenomenology, were well ahead of his time, so much so that I have found it hard to track down too many works that make reference to them.   (Here’s hoping that we change that because his work is remarkable.  If you’re interested, I’ll be discussing it more, but you can get ahead of the curve by heading straight to his website.)

Continue reading “Prehistory of ‘neuroanthropology’: Charles Laughlin”

The term ‘neuroanthropology’

With some regret, I’ve taken up the term ‘neuroanthropology’ as the title of this blog. I think neologisms (or, in this case, a ‘re-oligism’) should not be bandied about lightly. But no other term seemed to really capture what I hope will be the shape of a new convergence between anthropology, brain sciences, developmental psychology, and evolutionary biology. 

‘Evolutionary psychology,’ it seems to me, has become associated with an adaptationist branch of genetic determinism inconsistent both with evolutionary sciences and the plasticity of the brain; ‘cognitive anthropology,’ on the other hand, seems too… well… ‘cognitive,’ in the sense that it too often is about consciousness and logical thought when the new convergence needs to consider many other types of neural processes (perception, motor control, regulation of autonomic systems, subconscious conditioning…).  Although neuroanthropology should certainly build on some of the remarkable work by scholars such as Maurice Bloch, Roy D’Andrade, Naomi Quinn, Claudia Strauss, and others, new discoveries in the brain sciences are quickly making old models of how the brain works appear much less plausible and requiring us to throw our net wider than that typically labeled ‘cognition.’

The term ‘neuroanthropology’ comes to me directly from the work of two Australian scholars, Paul Mason and (through him) Juan Dominguez.  Both of these anthropologists have helped me, in conversation (with Paul) and in their writings (both Paul and Juan), to better crystallize a project that has been lurking for me since I began to take seriously what capoeira practitioners, devotees of an Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance, claimed about the transformations worked by the art on their bodies, perceptions, and experiences.

Dominguez, according to one account of a paper he gave in Cairnes, has defined ‘neuroanthropology’ as ‘the study of the effects of “enculturation” on the human brain, the relationship between the brain, subjective experiences and culture, and the evolution of the neurobiological mechanisms that underpin culture’ (see original story here).  (I’m hoping that both Paul and Juan will post copies of some of their earlier work on this blog, so look for it in the future.)

Continue reading “The term ‘neuroanthropology’”

The goals of Neuroanthropology

First and foremost, I hope that this blog provides a space where anthropologists interested in neurosciences can share their thoughts, get in touch, and find out about each other’s research.  We’re in the vast minority out there, and I felt like it would be good to start up some conversations.

So, in keeping with that ‘mission,’ I am looking forward to signing up other participants as contributors.  For those of you who have not done it, blog posting is a great way to share thoughts, point out interesting news items, or get in touch without the extremely formal demands of normal academic publishing.  Unlike simply creating a mailing list, however, this blog will have a public face, so that we might be discovered by like-minded souls, wherever they are.

In the long run, I think that I’d like to work toward some collected volumes, conferences, panels at the American Anthropological Association or Australian Anthropological Society meetings, contacts between grad students and outside advisors, and that sort of long-running, loose collaboration.  I’ll be posting calls for papers or even first drafts of conference proposals for people to read, and I think the opportunity to share and discuss them with fellow travelers will be great.

In addition, like a normal blog, I will be trying to post links to and commentary upon news items or new papers that might be of special interest to those of us interested in neuroanthropology.  We’ll try to find a way for us to post unpublished papers (if anyone would like to), create a collective annotated bibliography of particularly important sources, make a contacts list, and a host of other similar academico-social activities.

Finally, I’m just hoping to see what people are doing out there, and I thought that making myself publicly present (well, in a virtual sense), might be a great way to do that.  So if you’re interested, let’s get you signed up as a contributor.  If you don’t mind too much, a great first post would simply be a short discussion of your research interests and why you’re ‘here’ (again, in a virtual sense).

As the blog moderator, I reserve the right to edit things.  I’ll use that privilege very sparingly, probably only in an effort to keep things collegial.  I feel like one of the great problems in this area is that some of the ‘leading lights’ working on these theoretical issues have a tendency to attack anyone who is not completely on board with their own models, terminology, or programs.  I don’t want to spend my time attacking each other, so I may curb excessive ‘flaming’ if it becomes an issue.  I doubt it will.

Hello world!

This new blog is coming soon. I’m trying to finish my marking for the semester, but I hope to soon be creating a site to encourage a new synthesis between sociocultural anthropology and the brain sciences.

My own experience reading and exploring in neuroscience has led me to believe that a new opportunity is available to anthropologists. New findings on topics like neural plasticity and modularization, and new research tools such as brain imaging, have opened space for novel research projects, collaborations across fields, and a renewal of psychological and neuropsychological theory in anthropology. Although some of our colleagues in anthropology fear ‘neural reductionism,’ my own impression is that brain scientists increasingly realize how experience dependent and variable brain development can be; the time is ripe for a vigorous injection of neuroanthropology into the neurosciences.

Although I am very much an anthropologist, this new field is inherently interdisciplinary, not out of intellectual fashion, but because understanding brain-shaping processes requires modeling a dynamic system that involves scales from the molecular to the macrosocial, with time frames stretching from seconds to an evolutionary scale. Tracing out the complex interactions across these scales demands both ambition and a profound humility; certainly, I am not capable of mastering all the fields that will contribute to this emerging understanding. Although I am open to being proven wrong, my own feeling is that previous attempts to integrate findings in brain sciences with cultural theory have over-reached, suggesting that the complex, baroque brain can be understood with a small set of variables. I suspect that a new anthropological engagement with the brain sciences will not throw off a grand unified theory of neural enculturation.

Instead, I suspect that neuroanthropology will produce myriad accounts of different systems, of novel configurations that the brain can produce depending on what is asked of it, of patterns of malleability that differ across a varietty of brain areas and functions. Far from a ‘neural reductionism,’ I suspect that a healthy neuroanthropology will produce a much richer, more varied account of human psychology than most current sociocultural theories.

But I will write more when I finish off this semester. I look forward to building this blog, stocking it with plenty of resources, and enlisting colleagues in many places to contribute different pieces to a new anthropology of the brain.