Anth 207: new open education space – update!

If you follow Neuroanthropology, either here or on Facebook, you may have noticed something new. We’ve had a bit of a facelift to this site and added a page: Anth 207 Neuroanth 101. This new venture is an effort to generate open educational resources for people interested in psychological anthropology: students, teachers, researchers, the curious…

The first video for Anth 207  Neuroanth 101 is already posted: WEIRD psychology.

We’ll be adding more videos slowly, as well as suggested readings, other related resources, reflection questions, and notes. The goal is to start building an open resource for those who want to start learning about neuroanthropology.

Check back, or join the Neuroanthropology Interest Group on Facebook to keep up with new developments.

UPDATE: After a quick consultation with partner-in-online Daniel Lende, we’ve decided to go whole hog with the new look, new feel, and all-neuroanthropology message. I’ve done a quick rename to ‘Neuroanthropology 101’ with the goal of making it clear what we’re doing, and hopefully making a space to which other neuroanthropologists will want to contribute.

Charles Whitehead: Social Mirrors

In the depths of the Bad Semester (how I now refer to the last four months), Dr. Charles Whitehead contacted me to share notes on neuroanthropology. I’m trying to catch up with the immense backlog of material I need to work through, but I thought I would post a short note and a link to his website, Social Mirrors. It’s a pretty interesting spread of thinking, and Dr. Whitehead has provided numerous links to his papers and other material.

Dr. Charles Whitehead

Dr. Charles Whitehead

I especially like his piece with Prof. Robert Turner, downloadable here, on the effects of collective representations on the brain. In particular, the Turner and Whitehead article argues that the idea that certain areas of the brain are networked into a ‘social brain’ — implying that the rest of the brain is ‘not social’ — is hard to support. I’ll admit that I don’t necessarily use the same language or conceive of how the brain works in the ways described by Turner and Whitehead, but it is well worth the read to check it out, if for no other reason that it provides a corrective to some emerging ways of theorizing brain enculturation.

Turner and Whitehead take the multiple senses of the word, ‘representation,’ especially the conflicting use by anthropologists and social scientists, on the one hand, and brain sciences, as a point of departure. Normally, I just find the overlap annoying and have argued that it is one reason that anthropologists don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to neurosciences (for example, in Beyond Bourdieu’s ‘body’ — giving too much credit?). But Turner and Whitehead have something more constructive to say about the unstable term (from their conclusion):

Continue reading

Introduction and Depression

Hi all. Just a short introduction–I’m a graduate student in human-computer interaction and applied anthropology. I started off traditionally, learning about Don Norman and his work on human factors then did some international fieldwork on online communities, mobile phones and cybercafes. Recently I started taking more of an interest in the ethics and politics of mental health diagnosis and treatment as well as how mental illnesses are represented in American culture. Most of what I have been reading suggests that conditions such as depression are seen as a chemical imbalance to be treated with medication, so it was surprising to read in a “US News & World Report” article Get Healthier and Happier that anti-depressants actually only alleviate symptoms in 35-40% of depression cases compared with 15% on a placebo. Of more relevance to anthropologists are the stated impact of lifestyle on the diagnosis of depression.

As with diabetes, experts have begun to look for culprits in the 21st-century lifestyle. Might the isolating, sedentary, indoor computer culture explain, for example, why the disorder appears to be surging in young adults? Today’s 20-somethings have a 1-in-4 lifetime risk of experiencing depression’s hallmark black mood, joylessness, fatigue, and suicidal thoughts compared with the 1-in-10 risk of their grandparents’ generation. Americans are 10 times as likely to have depression today as they were 60 years ago, a development that is not merely a result of increased awareness and diagnosis.”

Unfortunately there are no citations for the above numbers and I’m inclined to be skeptical about making such comparisons–how would one even be able to judge the degree to which increased awareness and diagnosis would make a difference? We’re talking about a time before the DSM (the Diagnostic Statistical Manual which psychiatrists use) and before drugs such as Prozac had become a household name.

