In the previous post Carol Worthman: From Human Development to Habits of the Heart, I covered two of Carol’s recent papers. Just after that I discovered a great lecture by Carol, where she covers her work on “Habits of the Heart: Life History and the Developmental Neuroendocrinology of Emotion Regulation.” So now you can see her in action!
Carol Worthman, a mentor of mine at Emory University and a real leader in doing neuroanthropological research (even if she might call it “biocultural”), has two recent articles out that I really want to highlight.
The first is The Ecology of Human Development: Evolving Models for Cultural Psychology. Here is the abstract, part of a whole special issue in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology on the work of the husband-wife team John Whiting and Beatrice Whiting:
The Whiting model aimed to provide a blueprint for psychocultural research by generating testable hypotheses about the dynamic relationships of a culture with the psychology and behavior of its members. This analysis identifies reasons why the model was so effective at generating hypotheses borne out in empirical research, including its foundational insight that integrated nature and nurture, its reconceptualization of the significance of early environments, and its attention to biopsychocultural dynamics active in those environments.
Implications and the evolution of the ecological paradigm are tracked through presentations of three current models (developmental niche, ecocultural theory, bioecocultural microniche) and discussion of their related empirical literatures. Findings from these literatures converge to demonstrate the power of a developmental, cultural, ecological framework for explaining within- and between-population variation in cultural psychology.
The figure above is from this paper, and represents Carol’s own model for understanding human development. But the real point that Carol wants to make in emphasizing these three models goes as follows:
All of these models share a concern for how the cultural ecology of affect and affect regulation drive psychobehavioral development, competence, and well-being or health. Whoever has looked has found linkages among cultural practices, stress physiology, and emotion regulation. Note that each of these models foregrounds the development of emotion and emotion regulation and de-emphasizes classic knowledge acquisition. Although there are important reasons for this emphasis (Damasio, 2005), a reconsideration of what constitutes “knowledge” and more systematic investigation of the linkages between emotion and knowledge might prove valuable (588).
The second article is Habits of the Heart: Life History and the Developmental Neuroendocrinology of Emotion. This article was part of a special issue on Advances in Evolutionary Endocrinology in the American Journal of Human Biology. Here is Carol’s abstract:
The centrality of emotion in cognition and social intelligence as well as its impact on health has intensified investigation into the causes and consequences of individual variation in emotion regulation. Central processing of experience directly informs regulation of endocrine axes, essentially forming a neuro-endocrine continuum integrating information intake, processing, and physiological and behavioral response. Two major elements of life history—resource allocation and niche partitioning—are served by linking cognitive-affective with physiologic and behavioral processes. Scarce cognitive resources (attention, memory, and time) are allocated under guidance from affective co-processing. Affective-cognitive processing, in turn, regulates physiologic activity through neuro-endocrine outflow and thereby orchestrates energetic resource allocation and trade-offs, both acutely and through time. Reciprocally, peripheral activity (e.g., immunologic, metabolic, or energetic markers) influences affective-cognitive processing.
By guiding attention, memory, and behavior, affective-cognitive processing also informs individual stances toward, patterns of activity in, and relationships with the world. As such, it mediates processes of niche partitioning that adaptively exploit social and material resources. Developmental behavioral neurobiology has identified multiple factors that influence the ontogeny of emotion regulation to form affective and behavioral styles. Evidence is reviewed documenting roles for genetic, epigenetic, and experiential factors in the development of emotion regulation, social cognition, and behavior with important implications for understanding mechanisms that underlie life history construction and the sources of differential health. Overall, this dynamic arena for research promises to link the biological bases of life history theory with the psychobehavioral phenomena that figure so centrally in quotidian experience and adaptation, particularly, for humans.
In this second article, Carol is tying her work back into evolutionary theory. If the first took up more the cultural/psychological side, then here we are grounded in the mechanisms and ideas of biological anthropology. She writes here:
Given the evidence of gene-environment interactions and developmental effects discussed above, combinations of history and circumstance will condition the phenotypes generated from the genetic structure, and thus influence the impact of that structure on corresponding experience, welfare, behavior, and the balance of selective pressures upon genetic diversity. Such gene-environment interactions and their consequences for function and welfare deserve investigation across a wide range of human cultures and conditions. Such study bears exciting possibility for unlocking dynamics among culture, social conditions, the nature and distribution of social niches, and selection pressures operating on allelic variants (779).
