Neuron Culture Gets Wired – and Gets into a Neurocultural Funk!

David Dobbs, a science journalist I admire, has moved his blog Neuron Culture to the newly launched Wired Science Blogs. It looks like a great line-up over there, and includes another favorite that was already in the Wired fold and should definitely appeal to neuroanthropological types – Jonah Lehrer’s Frontal Cortex.

Dobbs’ first Wired post comes in an accurate mouthful of a title – The depression map: genes, culture, serotonin, and a side of pathogens. It covers the work of Joan Chiao, who formed part of our Encultured Brain conference last year. Joan is an assistant professor at Northwestern and is a real leader in the emerging field of cultural neuroscience.

David delves deeply into the nuances of this field, where simple cause-effect approaches often fail given the complexity of interactions between brain, environment, and culture.

Why did fewer East Asians get depressed even though more of them carried the depression risk gene? It wasn’t as if life in East Asia was stress free. The gene seemed to generate vulnerability in one culture and resilience in another…

To Chiao, the mismatch between the SERT map and the depression map smelled of gene-culture effects. The gene in question was obviously SERT. So what was the cultural suspect?…

[Chaio looked at] the spectrum between individualistic cultures, which emphasize a person’s independence, and collectivist cultures, which emphasize a person’s interpersonal, social, and civic connections…

So how does individualism-v-collectivism relate to depression and depression genes? Here Chiao and Blizinsky, as well as Way and Lieberman (these connections were apparently ripe) turned to another emerging idea: That the short SERT gene seems to sensitize people not just to bad experience, but to all experience, good or bad.

That’s a really condensed view of the research that David covers, so I definitely recommend you hop over there to read more.

As anthropologists, what exites us is the consideration of multiple levels of data – serotonin genes, neuroplasticity and development, individual experience, mental illness, and cultural values. That is wonderful.

It’s also an area for caution, as broad brush strokes can miss important points, particularly in how we interpret the data in light of our notions about “culture.” Greg wrote last in Escaping Orientalism in cultural psychology:

[T]he experimental design, analysis and interpretation tends to assume that the groups are ‘opposed’ on some key trait, selecting which experimental procedures to run and which questions to ask. A whole field of messy, non-opposed traits, tendencies or characteristics are ignored that would not show the pattern of East v. West, adding to the appearance that there are ‘Two Cultures’ and they are opposite to each other.

This assumption of opposition and the imposition of homogeneity contribute to what I’m suggesting is a kind of neural Orientalism, to borrow from Edward Said (1978). Without getting into Said’s work, or the controversy around it too much, this understanding of cultural difference tends to exacerbate the gap between groups while simultaneously obscuring variation within them.

But even if we get over these issues, as Cohen advocates, and start exploring other sorts of cultural opposition, I don’t believe we’re going to make too much headway as long as we continue to employ several unexamined assumptions about culture that Cohen still makes: the assumption that culture is overarching, ideational structure and that it can be treated as an entity.

The problem with assuming that culture is an over-arching, ideational structure is that it tends to look for simplistic explanations for a complex multitude of data; for example, we find all kinds of differences between ‘Asians’ and ‘Westerners’ because ‘Asians’ are one thing and ‘Westerners’ are another, not because they have a myriad different customs, divergent historical experiences, different economic contexts, etc. etc.

In my piece on cultural neuroscience, I wrote:

Cross-cultural psychological work has largely examined differences in human cognition through behavior experiments, while social neuroscience has aimed to establish the “neural correlates of interpersonal and social behaviours.” Cultural neuroscience ties cultural cognition and social neuroscience together…

The one thing that bothers me the most in the end is that we have “culture” and “brain” without context, body, experience or behavior. Neural substrates and cultural cognition are a poor substitute for the role of the body, everyday practices, and potent symbols in our lives…

But the anthropologist often goes from critique to critique, and freezes when asked, Well, if you don’t agree, how would you test culture using neuroimaging? To answer that question, I would start by paying attention to the work and ideas of people like Shihui Han and George Northoff. They are actually doing the work, learning from their exciting results and from the mistakes made along the way.

Thankfully David Dobbs also embraces these complexities – he goes from Chiao’s work into other supporting research, and then onwards to think seriously about experience, sociality, and every-day life. I’ll leave off with a great sequence in his post. And many kudos!

We tend to view bad experience — abuse, violence, extreme stress, family strife — as toxic, and risk genes as semi-immunological weaknesses that let the toxin take hold. And maltreatment is clearly toxic. Yet if social support can almost completely block the effects of a severe toxin in a vulnerable individual, isn’t a lack of social support almost as toxic as the severe maltreatment? Even this clever study’s design and language frame “social support” as a protective add-on. But this framing implies that humanity’s default state is isolation. it’s not. Our default state is connection. To be unconnected — to feel alone — is to endure a trial almost as noxious as regular beatings and sharp neglect.

Link to Dobbs’ piece on depression, genetics, culture, and experience.

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2 Responses to Neuron Culture Gets Wired – and Gets into a Neurocultural Funk!

  1. Pingback: Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock

  2. Steve Silberman says:

    Fascinating post, thank you Daniel!

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