Review of "Back from the edge of existence: A critical anthropology of trauma."
by Larry Monocello
“The reality, of course, is that trauma happens within the flow of a person’s life—he or she did not simply come into being at the moment of the event” (755). In this article, Lester calls on researchers to remember that trauma is not a one-time event, nor is trauma experienced—or, re-experienced—the same way in all of the men and women who have been traumatized. Rather, a person’s psychophysiological response to both the “trauma-as-moment-of-injury” and “trauma-as-ongoing-lived-experience” (755) is individualized. One’s trauma is based in his or her own culturally, socially, and personally mediated beliefs about how the world works, as well as his or her own place within it; therefore, it would do a disservice to both future research on and treatment of trauma with anything less than that in mind.
The strengths of this article lie in Lester’s ability to deconstruct the ways in which we currently deal with trauma, but then—even more importantly—from that deconstruction suggest practical and socioculturally relevant suggestions for improvement. In discussing cross-cultural variation in the roles of (a) agency in the trauma-event, (b) the “developmental arc of trauma” as experienced, and (c) effective therapeutic strategies in treatment, she offers a different approach to trauma that understands it to be a socially, culturally, and personally mediated lifelong process rather than a bounded event. It requires understanding that denying wholly a victim’s agency in the experience of trauma can be constraining to coming to terms with it, especially cross-culturally. It requires recognizing that the trauma cannot be undone, but rather through the process of re-experience responses to the trauma can be changed (if not “healed”). Finally, it requires knowing that the most important facet of the treatment of trauma is repairing the victim’s social relationships
From a neuroanthropological perspective, then, there are implications for the study of trauma and PTSD. Trauma is not just an event but a chronic process through which the experience of trauma is not only re-experienced, but also re-fashioned and re-evaluated. It is a constant push and pull of beliefs and relationships shifting and shaping how each subsequent re-exposure is endured and understood. To the neuroanthropologist, this means that trauma should not be studied from the perspective of “before and after,” but rather as a continuous process of meaning-making and -re-making with implications for the types and degrees of stress experienced and the concomitant neurophysiological responses that affect overall well-being.
Lester’s work is notable for her ability to guide the reader beyond the immediately apparent (and, often, ethnocentric), and through layers of hidden meaning, to come to a much more nuanced understanding of phenomena. However, an obvious concern with this work is that the breadth of analysis it calls for does not lend itself to practicality. And while it is out of the scope of most psychological and psychiatric research, anthropologists are uniquely poised to address these questions, to synthesize large and disparate bodies of information into coherent exegeses of phenomena.
Lester, Rebecca. (2013). “Back from the edge of existence: A critical anthropology of trauma.” Transcultural Psychiatry, 50(5): 753-762.
by Amanda Oldani
Chapter 14, written by Dressler, Balieiro, and dos Santos examines the relationships between cultural consonance, genetic influences, and depression. Cultural consonance is understood as how well a person’s behaviors and beliefs align with the shared cultural models of a group for certain domains within life. The chapter begins with the stories of two comparable men who differ on their levels of cultural consonance and depressive symptoms; after two years, one man has had a change in cultural consonance associated with lower depressive symptoms. I thought this opening was a perfect demonstration that introduced us to this somewhat complex study.
The authors discuss the theoretical background and previous barriers to research into cultural factors in relation to depression, such as methodological issues. With the introduction of cultural consonance, based on a cognitive theory of culture (meaning culture is the shared knowledge across people), cultural models and peoples’ adherence to them can be more thoroughly examined. Lower cultural consonance means there is a gap between behavior and cultural expectations, which often has negative and stressful effects, such as depression. A previous study found that perceived stress partially mediated the effects of cultural consonance on depression, but only for the family life domain. From this point in the research, the authors wanted to look for another explanatory factor. At the same time, other research has looked into the interactions between genes and the environment, examining how genotype can moderate a stressful event’s effects on mood. However, this research does not create a concrete enough definition of “stress” that is desired. By combining these lines of research, the researchers were able to complement gaps in methodology and understanding.