Link to citation/abstract for Carol Worthman’s The Ecology of Human Development: Evolving Models for Cultural Psychology.
Link to citation/abstract for Carol Worthman’s Habits of the heart: Life history and the developmental neuroendocrinology of emotion.
Over at The Immanent Frame, a website on religion, secularism and society supported by the Social Science Research Council (USA), Jim Robertson reflects on the presence of religion in Death Metal after a trip to Wacken Open Air (in Germany), the world’s largest music festival and ‘loud as hell’ according to its website.
Robertson’s piece, Death metal: A “pipeline to God”?, is well worth the read, if for no other reason that it will be an eye-opener for the non-metalhead to what these guys are screaming through the din. (One personal disclosure: Although I went through a phase of fascination with Canadian power trios with front-man shriekers that sounded like modern castrati — Rush, Triumph — and developed a now-mildly-embarrassing love of Supertramp, Aerosmith, and the Who, I was never really a native metalhead, so I can’t talk about these genres from any deep affection.)
I won’t rehearse all of Robertson’s arguments, but he basically asks why Death Metal and related genres are so obsessed with religion, from Satanic album covers to song lyrics that drip with Apocalyptic motifs to echoes of everything from neo-paganism to blatant anti-Christianism. It’s a great question because not every popular music genre, even iconoclastic subcultural genres, features religious imagery so heavily. One would probably have to move to something like gospel or 1970s reggae to find genres that were more saturated with spiritual symbolism (I have no statistics on this, only my own fleeting engagement with these genres).
What is fascinating here is the consistency with which black metal has pursued religious forms. Satanism is replaced, not by a basic materialist atheism but with almost anything else: Occultism, Nietzsche, paganism, mystical nazism. Such religious pluralism begs the question as to whether these are just new and interesting attempts at youth rebellion, or whether something more is playing itself out.
Robertson finds several reasons for the dominance of religious themes in Death Metal:
1) ‘Metal’s rebellious streak’ led to a backlash against attempts to censor or criticize these musical genres, most prominently efforts by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the mid-1980s. According to Robertson, the criticism actually hardened the resolves of many musicians to criticize mainstream religion, sparking very explicit anti-religious themes.
2) Extreme lifestyles among the musicians, a character of many Western popular artist communities, but featuring some extraordinary acts of violence, self-destruction and nihilism, especially among proponents of Scandinavian ‘Black Metal’ in the 1990s, Robertson discusses. In this sense, ‘Metal’s obsession with religion is part of its obsession with living at the limit.’ Robertson goes on to explain: ‘This concern with limit experiences explains metal’s obsession with religion. In its aspirations, metal parallels a kind of religious mysticism.’
3) Competition with mainstream religion to provide similar experiences, such as community belonging, emotional transcendence, and mystical experience, what one participant refers to as a ‘pipeline to God.’
4) Shifting philosophical and religious commitments within the community of Metal musicians, including a move away from Satanism toward various forms of paganism, ecological mysticism, and Nietzschean nihilism, reflect a groping to find a language to talk about these profound emotional-mystical experiences: ‘The constant grasping for new ideologies amongst the black metal scene, then, is an attempt to give this transcendental path discursive form.’
Robertson’s discussion is both colourful and insightful, but there are several dimensions I might add just to bring it into the Neuroanthropological fold. Borrowing some ideas from Simon Frith’s piece, ‘Towards an Aesthetics of Popular Music,’ I want to argue that Metal, like many musical genres, has a special role in educating emotion and moods among young people when they are trying to understand social interaction and their own emotions.
Walter Goldschmidt, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology from the University of California Los Angeles got in touch with us here at Neuroanthropology.net to give us a bit of a (friendly) hard time about unfortunate neologisms (touché) and to ask if we were familiar with his work. With my repeated posts on evolutionary psychology, he thought it might be of interest, especially his discussion of affect hunger.
