Paul Mason on Neuroanthropology defined

Our colleague, Paul Mason, sent the following post in from fieldwork in Indonesia. He apologized to me for it being ‘rough,’ and I still have to get a bibliography off him for it, but I thought it was well worth posting, especially because it does a great job of highlighting a whole host of intellectual precursors for what we’d like to do. Paul worked in the brain sciences, including in brain imaging, before we lured him over to anthropology, so he’s especially well positioned to help us carve out this new space. I think he brings a whole host of elements to the table that someone like me, trained in cultural anthropology primarily, can’t help but find fascinating and informative. So here’s his original text, with his apologies that it is ‘rough’ (we all know what it’s like to try to write from the field).

The brain is the organ of society and the biological vector of culture (Mason 2006). Neuroanthropology, a field of enquiry at the intersection of science and culture, is “The study of the cultural basis of mind and the biological basis of cultures” (Mason, 2005). Oliver Sacks is perhaps the most famous neuroanthropologist bringing fame to the field through his work on the ‘Neuroanthropology of Tourette’s Syndrome’ for which he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989. The first proponent of the merging of neuroscience and anthropology was Ten Houten (1976) who defined the field as “the investigation of the cultural determinants of the ways in which our brains are developed historically and put to use” (p. 506). The research field was later defined by Laughlin, McManus and d’Aquili (1979) as, “The study of the relationship between the brain and sociocultural behaviour.” Neuroscientist, Jean-Pierre Changeux, has also advocated the unification of neuroscience and anthropology in his book, L’homme Neuronal (1983). The merging of neuroscience and anthropology is not altogether new. Paul Broca, a neurologist, famous for the discovery of Broca’s area of speech production in the brain, was also an anthropologist (Monod-Broca 2005). According to Couser (2001) neuroanthropology aims to study both how culture shapes neurological processes and how neurological substrates may produce distinctive cultural behaviours.

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Video Games and Cultural Perception

First, a shout out to all the faithful readers in cyberspace on the Eve of Christmas.  (Yes, yes, I know, my first post went up a week ago.)  Have a great Holiday! 

Now let me get on with gaming and culture.  Today I want to talk about how gaming illustrates the need to rethink what we mean by the concept “culture.”  The traditional concept of culture is generally seen as something all around us, shaping our every move—Geertz’s system of symbols, where humans are caught up in webs of cultural meaning.  Even in the wake of 1980s and 1990s post-modern critique, we are still left with rather homogeneous and causal views—for example, Bourdieu’s habitus, derived from class and used an explanation for the differing tastes and behaviors of different groups of people; or the emphasis on discourses or ideologies that people cannot escape, so that discourses on gender and race seemingly define who we are and, in making that definition, provide others with power over us. 

Greg has already started the critique.  Here’s what he writes in his post Mirror Effects in Neurons Learned?: 

“The evidence from the brain sciences does not support the assumption that all implicit learning has ideational foundations or backing, but most models of culture really do not allow for motor learning to exist on its own as a relevant category of culture. I know, some will try to call me out on this and argue that late Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus is really a motor learning theory, but the fact that he has to assume that there is either a sociological structure (class) or cultural structure (a kind of crypto-structuralist cognitive set of categories) behind all action suggests that it is, ultimately, either a sociological- or cognitive-determinist model, not one that allows motor realms any autonomy.”

So, how about some gaming autonomy?  Let me turn once again to my trusty Game Informer in its January 2008 edition.  In yesterday’s post, I talked about how games offer us an immersive and interactive experience.  I want to expand on that post by focusing specifically on how designers utilize something close to the concept of “culture” as one part of how to make games immersive and involving.  In the feature article on the first person shooter Tiberium, which builds off the real-time strategy franchise Command & Conquer, the article goes: 
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Video Games: The Neuroanthropology of Interaction

By Daniel Lende 

We’re getting near Christmas, so today I want to talk about something fun—video games.  I also want to make the case over today and tomorrow for video games as a great place to apply neuroanthropology.  Writing these two blogs will also be my lame gift to myself, a way to vicariously enjoy a genre that can be entirely too addictive for me.  No Bioshock for Daniel this Christmas.  I’ve sworn off games until the summer…  (You do know, of course, that addiction is generally characterized by relapse, so if I start writing about Bioshock, Crysis, or The Witcher in the near future, feel free to give me crap about that.) 

