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 dlende@nd.edu.  Best, Daniel Lende

Paul Mason on Neuroanthropology

Paul Mason is currently in the field in Indonesia, conducting research on Pencak Silat toward his PhD in anthropology here at Macquarie.  He doesn’t always have the best Internet connections from Indonesia, so I may be posting stuff for him until he’s able to really use his own account (if he’s not lucky, as his advisor, I may see if he can help with any sort of coordination here, too—hard to say ‘no’ to your advisor…). I’ll have a number of thing to post from him, but one of the first is a link back to his own blog to the page where he discussed ‘neuroanthropology’ long before I took up the term.So here’s a link to some of Paul’s reflections on the subject. 

Prehistory of ‘neuroanthropology’: Charles Laughlin

One can point to many intellectual predecessors to neuroanthropology: cognitive anthropologists who paid attention to discoveries in the brain sciences; phenomenologists who followed Merleau-Ponty’s example (not just his texts) and brought together philosophy of mind with a range of data from cultural studies and psychology to neural imaging, artificial intelligence, and robotics; psychologists (ecological, developmental, and others) like Esther Thelen and Susan Oyama who worked with dynamic systems models of human emergence….  I could go on.  I wound up here through the influence of all of the above as well as cellular biologist and feminist, Anne Fausto-Sterling; mathematician and systems modeler, Peter Taylor; anthropologist Tim Ingold; my informants in Brazil; and my colleagues, especially the good anthropologists at the University of Notre Dame.

But the term, ‘neuroanthropology,’ has an older pedigree in anthropology than the one I offered in my opening description.  Although I picked it up from Dominguez and Mason, the term appears in at least two separate contexts, one less relevant (although inspiring) and the other more directly applicable to this.First, the term, ‘neuroanthropology,’ has been associated with the work of Oliver Sachs, one of the more riveting science writers and humanist observers of the damaged human brain.  Sachs is the neurologist responsible for such wonderful books as The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, and An Anthropologist on Mars.  In his hands, ‘neuroanthropology’ is a kind of subject’s-eye-view of neurological anomaly.  Although there are many ways that Sachs inspires, one of the most relevant is that he attends, not only to the organic causes of disorders, but also to their phenomenological affects. 

The other predecessor for the use of the term, ‘neuroanthropology,’ however, is Emeritus Prof. Charles Laughlin, of Carleton University.  His works on the subject, and on neurophenomenology, were well ahead of his time, so much so that I have found it hard to track down too many works that make reference to them.   (Here’s hoping that we change that because his work is remarkable.  If you’re interested, I’ll be discussing it more, but you can get ahead of the curve by heading straight to his website.)

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The term ‘neuroanthropology’

With some regret, I’ve taken up the term ‘neuroanthropology’ as the title of this blog. I think neologisms (or, in this case, a ‘re-oligism’) should not be bandied about lightly. But no other term seemed to really capture what I hope will be the shape of a new convergence between anthropology, brain sciences, developmental psychology, and evolutionary biology. 

‘Evolutionary psychology,’ it seems to me, has become associated with an adaptationist branch of genetic determinism inconsistent both with evolutionary sciences and the plasticity of the brain; ‘cognitive anthropology,’ on the other hand, seems too… well… ‘cognitive,’ in the sense that it too often is about consciousness and logical thought when the new convergence needs to consider many other types of neural processes (perception, motor control, regulation of autonomic systems, subconscious conditioning…).  Although neuroanthropology should certainly build on some of the remarkable work by scholars such as Maurice Bloch, Roy D’Andrade, Naomi Quinn, Claudia Strauss, and others, new discoveries in the brain sciences are quickly making old models of how the brain works appear much less plausible and requiring us to throw our net wider than that typically labeled ‘cognition.’

The term ‘neuroanthropology’ comes to me directly from the work of two Australian scholars, Paul Mason and (through him) Juan Dominguez.  Both of these anthropologists have helped me, in conversation (with Paul) and in their writings (both Paul and Juan), to better crystallize a project that has been lurking for me since I began to take seriously what capoeira practitioners, devotees of an Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance, claimed about the transformations worked by the art on their bodies, perceptions, and experiences.

Dominguez, according to one account of a paper he gave in Cairnes, has defined ‘neuroanthropology’ as ‘the study of the effects of “enculturation” on the human brain, the relationship between the brain, subjective experiences and culture, and the evolution of the neurobiological mechanisms that underpin culture’ (see original story here).  (I’m hoping that both Paul and Juan will post copies of some of their earlier work on this blog, so look for it in the future.)

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