Pacified, high-performance zombies?

Judith Warner writes today about The Med Scare, of the over-medication of certain groups of children within a broader pattern of lack of medications for many children with mental health problems.  She is particularly concerned with “the narrative of the disastrously overmedicated American.” 

The whole article is worth a read, but I was particularly struck by her cultural analysis near the end:  

Why, then, the exaggerated belief that we’re raising a nation of pacified, high-performance zombies? I think it’s because we have real worries about the state of children – and childhood itself – in our time. We know that our current lifestyle of 24/7 work, constant competition, chronic stress and compensatory consumerism is toxic. But we also know – or feel – that there’s not much we can do about it. We feel guilty about the world we’ve created for our kids, one of lots of work and not much free play. But we’re also wedded to that world, invested in it, utterly complicit with its values and demands.

And so we shift the focus of our fears away from big forces we feel we can’t do anything about (globalization, an increasingly merciless marketplace, a growing gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else, the general indignities of life in the beleaguered middle class). Instead, we focus on decisions we can control (whether or not we will “drug” our kids). Our minds shift away from the myriad ways we collude in making life toxic for our children, and we obsess instead on condemning other people for allegedly poisoning their children’s bodies.

What’s the ‘culture’ in neuroanthropology?

Some cultural anthropologists are afraid of the brain sciences; they fear that neuroscientists want to dissolve culture into the study of the brain, discounting the necessity of studying culture, social interaction, systems of meaning, symbolism, everyday life, and all the things that cultural anthropologists have argued are important for shaping human life. Emily Martin, for example, one of the most interesting anthropologists working on the way that cultural assumptions shape medicine, medical education, and the like, writes in an article on the ‘mind-body’ problem of the dangers of ‘neuro-reductionist’ thought.

Martin’s fear is that, ultimately, although some in the brain sciences explicitly claim to have an interest in cultural differences, they do not grant the social the same degree of ‘reality’ as the cellular and organic. As Martin writes, although they sometimes discuss social and cultural differences; ‘… the levels in neuron man, a figure frequently reproduced in neuroscience texts, begin with molecules, but go no farther than the central nervous system’ (2000:574). I’m sure that Martin is right for a lot of neuroscience texts; but I would argue that cultural anthropology texts, in the main, probably demonstrate the same degree of partiality.

She sees ‘the neuroreductive cognitive sciences as the most dangerous kind of vortex—one close by and one whose power has the potential to suck in disciplines like anthropology, severely weakening them in the process’ (ibid.). Martin encourages anthropologists to unite ‘in opposition to a position in which the dyke between nature and culture has been breached, and all of what anthropologists call culture has drained through the hole and dissolved in the realm of neural networks’ (ibid.: 576).

Normally, I would argue that Martin is over-reacting, worried about a possibility that is too remote. But then, every once in a while, I read something that helps me to realize that Martin’s fear, however exaggerated, are grounded in concrete experiences. Rather than a ‘dyke between nature and culture,’ I find that the real issue is the slipperiness of the notion of culture that some in the brain sciences use. That is, if we look carefully at what they are using as the ‘cultural’ in their own attempts to grapple with cross-cultural differences in the brain, cognition, and development, we find that however well meaning, given the wrong tool, one is likely to wind up with a bit of a mess. Unfortunately, although I like the majority of what they write, I fear that this is the situation with a recent piece I stumbled across by reading Encephalon’s recent posting, Briefing the Next US President on 24 Neuroscience and Psychology Issues.
Continue reading “What’s the ‘culture’ in neuroanthropology?”

Welcome to new readers: Why brain science needs anthropology

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAfter a couple of really welcome links at places like Mind Hacks (from Vaughn) and at Dr. X’s Free Associations, as well as references from our friend Prof. Sue Sheridan at Life of Wiley (Home of the Daily Skeleton Action Figure), we at Neuroanthropology find ourselves with a lot more visitors over the past few days. Thanks to all of you who are checking us out for the first time and please consider yourself welcome at any time! As a way of welcoming our new readers, I want to reflect on what anthropology is, in my opinion, and why brain science needs it (a later post will discuss why anthropology needs the brain sciences, especially right now in the field’s development).

