The Encultured Brain: A Book Review
How biology and culture jointly define us.
Anyone who follows academia knows that the broad category of courses known as the Liberal Arts has been going through major changes for some time now. In a sort of collegiate scrum to prove relevance and fund-worthiness, disciplines like sociology, anthropology, human ecology, cultural psychology, and even English, have been subjected to a winnowing process. The clear winner seems to anthropology, which has expanded its own field by connecting with modern findings in neuroscience while simultaneously swallowing up what was left of sociology.
It makes sense. Take addiction for an example. Anthropology is a natural and accessible discipline within which to connect the two often-conflicting facets of addiction—its fundamental neuroarchitecture, and the socioenvironmental influences that shape this basic biological endowment. In The Encultured Brain, published this year by MIT Press, co-editors Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey call for a merger of anthropology and brain science, offering ten case histories of how that might be accomplished. The case histories are lively, ranging from the somatics of Taijutsu martial arts in Japan, to the presence of humor among breast cancer survivors. These attempts to combine laboratory research with anthropological fieldwork are important early efforts at a new combinatory science—one of the hot new “neuros” that just might make it.
I have corresponded with Daniel Lende, one of the book’s co-editors, and I am happy to disclose a mention in the book’s acknowledgements as one of the many people who formed a “rolling cloud of online discussion” with respect to neuroscience and the new anthropology. I am pleased to see that the thoughts of Lende and Downey and others on the emerging science of neuroanthropology are now available as a textbook.
The term “neuroanthropology” was evidently coined by Stephen Jay Gould. A number of prominent thinkers have dipped into this arena over the years: Melvin Konner, Sarah Hrdy, Norman Cousins, Robert Sapolsky, and Antonio Damasio, to name a random few, but the term didn’t seem to get a foothold of note until Lende and Downey began their Neuroanthropology blog, now at PLOS blogs.
The term has the advantage of meaning exactly what it says: an engagement between social science and neuroscience. Lende and Downey look ahead to a time when field-ready equipment will measure nutritional intake, cortisol levels, prenatal conditions, and brain development in the field. As such, neuroanthropology fits somewhere in the vicinity of evolutionary biology and cultural psychology. As a potential new synthesis, it is brilliant and challenging, representing an integrative approach to that ancient problem—how our genetic endowment is influenced by our cultural endowment, or vice versa, if you prefer.
Lende is no functionalist when it comes to the neuroscience he wants to see incorporated in anthropology. His approach calls for applying a critical eye to any and all strictly brain-based explanations that ignore both environmental influence and biochemical individuality. The possibility that anthropologists may be incorporating neuroimaging technology into their working tool kit is a heady notion indeed. Anthropology may be a “soft” science, but it has always been about the study of “brains in the wild.”
Here, from the introductory chapter, is the short definition of neuroanthropology by Lende and Downey: “Forms of enculturation, social norms, training regimens, ritual, language, and patterns of experience shape how our brains work and are structured…. Without material change in the brain, learning, memory, maturation, and even trauma could not happen…. Through systematic change in the nervous system, the human body learns to orchestrate itself. Cultural concepts and meanings become neurological anatomy.” From the point of view of actual study, there is no choice but to join these two when possible—a task make more difficult by the rampant “biophilia” found among anthropologists and sociologists, as well as the countering notion among biologists that anthropology does not make the cut as a “real” science.
We have come a long way from the simplified view of the brain as some sort of solid-state computer, or, alternatively, a lump of custard waiting to be endowed with functionality by selective pressures from “outside.” We know by now that neural resources are frequently reallocated; that “physiological processes from scaling to connectivity shape what brains can do and why.” We need to stop viewing culture as “merely information that is transmitted over evolutionary time and recognize that enculturation is, equally, the ways that our interaction with each other shapes our biological endowment, and has been doing so for a very long time,” Lende writes.
At bottom, says Lende, it is a simple notion: “Biology and culture jointly define us.” For example, Lende points to the way tool use affects cortical organization. Monkeys trained to use rakes to fetch food “evidence increasing cortex dedicated to visual-tactile neurons.” Lende wants us to incorporate neuroscience into the broader study of man. He writes that “the activation of neural reward centers, such as the mesolimbic dopaminergic system, is inherently bound up in sociocultural contexts, social interactions, and personal meaning-making.”
As an example, Lende contributes a chapter on “Addiction and Neuroanthropology,” in which he describes research he conducted on drug abuse among young people during a decade he spent in Colombia. Lende found that the addictive spiral “was not merely a neurological transformation, but a shift in habits, clothing, friends, hangouts, and other external factors that re-cued drug seeking behavior, drove addicts to take drugs, even when the young people sought to stay clean. Addiction is not simply in the brain, but in the way that the addict’s brain and world support each other.” And now, he writes, “This combination of neuroscience and ethnography revealed that addiction is a problem of involvement, not just of pleasure or of self. That decade showed me that addiction is profoundly neuroanthropological.”
In other words, tolerance and withdrawal aren’t enough. It is fiendishly complex: “The parts of the brain where addiction happens are not single, isolated circuits—rather, these areas handle emotion, memory, and choice, and are complexly interwoven to manage the inherent difficult of being a social self in a dynamic world.”
Trying to pick apart the relative influences of nature and nurture comes to look, ultimately, like a fool’s game, “because changes in behavior exposed users to situations in which specific neurophysiological effects were cued with greater frequency; both environment and biology were moving together into a cycle of addiction.”
In a chapter titled “Collective Excitement and Lapse in Agency: Fostering an Appetite for Cigarettes," Peter G. Stromberg of the University of Tulsa argues that the dissociative environment in which college students often try cigarettes for the first time can lead to the loss of “the sense of agency,” meaning that people sometimes carry out activities without taking full responsibility for the decision to do so. As Stromberg writes, “Early smoking experiences typically occur in effervescent social gatherings marked by a high level of excitement and highly rhythmic activities, such as conversation and dancing." Cigarettes acquire a “symbolic valence” in such settings, and the ability to handle a cigarette adroitly confers what Stromberg terms “erotic prestige.” Furthermore, “As anyone who has ever been in a conga line can attest, we humans can be strongly motivated to entrain with rhythmic activities, even if those activities might be judged as unappealing in other contexts.”
If young people smoke at parties for many of the same reasons that they dance at parties—a “desire to increase status” and enter into “joint rhythmic play”—then potential nicotine addicts will be gently nudged into a position of associating party feelings with cigarette feelings, regardless of the actual physiology of nicotine. And, by fostering a dissociative mode of consciousness, college parties help foster the conviction that the use of cigarettes is not completely under one’s volitional control (“I was going to leave, but we danced all night.” Or, “the next thing I knew, the pack was empty”). The smoker may falsely attribute these feelings to the direct effect of the drug, rather than the set and setting.
This is only one example of the many ways in which a combination of neurobiology and anthropology can lead to new questions and fresh approaches. Where might all this be heading? “As research continues,” write Lende and Downey, “greater recognition of neural diversity as a fundamental part of human variation will surely become an even more substantive part of the neuroanthropological approach.”