Neuroanthropology – 2012 in Review

Neuroanthropology had a banner year in 2012. The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology came out, as did the special issue on “Neuroanthropology and Its Applications.” The AAA session on “Brains in the Wild: The Challenges of Neuroanthropology” was a wild success. Microblogging neuroanthropology on Facebook got off the ground quickly, and the Neuroanthropology Facebook Group has become a wonderful site to share ideas and research, and to discuss the latest developments in anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience.

Two classes – one graduate, one undergraduate – were taught on neuroanthropology this year. There was another special issue on neuroanthropology put together by a separate group of scholars in the spring, and Greg and I were thrilled to have neuroanthropology be an important part of the Culture, Mind and Brain conference. And the blog itself continued on strong.

So let’s break that down. (1) Scholarship. (2) Teaching. (3) Conferences. (4) Social Media. And (5) the Blog. And lots of links in each section.


The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT Press) laid out the theoretical foundations for the field and featured ten case studies from different anthropologists showing this new approach in action. Dirk Hanson and Peter Stromberg have both written positive reviews of the book. It took years of work to create this volume, and Greg and I once again want to thank everyone involved!!

Neuroanthropology and Its Applications presented neuroanthropology as an applied field and featured nine papers that showed applied neuroanthropology in action. I also posted on further ideas about applied research and developing interventions, and also featured a wonderful video, with important applied and theoretical implications, in So He Gave Me These Sounds.

The journal Anthropological Theory also had a special issue on neuroanthropology with four main articles Juan Dominguez, Robert Turner, Charles Whitehead, and Stephen Reyna, and an extensive commentary by Andreas Roepstorff and Chris Frith. It’s great to have an extended and growing group of scholars in this area.

Stephen Reyna wrote on Boas’s Dream and the Emergence of Neuroanthropology in Anthropology News. I too wrote on the founding figure of American anthropology and this modern effort at holistic anthropology in the companion piece Franz Boas and Neuroanthropology.

Sarah Mahler published her book Culture as Comfort. A real cross-over, as it integrates human development, neuroanthropology, and applied cultural work into one package to illustrate what culture is, how it works, and how we can better engage with our cultural comforts and discomforts in an increasingly multicultural world. A good book for introductory classes, applied settings, and popular reading.

Finally, Ben Campbell, a contributor to The Encultured Brain, gave the “Neuroanthropology Perspective” (pdf) in Evolutionary Anthropology’s great journal forum on What Makes Us Human?


Two classes at two universities used The Encultured Brain as the basis for teaching neuroanthropology. Jason DeCaro taught an undergraduate class in neuroanthropology at the University of Alabama this fall.

ANT 474 Neuroanthropology. This course provides an introduction to evolutionary and biocultural approaches within anthropology to the central and peripheral nervous systems and their interconnections. Topics include the evolution of the brain; how culture and social structure shape the brain, its development, and its activity; and anthropological perspectives on connections among culture, behavior, brain, mind, and body.

Here’s how Jason described the outcome:

Outcome of first ever UA Neuroanthropology class: out of 11 undergrads, two now plan to pursue this line of research in grad school, and one is constructing an honors thesis around it. That’s what I call a successful debut. Thanks to Daniel Lende, Gregory J Downey, and the contributors to The Encultured Brain, the outstanding foundational textbook which helped create all this excitement.

I taught a graduate class in Neuroanthropology here at the University of South Florida, and it also was a success. Here’s my description:

This class will provide students with a comprehensive overview of the emerging field of neuroanthropology. Students will learn the basics of neuroscience and how anthropologists can effectively draw on this research for their own work. Students will also learn ways to critically interrogate neuroscience, both the actual studies and the increasing popular use of “the brain” in political and popular discourses. The course will also cover the distinctive anthropological elements for doing neuroanthropology research. Students will be expected to develop their own research ideas – from synthetic to critical – as part of pushing forward this new field of scholarship.

Chris Lynn, also at Alabama, gave a great talk on teaching undergraduates neuroanthropology at the AAA session “Brains in the Wild.” Chris described his hands-on, project-based approach to involving students in actively learning and doing neuroanthropology, drawing on the infrastructure at Alabama that includes the Human Behavioral Ecology Research Group and the Developmental Ecology and Human Biology Lab.

I’d love to see Chris make his talk available online at some point, perhaps as a blog post. In lieu of that, Chris does discuss how he improved his teaching with his post Notes on Improving a Graduate-Level Course in the Principles of Physical Anthropology.

What Chris described at the AAAs brought to mind some of my own collaborative projects, including my community-based health research at Notre Dame, the medical anthropology wiki done with graduate students, and having students create blog posts as part of their coursework.


Brains in the Wild: The Challenges of Neuroanthropology” was an invited session at the 2012 American Anthropological Association meeting in San Francisco. The session featured Greg and myself, along with Sarah Mahler, Chris Lynn, and Jeff Snodgrass. Max Stein, a graduate student at Alabama, wrote up a great summary of the session in his post, Brains in the Wild: Update from the AAAs.

