by April Irwin
To answer our thematic question that asks, “What is Neuroanthropology?” I pose that the most complete answer thus far is found in the second chapter of our text. Downey and Lende, as advocates of this new branch of anthropology, say that “neuroanthropology posits that subjectivity and the brain meet in the things that people do and say and the ways we interact with one another and the environment” (2012, p. 41). For me, this quotation wraps up the entirety of this chapter as well as provides an intriguing springboard from which we can leap as we develop an interest and sound methodology within this field and beyond it.
Similarly to what we discussed in our very first class, neuroanthropology at its core is all about weaving together strings from other fields into studying human beings, their environments, brains, and everything in between. Downey and Lende make a great case in setting neuroanthropology apart from other fields such as psychology and neuroscience in order to answer shortcomings that are inherent within each of these fields. In sharing a timeline for the development of neuroanthropology, they criticize the mass modularity theory that had taken root in these fields because it assumes that brain function and structure are universal across individuals and groups.
My personal favorite is the false assumption that brains are inflexible which plagued the social sciences around the 1980s. This was an area of great interest to me because within the field of education, often teachers, parents, and students continue to assume that they have a fixed level of intelligence and that their minds cannot adapt to their new environment or surroundings. (See this lovely Wikipedia page for more information.) These theories of intelligence have behavioral ramifications for their behavior with regards to learning which, to me, exemplifies the necessity for a field that integrates brain science with the rigorous research methods of anthropology. I completely agree with the authors as they argue that speaking to the endless, and highly nuanced, variations in human thoughts, behaviors, and neurological makeup is a critical next step in not only the social sciences, but also the brain sciences as well. With regards to all of this, I am excited to see that, along with integrating information and theory from a variety of fields, neuroanthropology’s grounding in anthropology means that defining terms like culture and applying quality field-based research methods are at the heart of this field.
Again, in agreement with Downey and Lende, I agree that culture is a term that is often used as a side note to the variables that we study, even in educational psychology, and that redefining the boundaries of this concept matters to how we study the brain. Their definition of culture includes the shared representations of a group of people and extends it to include the variations within the nervous system as well as the material world. As a second year student on the track for specializing in educational neuroscience, this is by far the most complete and coherent definition of culture because it incorporates the material world of human biology into the meanings and representations that encompass human existence. This definition speaks to the embodiment of thought in a way that my colleagues and I have pondered, but have not been able to put into a concise phrase.
Overall, this chapter and it’s look from the past to the future of neuroanthropology gives me hope that people haven’t studied everything yet. It allows me to dream about the things that we have yet to uncover. And it gives me the tools and language to carry these discoveries into new territory.
Downey, G. & Lende, D. H. (2012). Neuroanthropology and the encultured brain. In D. H. Lende & G. Downey (Eds.), The encultured brain: An introduction to neuroanthropology (pp. 23-65). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.