Neuroanthropology 101: Body, Brain & Culture

Around the world and across time, human cultural variation has extended into the depths of the human psyche, shaping profoundly different ways of being human.

  • Are we all the same ‘deep down’ or do the ways we treat emotion, conflict, social interaction, cognition, and other dimensions of life leave irreducible differences among people?

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 8.11.37 pmAnthropologists have to confront firsthand the possibility that we are all not the same: some people die from syndromes that Western psychiatrists may not recognize, or recover from psychiatric conditions that we find virtually irreversible. We find societies with emotions that are unfamiliar, who describe ‘selves’ that seem alien to us, who seem to defy what we think of as ‘human nature.’ Even neuroscience is confirming that there are subtle differences between cultural groups in the way that they perceive, process information, and accomplish basic cognitive tasks.

And yet, we are all one species, shaped by evolution and our biology to possess distinctive human brains as well as forms of consciousness, cognitive ability, empathy, memory and imagination.

  • How do we reconcile the variation with our shared humanity?

In this open resource site, I seek to explore human psychological variability by sketching out the extremes: psychiatric disorders, the sensory abilities of athletes, radically different ways of dealing with children, the ‘selves’ of people who routinely become possessed, the respect hunting peoples have for the animals they kill, the cognitive abilities of those people without language, or the way that culture affects even the trajectory into madness.

This part of started life as my course, Anth 207, ‘Psychological Anthropology,’ but it is an open and organic space which I hope will grow to support people interested in neuroanthropology. It is ‘open courseware,’ at once offered to students and teachers who might find the material helpful or interesting. Ultimately, I’d like this part of to serve as a kind of introduction to psychological anthropology for the curious or those wishing to engage more deeply with the project.

The materials are made available on a Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Non-Commercial 4.0 International or CC-BY-NC). This means that you can copy and adapt this material for your own purposes, but you must attribute the source and you cannot re-use it for commercial purposes.


Photo by  (Public domain photo from Pixabay)

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