Brains in the Wild: Update from the AAAs

I recently had the opportunity to attend the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) 111th Annual Conference in San Francisco, and one of the session topics focused on neuroanthropology: ‘Brains in the Wild: The Challenges of Neuroanthropology.’

I would like to share the content of this session – including papers by Daniel Lende, Jeffrey Snodgrass, Sarah Mahler, and Greg Downey – and outline the researchers’ main message concerning current and future scholarship in this very new field.

Daniel Lende (University of South Florida) Habits and Society: Where Brain and Practice Meet

Lende’s main message is that when it comes to the relationship between culture and biology, “it’s complicated,” and he suggests that a biocultural approach is the first step toward unraveling this complex area.  What we’re observing essentially is a snapshot of human behavior, and we need to get out of this stable and bounded disposition by taking a multifactorial approach with holistic anthropology.  In other words, “How can we imagine this without seeing culture as a simple layer on top of biology?”

The answer, he suggests, is developing a processual ethnography of everyday life: living up to our expectations as ethnographers but understanding where science can fit in to illuminate how biology is mediated by this behavior, and how it in turn shapes it.  Therefore, what is needed is the development of neuroanthropological theory, and Lende exemplifies this with his research on addiction.

Addiction is a cultural problem with many layers.  For example, drug use is social and the experience is shaped collectively.  Essentially, no single person picks up the crack pipe or a needle and instantly becomes a drug addict.  The particular characteristics of addiction to any substance are the product of learned, shared experiences among a group of users, with some more knowledgeable than others.  From this perspective, drug use is intentional whether the user wants to get high or feels guilty about it, and life becomes organized around use such that it assembles a structure of meaning and ritualization.

Lende outlines the ritualization of drug use among his study population:

  1. Ambivalence: to use or not to use?
  2. Seeking: Increased desire that ultimately enforces the decision to use.
  3. Preparing: Once the decision is made attention becomes focused on making it a reality.
  4. Use: subjective shift from everyday life to the microniche of a user.
  5. Return to ambivalence: to use or not to use?

What ties together these cyclical elements is that the particulars of addiction are relative to a certain population, but the biological elements are characteristic of humans, and both culture and biology are fused together by ritualization.  In other words, subjective experience provides the linking content wherein the user shifts from ambivalence to seeking.

So what neuroanthropologists are faced with is this complicated problem of biology and culture that must be taken seriously.  Adopting a processual ethnography of everyday life to analyses must be taken seriously, as it dynamically captures a snapshot of human behavior, and neuroanthropologists are faced with the task of building explanations and theories to explain ‘how.’

Sarah Mahler (Florida International University) Re-Approaching Ritual with Neuroanthropology

Mahler begins by discussing that while complicated, it is possible to render the most complex notions, intelligible.  No one is born belonging, she argues, and each individual has to learn to belong because infants aren’t born socially integrated.  Enculturation is a major area of interest largely ignored in anthropology from the 1970s to the early 2000s, but there is a noticeable return to childhood and enculturation studies in recent years.  Mahler suggests the most appropriate means of examining enculturation is from a multidisciplinary perspective.

Mahler’s focus for this paper is two types of enculturating rituals: rituals of belonging, such as everyday life in infancy, and changes in belonging, like rites of passage.  Human life is patterned, and infants arrive with the ability to detect these patterns, though they are born without any.  Infants make inferences to higher-order patterns, even those that come from single experiences, and accordingly, these embodied categories become learned (or at least expressed) first.  Humans learn through interaction because we are social, and babies’ social interaction with caregivers in everyday routines and rituals actually shape (and become embodied in) brain circuitry.  Therefore, the overarching pattern of enculturation is that categorical thinking in addition to repetition builds neurological connections.

The question Mahler poses, is where anthropologists impact this investigatory endeavor?  The way she illustrates culture can be seen as a ‘culture as comfort’ perspective, in that rites of passage manage comfort and discomfort: the individual becomes separated and marginalized from their social groups until this ritual rite of passage, when they not only become reincorporated to the group, but different ways of thinking within it.  Despite all that is learned in infancy, every adult suffers infant amnesia, which is the fact that we can never remember actually learning cultural knowledge, but demonstrate through our behavior that we clearly know it.  Anthropologists are certainly involved even if their contributions have gone largely unrecognized, and their interrelated analyses of knowledge, behavior, biology, and health outcomes afford incalculable avenues through which their impact can be felt.

Jeffrey Snodgrass (Colorado State University) Environmental Displacement and Human Resilience in Central India: Religion and Mind-Body Health Connections

Snodgrass just returned from his field site in Kuna-Palpur, India, where a population of genetically and socially similar people are being removed from their native land to create a lion sanctuary.  This removal of over 5,000 people was supervised by the state, but Snodgrass was particularly curious how the event and the state-provided compensation impacted their relocation.

