A Review of This Week’s Readings on the Methods of Neuroanthropology

While I do believe anthropology is one of the most useful and applicable majors out there, I have personally crossed paths with many potential employers who do not share my enthusiasm for the discipline. Whether it is a misunderstanding of the mission or applicability of anthropology, our discipline has people scratching their heads. For the record, anthropologists do not dig up dinosaurs or steal artifacts from ancient and cursed tombs (anymore). I believe that both articles discussed today, Lynn et al. (2014) and Seligman and Brown (2010), turn that head scratching into a knoggin’ knocking “why didn’t I think of that!?” The public has to acknowledge the usefulness of a biocultural approach in understanding the “encultured brain” as Lende and Downey (2012) so aptly put it. Every person loves to hear how special they are. What could be more incising to humanity than describing the intricacies of our big brains and the ways in which our biology influences our culture and vice versa.

Cartoon by Gary Larsen, accessed through www.scienceinseconds.com
Cartoon by Gary Larsen, accessed through www.scienceinseconds.com

Seligman and Brown (2010) focus on the niche construction of cultural neuroscience and how anthropology and social cognitive neuroscience are uniquely capable of combining to answer questions dealing with social construction of emotion, cultural psychiatry, and embodiment of ritual. This article really got me pumped for all of the applications of neuroanthropology whereas Lynn et al. (2014) made me envious of the opportunities awaiting current and future undergraduate students. This latter article focuses on how one might train an army of undergraduate students and prepare them for a future in neuroanthropology. Both of these articles presented me with new and improved methodologies that can be utilized in situ when completing fieldwork. Technologies that measure health and wellness are becoming more portable and affordable. As we know, it is not easy to replicate cultural contexts in a lab. One concern, however, did pop into my head. Seligman and Brown mainly use the term cultural neuroscience whereas Lynn et al. uses the term neuroanthropology. In a fledgling field, it seems to me of the utmost importance to have some agreed upon terms and conditions. Still, I am sure a Sherwood Washburn will come along in time to define neuroanthropology’s past and clearly declare the direction of its future.

A concept of great interest to me, and mentioned in both articles, is dissociation. This interest led me to an article on depersonalization disorder (DPD). Depersonalization can be described as a loss of self. As Adler et al. (2014) puts it, people experience “unreality, detachment, or being an outside observer with respect to one’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, body, etc.” (230). DPD may also involve derealization in which people’s experiences seem surreal and illusionary. Patients often list disruptions in cognitive functioning as a primary symptom of DPD. Adler et al. uses the “Spatial Cueing Paradigm” to assess whether DPD affects the mechanisms behind selective spatial attention. They hypothesize that differences in the selective spatial attention between DPD subjects and control subjects would be magnified during difficult tasks. Response times (RTs) were measured for valid, neutral, and invalid cue trails and RT benefits, RT costs, and total attention directing effect calculated. Then, a discrimination condition was presented in which the subject had to distinguish between two different types of events. They were asked only to respond to the “target.” A total attention directing effect was exhibited by all participants and the only marked differences between DPD patients and healthy participants were present in the high-demand condition. In short, the amount of brainpower a situation calls for affects the attention.

Figure 2 from Adler et al. (2014) that illustrates the valid cuing condition.
Figure 2 from Adler et al. (2014)  illustrating the valid cuing condition.
Figure 3 from Adler et al. (2014) demonstrating the targets of  different conditions.
Figure 3 from Adler et al. (2014) demonstrating the targets of different conditions.

One thought on “A Review of This Week’s Readings on the Methods of Neuroanthropology”

  1. As a class, we’ve had many discussions about the efficacy of phenomenological methodologies. Phenomenology is a useful tool for many neuroanthropologists because, as we know, the brain is a product of genetics, epigenetics, the environment, and past experiences. With so many factors shaping “who we are,” so to speak, it becomes difficult to quantify human experiences. Still, it needs to be said that phenomenology cannot and be the only methods used in this type of research. Neuroanthropology is a cross-disciplinary field of study and therefore a mixed methods approach is essential to comprehensive research.

    Like most anthropological research, data is often collected in the field. Methods should thus be described as 90% logistics. My research proposal deals with the logistics of measuring salivary cortisol levels three times a month for 6 months for 50 undergraduate students studying abroad in China. I will have to figure out what company to use for collecting and testing salivary cortisol, as well as how to persuade my participants to follow an intensive research game plan when they are busy traveling and studying. How will I store the samples? How can I ship them back to the US? Methods are simple, but logistics never are.

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