Review: Neuroanthropology or Simple Anthropology? Going Experimental as Method, as Object of Study, and as Research Aesthetic
by Kaitlyn May
In this article, the authors argue that though neuroanthropology is typically thought of as a new field, in reality it is simply a new way of approaching traditional anthropology. As such, the authors argue that neuroanthropology should not be thought of as separate from traditional anthropology.
Using previous calls for cultural neurophenomenology, “a neural theory of culture and a cultural theory of the brain,” as the backbone of their argument, the authors begin by clearly laying out the importance of understanding human experience and the effect of such experiences on the brain. The authors of this paper argue that because culture is embedded in experience. Furthermore, the interaction of experience, the brain, and culture, cannot be separated, and thus their interaction must be critically examined.
Still, neuroanthropology is challenged by the need to employ traditional neuroscience methods in a naturalistic setting. Traditional neural methods, such as fMRI and EEG, are highly constrained by the lack of mobility of the equipment and of the participant. The cumbersome equipment makes it difficult for these methodologies to be seamlessly blended into a natural environment. This starkly juxtaposes to the aims of anthropology to assimilate into a given environment without changing it in order to achieve an understanding of ‘lived experience’. Thus, the authors argue, the tension between the ideals of method and the realities of research is heightened in neuroanthropology. Still, interaction in between the two fields is critical to the advancement of not just neuroanthropology, but of research as a whole. The authors blame the lack of communication between academic departments as producing the hesitancy to interdisciplinary fields, such as neuroanthropology.
Here, the authors argue for Gallagher’s (2003) notion of front-loading concepts into an experimental design as crucial to facilitating interaction between anthropology and neuroscience. Providing multiple examples of its benefit, the authors suggest that this practice may be necessary to neuroanthropology by providing a framework to an experiment. This may help “personalize” the experimental design so that the value of personal experience is not lost in the quest to obtain scientific data. In other words, the authors argue that front-loading will not let the data be stripped of the unique experiences of the people that it was collected from. The authors conclude by emphasizing the importance of not letting experimental methodologies, like neural imaging, transform subjects into objective data points, and instead let the experiential accounts of these subjects inform the meaning of the data.
The authors end the paper by emphasizing their support of the field of neuroanthropology and arguing for a broader conceptualization of the field. The authors argue that neuroanthropology is not so much a new, hybrid field, but a sequential development of traditional anthropology. Defining neuroanthropology as its own, new field may cause those involved to neglect the knowledge, experience, and teaching that anthropology offers—both practically, in terms of methods, and conceptually, by viewing themselves as unrelated to traditional anthropology. If neuroanthropology strays too far from anthropology, it may be that it develops into a subfield of neuroscience and in doing so loses the emphasis of structuring data by understanding of human experience.
As someone within another interdisciplinary field, Educational Neuroscience, this discussion sounds all too familiar. So often the ideals of neuroscience methodology struggle to match the realities of educational practice. It seems to me that neuroanthropology is experiencing a similar conflict, and I am eager to know your thoughts on it.