Greg and I are having a fabulous time here at UCLA and the Culture, Mind and Brain conference. With Greg in Australia and me in Tampa, we don’t get to see each other in person that often. We had a great brain storming and planning session right before the conference on our next projects – but that’s a post for another day.
For whatever reason, links are not working on this computer easily. So here is the main website for the conference. Please check it out. A lot more information there, and links to all the speakers’ sites and so forth.
Day One in a nutshell. Three themes:
Steve Heine, Marco Iacoboni, and Greg Downey. Weird samples, which narrow our vision to human variation and pointedly question assumptions of universality. Weird scanners, which create their own experimental environments, and the need for new designs that recognize brain processes like mirror neurons as biomarkers of sociality. Embracing the exotic, so we expand our recognition of the envelope of human possibilities and recognize how that envelope is often built from crooked neurological timber.
Steve Cole, Edith Chen, Steve Suomi, John Capitanio, and John Cacioppo.
Cole delivered a magisterial overview of genetics and epigenetics, and how highly contingent biological processes force us to recognize that our bodies are products of culture. He showed, using cascades of biological functioning, how cells are permeable and embodied, so that experiences and environments on the outside can bevome real biochemistry. He emphasized quite strongly that “subjective experience is the effective experience.” Coupled to that, social genomic processes give a temporal persistence to our embodied selves, and this social biochemistry means that we are embedded in and reflections of our own experience and local environments over various time courses. To understand the genome, then, we need to know what other genomes are around a person – the metagenome.
Chen, Suomi, Capitanio, and Cacioppo provided powerful examples of how this overall biological dynamism happens. Chen focused on socioeconomic status and gene expression, examining the link between perceptions of the social world (e.g., social threat and low SES) linked to transcription factors in dynamic ways. Suomi demonstrated the impact of early mothering and early mirroring, demonstrating how the agentive intentionality of both mothers and babies, shaped across different situations, can have lifelong impacts. Capitanio showed us how social and individual factors, often in interaction, affects gene expression and immune function in rhesus monkeys. Cacioppo demonstrated the powerful impact of social isolation on our biological function and health, and gave us the counter-intuitive evidence that the oldest parts of our immune system are in fact most open to social influence. We are social creatures with a time depth that extends back to our origins.
The third session gave us a different approach to culture, mind and brain. Here the key to working across these three domains, and across disciplines, is to recognize the different elements in play -, say, cultural beliefs, psychological function, and genetics – and measure representative factors as best as possible and then see how the data play out. It is the start of a new sort of model building, still quite young and thus bounding some of the variation and dynamism seem in the first two sessions for an approach that tries to get empirical purchase on the array of factors we recognize as shaping our lives.
John Novembre gave an overview of the often unrecognized genetic diversity around the world, much of it recent, most of it quite subtle in its effects and its distribution. He then presented rare genetic variants as a way to think about evolution, migration, health, and other domains.
Heejung Kim presented oxytoic and dopamine polymorphisms in cross-cultural view. What was impressive was her demonstration of how different variants look to code for cultural susceptibility in specific domains, such that in Korea, the GG variant of oxytocin shows more emotional suppression (in line with cultural values tehre) while in the United States the GG variant is the one that actually demonstrates less emotional suppression. And Korean immigrants to the United States show intriguing shifts to the new cultural pattern, with the GG variant moving more.
Finally, Joan Chiao gave a rapid overview of cultural neuroscience, focusing on her work where ecology pushes both genetics and culture, and those then shape the brain, and those co-evolutionary formed neurological processes then lead to patterned behavior. By taking each of these domains into account, better understanding of how one area leads to another (including how genes and culture interact) produces novel recognitions of how human diversity can get patterned.
Thus, the final talk came back to the first one, presenting one model of how to understand cultural diversity beyond weird undergraduates and assumed universality. That model leaves room for dynamic approaches to diversity and divisions within societies, and as Carol Worthman said in earlier comments, leaves open the question that anthropology has long addressed, getting at the underlying processes that produce variation rather than taking the phenotypes or outcomes as what should be measured. A diversity of models and of processes, then…
Here are some miscellaneous reflections I had over the course of the day.
Marco Iacobono stated rather provocatively that he doesn’t care about the brain, and then in his talk, showing mirror neurons as markers for sociality. But the interesting thing over the day was that, even if people talked about dropping out the biology, everyone still built their approaches around biology. As someone who studies addiction, biological mechanisms certainly drew attention, produced deep engagement, and compelled certain types of research, even as the speakers presented social genomes and subjective environments and cultural patterns. I found it a fascinating tension.
And here anthropology can add a great deal, from opening up what often seems like a black box. Our understanding of social processes and cultural experience can help provide the same sort of dynamism on the outside of bodies and biochemistry. Provided we too can let go of some of our own temptations of explanation.
The other interesting discussion, which people circled around but couldn’t quite put all the pieces together, is what exactly will some of the systemic dynamics and organizing social/biological pathways look like and function. In other words, as dynamic biology, subjective experierience, and embedded social processes come together, these too will demonstrate regularities and patterns. A certain sort of systemic shape that can take on different, often subtle forms that we will have to work hard at teasing apart and yet surely play a foundational role in the lives we lead.
So those are my reflections. Looking forward to the second day. Forgive typos and grammar, as this is a one-and-done deal. Gotta get ready for another great day at the conference.
Update: Day Two Coverage is now up.