Neuroscientist News provides an effective overview of the results that came out of Amit Etkin’s lab at Stanford. I’ll then add in two caveats about the characterization of the deficits and the assumed biological causation that are needed in interpreting these results. Or, to be blunt, that social causes related to how we deal with mental illness in our modern societies have as much potential to explain these common biological differences, since it’s one of the main things that these patients share in common.
But first the overview.
We tried to ask a basic question that hasn’t been asked: Is there any common biological basis for mental illness?
To address that question, he and his colleagues pooled data from 193 separate studies containing, in all, magnetic-resonance images of the brains of 7,381 patients falling into six diagnostic categories: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder and a cluster of related anxiety disorders.
Comparing the images with those from 8,511 healthy control subjects, the research team identified three separate brain structures, several centimeters apart from one another, with a diminished volume of gray matter, the brain tissue that serves to process information.
These structures — the left and right anterior insula and the dorsal anterior cingulate — are known to be parts of a larger network in the brain whose component parts tend to fire in synchrony. This network is associated with higher-level executive functions such as concentrating in the face of distractions, multitasking or task-switching, planning and decision-making, and inhibition of counterproductive impulses.
Gray matter loss in the three brain structures was similar across patients with different psychiatric conditions, the researchers found.
The abstract to the JAMA Psychiatry paper makes this same point:
Based on the voxel-based morphometry meta-analysis of 193 studies comprising 15 892 individuals across 6 diverse diagnostic groups (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety), we found that gray matter loss converged across diagnoses in 3 regions: the dorsal anterior cingulate, right insula, and left insula.
By contrast, there were few diagnosis-specific effects, distinguishing only schizophrenia and depression from other diagnoses. In the parallel follow-up analyses of the 3 independent healthy participant data sets, we found that the common gray matter loss regions formed a tightly interconnected network during tasks and at resting and that lower gray matter in this network was associated with poor executive functioning.
So what is executive function in the eyes of Etkin? What is going on with these parts of the brain?
Of late I’ve been saying that the constraints that come with applied work are useful for doing good theoretical and empirical work. Just as experimental models bring demands to the research process that can clarify methods and outcomes, so too can applied work.
I mean this point in two ways: (1) Grand theories can be grand and all, but when they are applied, reality often comes to the fore; applied anthropology can test anthropological theory in ways that most ethnographic research does not. (2) Applied work on its own requires a set of considerations that leads to useful knowledge production, a configuration of the research process that illuminates through the types of methods, evidence, and outcomes that are central to applied anthropology.
Types of Methods: Activist and community-based approaches require an active consideration of “the other” that goes well beyond normal anthropological approaches. Having research questions, ways of gathering data, and research partnerships come out of engagement with informants and communities on their own terms represents an important break with research-as-usual. Community-based work is inherently integrative and interdisciplinary, as I have argued before.
Evidence: Applied anthropologists make certain types of connections that university-based anthropologists rarely do. How can data actually reach back to the community, and not just to another peer-reviewed publication? Where is the fit between my research interests and what the community is interested in? How can this work have an impact on policy? These questions lead to the gathering of evidence on aspects of local and larger realities that are often neglected in more traditional approaches.
I learned this lesson the hard way – I did some good research on the neuroanthropology of addiction; when I went back to the field to present the results at the places where I had worked, I quickly got the question, “Great. Now what do we do with this?” I didn’t know what to say. One of the main problems, I realized, is that I had not gotten THE DATA to be able to answer that question. I should have gotten that data while I was in the field; after the fact, it was too late.
The answer to the question of What to do? didn’t magically reveal itself once I had a better understanding of addiction. I needed evidence to connect my own work to the sorts of considerations that made up the daily work and efforts of people I knew in the field. It would have been easy to get in a systematic way. So now I tell my students, Get the applied data while you’re in the field.
Outcomes: Applied work brings a refiguring and expansion of research outcomes that improves the research process. Knowing going into a project that you have to have relevant applied outcomes, whatever shape those might be, brings a set of constraints to the research that can shape the questions, methods, and evidence used. We often think in terms of academic outcomes from research – a conference presentation, a journal paper, and so forth. We need to also think in terms of applied outcomes. Here is my list of the Top Ten Ways for Anthropologists to Make a Difference, as well as Reaching a Broader Public: Five Ideas for Anthropologists.
In any research field, there is an obvious tension between the ideals of method and the realities of the research. For experiments, it is very much about control of those factors that make the experiment possible: control of the variables studied, of the technologies applied, of the experimental design. It does not take much experience as a researcher, or as a fieldworker in a laboratory setting (Latour and Woolgar 1986; Roepstorff 2001), to realize that the research process is rarely just like that. Experimental research is, it is increasingly clear, a complicated practice, a bricolage tinkering with the possible elements (Pickering 1995) to make things work (103).
Figuring out how to get an experiment to work, while at the same time attending to those factors to produce reliable knowledge from experiments, can be a creative process. So too can applied work. Returning to Roepstorff & Frith:
We need novel cases that can examine and illustrate how these factors interrelate in concrete settings. We need questions and models that can be tested in the field and in the lab, and we need to formulate potential mechanisms as a way to gain a better foothold. There may be dialectics at stake here, but the dialectics may be a matter of sending questions, approaches and models back and forth. We need to develop a metalevel discourse that can grasp what happens when experiments and concepts travel. This approach is, we argue, not neuroanthropological, it is simply anthropological. If there is a need for a specific identifier, it could be an ‘experimental anthropology’ (108).
Applied anthropology can also produce that sort of dialectics, and it can be connected into deep debates within the field. We do need a metalevel discourse, but we can also have a practical discourse when outcomes and concepts become engaged. Applied work brings a focus on how factors interrelate in concrete settings and forces a consideration of mechanisms of change. Applied work can be deeply theoretical.
Hall uses two sense of the limit to ground his research. First, he thinks through limit cases to question a given theorization. Second, he thinks at the limit to uncover what is not yet know about a particular case. The limit as research methodology has, to my mind, a very anthropological sensibility about it, since it uses empirical cases to talk back to establish categories, and at the same time, keeps newly developed conceptualizations open-ended.
As such, [post-colonial's] periodization, emphasizing as it does the colonial encounter, provides an alternative narrative of capitalist modernity that puts the peripheries at the center of a story normally told from the perspective of European modernization… The essay on the post-colonial mobilizes the idea of the limit to mean an “episteme-in-formation”, denoting an emergent relationship of power, temporality, and knowledge that both carries with it colonial ‘after-effects’ as Hall calls them, and marks a shift that reconfigures those relations.
The limits that come with applied research do the same, bringing forth an emergent relationship of power, temporality and knowledge that carries the ‘after-effects’ of earlier applied work in anthropology and a reconfiguration of those relations. It means producing knowledge that is not just for the academy’s sake, it means training students for jobs outside academia, it means asking questions that find a common ground between the researcher and people living in particular times and spaces.
Pushing this point, applied work does what Amrute covers with how case studies can reveal theoretical limits: “The importance of the limit in this sense of an empirical case that gives the lie as it were to easy theoretical positions and to political polemics.”
Knowledge About and Knowledge How
But applied limits go beyond that, because they force very concrete consideration of what engaged Stuart Hall, those case studies “through which to think more carefully about how the politics of class and of race are aligned and fractured under certain historically specific conditions.” Applied work can quickly bring the researcher right up against how social and biological realities are aligned and fractured and constructed under certain historically specific conditions. Applied work becomes a way to do theory, to “push at and delineate the limits of what is currently known.”
And there is one more way to see applied theory, not just as focusing on knowledge about things – the limits of what is currently known – but knowledge on how to do things. As I relayed earlier, I thought knowledge about addiction would magically transform itself into knowledge about how to do something about addiction. That was a big mistake. Psychology, for example, has a whole arena of applied theory that is distinct from academic theory; some of the most productive approaches in psychology fall solidly on the practitioner side (I am most familiar with motivational interviewing) and in the space between applied and academic work – the whole field of cognitive-behavioral therapy is testament to that. Anthropology has not developed its practitioner and applied side as much, but I am confident that such work will yield exciting theoretical and practical developments in the years to come.
Recognizing the productive limits for research that come from applied work proves a powerful way to think about the benefits of being applied. How-to knowledge is important, as I’ve written about before in this 2012 article with Greg Downey:
Too often researchers unfamiliar with the challenges of applied research assume that theory leads directly to application in an unproblematic fashion. Neuroanthropologists will need to advocate developing knowledge about a problem and knowledge about how to make a difference. That how-to knowledge can include applied theory, familiarity with local resources for change, and an awareness not just of a community’s needs but also what social structures might limit or appropriate any plans for a program or policy change.
But today I am as struck by how applied work as limit can make us better researchers. As I wrote in that same article, applied work can require “ongoing testing both in terms of the theory we apply and our modes to intervene to generate change in dynamic systems, because engagement will require a broader empirical basis for understanding how systems and communities function (12).” But it’s not just the testing of knowledge (another form of being critical, whether it’s empirical testing or testing our assumptions). It is generating that broader empirical basis for understanding how we create, shape and change our lives.