Even more intriguing for anthropologists:

Realizing that primitive societies like the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea experience virtually no depression, Stephen Ilardi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, is now testing a cave-man-esque approach to treatment with promising results. His 14-week Therapeutic Lifestyle Change program entails large doses of simulated hunter-gatherer living in people suffering from prolonged, unremitting depression. Participants sign up for 35 minutes of aerobic exercise (running, walking briskly, biking) three days a week, at least 30 minutes of daily sunlight or exposure from a light box that emits 10,000 lux, eight hours of sleep per night, and a daily fish oil supplement containing 1,000 mg of the fatty acid EPA and 500 mg of the fatty acid DHA.

They also get plenty of time surrounded by the “clan,” in the form of frequent social gatherings with family members, Starbucks dates with friends, and volunteer work. “Hunter-gatherers almost never had time alone,” says Ilardi; even a generation or two ago, people grew up supported by extended family and much more engaged with their community. Too much time in isolation, he says, means “opportunities to ruminate,” the modern scourge.

Granted, the fish supplements and biking and light boxes go above and beyond what a hunter-gathering society might have access to without the harshness. Comparing a Starbucks date to life as a cave-man seems absurd. But it certainly sounds like a healthier and more holistic treatment than what goes on in traditional psychiatric institutions. I’m not very familiar with the literature on mental illnesses in other cultures, especially so-called “primitive” cultures so would love to get citations and opinions.

Introductions: Daniel Lende

Growing up I remember large poster boards covered by brain maps from localization studies in mammals.  The maps were odd, parts of the animal protruding, others minimally present, as if the raccoon or the opossum had stood in front of one of those twisting carnival mirrors.  Or been drawn by a caricature artist, emphasizing the parts of the animal that played a central role in their lives, their nose and whiskers, their paws, the parts of their bodies they used to interact with the world.  Those maps came from my father’s research; he was both a neurosurgeon and neuroanatomy researcher.  They showed the brain not as hard-wired circuits but as interactions.  They were also strikingly artistic, stark black and white prints mixed with surreal transformations.

In college I studied biological anthropology, interested in human evolution and animal behavior.  In the late eighties we had not hit the decade of the brain in the United States; I was more interested in evolutionary theory, psychological mechanisms and decision making.  The great expansion of the human brain during our evolutionary history, the importance of both tool making and sociality, the comparative approach of placing humans and other animals in the same framework to understand similarities and differences—these are lessons from that time that stay with me.

I lived in Bogotá, Colombia for several years after I graduated college.  I worked as a drug counselor and researcher, and earned extra money as a freelance journalist with articles mostly on business and tourism.  Those years impressed on me the power of culture, embodied in the new language I learned and the class differences that marked the geography of cities and homes alike, in what symbols people argued over and why the long Saturday lunch was such a cherished custom. But I didn’t forget my biology either, and I realized that for the problem that interested me—addiction—I needed to bring culture and biology together.  One of the main clues was in the descriptions boys provided to me about why they used drugs, the compulsion, craving (or “ansiedad” there) and desire they felt.  Addiction was “wanting more and more.”  These descriptions flew in the face of the then-current disease model of addiction, which was based on tolerance and withdrawal.  Withdrawal was tough, but it was the intense wanting, both while using and later, that seemed so destructive.  Thankfully these descriptions matched up with an emerging view of the brain and addiction based on the work of Terry Robinson and Kent Berridge at the University of Michigan, particularly a 1993 article on drug craving.

In my doctoral research, among many other things, I worked to link emerging conceptions of mesolimbic dopamine function with ethnographic descriptions of wanting and craving.  I worked with adolescents in Bogotá who ranged from non-drug users to people addicted to multiple substances.  The ethnography and the brain science matched up in three areas: intense desire for drugs, an urge to go towards drugs, and shifts in awareness towards drugs in the environment or how drugs could change one’s present feelings.  This view is not based on the essentialized “function” often proscribed onto certain parts of the brain (particularly as brain imaging elides into “seeing is believing”).  This reductionist view does not match up with the neuroanatomy or the experimental data.  Indeed, the overall mesolimbic dopamine system goes from some of our most ancient evolved brain systems to our most recent, with multiple projections that can have varied impact on on-going behavior and brain functioning.  And vice versa, as our bodies and environments can have varied impacts on brain functioning and behavior as well!