The gene-environment research focuses on genetic polymorphisms in the serotonin system within the brain. In a preliminary study, the authors examined the “interaction of cultural consonance and the -1438 G/A polymorphism for 5HTR2A” and found that “The effect of cultural consonance in family life was enhanced in the presence of the AA variant of the polymorphism” (Dressler, Balieiro, & dos Santos, 2012, p. 378). This means that this specific variant can enhance the magnitude of the effects of changes in cultural consonance.
The goal of this study is to further study these findings, “especially in terms of the way in which the psychological processes that mediate the link of cultural consonance and depression are in turn modified in the presence of a specific genetic variant” (Dressler et al., 2012, p. 365). The proposed mediator between cultural consonance and depression involves a negative self-schema and dysfunctional beliefs, meaning that people see experiences as failures and see themselves as incapable of achieving life goals. Genotype and specific variants were examined to see if they moderate the mediators or the mediation process as a whole.
In Ribeirão Preto, Brazil, four neighborhoods that differed within the socioeconomic continuum were selected to be sampled. In order to understand the cultural consonance and what domains are particularly salient, multiple mixed-methods were used, including cultural domain analysis, participant-observation, and cultural consensus analysis. The important domains included lifestyle, social support, family life, and national identity; since people tend to be consistent across domains, one general variable for cultural consonance was utilized. People were surveyed twice, with two years in between, gathering psychological data and genetic information later.
Results indicate that dysfunctional beliefs mediate between cultural consonance and depression, as long as the genotype includes the GA or GG variants; if the genotype is AA, the hypothesis is inaccurate but still important. People with the AA variant showed that cultural consonance had a stronger effect on depression than others with the GA or GG variants. These results show that the mediating pathway is also important; GA or GG peoples’ depression depends on their levels of conscious processing of these dysfunctional beliefs. AA people do not seem to need to ruminate on these thoughts because their low cultural consonance has a direct impact.
I found this chapter to be very thorough; I appreciated the fact that it explained the process of understanding cultural consonance because at first I was a bit skeptical of the concept. I was also afraid this study would be too reductionist or simplified, but the authors note that this is an initial attempt at improving nuance. The authors had strength in understanding and acknowledging implications of this research, as well as the limitations. As the authors note, the study has a small sample size and imperfect measures. As negative self-schema, catastrophic thinking, and rumination are emphasized in psychology and the popular CBT, measures could surely be improved for future studies.
I also had a question about the foundation for this research. The authors define culture using a cognitive theory of culture, but what if other researchers do not adhere to this definition? Is this the best way of understanding culture? Previous chapters have provided different ideas, which make me wonder about how other understandings of culture could be used to study this topic.
Dressler, W., Balieiro, M., & dos Santos, J.E. (2012). Cultural Consonance, Consciousness, and Depression: Genetic Moderating Effects on the Psychological Mediators of Culture. In Lende, D. H & Downey, G. (Eds.), The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (pp. 363-388). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
PTSD and the cultural brain: a review of Erin P. Findley’s War and Dislocation: A Neuroanthropological Model of Trauma Among American Veterans with Combat PTSD
by Mirjam Holleman
In this excellent chapter, Erin P. Findley describes the intersectionality between (post-traumatic) stress, the brain, and the cultural environment. She highlights four key elements of the PTSD experience - stress and horror, dislocation and grief - and unpacks their neurological, psychological, and cultural underpinnings.