By Steven Folmar, Associate Professor and Associate Chair of Anthropology, Wake Forest University
On September 15 of this year, I learned from my Program Officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF) that the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology had requested the “jacket” for my NSF-funded project, “Oppression and Mental Health in Nepal.”
The jacket is an informal term that refers to all information related to a project, as specified in a Letter from Representative Lamar Smith, Chair of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, to the NSF, including:
“every e-mail, memorandum, record, note, text message, all peer reviews considered for selection and recommendations made by the research panel to the National Science Foundation (NSF), or document of any kind that pertains to the NSF’s consideration and approval of the grants…including any approved amendments.”
Because of its broad relevance to theory and practice, I was surprised that the project was selected by the Committee. Research on mental health in Nepal matters because it can help us clarify how mental health interacts with culture in a wide variety of ways. For example, mental health appears to be positively correlated with a strong sense of spirituality. Understanding how the two are actually linked is crucial. By providing new ideas and information, the research in Nepal can help improve knowledge and treatment of psychiatric problems in ways that will improve the mental health of our own citizens.
I treated my Program Officer’s call to me as a heads up only; my project was scientifically sound, but I needed to be aware that the project might turn up in unexpected places and that I might be contacted by reporters. I was advised to inform the News and Communications Office of my university (Wake Forest) of the Committee’s request, so that they could advise me if need be.
Shortly thereafter, I started receiving communications from outside Wake. A smattering of friends and associates told me they had seen the news that I was one of the PIs (principal investigators) of NSF grants under the Committee’s scrutiny. I welcomed their support.
I also appreciated the American Psychological Association for writing to my co-PI, Dr. Lisa Kiang, a psychologist, to offer whatever assistance they could. My colleague and president of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, Dr. Mary Cameron, reached out in the same manner. I hope that other organizations of which I am a member, such as the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology, will also express their support.
Reporter Jeffry Mervis of the Association for the Advancement of Science interviewed me for an article, Battle between NSF and House science committee escalates, which he published on October 2 in the News section of Science. I was given the opportunity to explain my reaction to being one of TheNSF50. My project was one of 30 jackets demanded at the time; 20 others were included in a previous request.
Mervis wrote about my project:
The 3-year, $160,000 award supported [Folmar] and two colleagues in a study of how social status affects the mental health of Nepalese adolescents. Folmar has worked on and off in Nepal since 1979, and he says the country’s economic and cultural divisions are so striking that it’s an ideal place to measure the impact of discrimination on those in the lowest caste.
Folmar says that his first reaction after hearing that his grant had been singled out was to hunker down and keep quiet. “I felt like somebody in a war movie, with bullets whizzing over my head.” But after further reflection, he thinks that speaking up may not be such a bad idea.
“I’d tell [Smith] that our work has a great deal of relevance to this country,” he says. Measuring how social inequality can cause depression and anxiety is valuable information for U.S. public health officials, too, he explains, noting that some Nepalese victims display symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder.
The project was a bargain, he adds. The grant covered several months of field work by three senior researchers and their graduate students, he notes, “all for about $50,000 a year. That’s pretty cheap science.”
What This Research Tackles
Here I want to expand on why the Oppression and Mental Health (OMH) project matters. OMH-Nepal is a number of years in the making. I began doing research for my doctoral dissertation in anthropology at Case Western Reserve University on how fertility changed under conditions of “modernization” in caste-Hindu society in Nepal. In 1991 I updated that research, and returned again to Nepal in 2000, when I began to look at how oppression operated in Nepal.
Since then I have traveled to Nepal more than a dozen times and have increasingly focused on the people at the bottom of the caste system, who are called Dalits. The caste system is a complex social structure with castes ranked hierarchically and semi-bounded by ritual practice and rules that discourage marrying people of other castes. The most difficult aspect of the caste system for Dalits is that it is very difficult to move up, especially for those who are in the lowest positions.
In 2001 I visited the tourism village of Sirubari, which offered cultural programming from the Gurung ethnic group for tourists. The traditional style wedding music offered by members of one of the Dalit castes formed a significant part of the cultural offerings in Sirubarai. Here is one example of this type of music, much as a tourist might experience it.
I became interested in how the Dalit contributed to the local tourist economy and what they gained. Here is the oversimplified summary of what I learned over several trips to Nepal: the contribution was much and the benefit insignificant.
So I began to ask broader questions about Dalits in this area of Nepal: How do they and others perceive being Dalit? In what ways are Dalits talked about and treated? What are their living conditions like? Are things like family, opportunity and discrimination changing for Dalits?
The more I looked into the daily lives of the least privileged people in Nepal, the more apparent it became that the psychological burden of their social status must be great. That is why I began orienting my research more toward questions of the mind, especially psychological suffering. I asked them about dukkha, a term commonly translated as “suffering,” which the Dalit peoples experience and talk about rather freely.
Dukkha is quite a broad ranging concept. A person might apologize that he caused dukkha for someone who made tea for him. Or he could complain that his hardscrabble life was the cause of much dukkha (worry, sorrow, mental anguish, all wrapped up as one), which is the type I focus on.
In the NSF project, alongside the research on how social status affects mental health, we also examine how identity affects that relationship. I conceive of identity as a cognitive orientation toward status, a way of thinking about it. On the extremes this sense of status could be viewed as either an immutable, innate substance, an identity that is impossible to change, or alternatively as something constructed by society and mutable. There are similar dynamics with identity and status in the United States, where ideas about identity can impact rich and poor, racial and ethnic groups, immigrants, and even people with mental health diagnoses like autism, schizophrenia, or addiction.
Why This Research Matters
This research is in the national interest, one of the concerns expressed by Congressman Lamar Smith, Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology in his communications with NSF (complete correspondence here).
Logically speaking, we would expect that people at the bottom of the social ladder would suffer more mental angst (dukkha) than those at the top. This point takes reality in government statistics in Nepal and in research conducted there and elsewhere. The relationship is not a perfect one, however, and is affected by such things as material circumstances, gender, and other factors. These factors help explain some but not all the variation.
What my colleagues and I seek to understand is how identification with a group alters what the other factors would predict mental anguish. We are especially interested in the extremes of how we identify with social status, where some people see their social status as innate and unchangeable (in many circles this is called, “essential”) and others as constructed and changeable. Do those different perspectives on identity and social status matter?
We have just started to analyze the results, but we can see that some of the basic relationships are holding. Our main hypothesis is that Dalits who believe in a constructed Dalit identity will fare better psychologically than those who feel locked in by an essential view of their identity. And we predict that the effect will work in the opposite way for high caste people – those who think their status is essential will have better mental health than those who think identity is constructed. This situation has a rough parallel with race in the United States, where some people believe it to be a biological essential and others think it is a social construction.
But one of the most important take-away messages is that context matters. While caste and race share some similarities in how they affect people, they are not the same thing. When we study questions like the effect of social status on mental health, it is helpful to conduct it in a place that is culturally different from our own surroundings. The fact that culture is different makes it more visible and helps us get to how culture affects mental health more clearly. Then, we can take these lessons, modify them appropriately, and see how they apply to our situation.
The Research Itself: Science in Action
The project adheres to a mixed-method approach which is highly valued in anthropology because it emphasizes the strengths of two perspectives that are often at odds, the scientific and the humanistic, the quantitative and the qualitative.
The wedding of these two approaches is important for making future progress, and this is nowhere more evident than in the field of cross-cultural psychiatry. For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Orders (DSM), considered the bible for psychiatric diagnosis, now pays serious attention to culture. This awareness has come through the recognition that qualitative and quantitative data each contribute different strengths to understanding complex problems of the mind.
The research team spent nearly two years collecting data on the formation of identity and how it is related to mental health among adolescents in Lamjung District. We studied three samples of 100 adolescents, each divided evenly between girls and boys, living in urban and rural locations. The three samples we drew were from a high status group (high caste Hindus), a low status group (Dalits), and an intermediate status group (ethnic Gurungs). We gathered economic data, household censuses, ideas of identity, and mental health status. At the same time, we lived among these people in several locations, visited their schools and teashops, spoke to people frequently about caste and identity issues and attempted to firmly understand the relationships we sought to study.
The data collection for the project ended in the summer of 2014, and we are now in the process of conducting our analysis of the qualitative and quantitative data. And while we are not prepared to release statistical results yet, we have learned much. Perhaps most significantly, we understand better the relationship between culture and mental health: how mental health issues arise in specific local contexts, are detected through local means, discussed through local idioms of distress and treated, however imperfectly, through local healers.
Significantly, it is clear that a Western paradigm based on psychiatric assumptions of mental health and its causes and consequences is at best a misfit between measurement and phenomena. Western psychiatric methodology is designed to tap into concepts from Western medicine, so how well will it find cultural data that it is not looking for? This conundrum speaks directly to the relevance of the project for the US, where many people are working diligently to develop better, more culturally sensitive ways of diagnosing and treating mental health in America.