To summarize for now (I’ll hopefully expand later), the brain, grounded theory that works from people’s experiences and behavior, and the thick description of symbol systems can all hang together.  And you can even show that these things hang together with quantitative work, which I used by incorporating a new scale that formed part of my epidemiological work in Colombia.  This work is presented in my 2005 article in Ethos.  I remain deeply interested in this sort of integrative work, particularly how it plays out in multiple human domains, including addiction, anorexia, and sexual desire.I also haven’t forgotten my roots in biological anthropology.  Another part of my graduate work was to bring together evolutionary and cognitive neuroscience views of addiction.  My graduate mentor Neal Smith and I created a synthesis of evolutionary theory and neuroscience which describes a biopsychosocial approach to addiction.  I’ve just published a chapter that updates theses ideas, and provides clearer links to cultural anthropology, in the volume Neal edited on Evolutionary Medicine and Health.

At present I see an urgent need for theoretical mediators and ethnographic methods that help us work between what we know about our brains and what we know about our behavior and culture(s).  One rich area of work in this area centers on embodiment, and I hope that we will have a discussion on that topic as part of neuroanthropology.  Applied science or practical or engaged work also offers us another lens, whether it is figuring out how to make someone a better athlete or competitor or in trying to understand how to help someone who has a behavioral health problem.  So the applied side of neuroanthropology is another way we can draw on our ethnographic expertise, while also reflecting on and making a difference through what we do every day—live our lives through an encultured brain.

 If you want to reach me, please email me at dlende@nd.edu

Introductions: Greg Downey

As a way to introduce myself, I’ll just briefly discuss why I got interested in the relationship between brain science and culture in the first place. When I was doing fieldwork on the Afro-Brazilian martial art-dance, capoeira, my informants kept talking about how their participation in the art affected them. They would claim that they could see things in their peripheral vision better, that they were calmer in conflicts, that they walked different, that they could balance better, and a host of other collateral effects, outside of practice. Like most good cultural anthropologists, I approached their claims with a kind of shallow credulity: ‘The natives say that ghosts steal their socks’ or ‘The natives so that magical charms make their bodies immune to bullets.’ I just wrote these claims down without ever really questioning them or thinking much about them.

And then, it struck me: were these stories plausible? Could capoeira really change them? And what kind of anthropology would I be doing if I asked those questions? I looked into sports psychology studies of elite athletes’ perceptions, but I also thought about my own experience as an apprentice who had felt first-hand the changes worked by devoted practice. The more I read and thought about it, the more I became convinced that maybe I should move beyond just copying down what the ‘natives’ said about capoeira; I should consider instead what sorts of claims were plausible, and what mechanisms might be creating the effects that they described.

So I wound up outside of anthropology, taking a year off of teaching at Notre Dame to go to Brown University on a post-doc where I got a chance to attend weekly seminars put on by Anne Fausto-Sterling. I came across discussions of neuroplasticity, the work of Tim Ingold, dynamic systems theorists like Esther Thelen and Susan Oyama (who I just got to meet at the AAAs), and became convined that, if anthropology was ever going to deliver on the promises of the ’embodiment’ literature, we were going to have to actually learn a hell of a lot more about how the body and the brain worked.

And so here I am, proposing a new project to work on elite junior rugby training that I hope will lead both to traditional ethnographic fieldwork and very non-traditional (for anthropologists) interest in brain imaging, visual tracking, measurements of body morphology change, physical testing, and a host of other techniques. In addition, I’m trying to finish a book right now on the ways in which elite athletes, including people doing physically demanding tasks that we might not necessarily think of as ‘sports,’ such as circus performers, pearl divers, yogis, and the like, show us the malleability of the human body and mind, given the human propensity to do things like obsessively train in activities that are not — strictly speaking — ‘necessary’ for survival. That book, currently titled ‘The Athletic Animal: Sports and Human Potential,’ will be my own obsession for the next few months, but I hope to see a lot of postings from other folks on this weblog once it’s up and running.

If you’d like to get in touch, I can be reached at greg.downey@scmp.mq.edu.au. If you’d like to join our virtual community, don’t hesitate to send me an email, and we’ll talk.