This week I read cover-to-cover the new Game Informer, “The World’s #1 Computer and Video Game Magazine.”  In the Connect Opinion piece, Geremy Mustard has written an article “Small is Beautiful” on developing small-sized games for the Xbox Live Arcade.  As he noted, the “development process for XBLA games is not all that different from making any other game—except it’s smaller.”  In particular, the games are capped at 50 megabytes.  “That is not very much space—it is about the same size as just a few minutes of compressed video.” 

Mustard then highlights what he sees as the crucial challenge that this limited size places on the game developer:  

“With smaller file sizes game designers are forced to focus on the true essence of a game. What makes it fun? What makes it unique? Why would I want to play this? These are questions that any design team needs to ask throughout production. When making games for more casual audiences, other questions may include: How fast does the game hook the player? Is it simple to pick up and play? Is it deep enough to play again and again? We found it very helpful to let various types of gamers play the game [Undertow] at different stages of production and watch their reactions. When were they frustrated? Obviously, the more times developers can iterate a game to reduce frustration and increase enjoyment, the more fun that game will be. The fact that everyone on our team still loves playing Undertow tells me that we may have found that elusive fun factor.”

 In other words, the developers are focused on the on-going interactive experience with the game—that is the crucial thing for them to both develop and understand.  They do that by asking themselves questions, having different types of people play to get feedback, and following a certain cultural script they surely have for “the true essence” of a particular type of game.  (On a side note, some companies are also turning to “neuromarketing” to get insight into this process.) 
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The American Reality versus the American Dream

By Daniel Lende 

Bob Herbert, in his editorial The Nightmare Before Christmas, highlights the growing inequality in the United States.  That’s what I want to talk about today.  Sapolsky emphasizes the biological effects of inequality, in particular being in the “wrong” rank.  The question then arises, what gets defined as “wrong”?  And how do people experience that? 

Bob Herbert’s piece offers us plenty of clues that a more sustained research program would surely substantiate (along with discovering the interesting surprises and twists that make all the difference, but that don’t always make it into newspaper editorials).  We can think about the problem in two ways.  Sapolsky pointed to psychosocial stress as mediating the impact of inequality on biology.  Blakey highlights the actual reality of inequality as also shaping biological outcomes.  Both are important. 

On the psychosocial side, Herbert mentions “Wall Streeters are high-fiving and ordering up record shipments of Champagne and caviar,” and normal people see this sort of stuff all the time—it’s on television, in magazines, part of our everyday gossip.  We know there are people who are enjoying these extraordinary “rich” lives, and we know that it’s not us. 

Herbert also writes, “[Working families’] belief in that mythical dream that has sustained so many generations for so long is fading faster than sunlight on a December afternoon.”  Based on a poll by Lake Research Partners, “nearly 50 percent held the exceedingly gloomy view that today’s children would be ‘worse off’ when the time comes for them to enter the world of work and raise their own families.”  Here we return to a theme explored in the post on Everyday Design, that not having a sense of control and that one can work to make a positive change is frustrating and stressful. 
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Everyday Design Continued

John Tierney, whose New York Times article I commented on in the post Neuroanthropology and Everyday Day Design, wrote me a kind email (Thanks, John!) to say: 

Thanks… for writing about Donald Norman so perceptively. I enjoyed your advice to neuroanthropologists, and the cautionary words from the commenter [who was actually me] who bought one of those digital frames anyway. BTW, Don Norman was looking at design and other factors in our shopping excursion — one of the frames he liked better was partly due to the esthetics (it was a natural wood instead of black). As he and your commenter realize, people often buy something without testing it out and so the buttons really don’t matter from a marketing standpoint. Although with Amazon comments and other feedback, maybe usability will become more of a factor.