Thus, our overall research approach pertains directly to studying mental health in the US; if we narrow our focus only to medicine, how do we understand how family, world view, and spirituality intersect with our mental well-being? Only by using a more open, comprehensive methodology will we know.
All NSF applications require that we speak to the broader impacts our work will have on society, both in its application to science and to the public’s welfare. Our project alone will not solve the most difficult of questions about the intersection of psychological health with culture, but it will contribute to that effort.
Another positive effect is the cross-fertilization of scientific theory and practice among the three disciplines represented among the co-PIs, anthropology, psychology and psychiatry (Dr. Guy Palmes). The project, which cost $160,000, supports this scientific effort for three years. It includes salary support for the three investigators and one research assistant (full time at present), besides also supporting a native Nepali research assistant of Dalit background. The project promises to have meaningful scientific payoff and challenges the stereotype that qualitative data comes at a high price. In a previous academic life, I worked on many worthy projects, including clinical trials. As worthy as they were, data for dollar, they were significantly more costly than OMH-Nepal. And in terms of relevance to the US, OMH-Nepal has just as loud a bang for the buck.
As the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology argues, science should be transparent and serve important national interests. Inequality affects health, both physical and mental. Understanding how is crucial to better public health approaches and to improvements in medical care. The research in a small area of Nepal, where this relationship stands revealed in sharp contrast, joins a long line of case studies that address significant health issues. Imagine if the study of milkmaids hadn’t revealed so much about how to prevent smallpox. Or that penicillin can kill bacteria. We’ve addressed those problems, but for the epidemic of mental health, we need the best case studies possible to understand how we can help people who suffer.
When I first ran across Asifa Majid’s article with Ewelina Wnuk in Cognition, about how speakers of Maniq, a language indigenous to southern Thailand, have a vocabulary for talking about smell, I was taken aback. In anthropology, especially since the work of people like David Howes, Constance Classen, and Andrew Synott, we know very well that different cultures privilege olfaction and other senses more than Westerners do. The anthropology of the sense has made it clear that the ideological privileging of vision in the West, and relative underdevelopment of sense of smell or proprioception, is not matched elsewhere.
Prof. Asifa Majid
However, Wnuk and Majid were attacking, with empirical observations and psychometric testing, one of the pillars of Western philosophical accounts of how human senses evolved: the idea that human evolution had tipped the balance decisively away from olfaction. The alleged weakness and imprecision of olfaction was taken for granted in perceptual psychology.
Some of these theories of sensory evolution hold that our ancestors had, in a way, paid for our distinctive cognitive and perceptual development by sacrificing olfactory acuity. Vision increased precision at the expense of olfaction.
In fact, some theorists of brain evolution go so far as to suggest that there was a kind of neurological trade-off: language use could only grow as our ancestors lost a capacity for smelling. The restraint and remove from the immediate sense-world necessary for logic and abstract thought was opposed to the kind of complete immersion and sensory triggering of behaviour that other animals had because of the way aromas dominated their perception. Were the senses in a zero-sum exchange where visual acuity and a distinctly human way of life made acute olfaction impossible?
Research conducted by Asifa Majid, together with her collaborators, suggests that language and olfaction are not at odds; the right language can actually enhance the perception of aroma, as language has also enhanced, inflected and refined our other senses. Rather than a fact of human being, the neglect of olfaction in the West is a result of our own cultural presuppositions and sensory biases: smell suffers from neglect, not an inescapable evolutionary trade-off. (Majid’s research got a mention recently from Tanya Luhrmann in an op-ed in the New York Times: Can’t Place That Smell? You Must Be American: How Culture Shapes Our Senses.)
I ended up writing at length about their research in an earlier post, Giving names to aromas in Aslian languages, and Prof. Majid and I subsequently exchanged emails. She agreed to answer some questions about her research, which I’m really happy to present today as an interview (below the fold).
Our brains are alien technology. We don’t understand how they work, and the glimpses we have gotten so far indicate that our brains work quite differently than our own smart technology.
After a century of research, we are just beginning to understand the brain. Unlike the heart, or even our DNA, we do not have an in-depth sense of how the brain accomplishes its basic functions. How does it generate emotions? Make decisions? Learn? Become encultured?
Two issues come up as we try to grasp how the brain works. First, we think we know how we think. Our visceral sense of feeling and thought, as well as cultural traditions of how to understand ourselves, combine to provide some shallow illumination on how our brains work. But since Freud, it is apparent that our subjective experience and linguistically-mediated thought only scratch the surface of what our brain do. Even today, we still use inadequate metaphors to understand the brain – brains are like computers, except they really are not.
Second, unlike other organ systems, the brain does many things at once. The richness of our lives, from the four f’s to learning and language, runs through our brains. These multiple functions developed over evolutionary time, meaning that our evolutionary history has gifted us with an organ of cobbled contingency. The upshot is that even if we figure out something about the brain (per #1), it’s not immediately generalizable. While one can expect evolutionary tinkering – modifications on existing functions – there is also the potential for engineering different solutions to the many problems we need to solve every day.
For interdisciplinary efforts in brain science, including endeavors like neuroanthropology and cultural neuroscience, these two issues highlight an interesting problem. If there is not just one way the brain works, not one code (like DNA) that will unlock the brain’s mystery box, then we are in a situation where many people will develop partial answers. However, those answers are tentative, and there is no clear framework for integrating them. Put differently, we are dealing with a normal academic situation – multiple fields with multiple truths.
A metaphor that is often used to portray research on complex problems is that of blind men feeling an elephant. One touches the tail, another the trunk, a third the foot, a fourth the tusk, a fifth the ear. They argue over what animal they touch, each declaring that the evidence at hand indicates a specific type of animal. The story is often used to highlight that we have difficulty grasping a larger truth – that there really is one elephant there, the men are simply touching different parts of it.
But in the case of the brain, research points to multiple mammals, not one big grey beast. It as if one touches an elephant, another a rhinoceros, a third a hippopotamus. They might seem the same, but they are quite different animals. And one might even have stumbled across a gorilla that others simply don’t see as they busily pass their science ball hand to hand. In other words, the elephant in the room isn’t really an elephant, but a whole menagerie.
It can get even more confusing. We think (see #1) that the elephant, rhinoceros, and hippo might be closely related. They are big, they live in Africa, they eat plants, and so forth. But evolutionary research actually points to the closest relatives of the elephant as manatees and hyraxes. Looks can be deceiving, and what we think goes together might not. Elephants live on the savannah and in the forest, hyraxes on rocky terrain, and manatees in the ocean. Understanding the brain, then, might mean overcoming our lookalike assumptions and the then integrating information across very different scholarly ecologies.
In the meantime, it likely makes good sense for researchers to tackle how the brain works in conjunction within a specific ecology. The elephant’s multifunctional trunk here, the hyrax’s undescended testicles over there, a manatees’ cutting encounters with speed boats in the distance. These different types of problems might not fit together, but each represents different aspects of these evolutionary relatives’ lives.
But that’s not so juicy, is it? It doesn’t fit with what we already so cunningly know – it’s common sense – or with a need to find one overarching logic. But, remember, the brain is an alien technology. Folk psychology and computer technology, especially when combined, don’t make for a robust brain-ology. So when making generalizations, it often pay to be circumspect – or at least informed by science and technology studies – before sounding off on grand generalizations based more on the sexes of planetary systems and computers using 10% of their processing power than anything else.
Perhaps we need to recognize that we have multiple spirit animals in our brain. Elephant, hyrax, and manatee. And they animate us in ways like the phlogistons of old, fire elements that burn as we come alive. Sounds like it could be a best seller.
In the end, I am most struck by the multiple codes idea. That’s what evolution has gifted to us. So different ways of tackling the brain, and of using neuroscience to illuminate problems, are needed. History runs differently through brains than vision. Language is separate from circadian rhythms. We won’t find one code, because there isn’t just one.
This little essay was inspired by two recent pieces of writing and a video lecture. The oddness of biology and evolution, the fact of multiple codes as part of neural function, and the utter strangeness of the brain. Here they are, Gary Marcus, Christof Koch and Gary Marcus again, and Terry Sejnowksi.
Gary Marcus, The Trouble with Brain Science
Gary Marcus, professor of psychology at New York University, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, taking on recent controversy over the direction of large-scale government funding into neuroscience. He illuminates that controversy because the funding is largely going to quite technical and ultimately narrow approaches towards understanding the brain. Many neuroscientists want something much broader. Marcus explains the background to why:
Different kinds of sciences call for different kinds of theories. Physicists, for example, are searching for a “grand unified theory” that integrates gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces into a neat package of equations. Whether or not they will get there, they have made considerable progress, in part because they know what they are looking for.
Biologists — neuroscientists included — can’t hope for that kind of theory. Biology isn’t elegant the way physics appears to be. The living world is bursting with variety and unpredictable complexity, because biology is the product of historical accidents, with species solving problems based on happenstance that leads them down one evolutionary road rather than another. No overarching theory of neuroscience could predict, for example, that the cerebellum (which is involved in timing and motor control) would have vastly more neurons than the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain most associated with our advanced intelligence).