I was working on this piece before I saw Daniel’s most recent post, but I think it’s a good idea, especially considering the attention we’re getting from the neurosciences blogosphere.  Ironically, we’re probably getting more attention from brain scientists than from anthropologists.  The reasons for this seem to me to be complex, both a sense in the brain sciences of curiosity for things like ‘neuroanthropology,’ or ways of dealing with developmental, social, cultural, ecological, and evolutionary factors in the emergence of the human brain, but also an avoidance trend in cultural anthropology of dealing with psychology, neurology, and biology.  As I’ve discussed elsewhere, fears of ‘reductionism’ in biology in brain sciences and human biology among anthropologists seem to me to be exaggerated, mostly based upon the popularizers of brain sciences (like Pinker, who we’ve taken to task, but others as well) rather than on the more careful and interesting scientists working on the brain (we’ve discussed many examples in previous posts).

Continue reading “Welcome to new readers: Why brain science needs anthropology”

Engaging Anthropology and Social Theory

I was recently reading Kay Warren’s chapter, “Perils and Promises of Engaged Anthropology: Historical Transitions and Ethnographic Dilemmas,” where she discusses different strands of engaged cultural anthropology.  Certain approaches—like critical takes on ladino/Maya relations and inequality in Guatemala—struck me as being at quite some remove from neuroanthropology.  But one strand she describes did seem closer to me: 

Another perspective is that we need to move beyond the antagonisms of the past to grapple with new issues: gang violence, alienation, and the mass marketing to the urban underclasses of commodities from foreign clothing styles to mood-altering drugs; the globalization of popular culture that undercuts local authority and parental status in the eyes of many youths and their parents; and consumer expectations and forms of employment that, as they respond to transnational media and forms of production, are independent of local space (Garcia Canclini 2000).

 This chapter raised the question: What are the on-going theoretical and ethnographic discussions in cultural anthropology that are closest to the work we are doing on this blog? 

Or, to take it further afield and include Todd and sociology, what strands of social science research offer the most immediacy to our work?  Where are the fruitful collaborations and theoretical synergies likely to be found? 

I present this as a question to people who read this blog.  I would love to see plenty of comments, and look forward to a fun conversation.

Wending between Faust and Wimsatt

Is neuroanthropology just “social theory with technical jargon,” giving us “street cred”?  Are we doing anything “different from interpretive anthropology with its system of symbols”?  Why invoke brain biology, we haven’t spent years studying the minutiae of brain circuitry and chemical interactions like real brain experts.  Why even bother with the mention of neurotransmitters and such, which bastardizes the rich contribution that anthropology makes to understanding ourselves. 

These are some of the comments I’ve seen about our site, some on the Internet, some in emails.  In an initial answer to that, I pointed to Greg’s introduction, of listening to our informants and building explanations based on ethnography as well as to some of the limitations we bump up against in the dominant forms of social theory today. 
Continue reading “Wending between Faust and Wimsatt”

Beyond Bourdieu’s ‘body’ — giving too much credit?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchA while back, Daniel recommended to me that I check out an article by Mauro Adenzato and Francesca Garbarini in Theory & Psychology. It’s a great piece, and there’s a lot of positive things I could say about it. For example, Adenzato and Garbarini’s principal point is that the model of ‘mind’ as the workings of organic brain systems is inconsistent with much social theory, built instead on a treatment of mind as a kind of dis-embodied amalgamation of logical and cognitive processes. This recognition that phenomenological and cognitive mind and biological brain are inextricably linked is part of what makes neuroanthropology possible, or rather, necessary. As they write:

The embodied cognition perspective views the mind no longer as a set of logical/abstract functions, but as a biological system, which is rooted in body experience and interwoven with action and interaction with other individuals. Action and representation are no longer interpreted in terms of the classic physical–mental dichotomy, but have proven to be closely interlinked. Specifically, embodied cognition means that acting in the world, interacting with the objects and individuals in it, representing the world, perceiving it, categorizing it and understanding its meaning are merely different levels of the same relationship that exists between an organism and its environment. (Adenzato and Garbarini 2006:748) 

Adenzato and Garbarini point out that cognitive science has become increasingly concerned with grounding theories about thought and the mind in observable workings of the organic brain. Although I agree, following Clark (1997), I would refer to this movement as ‘third generation,’ rather than ‘second generation’ (as the authors do), as the first two over-arching waves in cognitive science might be termed the ‘logic machine’ and ‘connectionist’ models.I have some niggling problems with their argument, such as the ‘merely different levels’ off-handed comment, which I would dispute, and the tired technique later in the article of dragging a folk term from an ethnographic case study and showing how it’s like one’s new theoretical term, as if the natives having a word for a phenomenon is proof you’re on to something. Nevertheless, this passage is a very coherent statement, as is the whole article, of the need to incorporate more sophisticated models of the brain’s working into cultural theory.

Continue reading “Beyond Bourdieu’s ‘body’ — giving too much credit?”