Snodgrass assumes a biocultural perspective and employs mixed methods to examine a number of cultural and biological factors including cortisol measurements, medical exams, perceived stress/wellbeing, sources of resilience like religion, etc.  His results indicate that displaced populations have higher levels of cortisol overall, and point to subjective wellbeing scales as decreasing after religious rituals.  Essentially, religion provides that level of resilience through which stress, depression, and anxiety are positively moderated.

Snodgrass does a good job of showing how displacement leads to stress and compromised health, but religion serves as a source of resilience, because religion itself is resilient.  The purpose of neuroanthropology, therefore, is to use rigorous, empirical methods to challenge often cherished themes in anthropology.

Greg Downey (Macquarie University) A Brain-Shaped Culture

Downey returns to a classical argument in more philosophical wings of anthropology, inquiring as to how the concept of self varies cross-culturally.  Citing the book Culture Theory: Essays of Mind, Self, and Emotion by Shweder and LeVine (1984), he touches on classic scholarship surrounding the issue.  Anthropologists are credited with sparking initial interest in the topic, with the main discussion revolving around whether conceptions of self exist independent or interdependently.  Psychology has also delved into this area of interest, and Downey argues that for anthropologists to “make themselves sexy to psychology”  will require testable hypotheses.  Anthropology is prepared to do this because surrounding disciplines are equally recognizing the need to incorporate more developed, anthropological conceptions of culture.

Neuroanthropology benefits from the fact that the brain is mapped, and neuroscientists are prepared to receive questions about culture.  Cultural anthropologists have a lot to lose by sitting on the sidelines and screaming “Reductionism!”, because any conceptualization of culture needs to be systems-specific.  This is essentially the idea of habitus, or the embodiment of structural forces.  Anthropologists can make further contributions to this endeavor by bringing ethnological, comparative, and holistic perspectives to the equation, as well as trashing the separation of culture and biology as meaningful.  Downey’s main point is that no longer should anthropologists focus on subtle differences, but instead examine how these differences and variances are a product of culture.


What is it that these articles all share?  Or more succinctly, what is the overarching message that the authors convey?  In the true spirit of anthropology, each author deals with culturally-shaped aspects of peoples’ lives: Lende with addiction, Mahler with enculturation, religion as resilience for Snodgrass, and conceptualizations of self for Downey.  These clearly fit within broader, classic themes in anthropology, but what about their approach makes these analyses markedly ‘neuroanthropological’?

The most obvious message is Lende’s call for neuroanthropological theory, much of which is situated within the biocultural paradigm.  In fact, each author’s investigation adopts this approach: Lende explores how the human capacity for addiction is shaped by social groups for whom substance abuse may be central, while Mahler is interested in how universal human enculturation differentially shapes peoples’ adult knowledge.  Similarly, Snodgrass demonstrates how cultural events can be both stressful and serve as means of resilience, and Downey inquires how culture shapes even the most subtle biological differences.

All their efforts share an explicit intention of rejecting classic distinctions between biology and culture in exchange for one that fuses the two, and human behavior, especially ritual, is proposed as a way to link them.  Furthermore, collective knowledge and norms which direct behavior need to be examined to answer ‘why’ people behave a certain way, such as seeking illegal substances to feed an addiction because it is socially acceptable to a group of addicts, even though it may be stigmatized outside of such a group.  So neuroanthropologists’ task is to develop theoretical notions that recognize how universal human potential is shaped relative to their particular stations in life.

Consensus is also reached with respect to how anthropologists can make their voices heard, and the first step is multifactorial, interdisciplinary research.  One of the most important suggestions is to not fear science, but embrace it.  Many anthropologists shun scientifically-driven interpretations for yielding nothing more than biological reductionism, but neuroanthropology is in such a position that anthropology’s high regard for Culture and more qualitative, ethnologic methods serve as a buffer to examine how universal human patterns unfold relative to the people affected.  For example, Downey illustrates how advances among neuroscientists doesn’t just benefit biocultural anthropologists, but also the neuroscientists, who have reached a point where they are prepared to look at culture, and interdisciplinary work affords the opportunity for experts to collaborate productively.

Overall, the main message is to be critical of what has been done in anthropology and related disciplines.  Don’t assume that something is true just because a researcher said it is.  Foucault long ago revealed the fallibility of truth and its relation to power, and the neuroanthropologist’s task has to focus on how we can revisit age-old themes in anthropology and provide a fresh perspective, carved out of contemporary, biocultural, interdisciplinary, and multifactorial neuroanthropological theory.