But biological complexity is only part of the challenge in figuring out what kind of theory of the brain we’re seeking. What we are really looking for is a bridge, some way of connecting two separate scientific languages — those of neuroscience and psychology…
We know that there must be some lawful relation between assemblies of neurons and the elements of thought, but we are currently at a loss to describe those laws. We don’t know, for example, whether our memories for individual words inhere in individual neurons or in sets of neurons, or in what way sets of neurons might underwrite our memories for words, if in fact they do.
Cristof Koch & Gary Marcus, Cracking the Brain’s Codes
Christof Koch, chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and Gary Marcus wrote the piece Cracking the Brain’s Codes in MIT Technology Review. It goes into greater depth on why a methods driven approach – computation and imaging ramped up – is not likely to answer many of the important questions society has about our brains. It’s rather like trying to train an elephant, a cute trick for a kid. But those sad eyes? And all just so it could sit for our entertainment?
I provide a short excerpt from the beginning, but this piece itself goes into greater depth with strong examples.
At stake is virtually every radical advance in neuroscience that we might be able to imagine—brain implants that enhance our memories or treat mental disorders like schizophrenia and depression, for example, and neuroprosthetics that allow paralyzed patients to move their limbs. Because everything that you think, remember, and feel is encoded in your brain in some way, deciphering the activity of the brain will be a giant step toward the future of neuroengineering.
Someday, electronics implanted directly into the brain will enable patients with spinal-cord injury to bypass the affected nerves and control robots with their thoughts. Future biofeedback systems may even be able to anticipate signs of mental disorder and head them off. Where people in the present use keyboards and touch screens, our descendants a hundred years hence may use direct brain-machine interfaces.
But to do that—to build software that can communicate directly with the brain—we need to crack its codes. We must learn how to look at sets of neurons, measure how they are firing, and reverse-engineer their message.
A Chaos of Codes
Already we’re beginning to discover clues about how the brain’s coding works. Perhaps the most fundamental: except in some of the tiniest creatures, such as the roundworm C. elegans, the basic unit of neuronal communication and coding is the spike (or action potential), an electrical impulse of about a tenth of a volt that lasts for a bit less than a millisecond. In the visual system, for example, rays of light entering the retina are promptly translated into spikes sent out on the optic nerve, the bundle of about one million output wires, called axons, that run from the eye to the rest of the brain. Literally everything that you see is based on these spikes, each retinal neuron firing at a different rate, depending on the nature of the stimulus, to yield several megabytes of visual information per second. The brain as a whole, throughout our waking lives, is a veritable symphony of neural spikes—perhaps one trillion per second. To a large degree, to decipher the brain is to infer the meaning of its spikes.
But the challenge is that spikes mean different things in different contexts. It is already clear that neuroscientists are unlikely to be as lucky as molecular biologists. Whereas the code converting nucleotides to amino acids is nearly universal, used in essentially the same way throughout the body and throughout the natural world, the spike-to-information code is likely to be a hodgepodge: not just one code but many, differing not only to some degree between different species but even between different parts of the brain. The brain has many functions, from controlling our muscles and voice to interpreting the sights, sounds, and smells that surround us, and each kind of problem necessitates its own kinds of codes.
Terrence Sejnowski, Suspicious Coincidences in the Brain
In this 2012 talk, Sejnowski, Francis Crick Professor at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, addresses the brain’s complexity. He opens (about the 6:40 mark) by speaking about trying to reverse engineer the brain as a way to understand it, much like we do trying to figure out how a new product from Apple or Samsung or Sony work. Engineers can do that today with products that other people have made. But the same route doesn’t apply to the organ of our lives.
The problem with taking that approach to the brain is that we don’t know [enough]. It’s basically an alien technology. We don’t really know the basic principles. And if you don’t know the basic principles behind something and you try to copy it, it’s basically a cargo cult.
We hastily arrange something on our altar of technology, and think that will give us the riches that come from our brain. We try to build something that looks like a plane, hoping that will get us into the sky. But we remain grounded, because we don’t understand the engine or the aeronautics or anything much else.
Just being able to see, for example. To recognize where we are, the scene and the people in the scene and the details and remember the context and also just to be able to walk around and do things in a complex world under uncertain conditions is a miracle. We can’t build robots that do that, but somehow nature managed to do it, and that’s really the question.
Better, faster, stronger. Whether Superman or Daft Punk, the motto works. But until now, these words didn’t apply to how academic books got reviewed. The American Anthropological Association (AAA), with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and prominent university presses, looks to change that. The AAA is launching a digital book review platform to make reviews more accessible, appear more quickly, and have greater impact.
Using the current print-centric process, only a small fraction of books mailed out by presses results in a published book review. And even among these published reviews, they often appear at least one year – and sometimes up to four years – after a book’s publication. By using a completely digital workflow, the AAA will provide book authors with a wider audience and an opportunity for social engagement, as well as reducing costs for scholarly presses and the journals featuring reviews.
Or in the more succinct words of Oona Schmid, director of publishing for the American Anthropological Association: “The new platform will reduce editorial turn-around time and expense, increase readership, and introduce dynamic content.”
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has provided a 12 month, $80,000 grant to underwrite the creation of the digital book review platform. Josh Greenberg, Director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Scholarly Communication program, says the Foundation is honored to support this AAA initiative. “Using digital information technology to improve the book review process is a potential game changer for academic publishing. It’s better for authors. It’s better for reviewers. It’s better for publishers. And most of all, it’s better for science, because it encourages and supports the debate, discussion, and evaluation that is the cornerstone of good scholarship.”
The AAA book review platform will utilize Open Journal Systems software, created by the multi-university Public Knowledge Project initiative. Open Journal Systems provides open-source management and publishing to effectively manage both workflow and dissemination. Using the platform, publishers can provide both digital versions of the book and upload metadata about the new title. Journal editors can then identify reviewers, who will access the e-book and any accompanying material through the AAA-managed system. When reviews are done, the reviewer uploads it, where editors can then do any additional overview. The book review will then get published online through the Anthropology News website.
Oona Schmid is excited about how the AAA is working with Open Journal Systems. “I am especially pleased that we could work with OJS, which provide a system that any journal could use. Their website indicates 24,000 journals have installed OJS. For many social sciences and humanities, books are still an incredibly important part of scholarly information. This system could conceivably help any journal that has book reviews.”
As of today, eleven presses have already signed up. The University of Chicago Press, University of Nebraska Press, University of New Mexico Press, University Press of Colorado and the University Press of Florida committed early to support the platform when it launches as a prototype later this year. Another six scholarly presses will also join the AAA initiative: Columbia University Press, Duke University Press, Rowman & Littlefield, Rutgers University Press, the University of California Press, and the University of Toronto Press. More are invited to join.
Darrin Pratt, Director at the University Press of Colorado, is ready to embrace this “radically new workflow for scholarly book reviews.” Pratt says that “the slow turnaround for book reviews in academic journal is maddening for university presses.”
In the Chronicle of Higher Education piece on the AAA book review platform, Pratt highlights that the platform will be compatible with ONIX, the bibliographic and metadata standard used in the book industry, permitting publishers to provide more than just the electronic text to reviewers. He then goes further:
Mr. Pratt calls the association’s experiment important. About a quarter of the books Colorado publishes fall into the broad categories of anthropology and archaeology; it’s typical for them to be reviewed about two years after they come out. Where that lag time “really has an impact in the scholarly ecosystem is on the movement of the whole tenure/promotion/credentialing process,” Mr. Pratt says. “For authors it’s very important to get reviews and to get them quickly,” and that impact carries over to the press.
Ed Liebow, the AAA’s Executive Director, highlights significant benefits for both presses and reviewers from this new process. “The presses will feed the titles (and accompanying meta-data) into the open source editorial workflow, and mail out the published book as a thank-you to the reviewers who actually complete the review. This increases the chances that a well-crafted review will be ready at or close to the time the book itself appears in print.”
Hopefully that will lead to increased purchases for scholarly presses. Liebow says, “Our university press counterparts tell us that an extra couple of dozen sales often make all the difference about whether a title covers its editorial and production costs. Getting the word out sooner about good books is a genuine service to these smaller presses, whose sustainability is in everyone’s interest.”
Together, Schmid and Liebow emphasize the feedback effect that this can have on anthropologists and their work. “The healthier the sales in the anthropology lists at university presses, the easier it will be for our members to get books signed. So we think it is important to emphasize that not only is this an improvement to a system that is out of date, it’s about supporting our members and the discipline.”
AAA Book Review Platform: “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!”
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
There is also a harder part to the new book review process, to echo the complete lyrics of Daft Punk’s song. While the digital infrastructure will solve many problems in terms of access, management, and publication, the reviews still need to be written, edited, and disseminated.
Michael Chibnik is editor of The American Anthropologist, the AAAs leading journal, and supports the AAA book review initiative. Based on his experiences getting book reviews published, he knows that there are issues that will need to be solved as the platform moves ahead. “Expediting the process on the front end is important, but some of the major reasons for delays in book reviews are at the back end — deciding which books to review, finding reviewers, giving reviewers time to read the book and write the review, prodding late reviewers (some who never turn in the review), and editing the review once it is turned in.”
