by Mirjam Holleman
Neuroanthropology recognizes the brain’s plasticity (rather than conceptualizing it as a hard-wired instrument) and that cultures help construct both cross-cultural and intra-cultural neural diversity. Different knowledge traditions and environments can lead to variation in brain patterning across cultures, while differential “forms of expertise, difficult social circumstances, social divisions such as those of race, gender, and socioecological conditions can all work to shape neural patterns” (p. 392) of individuals within cultures.
Neuroanthropology focuses on neurocultural processes. “Processes are operation, components, or factors that shape the overall flow, development, or outcome of a phenomenon. As opposed to a simple cause-and-effect model, processes are considered formative rather than determinative” (p. 395). Finley, in her chapter about PTSD, for example, looked at the processes of stress, horror, dislocation, and grief. She did not, however, treat these processes as isolated determiners of PTSD, but argues that these processes, steered along by cultural mediators, interact to form the “inherently integrative dimensions of neurocultural processes” (p 395) that shape the experience of PTSD.
An emphasis on neurocultural processes also steers us away from essentialised views of vulnerability. For example, studies that highlight neurological differences between men and women or the increasing evidence that shows that poverty poisons the brain can essentialize gender, or poverty, as inherent vulnerabilities, “rather than focusing on neurocultural processes that explain how that happens,” “confronting entrenched patterns of socialization,“ or challenging “the inequalities that set up the poisoning in the first place” (p. 398). Thus, the notions of “neuroanthropological vulnerabilities” created by “neurocultural processes” illustrate how neuroanthropology can contribute to social analysis and applied interventions.
This move away from essentialism, which is foundational to modern anthropology, is evident in other fields - such as neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, and philosophy, as well. The rest of the chapter highlights how a neuroanthropolological perspective can contribute to other fields.
Psychological research has often tended to look for “universal mechanism located within the mind” (p. 402) and “has never considered either neuroplasticity or culture as foundational operating principles for the mind” (p. 403). In fact, “culture and environment were elements to be controlled and excluded in experimental designs” (p. 403). Bringing in a neuroanthropological perspective means “recognizing that psychological processes generally do not happen in laboratories to subjects, but to individuals with biographies and biases, in situations shot through with power shaped by negotiations [or interactions] and overshadowed by significance” (p.404).
However, it’s not just psychologists who show tendencies toward essentialism (treating the mind as the same everywhere). Anthropological research on different cultures can fall pray to cultural essentialism – or the view that cultures are timeless, bounded, homogenous units. Where (human) nature is assumed to be universal, ‘culture,’ from a popular perspective, implies ‘whatever makes one different.’ Essentialized cultural differences have been used to justify the subordination of one cultural group to another and enforce assimilation or even genocide. (p. 406).
Even when addressing questions of “difference” within cultural groups, social scientists may essentialize categories of differences, such as those between men and women or different racial or ethnic groups. Yet, “what it means to be a member of a racial or ethnic group or a man or a woman [or what it means to have a disability], is not simply an exemplar of a category, but is itself liable to shifting meaning and impact across our lives and context” (p. 405).
When differences between cultures or categories are subjected to essentialists notions, “interventions” to aid a vulnerable group (or get rid of a deviant group) may do more harm than good.
“But neuroanthropology can disrupt these folk models” (p.407) by highlighting neurocultural pathways and processes and the interactions between the brain, the environment, culture, and learning – in other words by presenting the encultured brain.