In an environment of prolonged and/or intense stress and danger, the brain undergoes a “neurobiological reshuffling” (p. 269) and is left with an “altered architecture” (p. 274). This shift signifies an activation of survival mode, in which humans react more quickly and more strongly/definitively, yet at the expense of an ability to focus, learn, or retain information not related to a direct threat (p. 269), as well as the ability to filter out relevant from irrelevant stimuli or information (p.270). In other words, the brain interprets everything as danger or a potential threat, without ‘wasting time’ on cognitive task (such as focusing and accurately interpreting a situation) that are of lower priority in a situation where danger is ever present and unpredictable. One feels threatened by everything, and (re)acts accordingly.“Rockstroh & Elbert have observed that repeatedly stressed brains appear to use what they call a ‘low-road’ for sensory processing that speeds up the ability configure a threat responses [i.e. react to stressors] by bypassing the prefrontal cortex’s [….] ability to analyze complex data and regulate emotion accordingly” (p. 274)
This response may be adaptive and necessary in a combat zone. However, this ‘hyper-vigilance’ and fast and strong reactions to anything that might be a threat – bypassing all rational thinking processes and cognitive filters to determine whether something actually is a relevant threat and how to respond appropriately, in the interests of responding quickly – may not be appreciated or rewarded in other contexts or environments. For example, the PTSD brain is frequently met with considerable repercussions when this ‘low-road’ response carries over into everyday social interactions.
One old veteran sheepishly recalled loosing his cool at the grocery store – not as a result of any direct threat, but because he felt the cashier had been rude to the elderly women ahead of him in line. He perceived that the young cashier had failed to show proper respect to a vulnerable elder. The source of his anger, therefore, was entirely justified within the cultural setting, although his means of expressing it – in this case, by yelling at the cashier - was not, and provoked considerable disapproval from his wife, who witnessed the exchange (p. 275).
Thus the neurological architecture that may trigger an adaptive response in an environment of actual danger may simply be interpreted as ‘overreacting’ when the danger is gone, but the ‘altered architecture’ remains.
This brings us to the next theme in the PTSD experience- the experience of ‘dislocation,’ referring to a sense of “uncomfortable distance” from others in their lives, from feeling at home and safe in the world, from earlier modes of perceptions and ways of reacting, or from some prior, preferred, sense of self.
While it is becoming increasingly known that prolonged and/or severe stress may lead to an ‘altered architecture of the brain,’ it is important to consider how this altered state interacts with prior personal experiences and societal expectations of self. “For example, if a veteran has always prided himself on being a calm and easy going guy, then finding himself continually on edge and on guard may prompt a crisis of identity” (p. 275). And as the above anecdote of the man in the grocery story illustrates, the neurological experience of PTSD is further mediated by cultural expectations and social reactions of others. Is the veterans’ change in behavior interpreted as: ‘he’s overreacting because the PTSD is affecting his brain’ or ‘he’s being a baby or a jerk?’ As noted earlier, the individuals themselves frequently struggle greatly with these changes in themselves; this distress at a sense dislocation from self may be compounded greatly by an additional sense of dislocation from other people when “friends and family members who are not well acquainted with PTSD may blame the veteran rather than the illness for unpleasant changes in behavior and attitude, often resulting in damaged relationships” (p. 275). It is these personal, social, and cultural dislocations, rather than the stress and horror associated with trauma alone, that lead to the third aspect of combat trauma: Grief. “Grief, then, results from veterans’ internal and external dislocations; bereavement and interpersonal loss; being rent from a previously cherished view of self; overwhelming distress at finding the world can be without order, sense, or safety; and gaps in experience and understanding that lead to feeling distant from loved ones” (p. 279).
Thus, Findley offers a holistic view in which PTSD, or the pathways through which traumatic experiences and the accompanying stress are experienced, is presented as simultaneously neurological (caused by a “neurological reshuffling”), psychological (related to past experiences, individual disposition, and sense of self), social (tied in with the immediate reactions of others) and cultural (a desire to conform to expected socio-cultural norms of behavior and managing emotions). In this way, the model that Findley presents does an excellent job of capturing the neuroanthropological consideration of “how culture, experience, and biology come together” (p. 282). I would further like to emphasis that from an anthropological perspective, ‘the biological,’ ‘the psychological,’ ‘the social and the cultural’ are of course not stand-alone factors that each contribute to the experience of PTSD, but each also shapes the other. For instance, personal expectations of self are closely linked social cues of what kind of dispositions are rewarded in ones’ environment, and these social expectations are in turn embedded within broader cultural norms and values regarding proper conduct and management of emotions and impulses.
