Autism and Mirror Neurons

Autism has been my latest lens for learning about neuroanthropology. It started with reading claims that autism is linked to mirror neuron disfunction. Mirror neurons are currently used to explain how the brain understands the intentions and emotions of others. Researchers suggest that lack of brain activity in mirroring areas of the brain found in autistic children could explain deficits in social interaction and empathy. A related article on the site links the mirror system to the study of culture: Culture Influences Brain Cells: Brain’s Mirror Neurons Swayed By Ethnicity And Culture. A study compared reactions of subjects to both American and Nicaraguan hand gestures, measuring differences in mirror neuron activity in the brain depending on who was giving the information and whether they were a member of their own ethnic group or a different group.

“We believe these are some of the first data to show neurobiological responses to culture-specific stimuli,” said Molnar-Szakacs. “Our data show that both ethnicity and culture interact to influence activity in the brain, specifically within the mirror neuron network involved in social communication and interaction… An important conclusion from these results is that culture has a measurable influence on our brain and, as a result, our behavior. ” “We are the heirs of communal but local traditions,” said Iacoboni. “Mirror neurons are the brain cells that help us in shaping our own culture. However, the neural mechanisms of mirroring that shape our assimilation of local traditions could also reveal other cultures, as long as such cross-cultural encounters are truly possible. All in all, our research suggests that with mirror neurons our brain mirrors people, not simply actions.”

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this article—it seems as if it would be a given that culture impacts behavior so am not sure if they discovered something new so much as found a more scientific way of measuring it. Could this possibly be a tool that would indicate whether someone would suffer from culture shock? And linking it back to the first article, would this imply that autistic people would have equal trouble picking up on social cues regardless of who they are with while for others it would depend on whether they share the same cultural background?

Introduction and Depression

Hi all. Just a short introduction–I’m a graduate student in human-computer interaction and applied anthropology. I started off traditionally, learning about Don Norman and his work on human factors then did some international fieldwork on online communities, mobile phones and cybercafes. Recently I started taking more of an interest in the ethics and politics of mental health diagnosis and treatment as well as how mental illnesses are represented in American culture. Most of what I have been reading suggests that conditions such as depression are seen as a chemical imbalance to be treated with medication, so it was surprising to read in a “US News & World Report” article Get Healthier and Happier that anti-depressants actually only alleviate symptoms in 35-40% of depression cases compared with 15% on a placebo. Of more relevance to anthropologists are the stated impact of lifestyle on the diagnosis of depression.

As with diabetes, experts have begun to look for culprits in the 21st-century lifestyle. Might the isolating, sedentary, indoor computer culture explain, for example, why the disorder appears to be surging in young adults? Today’s 20-somethings have a 1-in-4 lifetime risk of experiencing depression’s hallmark black mood, joylessness, fatigue, and suicidal thoughts compared with the 1-in-10 risk of their grandparents’ generation. Americans are 10 times as likely to have depression today as they were 60 years ago, a development that is not merely a result of increased awareness and diagnosis.”

Unfortunately there are no citations for the above numbers and I’m inclined to be skeptical about making such comparisons–how would one even be able to judge the degree to which increased awareness and diagnosis would make a difference? We’re talking about a time before the DSM (the Diagnostic Statistical Manual which psychiatrists use) and before drugs such as Prozac had become a household name.

Even more intriguing for anthropologists:

Realizing that primitive societies like the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea experience virtually no depression, Stephen Ilardi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, is now testing a cave-man-esque approach to treatment with promising results. His 14-week Therapeutic Lifestyle Change program entails large doses of simulated hunter-gatherer living in people suffering from prolonged, unremitting depression. Participants sign up for 35 minutes of aerobic exercise (running, walking briskly, biking) three days a week, at least 30 minutes of daily sunlight or exposure from a light box that emits 10,000 lux, eight hours of sleep per night, and a daily fish oil supplement containing 1,000 mg of the fatty acid EPA and 500 mg of the fatty acid DHA.

They also get plenty of time surrounded by the “clan,” in the form of frequent social gatherings with family members, Starbucks dates with friends, and volunteer work. “Hunter-gatherers almost never had time alone,” says Ilardi; even a generation or two ago, people grew up supported by extended family and much more engaged with their community. Too much time in isolation, he says, means “opportunities to ruminate,” the modern scourge.

Granted, the fish supplements and biking and light boxes go above and beyond what a hunter-gathering society might have access to without the harshness. Comparing a Starbucks date to life as a cave-man seems absurd. But it certainly sounds like a healthier and more holistic treatment than what goes on in traditional psychiatric institutions. I’m not very familiar with the literature on mental illnesses in other cultures, especially so-called “primitive” cultures so would love to get citations and opinions.