Ryan Brown and Cultural Psychophysiology

ryan-brownOur AAA conference panel in San Francisco “The Encultured Brain: Neuroanthropology and Interdisciplinary Engagement” is only ten days away. In that time I will feature our individual presenters so that people can get a sense of who is going to present and what their work is about.

First up is Ryan Brown, assistant professor in Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University. His talk is entitled: The Brain in Culture: Emotional Responses to Social Threat. Here is the abstract:

Recent technological developments allow us to peer into the mechanics and dynamics of our brain and nervous system with increasing ease and depth. Scientific and public perceptions of impending miraculous solutions (or, alternatively, the end of humankind as we know it) have rippled forth from these new technologies and associated research projects. A holistic anthropological view provides a cooling tonic to these heated misperceptions. Specifically, a radical developmental systems view that refuses to assign a priori causal primacy to genes, neurons, social interactions, or institutions shows the brain to be not only enculturated (affected in structure and function by culture) but also always “in culture”; at once a product of, participant in, and creator of sociocultural systems. Evolution has endowed the human nervous system with redundant and parallel pathways that enable both stability and plasticity during development. Similarly, sociocultural systems are highly evolved and self-stabilizing, with multiple ways of enabling or limiting individual behavior that have co-evolved with the human brain. As a result, technologies of neuro-observation promise new opportunities for understanding (not to mention intervention) only insofar as they operate at the intersection of sociocultural systems and human behavior. For example, intersections of psychophysiology and social psychology have thrown new light on how the brain and nervous system function during threatening or unpleasant social interactions. I describe how an anthropological and social theoretical approach can: (1) push such knowledge “up” to the population level, and (2) push such knowledge “down” into lived experiential worlds.

Ryan’s broad interests focus on risk-taking, psychophysiology, violence, emotions and health, culture and acculturation, and evolutionary and biological approaches to health and behavior. You can download his CV here.

Ryan is also the director of the newly founded Cultural Psychophysiology Laboratory (CPL) at Northwestern University, which uses portable psychophysiology equipment to conduct field experiments. Current work at CPL focuses on how race-ethnicity, SES, and cultural context affects physiological and behavioral responses to potentially threatening social situations.

If you want to contact Ryan about his work in cultural psychophysiology, his AAA presentation, or anything else, his email is: ryan-a-brown at northwestern.edu

The Encultured Brain at the AAAs

One month from today, on November 20th, Greg and I will convene our panel “The Encultured Brain: Neuroanthropology and Interdisciplinary Engagement” at the 2008 American Anthropological Association annual meeting. The meeting is being held at the Hilton San Francisco, right in the heart of the city, and our session kicks off at 8:00AM and runs to 11:45AM. We hope some of you will come!

Here is what our panel will address:

As a collaborative endeavor, neuroanthropology aims to better integrate anthropology, social theory, and the brain sciences. In this panel, we explore the implications of new findings in the neurosciences for our understanding of culture, human development, and behavior. Neuroanthropology can help to revitalize psychological anthropology, promote links between biological and cultural anthropology, and strengthen work in medical and linguistic anthropology. However, recent anthropology has not engaged neuroscience to produce the sort of synthesis that began when Franz Boas built cultural anthropology from psychophysics.

Neuroscience has increasingly produced basic research and theoretical models that are surprisingly amenable to anthropology. Rather than “neuro-reductionist” or determinist approaches, research has increasingly emphasized the role of environment, body, experience, evolution, and behavior in shaping, even driving organic brain development and function. At the same time, the complexity of the brain makes a mockery of attempts to pry apart “nature” from “nurture,” or to apportion credit for specific traits. Research on gene expression, endocrine variability, mirror neurons, and neural plasticity all beg for comparative data from across the range of human variation — biological and cultural.