Such an understanding of the interplay between the neurological, psychological, social, and cultural aspects of a phenomenon such as PTSD ought to encourage (mental) health care providers to take a holistic approach in their treatment plans, and “look beyond the psychological symptoms […] to imagine responses that go beyond clinical treatment” (p. 285). I imagine such an approach would be useful not just in the treatment of PTSD, but in any kind of treatment or intervention.
Findley, Erin, P. 2014. “War and Dislocation: A Neuroanthropological Model of Trauma Among American Veterans with Combat PTSD.” In The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology, eds. Daniel H. Lende, & Greg Downey, 263-290, Cambridge, Massachusets: MIT Press.
First, a Bit of History: A Review of “Neuroanthropology: Evolution and Emotional Embodiment”
by April Irwin
Although this article predates the readings for this week, I think it is important to gain some insight into the beginnings of a new field of study. Campbell and Garcia’s (2009) article in Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience highlights the application of neuroanthropology within the larger field of interdisciplinary studies. In this article, the authors highlight differences in the definition of embodiment in anthropology and in evolutionary neuroscience with the main difference being how they view the relationship between the subjective experience of the body with the physiological functioning of the brain. Their definition of embodiment, which integrates both views is, “somatic mood, a feeling that is not closely tied to language” (Campbell & Garcia, 2009, p. 2). They distinguish this emotional embodiment as being separate from the cognitive and language-dependent embodiment.
The article continues as the authors pinpoint the insula and anterior cingulate cortex as implicated brain structures that have been identified in studies about ritual spiritual practices. They discuss the experiences of yoga, meditation, being in love, and ritual healing practices including the ingestion of psychoactive plant tea to increase empathetic feelings. One critique I have with regard to the writing of this section is the description of a Japanese yoga master as, “a more exotic example” (Campbell & Garcia, 2009, p. 2), which seems to be out of place in an article that is attempting to build a bridge towards anthropology.
Following this discussion, the authors describe the evolutionary evidence for somatic representation in humans and other primates. Humans have a very well-developed insula and Von Economo neurons (VENs), which are suggested to play a large role in the, “rapid processing of complex social information” (Campbell & Garcia, 2009, p. 3). Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) activation suggests that fairness, which is an element of social exclusion, has some implications for survival. The authors do a great job of incorporating neuroscientific data, including neural correlates, in conjunction with social contructs. One issue that may come up is that this succinct combining of these two, highly complicated concepts also simplifies each of them. However, I think in the context of this short article, this is entirely appropriate. The future research ideas also encourage more exploration of the ideas explored in this article, which implies that the ideas that have been communicated are indeed more complex than the one or two sentences that have been written about each type of study or construct.
Reference: Campbell, B. C., & Garcia, J. R. (2009). Neuroanthropology: Evolution and emotional embodiment. Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience, 1(4), 1–6. http://doi.org/10.3389/neuro.18.004.2009
Please use comments on this post to discuss your readings from the special issue of Annals of Applied Anthropology.
A Neuroanthropology of Ethics
by Jake Aronoff
In “Toward a Neuroanthropology of Ethics”, Dominguez provides a rational for the relevance of neuroanthropology to ethics. Dominguez first highlights the interest of anthropologists in ethics more generally, as ethics and morality have been viewed as inseparable from culture, ideology, and discourse. These three concepts represent shared rules, ideas, values, beliefs, opinions, desires, and preferences, and produce a view of the ethical subject as intersubjective. This intersubjective view of the ethical subject leads to one of the main points Dominguez makes regarding the relevance of neuroanthropology to ethics, that “the neural bases of moral agency are to be found beyond the confines of a single brain” (295).