Schmid also notes that there have been questions raised about whether scholars will review works that are in electronic versions, compared to hard copies, and whether review of early electronic versions (such as uncorrected proofs) will mean that errors caught in the proofing process become part of the review content. The AAA hopes that building the prototype offers the chance to work out the wrinkles. “We will assess next year to see how it’s going and whether there are improvements that can be made.”
The AAA has a total of eighteen journals that publish book reviews. That’s a lot of cooks. Managing different editors, and streamlining the whole process, will require not just a digital platform but also managerial guidance. The AAA has handled that with another digital initiative, the collaboration with the Huffington Post to publish timely content from many different anthropologists. A similar approach is in place for the review platform: collaboration with a strong digital partner, work done by many individuals to produce and publish content, and guidance and support from the association.
The final piece is publication through Anthropology News. Inclusion of book reviews represents a significant expansion of what AnthroNews does, with accompanying questions of site management and the handling of dissemination. These considerations go beyond the creation of a new digital work platform. Gathering the reviews in one place is just the start to improving how book reviews can help create greater interest in book-length scholarship.
AAA Book Review Platform Logistics: “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”
AAA Book Review Platform – Some Thoughts
Personally I am excited to see this AAA book review initiative. I called for something quite similar two years ago when writing about the AAA, open access, and digital publishing.
I propose we combine all book reviews done across the AAA journals into one digital platform – AAA Book Reviews. That has a nice ring to it.
There are many advantages to this move to one consolidated platform for book reviews:
-AAA Book Review will increase interaction across the discipline and across sections by having all book reviews accessible in one spot.
-At present book reviews are wasted space in expensive print journals. They barely count for tenure and promotion; the extra space could be dedicated to getting more research into our journals and/or simply eliminated, to cut costs.
-There is already a precedent. Ethos, the journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, only publishes its book reviews online.
-The AAA Book Review will greatly increase the accessibility of these book reviews, since they won’t be behind a pay wall and search engines like Google will now include the reviews in their results.
-There is the potential for revenue from such an arrangement, for example, by having a deal with Amazon where a percentages of purchases that come through the site are given back to the organization or including some modest advertising as part of the overall website.
-They will increase sales of our books. Who goes from a printed book review directly to a purchase? Online, such sales will only be a click away.
-The steady stream of content – 411 reviews in 2010 – present a good model for online platforms, where frequent updates generate greater traffic (and thus greater weight from search engines) while the entire site is easily archived and is accessible through a variety of means, from category and word searches to month-by-month review.
AAA Book Reviews will bring a vibrant new platform to the Association, and permit the Association and relevant editors and reviewers to gain experience with what building and running a platform is like. It will also foster experimentation with an open access model that could become the basis for more ambitious undertakings, such as moving an entire journal to open access. Finally, it will get us to read each other’s work more, and let the public have access to these wonderful books and all our ideas about them.
This proposal came out of my earlier call to recognize the importance of digital platforms for scholarship. It is particularly exciting to me to see the AAA embrace this approach. Crucially, they are taking care of one of the hardest parts – doing the serious work to cover the technical details and necessary collaborations to create such a platform. It is a project that will benefit so many anthropologists, and bodes well for future initiatives related to AAA publishing.
I want to stress one point in closing. Peer-reviewed articles and journals have created a rich digital ecosystem. They have powerful dissemination systems, from for-profit publishers to Google Scholar and PubMed. They provide important metrics to gauge the impact of research. Together, university libraries and open-access publishers provide a tremendous amount of access to research.
Scholarly books still have some way to go in comparison. Creating greater access to the incredible scholarship locked up in books and to the scholars who write them is vital. Digital platforms like the AAA’s new book review initiative are an important step in that direction. But it’s not a full ecosystem. Platforms and collaborations do provide the foundation. Optimizing material for search, utilizing multiple forms of media, creating access to particular chapters as well as the whole work, addressing issues of cost, and working on publicizing alongside publishing will all be parts of creating a richer ecosystem for the scholarship embedded in books.
So some thoughts along those lines. The journal Cultural Anthropology has driven forward innovation on the peer-reviewed journal side of the discipline, including becoming fully open-access recently. The journal took an early lead in providing additional content and media alongside text-based articles, and made that material accessible online. This same approach should yield benefits for books.
For example, including internet links and multimedia in the book production, review, and dissemination process is one way to match what journals are already doing. On the author side, I could see links to websites and supporting scholarship, as well as interviews, images and videos related to research. On the editorial side, editor picks and interviews with authors are often used to highlight important material. And on the review and dissemination side, I could see a discussion of the book’s content between reviewer and author, whether sparks or praise, as a potential vehicle.
For examples, two sites engaged in scholarly book review online are Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews and the Brain Science Podcast. They do different things, but both add something to the review process. In the end, for me one key thing will be to develop ways for authors and reviewers to add something to the overall process. That will help in generating a more robust ecosystem.
Finally, I wonder how book reviews might get further disseminated. Reviews of prominent books could get featured on the Huffington Post page, on university press websites, on Amazon, and elsewhere. Once the material is created, repurposing can extend its reach online. I also wonder whether Anthropology News will become Anthropology News and Reviews, a site that reports news and provides reviews of all sorts.
In any case, the American Anthropological Association has done good with getting this latest initiative started, and I look forward to how anthropologists, scholarly presses, and the AAA bring the digital book review platform to full fruition.
The subtitle of Nicholas Wade’s new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, is transparent. In combining genes, race, and human history, Wade makes a simplistic argument: genes determine race, and race determines human history. Wade is wrong in each piece of that sub-title.
Critics have called out Wade’s understanding of genetics, from mistakes in his portrayal of recent human evolution to his speculative fantasies about how genes shape behavior and culture. His understanding of human variation, which Wade aims to explain through asserting a small number of biologically distinct races, is worse than his use of genetics. As for history, Wade would rather tell a simple story – Western civilization is best, both biologically and culturally – than actually look at how history shapes our present lives. At the end of this post, I provide an array of online sources that illustrate each one of these problems in genetics, human variation, and history.
But what I want to focus on is our need for an alternative to Wade’s simplism. Two authors – anthropologist Greg Laden and sociologist Philip Cohen – look at this problem: How can we do better than Wade in understanding how human variation works and its impact on differences in behavior and culture across groups? In each case the alternative they suggest sounds a lot like neuroanthropology.
Linking Biology, Behavior, and Culture
Philip Cohen, in his review Don’t Trouble Yourself, entitles his critical section “A Better Theory of Social Change.”
Wade possesses a rigidly mechanical view of genetic influence on behavior. For instance, he concludes that genes must be the source of widespread taboos against incest, and our genes tell us, “If you grew up under the same roof with this person, they are not a suitable marriage partner.” But is there any basis for believing that genes really dictate rules of behavior to this level of specificity? Do genetic dictates include the word “marriage”?
Much as Wade would like to convince us otherwise, there is little reason to believe that natural selection is a major source of social change, that “the rise of the West was the direct result of the evolution of European populations as they adapted to the geographic and military conditions of their particular ecological habitat.” When he talks about the tendency toward such traits as cooperation and trusting authority, he just guesses that “probably all these social behaviors, to one degree or another, have a genetic basis.”
It is equally plausible, though, that adaptive traits emerge from more generic capacities of human intelligence and adaptation and are reinforced through cultural evolution and learning. For example, the ability to comprehend what others are thinking—and what they think of us—could lead to cooperative behavior as an instrumental adaptation even if there is no specific genetic driver for cooperative behavior. Similarly, clever humans in many societies could develop stone tools, or invent simple bridges, without genetic instructions for doing so.
Wade is awed by breakthroughs in genetics, but he seems uninterested in the blossoming research on brain development. This is one way that culture adapts and reproduces: children’s brains adapt to their environment and experiences. For example, children in the United States today are exposed to a pink-is-for-girls culture. Even though this is a very recent phenomenon, the ubiquity of girls in pink appears so universal as to seem genetic. The tendency to see such preferences as natural is reinforced if brain plasticity declines with age. By the time today’s children are ten, they can’t imagine a society where pink is not for girls.
Neuroanthropology and the Power of Student Blogging
by Daniel H. Lende
This spring, in my graduate class on Neuroanthropology, the students crafted excellent posts that brought together their own interests with the interdisciplinary approach at the heart of this new discipline. Now all eight posts are up. Here’s a taste of each one!
I also include my own section on “Blogging and Teaching” at the end. Blogging adds a tremendous amount to how students learn and to the mastery of important skills in today’s academic and work environments.
Neuroscience and ethnography both provide evidence that the senses, however defined, form an integrated sensory system… This interconnectedness is what makes Geurts’ “sensorium” and Gibson’s “sensory system,” such useful conceptual tools in the study of perception. They provide us the vocabulary to talk about sensory experience without imposing a Western five-sense taxonomy on societies where that taxonomy may not apply.
