Critical Neurosciences Workshop

Next month I will attend the Critical Neurosciences Workshop on “critical perspectives, neurosciences, and anthropology” in Montreal. I’ll help run a discussion on the “cultural brain,” along with Suparna Choudhury, the main organizer.

Suparna just sent me the advert for the Workshop, to help get the word out and also to encourage people to come if they are interested. There are a limited number of free spots in the workshop, so contact her directly if you’ll happen to be in Montreal July 15th & 16th. Her email is suparna.choudhury at

The workshop is being sponsored by Neuroscience in Context, a European group, and by McGill’s Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry. Given the quality of both organizations, I can say that I am excited to be a part of this workshop!

Continue reading “Critical Neurosciences Workshop”

Freaky Franz

Franz de Waal, the renowed primatologist who has pushed reconciliation and morality alike into our primate past, answered some great questions about life, love, sex and happiness at the NY Times Freakonomics blog.

Here’s a taste about bonobos: “Bonobos often engage in sex with same-sex partners, but they’re not gay in that they also have sex with the opposite sex. They’re ‘bi.’ They seek sex often for social reasons, to reduce tensions, and to form friendships.”

And one of my favorite answers? Building from his work with capuchin monkeys and a sense of fairness, de Waal says, “This holds an important message for American society which is becoming less fair by the day. The Gini-index (which measures income inequality) keeps rising and is now more in line with that of third-world countries than of other industrialized nations. If monkeys already have trouble accepting income inequality, you can imagine what it does to us. It creates great tensions within a society, and we know that tensions affect psychological and physical well-being. Some attribute the dismal health statistics of Americans (now #42 in the world’s longevity ranking) to the social frictions of an unfair society.”

de Waal is also organizing a June 2009 conference called “The Primate Mind: Built to Connect with Other Minds.” My colleague Katherine MacKinnon, a primatologist herself, tipped me off about it. Here’s the blurb: “A high-level international meeting of cognitive ethologists, behavioral biologists, and neuroscientists that will address how the primate (including human) mind relates to other minds through empathy, imitation, and other social cognition.” The best part? It’s in Sicily! (Well, maybe June is hot there, but still, a great place for a conference.)

And, with a hattip to My Mind on Books, with recent coverage of Franz, here’s a video of his talk at the Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity conference.

Neuroanthropology Session at the AAA Conference

Greg and I are organizing a session for the annual American Anthropological Association meeting, held this year in San Francisco from November 19 to November 23rd.  The session is called, “The Encultured Brain: Neuroanthropology and Interdisciplinary Engagement.” 

We still have one or two spots that might be open for people interested in presenting on neuroanthropology at the AAAs.  So please contact either me ( or Greg ( as soon as possible, as we need complete abstracts before March 10th.  Please let us know what you’d like to present on! 

Here’s our session abstract: 

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, XXXX, XXXX — 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.

Real life methods conference

Jovan at Culture Matters (and, not coincidentally, with me at Macquarie’s anthro department) pointed out to me a conference in Manchester. Titled, Vital Signs: Researching Real Life, the conference is an interdisciplinary meeting to think about how to do research on the kinds of complex tangles that we seem to gravitate towards at Neuroanthropology. The meeting will 9-11 September 2008 at Manchester University. The website describes how:

We are using the concept of ‘real lives’ in an open way to stimulate debate about how research methodologies and methods in the social sciences and beyond can rise to the challenge of producing knowledge and understandings that are ‘vital’ and that resonate with complex and multi-dimensional lived realities.

The call for abstracts is online and outlines the following areas for discussion:

  • Methods for researching nature, culture, the material and the social
  • Researching visual, auditory, tactile and other sensory realms
  • Bridging different disciplines in understanding real life; for example, combining ‘social science’, ‘science’, ‘art’, ‘literature’, ‘history’ and ‘journalism’
  • Mixing methods in real life research. Eg How do we, how can we, combine ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ approaches? Can we transcend that divide?
  • Accessing, measuring, and representing real life. What counts as ‘evidence’?
  • Authenticity, rigour and rhetoric in real life research
  • Researching intersubjectivity, memory, emotions, and humour
  • Communicating and disseminating real life research (in a vital way?)
  • Challenges in analysing real life data
  • Real life research in policy and politics
  • Participatory real life research
  • Real life research ethics and moralities
  • What is real life? Theorising real life

Keynote speakers are Les Back, Tim Ingold and Carolyn Steedman (more info on them here).

Overall, might be worth an inquiry if you’re going to be anyway near Manchester in September.