Dominguez highlights findings in cultural neuroscience on the influence of culture on brain function relevant to ethics, such as perceptual judgments, emotional responses, theory of mind, and self-knowledge. However, Dominguez distinguishes the complementary questions of interest in neuroanthropology, such as how socially shared meanings and practices are represented in the brain, how the brain processes cultural experiences, what neural mechanisms make culture possible, how these mechanisms evolved, and how they interact with genetically mediated neurocognitive processes and behaviors. Previous research is highlighted that has been directed by these questions and of relevance to ethics, including the study of the neural substrates of the disposition to treat someone as a rational agent, the sociocultural patterning of neural activity during self-reflection, and social interaction research conducted through simultaneous two-person brain imaging or hyperscanning.
One component of neuroanthropology’s repertoire that Dominguez highlights as relevant to ethics (that is particularly compelling due its more immediately manageable focus) is its critical and reflexive approach. Dominguez notes that this does not only include critically studying the practice of neuroscience, but the implications of neuroscientific knowledge as well. This knowledge, as Dominguez points out, will likely have ramifications such as political and social uses as well as influencing understandings individuals have of their own behavior. Dominguez also highlights how neuroanthropology can critically situate the neural bases of moral agency within broader structures. This was done by referencing the article titled “Free Will, Agency, and the Cultural, Reflexive Brain” by Steve Reyna, in which Reyna takes a critical stance on the concept of free will understood as “unrestricted action”. Reyna asserts that the concept of free will has often been used as a tool for domination by those in power, and provides a hypothetical example of free will being used to attribute responsibility and therefore punishment for the crime of theft without acknowledging causative social structures manifested in the form of poverty. Placing the neural bases of moral agency within broader structures is certainly needed, as evidenced by criminology’s (arguably one of the most closely tied fields to ethics) trend of increasingly ignoring relevant structural influences, such as class (Lynch 2015).
Dominguez provides suggestions for future directions in a neuroanthropology of ethics. Drawing from one of the cornerstones of neuroanthropology, the embedding of neuroscientific research in ethnographic fieldwork, Dominguez suggests examining how ethical subjectivities are formed and how they are expressed in ordinary social encounters. Keeping with a focus on intersubjectivity, Dominguez suggests research on the production, reproduction, and distribution of moral knowledge through brain scanning techniques during joint ethical judgment or reasoning tasks while taking into consideration relevant cultural scripts and conventions.
Dominguez provides ample justification for the relevance of neuroanthropology to ethics, and provides necessary insight on what has already been done in neuroanthropology that has relevance to ethics along with what can be done in the future. Ambitious research goals are proposed, such as studying how socially shared meanings and practices are represented in the brain or how the brain processes cultural experiences, along with research goals anthropologists are likely more comfortable with, such as critically examining the production of neuroscientific knowledge or the intersubjective nature of the ethical subject. It will be interesting to see further development in a neuroanthropology of ethics, especially in light of the increasing interest the field of anthropology has in ethics and morality, an interest that has brought along with it critiques of how anthropology should even go about studying this (one example is the objection made by Csordas (2013) regarding the study of morality as a distinct cultural system).
Csordas, T. J. (2013). Morality as a cultural system?. Current Anthropology, 54(5), 523-546.
Domínguez D, J. F. (2015). Toward a neuroanthropology of ethics: Introduction. Handbook of Neuroethics, 289-298.