I propose that we view the human experience of past human spatial organization as an exploratory activity; one that is based on a constant interaction between bodily experience with the ambient environment, sensory perception and how our brains map these things internally, all of which inform and intricately define one another. In doing so, we can avoid resorting to purely social or ecological explanations to define the human experience of sedentary life in the past and can provide frameworks that are formed in the type of holistic reasoning that still serves as one of the unwavering strengths of anthropological research.
In Western society, adult learning often appears to be individualistic and egalitarian. However, do these characteristics of adult learning hold up cross culturally? If not, what characterizes adult learning in other parts of the world? What techniques do teachers of adults employ so that their students learn? What insights can neuroscience offer us about the way that adults learn cross culturally? Do different pathways light up in certain societies as opposed to others? How will this change or influence the way that adult educators teach?
The term for how a culture retains its past and effectively passes it to future generations is called the ratchet effect. This, Tomasello (1999) bravely typed, is also the primordium of culture, as it is the means by which populations begin and maintain traditions. Through niche construction, this ratchet effect can lead to new abilities for humans to do neuro-cultivation.
Round three [of the experiment], which used an entirely new set of beers and vessels, allowed participants to use a provided beer flavor wheel while making their tasting notes.
The terms used in this round were more reflective of those found on the flavor wheel than the first round, suggesting that participants were agreeable to having more terms at their disposal to describe what they were experiencing. Interestingly enough, Abdi claims that the overwhelming majority of professional tasters and critics of beer and wine don’t actually have a more refined perception of flavor, but that they are simply able to draw on a more expansive vocabulary surrounding flavor than the average individual.
Movements and sensations by way of practiced postures and breath control in yoga are a means of embodied experience. I will first describe the philosophy and physical practice of yoga in this post as a way to understand how the body can cultivate the mind. Then I will turn to embodied cognition and its attention to perception-action systems of the body, and develop the argument that sensorimotor experience in yoga creates and alters cognition.
What is not known is just how much of the synaptic proliferation and elimination is contextually dependent, and if so then we should expect to see brain differences linked to differences in experience. We do know the quality of each individual’s social environment can have profound influences on the development and activity of neural systems, with repercussions on a variety of behavioral and physiological responses (Curley et al. 2011). Given this research, changes in brain plasticity in adolescents living in dysfunctional environments are likely to be distinct from the changes of those in protective and supportive ones.
Action sequences are characterized by fast-paced movements and a quick succession of shots during the scene. Both of the videos above reflect this. However, the amount of shot changes is greater and the pace is much faster in the American film. The American film also uses more close-up shots, while the Ghanaian counterpart utilizes wider angles. The contingencies that the filmmakers exploit are different, leading to different viewing experiences.
What do these differences mean? Are they a result of the real differences in the way Ghanaians and Americans experience vision? This question hints at the notion that different cultural experiences can alter visual experience, and this concept deserves further attention.
Blogging and Teaching
Blogging proved an effective tool for teaching during this graduate seminar on neuroanthropology. It made students focus on writing well, develop a set of integrative ideas, and deal with the demands of a broad audience. Several years after I wrote The Power of the Post, I can once again declare, Student blogging works!
The basic structure of the assignment went (1) an initial draft, (2) a draft post on-site, and (3) the final post. I provided feedback on both drafts. Students also led a class session on their topic, and at the end of the semester, produced a final paper based on their teaching and blogging. This approach, particularly the blogging, produced multiple benefits.
The series of drafts developed writing skills. They learned to say things succinctly and to develop their overall argument. Students also learned how to integrate links, images and often video into their posts. Writing and social media skills will help them, whatever career path they take.
The posts, with their shorter format, helped students focus on a core set of ideas. Typical graduate student papers often have long literature reviews and a meandering style, a process of “figuring it over” and “demonstrating knowledge” that is quite useful in proper context. This process is also quite effective at filling 15 to 20 pages quickly. But it doesn’t make for a compact and engaging blog post. Students learned that they had to focus on the most important things they wanted to say and then say them well.
This process helped them discover connections between different ideas. Combining ideas from neuroscience and anthropology is not easy, and doesn’t get easier when topical interests are thrown in – adult learning, yoga, cultural evolution, and the like. By focusing on what they found most important, students had a better sandbox in which they could try out different combinations and see what worked. Blogging helps interdisciplinary development.
Another reason that blogging works well is because it opens up the potential audience for student work. The student posts are closing in on 10,000 total views in a little over a month. Even the least-read post has reached 400 people. In contrast, their final papers got one reader – me. Sure, I can provide expert feedback. But I already did that as part of developing the post itself. Blogging became a win-win: feedback on their ideas and a wide audience for their work.
A final benefit is that their final papers were among the best I have received. They knew what they wanted to say. They meandered less and focused on covering additional research and theory. They worked more at integrating key approaches that we had learned during the semester. In other words, they were not as caught up in producing a final paper in a mad rush of writing. They already had half of it basically written before they even started.
I now expect several students to develop their posts into peer-reviewed paper submissions. I know that this has happened on other sites, for example, at Somatosphere. Greg and I have done it here. No reason students can’t too. Posts become papers. Just as with their final paper, they are already well on their way to doing that.
While the children are quite a bit younger than my students, I love how they are climbing and leaping over a closed gate. Plus there is a prominent “post” in the engraving itself, just the thing that sustains their play.
“Rub them only when the movie flashes the respective number.” A scratch-and-sniff card from the German theatrical release of John Waters’ 1981 film Polyester. Source: Wikimedia.
Greg Downey, in his recent post on language and smell, opened a carton of expiring milk and poured himself into an exploration of cross-cultural variation in sensory experience.
While humans have evolved into primarily visual beings, he explained, we still have an impressive capacity for detecting (if not identifying) other sensory stimuli, and around the world other senses may take on more dominant roles than they do in sanitized “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) societies. Relative attention to tastes, smells, sounds, and more is shaped by the descriptive toolkit our native language offers us, as well as other cultural and environmental factors in our socialization.
In similar work, Kathryn Linn Geurts writes of the sensory order or “sensorium” of a given culture, which she defines as “a pattern of relative importance and differential elaboration of the various senses, through which children learn to perceive and to experience the world and in which pattern they develop their abilities” (2002: 5). Interestingly, this actually sounds a bit like language, a key tool we use in navigating and making sense of our surroundings. We know that language shapes experience, including sensory experience, but it does not entirely determine how we understand the world around us. It seems that the way our sensorium mediates the world is fairly significant too.
Of course, what is considered a “sense” is not so cut and dry–there does not seem to be a universal set of human senses. Geurts explains that the Western understanding of the five senses is not scientific fact, but rather a folk taxonomy handed down from Aristotle to Descartes and other influential thinkers in the Western intellectual tradition. Among the Anlo-Ewe people of West Africa, she explains, balance is a sense–this is similar to Greg Downey’s exploration of the neuroanthropology of balance as an elaborated sensory process. Other anthropologists also go beyond the “five senses” in their work in different cultures around the world.
In the Western approach, some philosophers and scientists have disagreed with the five-senses approach along the way. Some sensory scientists in the twentieth century (such as Lowenstein 1966 and Barlow and Mollen 1982, cited in Geurts 2002) have used a nine-sense taxonomy that includes balance and divides the realm of “touch” into three categories.
Meanwhile, neuroscience and ethnography both provide evidence that the senses, however defined, form an integrated sensory system; one “sense” rarely acts alone. (Think of the relationship between taste and smell, or between balance and vision.) This interconnectedness is what makes Geurts’ “sensorium” and Gibson’s “sensory system,” such useful conceptual tools in the study of perception. They provide us the vocabulary to talk about sensory experience without imposing a Western five-sense taxonomy on societies where that taxonomy may not apply.
Sensory anthropology and the brain
What are the implications of all this for anthropology? Constance Classen and David Howes of the Centre for Sensory Studies have led the development of perhaps the most prominent strand of “sensory anthropology,” in which the researcher’s task is to understand how people “‘make sense’ of the world, or translate sensory perceptions and concepts into a particular ‘worldview’” (Classen 1997: 402). Sensory anthropologists may also study how worldview and environment shape sensory perception: for example, are people in environments that are less visually diverse (e.g., Antarctica) more attuned to sound than city dwellers?
So in sensory anthropology there is the possibility of cultural anthropologists taking up neuroscience (on what’s possible in sensory experience) in a way that helps them find and understand additional sites of worldview- and world-making. In Glenn H. Shepard Jr.’s comparative study of two Amazonian groups, the Yora and Matsigenka, he drew on psychophysical science to help him classify an overwhelming array of indigenous botanical medicines by taste, odor, detection of irritation, and visual/tactile properties, noting that “scientific and indigenous descriptions of sensation illuminate one another in interesting ways” (2004: 258). Equipped with a classificatory framework, he discovered sites of comparison that pointed to the differing “sensory ecologies” of the two groups, and to differing attitudes toward medicine and healing (roughly, allopathic vs. homeopathic).
