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

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.)

Continue reading “The term ‘neuroanthropology’”

The goals of Neuroanthropology

First and foremost, I hope that this blog provides a space where anthropologists interested in neurosciences can share their thoughts, get in touch, and find out about each other’s research.  We’re in the vast minority out there, and I felt like it would be good to start up some conversations.

So, in keeping with that ‘mission,’ I am looking forward to signing up other participants as contributors.  For those of you who have not done it, blog posting is a great way to share thoughts, point out interesting news items, or get in touch without the extremely formal demands of normal academic publishing.  Unlike simply creating a mailing list, however, this blog will have a public face, so that we might be discovered by like-minded souls, wherever they are.

In the long run, I think that I’d like to work toward some collected volumes, conferences, panels at the American Anthropological Association or Australian Anthropological Society meetings, contacts between grad students and outside advisors, and that sort of long-running, loose collaboration.  I’ll be posting calls for papers or even first drafts of conference proposals for people to read, and I think the opportunity to share and discuss them with fellow travelers will be great.

In addition, like a normal blog, I will be trying to post links to and commentary upon news items or new papers that might be of special interest to those of us interested in neuroanthropology.  We’ll try to find a way for us to post unpublished papers (if anyone would like to), create a collective annotated bibliography of particularly important sources, make a contacts list, and a host of other similar academico-social activities.

Finally, I’m just hoping to see what people are doing out there, and I thought that making myself publicly present (well, in a virtual sense), might be a great way to do that.  So if you’re interested, let’s get you signed up as a contributor.  If you don’t mind too much, a great first post would simply be a short discussion of your research interests and why you’re ‘here’ (again, in a virtual sense).

As the blog moderator, I reserve the right to edit things.  I’ll use that privilege very sparingly, probably only in an effort to keep things collegial.  I feel like one of the great problems in this area is that some of the ‘leading lights’ working on these theoretical issues have a tendency to attack anyone who is not completely on board with their own models, terminology, or programs.  I don’t want to spend my time attacking each other, so I may curb excessive ‘flaming’ if it becomes an issue.  I doubt it will.

Hello world!

This new blog is coming soon. I’m trying to finish my marking for the semester, but I hope to soon be creating a site to encourage a new synthesis between sociocultural anthropology and the brain sciences.

My own experience reading and exploring in neuroscience has led me to believe that a new opportunity is available to anthropologists. New findings on topics like neural plasticity and modularization, and new research tools such as brain imaging, have opened space for novel research projects, collaborations across fields, and a renewal of psychological and neuropsychological theory in anthropology. Although some of our colleagues in anthropology fear ‘neural reductionism,’ my own impression is that brain scientists increasingly realize how experience dependent and variable brain development can be; the time is ripe for a vigorous injection of neuroanthropology into the neurosciences.

Although I am very much an anthropologist, this new field is inherently interdisciplinary, not out of intellectual fashion, but because understanding brain-shaping processes requires modeling a dynamic system that involves scales from the molecular to the macrosocial, with time frames stretching from seconds to an evolutionary scale. Tracing out the complex interactions across these scales demands both ambition and a profound humility; certainly, I am not capable of mastering all the fields that will contribute to this emerging understanding. Although I am open to being proven wrong, my own feeling is that previous attempts to integrate findings in brain sciences with cultural theory have over-reached, suggesting that the complex, baroque brain can be understood with a small set of variables. I suspect that a new anthropological engagement with the brain sciences will not throw off a grand unified theory of neural enculturation.

Instead, I suspect that neuroanthropology will produce myriad accounts of different systems, of novel configurations that the brain can produce depending on what is asked of it, of patterns of malleability that differ across a varietty of brain areas and functions. Far from a ‘neural reductionism,’ I suspect that a healthy neuroanthropology will produce a much richer, more varied account of human psychology than most current sociocultural theories.

But I will write more when I finish off this semester. I look forward to building this blog, stocking it with plenty of resources, and enlisting colleagues in many places to contribute different pieces to a new anthropology of the brain.