Lynch, M. J. (2015). The classlessness state of criminology and why criminology without class is rather meaningless. Crime, Law and Social Change, 63(1-2), 65-90.
by Jessica Muzzo
In her article Emotions: You Can Feel the Difference, Carol M. Worthman draws a clear separation from Enlightenment ideals of a feeling/thought dichotomy by asking the question, “what if feeling and thought operate synergistically in much of experience and behavior?” She takes it a step further even, to suggest that this synergy might be essential to information processing and perception. In contemplating this question, she makes use of the studies regarding stress and emotion, showing how culture-laden emotional processing is rooted in a complex interplay of biological and environmental factors. Variation in experience both spawns from and creates physical and developmental situations.
According to Worthman, most sensory processing takes place in the emotion-centered preconscious structures, the limbic system and the thalamus. Emotions are crucial to the preconscious cognitive functions by directing attention and shaping memories through prioritization. The limbic system (the amygdala, hippocampus and associated hormones) are linked both to learning (memory storage) and emotion, thereby affecting what and how things are remembered. Emotion, connecting both conscious and unconscious functions, directs our selective attention by applying significance to sensory inputs. In this way, emotions play a significant role in the construction of meaning.
Worthman points out that studying the effects of this cognitive-emotional liability requires an analysis of the developmental niche, and must consider corporeal and cognitive dimensions. Our physical being regulates individual-environmental interaction as it modulates how our physical and social environments react to us, thereby affecting the situations and experiences we are exposed to. This interactive model accounts for individual variation within a single culture. Under the direction of this model, biology can be seen as the “predisposing factors” that combine with situational risk factors to produce a wide array of outcomes. In dealing with emotional disruptions, such as depression, our society employs both clinical treatment plans (to address the biological components) and public health campaigns (to address the social dimensions).
Our biological predisposition to emotion is termed temperament, and is assumed to be an innate characteristic observable in children. Kagan and colleagues studied “reactive-inhibited” (easily excitable) behavior in young children. He found certain physiological correlates related to reactive personalities, such as high heart rate, low vagal tone and exaggerated cortisol response. Suomi and colleagues established similar physical correlates in rhesus monkeys. They also determined that high-reactive individuals are more greatly affected by their developmental environment than are their low-reactive counterparts. From these rhesus monkey studies, we can conclude that genetic inheritance can influence individual reactivity, and that early experience produces long-term effects under particular conditions and in conjunction with particular temperaments.
This leads us directly to a discussion of the embodied individual-environmental relationship and how it affects health and longevity. For instance, it’s been known that perceived stress can effectively depletes immune response. When investigating reactions to the Loma Prieto eathquake, researchers found that in situations of low parental impact from the earthquake, kindergarten entry produced no significant difference in illness frequency. However, when parents were heavily impacted by the earthquake, high-reactive children saw an increase in illness and low-reactive children saw a decrease in illness. The perceived stress of the children was differentially reacted to, depending on the child’s personal, innate characteristics.
In addition, Worthman shows how hostility and hardship relate to one another. Hostility, in this case, is defined as “a set of negative attitudes, beliefs and appraisal of others” and connotes feelings of being mistreated, frustrated or provoked. This has been related to increased cardiac stress and increased sympathetic activation. Hostility has also been associated consistently and negatively with socioeconomic status.
Worthman sums up her article with a call for more cross-cultural reactivity studies in order to answer such questions as, are there places where high-reactive individuals fare poorly, and others where they fare favorably? She states that cross-cultural understanding of this complex interplay of emotional/reactionary states is lacking, and poses this as one of the primary limitations to the study. She also claims that the inability to develop a causal explanation is a limitation, a statement I disagree with. Neuroanthropology frames itself around an understanding of complexity in that one-to-one ratios are nonexistent. In this endeavor, we must satisfy ourselves with finding correlations and probabilities since a host of factors are constantly interacting to affect the outcome.