Likewise, there is the possibility of ethnography of sensory experience offering clues to how neuroscientists might approach the topic of sensory perception in the brain and body. This is where the neuroanthropological approach–taking our informants’ descriptions of their experiences seriously and searching for explanations both in culture and the brain–is especially helpful. We see this approach in Greg Downey’s work on capoeira, mentioned above, and it would be fascinating to apply it in case studies where researchers have identified important connections between cultural values and certain senses.
Materials for a Santería sacrifice. Photo by Michiel van Nimwegen.
Take Elizabeth Perez’s sensory ethnography of food and religious ritual among Lucumí/Santería practitioners (2011). When Perez says that “food transmits knowledge,” is this just a metaphor? Are we speaking merely of people sharing information while simultaneously sharing food? Or are there neurological processes at work connecting olfactory and gustatory perception to other memories and information in the brain? Are these connections strengthened over time through Santería practice? There is great potential for continued development in sensory anthropology, especially if these researchers start engaging with neuroscience to take a more biocultural approach.
In order for sensory anthropology to grow, anthropologists must think and talk about how, exactly, to do it. Doctoral students in anthropology are required to learn the language of the people they wish to study, for many reasons, not least of which is the notion that language offers a window into cultural worldview. But how do we learn another culture’s sensorium?
Such investigations present a range of challenges, from the practical/methodological to the more theoretical/philosophical. Shepard Jr.’s study of the Yora and Matsigenka reveals some of the difficulties involved in ethnographic research on the senses. For one, we bring our own, deeply engrained sensory associations with us to the field.
In an excerpt from his field notes, Shepard describes botanical fragrances he encountered in his fieldwork: “A bit nauseating, sort of like fruitcake, candied melon…. Later, I was to realize what it smelled like: maraschino cherries. I hate maraschino cherries!!! Why do so many things smell like maraschino cherries?!” (Shepard 2004: 257-58).
We also may find it difficult to interview people about unconscious patterns of sensory perception, or about sensory knowledge of dangerous or threatening things:
Some responded to my insistent questions about sensory properties with exasperation, ‘No one tastes it! No one smells it! It’s just a medicine!’ (Yora herbalist Inima, field notes, February 23, 1996). Later I understood this hesitancy to taste, smell, and handle medicinal plants as a reflection of the concept of ‘rao’: Because illness-causing spirits inhabit them, it is best to keep a safe distance. [Shepard 2004: 258]
In Sensuous Scholarship (1997), Paul Stoller proposes a route to sensory anthropology through more “embodied” research. His goal is to “reawaken profoundly the scholar’s body by demonstrating how the fusion of the intelligible and the sensible can be applied to scholarly practices and representations” (xv). In other words, the anthropologist learns not merely by watching (with the eyes) and asking (with words) but also by doing and experiencing with their body and all of its senses.
So to understand sorcery among the Songhay in Mali and Niger, Stoller apprenticed and became one, participating in rituals including an initiation in which he “ate power” in the form of the kusu or magic cake. Through this research he came to understand, beyond the level of language and metaphor, how social relations among the Songhay are understood in terms of eating. Stoller’s approach challenges scholars’ traditional preoccupations with vision and text and the “conceit of control in which mind and body, self and other are considered separate” (xvii).
If becoming a sorcerer sounds a bit daunting, other researchers offer ideas for “embodied research” that are perhaps more approachable and practical for shorter-term research (Stoller has a 20-plus-year relationship with the Songhay communities he’s studied). Simply walking or eating meals with informants have helped social researchers understand sensory relationships embedded in particular communities and places.
Taking memory to be a lived process rather than a stored archive somewhere deep in the brain, psychologist Andrew Stevenson (2014) conducted a “sensuous ethnography” in which his research collaborators led him on tours of various sites in Manchester that evoked memories through sensory stimulation. The food served in one café provoked a discussion with one of Stevenson’s collaborators of her memories of cuisine in Tunis, where she was raised. Conversation while walking from one site to the next was also key, as Stevenson found that “perceptions of place were constructed between places, rather than merely (confined) in them” (2014: 14). Visual anthropologist Sarah Pink employed a similar method–walking, eating, photographing with her collaborators–to understand towns involved in the “Slow City” movement in Britain (2008).
If all of this is starting to sound a bit more like dating your informants than engaging in scientific inquiry, rest assured that researchers have anticipated this criticism. Anthropologists frequently find themselves explaining to other scientists that participant observation is more than just “hanging out.” Likewise, in her work on “the go-along method” in ethnography, sociologist Margarethe Kusenbach explores how we might engage in research that is both embodied and systematic:
Go-alongs require that ethnographers take a more active stance [than is taken in ‘hanging out’] towards capturing their informants’ actions and interpretations. Researchers who utilize this method seek to establish a coherent set of data by spending a particular yet comparable slice of ordinary time with all of their subjects – thus winning in breadth and variety of their collected materials what might get lost in density and intensity. [2003: 463]
Sensory ethnography: Smell-O-Vision 2.0?
Another important question that embodied research of sensory experience raises is how we go about sharing our findings. If we undertake research with a journal article or book in mind, do we limit ourselves from the very beginning? How embodied can our research be if all roads lead to text?
Within visual anthropology, the emerging subfield of “sensory ethnography” has been the site of some fascinating attempts to answer such a challenge. Following in the footsteps of ethnographic filmmakers David MacDougall, Jean Rouch, and Robert Gardner, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and his students at the Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) have produced works of sound and film that eschew narration in favor of immersion in place or event. The most widely distributed of these works are the documentary films Sweetgrass (2009) and Leviathan (2012). A.O. Scott described the latter as “90 minutes of wind, water, grinding machinery and piscine agony” that’s “often unnerving and sometimes nauseating” (2013)–see for yourself in the clip below.
In interpreting such works, anthropologists Sarah Pink (2009), David Howes (2006), and Karen Nakamura (2013) have invoked the neurological idea of synesthesia (literally, “union of the senses”) as a metaphor. Writes Nakamura:
Synesthesia is a part of all of our existence: smells can trigger the sense of touch, sights can trigger sounds, and sounds can trigger senses of touch. Many filmmakers, both theatric and documentary, have taken advantage of this. Films do not need to pipe in smells, waft breezes across the audience, or chill the room to have the audience members feel those various sensations. Our brain’s natural synesthesia will do it automatically when we are totally immersed in the filmic world, our mirror neurons firing in sympathy with what we see and hear. [134-35]
Multi-sensory art and storytelling
We are, of course, taking a risk when we assume all minds “fill in the blanks” in the same way, and we should be careful with how we use the increasingly popular term synesthesia, as Downey has noted. Still, connections between ethnography and the growing field of multi-sensory art merit continued exploration (Pink 2009).
Here at USF in the spring 2014 Neuroanthropology seminar, the class got a chance to experience an interesting example of multi-sensory storytelling in Chicago artist Fereshteh Toosi’s “book-in-a-box” called “Shoebox Lunch.” The book-in-a-box, which is part of a larger project related to food, gardening, migration, black culture, and health, contains an audio CD, text and braille instructions, and objects to touch, smell, and taste while listening to recordings of real people telling food stories.
Toosi’s audio instructions begin:
“The package you have before you is a time capsule of memories, and I’m here to guide you. The people you’ll hear from share personal stories demonstrating the intersections between black culture, migration, health, and wellness. If you happen to have vision, and you haven’t put on your eye mask yet, please do so now.”
Toosi excluded vision from the experience because many of the people she worked with throughout the story collecting process had significantly impaired or no vision. In class, we didn’t have eye masks, so we dimmed the lights, closed our eyes, and took in the evocative smells and tastes. (Forgive me–describing the contents of the box would be like giving plot spoilers, so I’ll have to leave you a little bit “in the dark” on that…) The overall effect was a feeling of immediacy and intimacy with each story (and a welcome break for our strained grad student eyes).
If the recent “Ethnographic Terminalia” installations at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association are any indication, anthropological interest in multi-sensory art and other non-textual forms of communication is continuing to grow. This is promising, and not just because these projects are fun and accessible to non-anthropologists, but because they may help us communicate what we learn in ways that more accurately reflect how our informants see–sorry, sense–the world.
1997 Foundations for an anthropology of the senses. International Social Science Journal 49(153):401-412.
Geurts, Kathryn Linn
2002 Is There a Sixth Sense? In Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.
2006 Scent, Sound and Synaesthesia: Intersensorality and Material Culture Theory. In Handbook of Material Culture. C. Tilley, Webb Keane, Susanne Küchler, Michael Rowlands, Patricia Spyer, ed.
2003 Street phenomenology: The go-along as ethnographic research tool. Ethnography 4(3):455–485.
2013 Making Sense of Sensory Ethnography: The Sensual and the Multisensory [Review Essay]. American Anthropologist 115(1):132-144.
2011 Cooking for the gods: sensuous ethnography, sensory knowledge, and the kitchen in Lucumí tradition. Religion 41(4):665–683.
