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.

The Brains of Conductors

The BBC News carried a story recently about research done on the brains of orchestra conductors and band leaders and how they responded to a complicated listening task. The researchers played two tones for the subjects very closely together, fractions of a second apart, and the subjects were asked to tell what order they were played in.

The most interesting finding was that all subjects, untrained controls and experienced conductors alike, demonstrated a decrease in activity on fMRI scans in the ‘visual areas’ (I presume the visual cortex) when asked to do this difficult listening task. As the BBC headline reads, ‘Brain “Closes Eyes” to Hear Music.’ The more difficult the researchers made the task, the more activity in the visual regions was decreased. As the BBC article puts it:

As the task was made harder and harder, the non-musicians carried on diverting more and more activity away from the visual parts of the brain to the auditory side, as they struggled to concentrate.

However, after a certain point, the conductors did not suppress their brains, suggesting that their years of training had provided a distinct advantage in the way their brains were organised.

The implications of this in terms of brain ‘enculturation’ are several, and I want to highlight a couple.

Firstly, the testing itself suggests that brain activity is task dependent, both in positive and negative terms. That is, ask the brain to do some things and not only do particular regions associated with the task get very active, but other, possibly competing or distracting neural activities, get suppressed. I’ve been thinking about the senses a fair bit lately (more on that soon), and this would seem to be one way in which the senses are not independent. Instead, the senses are linked together, even if it is in suppressive links, the heightened attention or concentration along one channel sometimes suppressing others. For culturally influenced patterns of sensing, it could mean that what we don’t sense is as important as what we do.

Second, these sorts of links between expertise and the effectiveness of sensing are variable phenomena, not necessarily existing at all levels of task demand. I find this interesting because it might not show up in every experiment, depending on the difficulty of the experimental task. In the case of the conductors, you don’t really notice the difference in their performance on the task until the difficulty is greatly increased.

Third, the ‘enculturation’ is very much a skill-dependent brain change. That is, it’s not a blanket, shared-by-all cultural trait, but one that’s only shared by a specialist group within a ‘culture.’ This makes more sense to me in a lot of ways because I work with elite athletics, but I suspect that many ways in which the brain is ‘encultured’ are not shared throughout what anthropologists typically think of as ‘cultures.’ Moreover, because the brain likely responds to similar demands by using similar mechanism, another elite practitioner of a parallel skill (like a musical leader in capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art I’ve worked on) might have an ability that looked a bit like the conductors’. How these abilities differed then — not only in terms of their meaning, acquisition, and the like, but also in terms of the neurological dynamics — would be an interesting set of research questions.

One could write a lot more, but I’ll leave it at this for now.

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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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.