by Isaac Dismuke
Neurobiology often attempts to identify and explain the bases of cognitive processes without taking into account the role that the socio-environment occupied in the evolution of the brain. This creates the possibility, if not probability, of biological reductionism. The article points to a salient factor to consider when studying cognition that perhaps neuroscience does not take in to account, which is the idea that not all cognitive processes will necessarily look the same in every context simply because all humans possess them. Neuroscience remains the predominant field for studying neural pathways and the underlying mechanisms by which they operate, but yet it may result in a more static response. Cultural neuroscience, however, seeks an ecologically sound explanation by considering the significance of culture and sociality in the forming of these cognitive and neural processes and the differences between them.
The article points out the excellent position that anthropology is in to compliment cultural neuroscientific studies because of its historical focus with regards to studying culture. As the authors state, “Anthropology is positioned to make important contributions to the project of investigating culture in the brain, and the brain in culture” (p.130). Not only is culture important in the creating of social environments, but this social environment in turn influences the structure of the human brain. If this is true, and the evidence is quite suggestive, then ethnography based anthropology can be beneficial by supplying a more nuanced understanding of this process.
Cultural neuroscience and anthropology obviously have an overlap in interests, but what are the direct benefits of a union of anthropology with cultural neuroscience? The authors state that the contribution from anthropology should derive from ethnographic data gathered about a culture in order to create a hypothesis that helps “push beyond identification of the neural substrates associated with isolated cognitive tasks, and better capture the contingent and socially embedded nature of human cognition” (p.131). Anthropology grants a more dynamic understanding of what is happening than a reductionist biological explanation and better captures the relevant social factors of human cognition.
Furthermore, anthropologists, because of a more thorough cross-cultural knowledge, will aid in pointing out experimental design flaws that may exist because of cultural biases that otherwise may not be noticed. Using anthropological insight can be useful in advising neuroscientific experimental methodology. The subsection titled “common ground and complementary tools” traces a study on stress and emotional reactivity among Mexican immigrants in the United States, which found to have a translation problem regarding ‘social stresses’ or ‘trauma’ amongst the subjects of Mexican origin. They were given a math task and tested at public speaking in order to test the degree of stress amongst the individuals. The original study did not take into account the fact that highly educated adults, who were not amongst their immigrant population, may not experience the same amount of stress with these tests. After the realization of this issue, the authors had to change the design of the experiment which highlights the importance of “experimental manipulation [that] should also be subject to checks for conceptual and technical validity” (p132).
The idea of an ethnographically-driven laboratory study and capitalizing on cultural knowledge from anthropology in order to create ecologically solid experiments does not appear to me to be a controversial one. In fact, it even seems necessary if the goal is to capture the complexity of human experience and study it in a laboratory setting. But the authors also propose the opposite stating, “The incorporation of proxy measures of central nervous system activity into ethnographically driven field-based research” (p 135). This idea seems more likely to be critiqued, and while the authors admit that in certain context this could be difficult, they also provide a concrete example of how it can be done. While studying religious practice and sprit possession in Northeastern Brazil, they measured in situ the emotional properties of various rituals by measuring physiological responses such as heart rate and blood pressure. This approach provided the author with a better understanding of the effect of ritualistic behavior on the human body that is beyond what simple observational ethnography would be able to provide.
The article quotes Ochsner and Lieberman( 2001) who argue that the overall goal of a socio-culturally informed neuroscience should be “ to move beyond mapping, to the investigation of complex human behaviors and experiences”( 132). In my opinion this goal must be met with a neuro anthropological perspective that considers neural, ecological, and cultural factors. The article lays out this approach and argues for not only the influence on ethnography in the laboratory setting, but also field research to be complemented by laboratory studies by way of portable measurement devices. This calls for a combination in both theoretical and methodical approaches from anthropology and cultural neuroscience to provide a more rich understanding of the human brain as it is situated in its socio-environmental context.
Rebecca Seligman, and Ryan A. Brown (2009). Theory and method at the intersection of anthropology and cultural neuroscience. Oxford University Press. Doi: 10.1093/scan/nsp032.