2008 An urban tour: The sensory sociality of ethnographic place-making. Ethnography 9(175).
A few days ago I was walking around Ybor City, a place near downtown Tampa known for its eclectic feel and mix of restaurants, alternative shops, and party spots. While Ybor is often associated with divergence from more typical forms of social life in the area, the spatial layout of the built environment was entirely familiar to me. Most buildings were squarely shaped and streets were laid out in a fashion similar to that of any other city I’d been in.
This experience was in direct contrast to what I felt on a recent visit to archaeological sites in Peru. As a native Floridian, I found the experience of visiting Chavin de Huantar to be both incredible and disorienting. Sure, the altitude sickness may have accounted for some of the disorientation, but both the physical layout of the site and environment threw me slightly off. The location of the site between two extremely tall mountain ranges provided a visual depth of vertical structure that I wasn’t used to and the spatial layout of the many features of the site, including some of the narrow, underground tunnels that it is known for, left me feeling slightly out of sorts.
My initial encounter with Chavin
I encountered a similar experience at the coastal site of Chan Chan, where the winding, maze-like orientation of walkways and buildings threw me for a bit of a loop.
Chan Chan, Peru
Mostly, the spaces that we move through daily are very similar and recognizable to us. That is, we can walk around in a city or neighborhood and not be alarmed by ambient spatial configuration, even if it is an area we did not grow up in. There are often similarities in the ways the spaces are built, and in how we understand, interpret and experience these familiar environments.
However, if we are suddenly placed in an area where space becomes unfamiliar, where shapes and distances are manipulated in a seemingly new or odd fashion, our actual thought processes may become affected. Evidence from a wide array of researchers surrounding the concept of spatial cognition have shown that the orientation of human space cannot be adequately explained using universal models, which try to explain how all humans do things.
Instead, the way we move and think through space may be strongly related to individual experience and exploration with the environment, whether built or otherwise. Such ideas have received neural support, suggesting that different neuronal firing occurs in areas that are intelligible to the individual versus those that are not.
Why Anthropology and Neurobiology?
Research on “space syntax” and cognition by Alan Penn shows that the combination of recurring features of the built environment (spatial affordances) and the decision making, sensory processing, and patterns of movement of individuals account for a large portion of the human-space relationship. Penn’s findings are important because they open a unique space for anthropological and neurobiological intersection. How we map previous experiences with the environment in our minds, informs how we think and move through space in future contexts.
In light of this research, and similar work on the plasticity of spatial cognition, it seems that future studies on the subject could gain immensely from detailed documentation of how things work out of the lab and in the real world. This is precisely what anthropologists do, such as work by Ed Hutchins on “cognition in the wild” and how the materiality of our lives can anchor our cognition. This type of approach offers a unique opportunity for anthropology to show how many findings in the brain sciences don’t work without anthropological perspectives. After all, we live in the era of Rick Scott and the like, whom are constantly reassuring us that our perspectives are not needed.
This interdisciplinary approach also provides new perspectives that may help anthropologists better understand the holism of how things actually work. Anthropologists have theorized for decades about how things supposedly play out in cultural settings, but our interpretations of life in the past and present can become more acute by understanding how brain and culture operate alongside one another.
Alleviating the Perils of Problematic Approaches
When it comes to how people move through and modify space, attention to certain “types” of human groups has been central to a variety of arguments across disciplines. These arguments have often focused on reference points and orientation of certain objects in space and how such things are conceptualized differently between people of allocentric and egocentric worldviews.
Allocentrism has typically been reserved for human groups that use frames of spatial reference that are grounded in the relation to some sort of group or absolute geographic variable or landmark. In contrast, egocentrism is often applied to people that conceptualize things in space in reference to oneself and is generally considered to be a more object-centered approach to spatial reasoning. Most who have used this approach to understanding human spatial reasoning have suggested that egocentrism is predominate among Western human groups and allocentrism should be reserved for everyone else.
However, such arguments may achieve unnecessary and constraining polarity by using an us vs. them sort of view to studying social space. What this does for a study of the indigenous presence on the North American landscape, is group all those that came before the modern western world into the them category. For example, both the prehistoric Chumash of California and Calusa of Florida used canoes to traverse the coastal landscape, but this does not allow us to assume that they both navigated through coastal space the same way because they were both non-western.
One way to make sure we attain a more comprehensive gaze, is to avoid an evolutionary approach to understanding complexities in site layout. What I mean here is not to dismiss the wide array of evolutionary commonalities that humans share as a species, but rather to avoid socio-cultural evolutionary typologies when developing an archaeology of human space. Evolutionary typologies of human social complexity assume that humans move neatly toward complexity and some make it there and some do not. However, such attempts to generalize about human behavior (and as a consequence, the human relationship with built space) constrain our view of how people and individuals actually live, and in the case for archaeology, may have lived at a specific place in time.
Here, I will make the case that the primary means of getting around such issues is an approach that is neuroanthropological. Recent challenges to the massively modular view of the brain have emphasized neural plasticity and neural reuse. These ideas, when brought into neuroanthropology, can prove critical to developing new ways of seeing the past human experience of changing space. We are typically fed the idea through media and outdated research, that human brain function is highly localized and that these areas of the brain are only meant to do certain things and human behavior can thus, be attributed to certain areas of brain function. In contrast, new findings suggest that this may not be the case. Instead, human behavior is often a product of involvement from a variety of areas in the brain that may interact differently among individuals who operate within different cultural settings.
These concepts help us fight the concerns raised earlier regarding the constraint posed by egocentrism and allocentrism. Evolutionary modes of thinking about culture and modular views of the brain and human behavior oversimplify and distort our view of people of the past and present. Brain and culture do not grow separately, but grow together, each being highly dependent upon one another. However, most brain/culture research has focused on the present. Using these recent re-conceptualizations of how brain and culture operate, we can also begin to rethink the possibility of how people thought about and organized spaces in the past.
Building a framework around these ideas should allow us to better explain how these built environments may have been conceived both outside and inside human brains. I propose that we view the human experience of past human spatial organization as an exploratory activity; one that is based on a constant interaction between bodily experience with the ambient environment, sensory perception and how our brains map these things internally, all of which inform and intricately define one another. In doing so, we can avoid resorting to purely social or ecological explanations to define the human experience of sedentary life in the past and can provide frameworks that are formed in the type of holistic reasoning that still serves as one of the unwavering strengths of anthropological research.
Tailoring an Regional Approach: An Example from the Southeastern US
We know, at least on general terms, that Native Americans living in the southeastern United States prior to European contact eventually began aggregating in large, sedentary villages. This increase in sedentism was accompanied with an increase in the building of permanent structures and monumental architecture at living spaces. While it now well known that monumental architecture was present during the Archaic Period (8,000-1,000 B.C.), the erection of objects in permanent space became more geographically broad during the Woodland Period (1,000 B.C.-1,000 A.D.). However, the configuration of monument and structure at each site is often unique.
These newly-formed spatial characteristics are generally viewed to be derivative of social process, but the potential cognitive effects of transitioning into lifestyles emphasizing permanent, organized space have yet to be delineated. The majority of an archaeology dedicated to spatial arrangement at this point has focused on social and environmental issues that may structure space. Previous approaches to studying southeastern spatial arrangement and settlement pattern have largely centered on access to material resources, meaning and the symbolic landscape and how space is organized among different social groups at sites. However, by not engaging how culture and neurobiology work together to structure such things, we have left a lot to be desired.
Overlooking an excavation unit and southern end of the plaza from Mound A, Crystal River, Florida
Ok, so we know that these plaza areas are important at sites in the Southeast, but an inclusion of spatial cognition may allow us to go a bit further. The neuroscience dedicated to spatial cognition suggests that shapes and distances play a profound role in how humans create and move through space. A joining of anthropology and neuroscience, in particular understanding the way shapes and distances are maintained and recreated both outside and inside of our brains, should provide us with a more detailed picture of how these things may have worked and why they are so significant.
Making it Into the Real World
Using this idea of exploratory spatial experience, we also may be able to better understand a more recent past of those who have been disenfranchised and disregarded in historical accounts. If spatial experience is indeed an exploratory one, then the way we experience space cognitively may vary widely between spatial settings. Our living spaces are configured in a wide variety of ways, and some, particularly low-income, urban neighborhoods, vary quite remarkably from those located in more affluent settings. To account for these unrepresented historical accounts of life, some archaeologists have focused their gaze on the excavation of urban neighborhoods.
Because spatial navigation and the mental representation of space is largely grounded in experience, the experience of different space among groups of individuals may have implications for the shared cognitive experience of urban environments. Therefore, inequality may not only be associated with social factors, but also with the ecological and mental experience of space. By adding a consideration of the way the brain acts alongside culture in space, the experience of inequality of historically underrepresented people can be delineated in a fashion that focuses on nuanced, site-specific experience, along with the way that the brain, experience, and culture may have structured the broader experience of human social inequality in the past.
So, let’s not allow the determinists of previous generations keep us from engaging the brain in anthropological research. As perspectives grow in both anthropology and neuroscience, we may find that one does not work well without the other, and that arguments made through essentialism, in any form, should serve as little more than cautionary tales to future research aimed at understanding the human experience of space.