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 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.

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.