Neuroscientists and other social scientists are already actively working on these sorts of integrated models; books like Wexler’s Brain and Culture and Quartz and Sejnowski’s Liars, Lovers and Heroes actively incorporate anthropological materials. In the social sciences, books like Turner’s Brains/Practices/Relativism aim to bring neuroscience into social theory, often with critical intent.

However, these works often leave out the best of anthropology. Although our research is being borrowed, we are being left out of the conversation precisely at a time when we should speak with authority. In the present round of integration, simplistic understandings of culture dominate, and, at times, outside authors read our research through unsettling ideological lenses. And, given the emphasis on experience, behavior, context and development, the absence of ethnographic research and insight into precisely those domains that impact our neural function is startling.

Anthropology has much to offer to and much to learn from engagement with neuroscience. An apt model is just how important genetics has become in anthropology, cutting across the entire discipline. A similar revolution is waiting with neurobiology, if we can draw on our strengths and build neuroanthropology on inclusion, collaboration and engagement, both within and outside anthropology. To this end, this session explores areas of anthropological research related to the brain where heredity, environment, culture and biology are in complex relations, with human variation emerging from their nexus rather than being determined by a single variable. Participants explore addiction, motor skill, autism, mental disability, and other brain-related phenomena that can only be explained by dynamic models including both “bottom-up” (biological, neural, and psychological levels) and “top-down” (cultural, social, and ideological) factors. Participants highlight that no single model of the biological-cultural interface holds for all cases. The papers in this panel also suggest ways in which anthropologists might intervene in public discussions of crucial human characteristics and make our concerns more persuasive for other academic disciplines exploring the complexity of the human brain.

We have a great group of presenters. This is the order, complete with talk titles. Greg and I will post more information about each talk in the days to come, so stay tuned for that.

Daniel H. Lende (University of Notre Dame) Ethnography and the Encultured Brain: Design, Methods and Analysis.

Peter Stromberg (University of Tulsa) Exploiting Autonomic Processes to Shape Ideas: An Example from Early-phase Tobacco Use.

Rachel S. Brezis (University of Chicago) Autism and Religious Development: A Case for Neuroanthropology.

Harold L. Odden (Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne) Ethnopsychologies and Children’s Theory of Mind: Finding Common Ground between Anthropology, Psychology, and Neuroscience.

Christina Toren (University of St Andrews, Scotland) Inter-subjectivity and the Development of Neural Processes.

Ryan Brown (Northwestern University) The Brain in Culture: Emotional Responses to Social Threats.

Katherine C. MacKinnon (Saint Louis University) and Agustín Fuentes (University of Notre Dame) Primate Social Cognition, Human Evolution, and Niche Construction: A Core Context for Neuroanthropology.

Cameron Hay-Rollins (Miami University of Ohio) The Relevance of Neurology to an Indonesian Healing Tradition.

Rebecca Seligman (Northwestern University) Cultural Neuroscience and the Anthropology of Dissociative Experience.

Greg Downey (Macquarie University, Australia) Balancing Between Cultures: A Comparative Neuroanthropology of Equilibrium in Sports and Dance.

We also have three outstanding discussants for our panel:

Claudia Strauss, Pitzer College
Naomi Quinn, Duke University
Robert Sapolsky, Stanford University

Here is our entire Encultured Brain AAA proposal for those of you who are interested.

Conference: Policy-Relevant Research on Adolescence & Psychological Anthropology

The Schubert Center for Child Studies and the Department of Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University will be hosting a great conference November 7-8, 2008 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Entitled “New Directions in Policy-Relevant Research on Adolescence: Perspectives From Psychological Anthropology,” the conference will “facilitate engaged discussion and connections that highlight the policy-relevant implications of contemporary work on adolescence, particularly through the work of psychological anthropology and related fields… As the core discipline for this conference, psychological anthropology, with its long-standing interests in human development and cultural context, offers a wealth of knowledge to contribute to policy discussions about contemporary issues facing adolescents in the United States and globally. Nevertheless, psychological anthropology is infrequently involved in policy-relevant discussions about both “healthy” development and problematic issues challenging our youth and society.”