 Tierney continued discussing Donald Norman’s work in this article “Smart Elevators, Dumb People.”  The new smart elevators work without buttons inside the elevator; rather, you push a button in the lobby and are directed to the elevator that will take you (and others) to that specific floor.  In other words, instead of each elevator making all stops, the new smart elevators attempt to group people going to the same floor into the same elevator.  Faster service, energy saved… 

Norman again points to two important aspects that concern anthropology—“years and years of experience” and a “clash of cultures.”  For the experiential side, Tierney points to people reaching for buttons that are not there and using the door opening and the floor shown as the signal to get off.  On the one hand, people had to learn that the button pushing happened outside the elevators; on the other, the engineers had to adapt their technology so that the floor being displayed and the floor where the doors opened actually matched.  This point about experience, signals, and old habits highlights a realm that cultural anthropology does not explore much because its main causal explanations are things like “inequality” or “culture” or “discourse/ideology.”  A lot of life is simply about years and years of experience, and in many ways, the things that interest anthropologists empirically build on these everyday things.  Cognitive neuroscience—Donald Norman is a cognitive scientist—offers us a wealth of ways to think about and examine these sorts of habits and cues and behaviors in ways that will ultimately enrich out understanding of what “culture” means and does. 

For the clash of cultures, Norman indicates the conflict in our everyday spaces (like elevators) between people used to one way of doing things with the engineers trying to foist another way of doing things on us everyday mortals.  Something that culture does well is to make things less confusing—culture imposes an order on the world that is quite different from what all other animals do (even if there are shared roots to culture way back in primate evolution).  But we humans are still animals, and we often diligently follow the dictates of our cultural environment.  Sometimes less confusion doesn’t mean more enlightenment, it just means more efficiency and better execution.  From an evolutionary point of view, that will often be enough.

Neuroanthropology and Everyday Design

Today’s article by John Tierney, Why Nobody Likes a Smart Machine, from the Tierney Lab illustrates several points that neuroanthropologists should pay attention to.  It’s about the work of Donald Norman, best known for his book “The Design of Everyday Things,” and his analyses for why modern technology often frustrates people so much.  (By the way, I just bought my wife one of those picture frames mentioned in the article for Christmas—ah, a bundle of frustrating joy.)  So, in the course of the article, Tierney and Norman mention four different aspects of how we relate successfully or unsuccessfully to machines (and, from my point of view, much of the world).  They are: 

-Predictability (the pedestrian who keeps walking so the bicyclist easily avoids him)

-Being Understandable (human-sized signals like the whistle from a tea kettle; having an intuitive feel—read, culturally modeled, metaphorically presented, and visually and tactically available)

-Control (the clever solution to wrapping a wet paper towel around the electronic sensor on the bathroom faucet)

-Feeling Helpless (computerized shades that worked on their own without being able to be locally manipulated) 

These factors are tied up into three related phenomena—evolution, culture, and the brain—at the core of neuroanthropology.  In this case, they are (1) achieving behavioral success in often stochastic evolutionary environments, where acting on environmental information in goal-directed ways often led to good things (like food) (the evolutionary problem), (2) how culture built off human tendencies—our ability to apply learned, controllable, regular solutions in novel ways (but not badly designed ways—hence the problems with some technology) (the cultural side), and (3) the brain systems that handle stress, where unpredictable, uncontrollable stressors are the ones that make us react the most (the brain).  Hence, the predictable line of frustration, anger, and then simply giving up and making do the best you can with the present situation. 

Plus Norman did participant observation and interviewing as his methodological approach!  If you want to talk more, just email me at  Best, Daniel Lende