Worthman, C. M. (1999). Emotions: You can feel the difference. In Hinton, A., ed. Biocultural Approaches to the Emotions, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 41-74.
by Catherine Manson
Benjamin Campbell’s article covers how the notions of vitality may affect the ideas and feelings of satisfaction in the lives of men in East Africa. The men studied by Campbell were from a subsistence society identified as the Ariaal in Northern Kenya. This study only looks at the men in subsistence societies because of the issues in eliminating how the difference in men and women could affect the results. These issues are stemmed through the differences in sex steroids, estrogen and testosterone, and the sexual dimorphism between males and females. The hypothesis behind this study is that stimuli, in this case testosterone, affect the embodiment of how men perceive vitality. Embodiment is explained throughout the article as the cognition of an individual based on the personal experiences of the body; although Campbell offers that embodiment can be varied in definition.
Campbell states that he began the study expecting to see results conclusive to embodiment of positive or negative experience based on levels of testosterone. The preconceived notion of higher levels of testosterone correlating to health benefits was one factor in identifying testosterone as a cause of positive embodiment. In the section “Testosterone and Vitality” it is stated “…testosterone promotes red blood cell production (Shahidi, 1973, Molinari, 1982), increasing oxygen delivery to all tissues (not just muscle) and promoting their functioning”. Campbell briefly compares the testosterone levels of males in subsistence and non-subsistence societies; stating that, although males in subsistence societies have lower testosterone levels overall, they have a smaller decrease in their lifetime. While studying the Ariaal men and taking testosterone tests through saliva, Campbell also did genetic testing on the participants. The genes were tested for two alleles that could give the participants predispositions toward positive or negative feelings. The first gene tested for was DRD2, which is related to dopamine receptors; the second was Taq1 A1+, related to substance abuse. The men were grouped in ages of 10 (30, 40, 50, 60+) and also asked questions from the WHOQOL. To gain a cross comparison perspective on the Ariaal men, tests were run on nomadic men of Ariaal and settled men of Turkana. The Turkana are very similar to the Ariaal and were used to compare the embodied satisfaction of energy, emotion, and libido.
In addition to studying the levels of testosterone in the Ariaal and Turkana men, Campbell touches on the problems of embodiment based on the ideas of what gives men vitality. Citing from Weston La Barre’s Muelos: A Stone Age Superstition about Sexuality (1984), he describes the preconceived concepts that all societies have about men’s vitality. He argues that such preconceptions make it much more difficult to ask questions on vitality to the Ariaal men participating in the study. The ideas that the Ariaal have about vitality stem from observations they have made about the cattle herded by the society. The Ariaal believe that the brain, spine and penis are interconnected as one, giving men vitality. This belief equates the brain and semen in giving vitality to men. Campbell lists multiple other cultures with similar beliefs. He states that these ideas make it nearly impossible to have purely empirical data when studying men’s vitality and embodiment.
Campbell concludes that the research done is not entirely finished and that to complete the entire study would be very difficult. He states that in order to have a fully conclusive research study would need brain scans of the Ariaal men, which is not completely feasible in the present. Campbell also concludes that the misconceptions about male vitality within the community cannot be extracted from the existing embodiment of the participant. Therefore, you must also run additional exams and tests to account for such results.
The strengths of this article are asserted mainly in introducing the difficulties and additional questions that arose during his studies on the Ariaal and Turkana. Campbell’s recognition of the necessity of further research on how embodiment is perceived in context to male vitality is excellent. He cites many cultural studies involving the belief in Muelos and further explains how these beliefs can affect the beliefs about vitality in men. Campbell also discusses the difficulties in gathering data from the WHOQOL, or World Health Organization Quality of Life questionnaire, can also be flawed. Such as the necessity of over simplification of the questions asked. The weaknesses in this article and study can be seen as a lack of ability to complete the study on the Ariaal and Turkana. Which also affects his ability to give a clear conclusion on his data findings, which is also lacking in the article.