What Prof. Goldschmidt did not realize is that I have an autographed copy of his book, Bridge to Humanity: How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene (Oxford U Press listing, Amazon), and I’ve long thought it was both an excellent counter-argument to the ‘selfish gene’ hypothesis as well as a much more persuasive account of the possible evolutionary origins of altruism than the typical explanation: kin selection.
So, as a bit of a ‘thank you’ to Prof. Goldschmidt for providing such a compelling work, I’m going to post a bit of a book discussion here, focusing especially on Prof. Goldschmidt’s account of ‘affect hunger,’ which I find a much more neuroanthropologically plausible account of altruism than the usual account provided by evolutionary psychology discussions of ‘kin selection.’
Continue reading “Evolution of altruism: kin selection or affect hunger?”
In this week’s The Times Magazine of The NY Times, Daniel Bergner has a piece on women’s sexuality and research that’s already in preprint causing a bit of controversy as well as a convulsion of 1950s era humor in the online response. The title, ‘What do women want?’, that nugget of Freudian wonder, no doubt will raise the readership, as will the pictures of models simulating states of arousal (Greg Mitchell is in a bit of snit about them in, Coming Attraction: Preview of ‘NYT Magazine’ With Semi-Shocking Sex Images on Sunday. ‘Semi-Shocking’? I can imagine how that goes… ‘Are you SHOCKED by these photos?’ ‘Well, I’m at least SEMI-shocked, yes!’).
In particular, Bergner gives us thumbnail portraits of women engaged in sex research: Meredith Chivers of Queens University (Kingston, Ontario), Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah, and Marta Meana from UNLV, although there’s also commentary from Julia Heiman, the Director of the Kinsey Institute, and others. As with so much of contemporary science writing, we get researchers as characters, with quirky personal descriptions and accounts of meeting the author, each one standing in for a particular perspective in current scientific debates.
Chivers is portrayed as arguing that women are existentially divided ‘between two truly separate, if inscrutably overlapping, systems, the physiological and the subjective,’ Diamond is made to stand in for the ‘female desire may be dictated… by intimacy, by emotional connection,’ and Meana stands in for the argument that women are narcissists desiring to submit. Whether or not these are accurate portrayals—and they might be—the model is prevalent in science writing: get characters to represent lines of thinking, even though many of us are not so clearly signed on with a single theoretical team. Here, we know the score: Diamond arguing women want intimacy, Meana that they want a real man to take them, and Chivers that women want it all, even if they don’t realize it and contradict themselves.
The irony is that, with such a tangle, the conclusion is foreordained: women will seem enigmatic, inconsistent, and irremediably opaque. As I’ll suggest in this, I think that the conclusion is built into the way the question is being asked. If a similar question were asked about nearly any group, in nearly any domain of complex human behaviour, and then a simple single answer were demanded, the questioner would face nearly identical frustration.
In the Scientific American piece Ghost Stories: Visits from the Deceased, Vaughan Bell describes how the dead stay with us. An embodied sense of them, present yet gone, comes strongly through our memories and our perceptions: “for many people [loved ones] linger in our senses—as sights, sounds, smells, touches or presences.”
Bell issues a call for more research on grief and embodied remembrances, and then notes, “There are hints that the type of grief hallucinations might also differ across cultures. Anthropologists have told us a great deal about how the ceremonies, beliefs and the social rituals of death differ greatly across the world, but we have few clues about how these different approaches affect how people experience the dead after they have gone.”
I wrote previously on Bell’s article and how writers have explored this terrain in Grief, Ghosts and Gone. Still, the anthropologist in me took Vaughan’s point as a challenge. Ethnographic work is not as widely known in the larger scientific literatures, but it is both broad and deep. My search was rewarded!
Donald Tuzin has a striking 1975 article, “The Breath of a Ghost: Dreams and the Fear of the Dead.” In this piece (scribd full text) he describes his research with the Ilahita Arapesh of northeastern Papua New Guinea and the confluence of their beliefs and practices surrounding the dead with everyday experience.
Tuzin pays particular attention to “the functional implications of (1) the different ghost types encountered by the Arapesh dreamer as distinguished by degrees of familiarity in life, and (2) the strikingly different beliefs held about ghosts as against the more temporally remote ancestors (556).”