Applied Neuroanthropology: A New Field & A New Issue

Neuroanthropology and Its Applications,” the summer issue of the journal Annals of Anthropological Practice, is now out. The full issue includes ten articles – a comprehensive introduction, and then nine articles split into three sections.

I am proud of this collection. Alongside The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology– which establishes the theoretical and ethnographic bases of the field – this issue demonstrates how neuroanthropology is an applied field from the start. Many thanks to the contributors and to my co-editor Greg Downey.

Introductory Essay: Neuroanthropology and Its Applications

A succinct background to neuroanthropology, including how it draws on distinct theoretical strands from distinct sub-fields inside anthropology. This essay then provides a framework for future work in applied neuroanthropology.

Sociocultural Analyses and Engagement

Greg Downey, Cultural Variation in Rugby Skills: From Research to Coaching

Cultural differences in sports playing styles may be the result of players possessing diverging cognitive–perceptual strategies, with resulting differences in the underlying neurological correlates of skilled behavior… Neurocognitive differences in skill have implications for talent identification, appropriate training, and the difficulty of capturing skilled action in laboratory settings, which artificially narrow players’ potential to use diverse problem solving strategies.

Eric Lindland & Nathaniel Kendall-Taylor, Sensical Translations: Applied Cognitive Communications

This article traces three case studies, in the areas of child mental health, budgets and taxes, and environmental health, where substantial gaps between scientific and public knowledge were identified, and describes the research process to develop “explanatory metaphors” to close those gaps and cultivate more accurate and expansive patterns of public thinking. Three distinct cognitively attuned communications tasks are described: (1) foregrounding an extant but recessive cognitive model prominent among the public; (2) filling a domain-specific “cognitive lacuna” in public thinking by introducing a modified version of an existing model from a kindred cognitive domain; and (3) building off of or working around an existing dominant cognitive model that is consistent with expert knowledge but incomplete.

Katie Glaskin, Empathy and the Robot

Roboticists developing socially interactive robots seek to design them in such a way that humans will readily anthropomorphize them. For this anthropomorphizing to occur, robots need to display emotion-like responses to elicit empathy from the person, so as to enable social interaction. This article focuses on roboticists’ efforts to create emotion-like responses in humanoid robots. Both the actual design process and the understanding of how these technologies can shape our daily lives are core applied dimensions of this work, from carrying out the research to capturing the critical implications of these technological innovations.

Mental and Behavioral Health

Brandon A. Kohrt, Sujen M. Maharjan, Damber Timsina, & James L. Griffith, Applying Nepali Ethnopsychology to Psychotherapy for the Treatment of Mental Illness and Prevention of Suicide among Bhutanese Refugees

Ethnopsychology is the study of emotions, suffering, the self, and social relationships from a cultural perspective. Nepali ethnopsychology can be used to develop and adapt mental health interventions for refugees. We discuss applying ethnopsychology to provide safe and effective mental healthcare for Bhutanese refugees, including cultural adaptation of cognitive behavior therapy, interpersonal therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy. Psychological interventions are proposed for the high rates of suicide among Bhutanese refugees.

Neely Myers, Toward an Applied Neuroanthropology of Psychosis: The Interplay of Culture, Brains, and Experience
Neuroanthropology investigates the ways that cultural context interacts with vulnerable people’s brains to both encourage and inhibit the neurodevelopmental processes that lead to a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia.

Culturally grounded investigations enable us to investigate the ways a person’s lived experiences perpetuate neural changes in the brain that may shape the onset and course of psychotic disorders. This article presents an ethnographic case study of a young man diagnosed with a psychotic disorder after spending 80 days in solitary confinement. Applied neuroanthropological research on the interplay of culture, brains, and experience in psychotic disorders contributes to clinical and policy recommendations that improve the lives of people diagnosed with a psychotic disorder around the globe in ways that are locally meaningful for them.

Gino Collura & Daniel Lende, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Neuroanthropology: Stopping PTSD before It Begins

The high rates of PTSD among veterans has pushed research and intervention to address the serious mental and behavioral health problems associated with wartime trauma. However, these efforts have largely proceeded using biomedical and psychological approaches, without recognizing the institutional and social contexts of trauma, adaptation, and recovery. Moreover, biomedical and psychological approaches have serious shortcomings in recognizing how individual–environment interactions, meaningful interpretations, and sense of identity play a key role in the impact of trauma and development (or not) of PTSD. A neuroanthropological approach can use ideas of neural plasticity and the encultured brain to link culture, interpretation and identity, and the impact of trauma.

Political Economy and Critical Analysis

Victoria Burbank, Life History and Real Life: An Example of Neuroanthropology in Aboriginal Australia

A recent conceptual reworking of the developmental origins of health and disease model that places it within a life history framework is used to interpret some of the history of people living today in the remote Arnhem Land community of Numbulwar. This approach suggests some of the means by which their past circumstances may have had an impact on their current health. A combination of history, ethnography, and the neurobiology of stress and pregnancy provides a neuroanthropological approach for considering the manner in which environmental stressors, particularly those of social origin, may have intergenerational consequences for health.

Helena Hansen & Mary Skinner, From White Bullets to Black Markets and Greened Medicine: The Neuroeconomics and Neuroracial Politics of Opioid Pharmaceuticals

Based on participant-observation and interviews among pharmaceutical executives, policy makers, patients and prescribers, this article describes the neuroeconomics and neuropolitics of new opioid maintenance treatments. This article contrasts the historical emergence of methadone clinics from the 1960s to the 1980s as a treatment for the Black and Latino urban poor, with the current emergence of buprenorphine, a maintenance opioid approved for prescription on doctor’s offices, as a treatment for white, middle-class prescription opioid abusers. The article then traces the counterintuitive result of bringing addiction pharmaceuticals into the medical mainstream in an effort to reduce the stigma of addiction: a two tiered system of addiction treatment that reinforces stigma among the urban poor, and enhances the biological, political, and economic dependence of all classes on opioid markets, both legal and illegal.

Daniel Lende, Poverty Poisons the Brain

This article systematically presents the research behind poverty poisons the brain, which includes the impact of socioeconomic status on human development, the developmental models used to understand how poverty impacts children, and the proximate social factors and brain mechanisms that represent the core causal model behind this research. Nevertheless, a simplistic cause–effect approach and the reduction of the social to the biological often hamper this type of research. A critical approach to how poverty poisons the brain provides the basis for making the shift to a more robust neuroanthropological approach to poverty. Neuroanthropology can utilize social embodiment, the dynamics of stress, and the production of inequality to transform research on poverty and children, and to make policy recommendations, do applied research, and craft and test interventions to deal with the pernicious impact of poverty.

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2 Responses to Applied Neuroanthropology: A New Field & A New Issue

  1. I see that there is no contribution from the perspective of Neuro Anthropology of Religion. Yet it’s an I retesting and developing field within it, albeit even more contentious, I suppose.

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