Lend, Daniel H., Greg Downey (2012-08-24). The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (237-259). The MIT Press.
by Edward Quinn
The society in which we live is characterized by hierarchy, and in the context of our topic for this week, it is interesting to consider how the very structure of our society might be embodied. Does our place in the social hierarchy "get under the skin" and affect individual physiology? How does social status impact our everyday interactions at the level of the nervous system? In their article, "Person perception and autonomic nervous system response: The costs and benefits of possessing a high social status," Cloutier et al. (2012) attempt to isolate the physiological effect of evaluating another person's social status. Of course, we might guess that the effect would depend not just on the social status of the person being evaluated, but also the social status of the person doing the evaluating. Considering the Worthman (1999) reading we did this week, how do you think the emotional tagging of incoming sensory information might shift when we perceive someone to be of higher or lower status relative to ourselves?
These are the sorts of questions Cloutier et al. (2012) set out to answer. In a study with 40 male undergraduates from the University of Chicago, the researchers tested autonomic nervous system activity in response to presentation with faces of varying social status. The social status of each face was indicated by the background color on which the picture of the face was superimposed. All participants were trained to associate particular colors with a particular social status (low, medium, and high). While viewing these faces, electrocardiographic and impedance cardiography data were collected to measure heart rate variability (HRV) and the pre-ejection period (PEP). HRV was used as a measure of parasympathetic nervous system activity, while PEP was used as a measure of sympathetic nervous system activity. Together these measures were used as indexes of activity in the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems). The researchers also collected information on the subjective financial status of each participant, to see how this affected autonomic response to viewing someone of high, low, or medium social status.
The HRV data (which extrapolates to parasympathetic nervous system activity) showed that response to faces and associated social status depended on the subjective financial status of the perceiver. High subjective financial status participants showed a negative change in parasympathetic activity when viewing faces of medium or high status, but not low status. A decrease in parasympathetic activity has previously been associated with stressful circumstances, so the researchers suggest that for a person of high status, it may be the prospect of competition or threat to one's social status that induces the decrease in parasympathetic activity when viewing faces of medium- and high-status. The researchers interpret this as a "cost" of having high subjective financial status.
The PEP data (which extrapolates to sympathetic nervous system activity) also showed that response to faces and associated social status depended on the subjective financial status of the perceiver. High subjective financial status participants showed a decrease in sympathetic response when viewing low- and medium-status faces, but not high-status faces. An increase in sympathetic activity has been associated with challenges or threats, so a decrease in sympathetic may indicate security or self-confidence. Indeed, the researchers interpret the PEP data as an indication that high subjective status participants feel self-confident and secure when presented with low- and medium-status faces, but not high-status faces.
All of the usual criticisms of psychology apply to this study. The participants were all young undergraduates, and are not a representative sample of any population. Experimental conditions did a poor job of reflecting cultural realities, as social status was depicted with a background color, and not with all the things that actually convey social status in real life (material goods, accents, etc.). Standard criticisms aside, I think you have to start somewhere, and this is a good start to the investigation of how social status is embodied. Neuroanthropologists could build on this sort of work by asking people what the cues of social status are in their particular cultural context. Perhaps these locally meaningful cues might have more of an impact on the nervous system when incorporated into an experimental design than passive presentations of background colors. Better yet, neuroanthropologists might combine the collection of autonomic data using portable technology with naturalistic observations of people as they move throughout the day, interacting with people of varying social status. These are the types of data (ethnographic, naturalistic, etc.) neuroanthropologists should aim to gather in their research. Combinations of such data will lead to new understandings of the enculturation of the nervous system and demonstrate the value of a neuroanthropological perspective.
Cloutier, J., Norman, G. J., Li, T., & Berntson, G. G., 2013. Person perception and autonomic nervous system response: The costs and benefits of possessing a high social status. Biological Psychology, 92, pp.301-305.
Worthman, C.M., 1999. Emotions: You can feel the difference. Hinton, A. Biocultural Approaches to the Emotions, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp.41-74.
This blog is group authored by Dr. DeCaro and the students in his ANT 474/574: Neuroanthropology.