Here’s the link to the conference program. It’s a top-notch group! The hosts are Eileen Anderson-Fye and Jill Korbin, two outstanding researchers in this area.

For more information, you can contact Jessica McRitchie, Schubert Center administrator and conference coordinator, at (216) 368-0540 or jessica.mcritchie@case.edu.

Culture and Cognition Workshop in Bristol, UK

Francisco Varela (1946-2001)
Francesco Varela (1946-2001)
Fred Cummins of University College Dublin contacted me to give me a head’s up on a workshop that looks pretty good, covering some of the same topics that we look at here at Neuroanthropology.

The workshop is ‘Cognition and Culture: an enactive view,’ and will especially explore the legacy of Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela. The meeting organizers explain that they seek to ‘develop a robust vocabulary and set of concepts that are capable of sustaining dialogue between researchers in cognitive systems, cognitive science, arts, media, and culture by using the insights and approaches of the enactive approach to cognition.’

Chilean biologists Maturana and Varela wrote a couple of books together, but they are probably best known for the concept of autopoeisis and the book, Tree of Knowledge. Varela also did work on the embodied mind and directly contributed to some of the current neurosciences research on Buddhist monks (such as the Mind and Life Institute, which Varela helped to found); he passed away in 2001, leaving a very rich legacy (see his ‘focus file’ here). Varela, and his mentor Maturana, were both biologists with philosophical inclinations, doing quite a bit to encourage the study of phenomenology in biology and the embodied nature of the brain. Varela did some early brain imaging research, linking observed changes to perceptions. Although there are some parts of his thinking that we at Neuroanthropology might seek to expand and transform, Varela was a giant in the move to create a synthetic brain science that bridged the gap between biological and sociocultural or psychological research.

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Affect at the Interface: Silvan Tomkins

Affect from conference websiteI just slept in a bit, recovering from a long weekend at a conference, Affect at the Interface, at the University of New South Wales. Although I sometimes felt out of my element (pretty typical for conferences), it was a great discussion, even if over-stimulating at times. Thanks to Prof. Anna Gibbs and Dr. Jennifer Biddle for all the hard work organizing it — and also to the staff and other folks who put together a great, stimulating weekend (including the brilliant caterer!).

A host of folks presented diverse papers. I’m reluctant to list any because I’ll inevitably end up slighting someone I don’t intend to, but in addition to Prof. Gibbs and Dr. Biddle, a number of folks were very active guests over the two days: Robyn Ferrell, Anand Pandian, Melissa Hardie, Jim Wilce, and Adam Frank (sorry — couldn’t find a good link quickly to info about him) stand out, not just because of their presentations, but because of their comments on other people’s work. However, I have to admit, pretty much every reference to Gilles Deleuze went over my head (alright, I suffered so much with trying to get into Anti-Oedipus that I never attempted A Thousand Plateaus).

I presented second-to-last and made the mistake of entirely rewriting my paper the night before because in an ill-advised attempt to engage with what had happened on the first day. I’m going to post something like the presentation I aspired to give but failed to because of overly-quick turn-around, lack of sleep, and generally not being clever enough on my feet.

The discussion of affect revived my long dormant interest in the work of Silvan Tomkins, the psychologist and cybernetic theorist. Although I had consulted his work briefly when I was writing my dissertation and first book, especially because of his discussion of shame and my interest in the bodily-nervous effects of inhibition in dance, I hadn’t really taken him seriously enough. Although there weren’t a lot of biologically-inclined individuals at the conference (probably Jennifer Biddle and I were among the most enthusiastic about this line of thinking), it was great to reconsider his work with Prof. Adam Frank there, as he, together with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, were instrumental in encouraging a revival of interest in Tomkins’ work, outside the narrower group familiar with Tomkins in psychology (like the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute).

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