In the true spirit of anthropology, each author deals with culturally-shaped aspects of peoples’ lives: Lende with addiction, Mahler with enculturation, religion as resilience for Snodgrass, and conceptualizations of self for Downey. These clearly fit within broader, classic themes in anthropology, but what about their approach makes these analyses markedly ‘neuroanthropological’? …

All their efforts share an explicit intention of rejecting classic distinctions between biology and culture in exchange for one that fuses the two, and human behavior, especially ritual, is proposed as a way to link them. Furthermore, collective knowledge and norms which direct behavior need to be examined to answer ‘why’ people behave a certain way, such as seeking illegal substances to feed an addiction because it is socially acceptable to a group of addicts, even though it may be stigmatized outside of such a group…

Consensus is also reached with respect to how anthropologists can make their voices heard, and the first step is multifactorial, interdisciplinary research. One of the most important suggestions is to not fear science, but embrace it.

I want to highlight writing from each of the other presenters – Sarah, Jeff, and Chris. That will give you a real sense of how they each are doing neuroanthropology.

Sarah wrote a March post on her Culture as Comfort site entitled Personality Stability, Cultural Flux. It opens:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our minds carve out the sensation of stability and continuity in a world of continual flux. What continual flux, you ask? Well, at a minimum there is day into night, season into season, life into death, etc. all the time. Children grow up, neighborhoods change and so on. That’s not counting changes in world affairs, technology, climate and so on. Let’s leave those to the side for a moment and just think about the first fluxes.

Think in terms of circularity – that these changes are not linear but circular and repeated; thus, the stability we feel despite all this change might be derived from the predictability of these cycles. And I argue that predictability is really the key factor for the brain. Without predictability our brains would devote too much energy to trying to figure things out constantly, over and over again. When most of what we experience is packaged into known routines which are stored and recalled when needed, then we don’t have to spend that energy re-analyzing similar experiences as they occur. That’s how, as I like to say, “new” becomes “known.”

Jeff wrote about his World of Warcraft video game research in a post over on Somatosphere called Toward a Neuroanthropology of Immersive Online Gaming and Cyberdependence.

Perspectives and tools are now available to assess whether problematic online gaming resembles an addiction to substances that have a clear neurological and biochemical basis. Further, given what we now know about substance abuse and addiction and contextual learning, neuroanthropology would be particularly well-placed to address issues related to problematic online play and to make clinical recommendations that could importantly shape future versions of the DSM.

But to effectively assess the character of problematic online play requires looking at three mutually determining levels of analysis: biological (brain), psychological (mind), and contextual (sociocultural). In reference to theory, the challenge is to model the way these three levels interact with each other to produce specific kinds of compulsions. Methodologically, we need to precisely and systematically measure phenomena on each of these levels in order to understand their interrelationships. In discussing these issues of theory and method, I present my vision of a neuroanthropology of “cyberdependence.”

And Chris penned one of my favorite posts of the year with Remembering Brent Colyer: Serotonin, Alcoholism, & Evolution. His dear friend had just died from alcohol poisoning. Chris works to understand what might have happened and why, and also to remember this person who shared so many years of life together.

I want to write around Brent, as a way to process his death, & because I think it’s relevant, though I don’t know precisely why. I think I need to do this because we were once best friends, & I think it’s important to invoke him as an integral influence on my life. We wrote for the high school newspaper together. We came of age together. I followed him to New York City. We started a band together. We were roommates, co-workers, brothers-in-arms. He was among the people I’ve been closest to in my life. He remembered things about me that even I don’t know or had forgotten; & so with his death a part of me has died, & it feels that way. So I need to do something commemorative & integrative with what there is of him that is still with me. I’ll start with how he died & what we celebrated together when we were young.

Neuroanthropology was also part of another conference this year, the great Culture, Mind and Brain conference put together by the Foundation for Psychocultural Research and UCLA. Greg gave one of the first talks in the opening session, “Why Culture, Mind and Brain?” Besides featuring neuroanthropology and The Encultured Brain, Greg discussed research by Joe Henrich and Steven Heine with his talk, Weird Enough for You Yet? You can get a sense of Greg’s talk from his extensive 2010 post, We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough?

I wrote summaries of Day One (think genetics and epigenetics) and Day Two (think stress and culture & mind). Work from the session I organized on stress, trauma, and resilience was just featured in the New York Times, and I wrote a commentary and summary and also embedded the video from this session in the post, Trauma – The Importance of the Post-Trauma Environment.

Social Media

Neuroanthropology took Facebook by storm this year. Well, maybe storm is an exaggeration, but there’s been great growth on that platform. We started micro-blogging on Neuroanthropology Facebook, sharing links and short commentaries on research and news (similar to the old Wednesday round ups). The site has grown quickly, with 1400+ likes at present. You can get an overview of the micro-blogging through the end of October with the post, Neuroanthropology on Facebook – A Round-Up of the Good Stuff.

Chris Lynn took the lead on forming a Neuroanthropology Facebook Interest Group. That has reached 750 members! It’s a great place to discuss ideas and share links to the latest research. A very interactive site, with a wide range of people taking part, including interested members of the public, undergraduates, and even full professors.

Finally, Greg recently started a Neuroanthropology Scoop.It, a visually appealing way to share links and short commentaries. It definitely looks pretty, and Greg gives a great selection of neuroanthropology-related material there.

The Blog

Neuroanthropology PLOS had a great year. 350,000 pageviews, with 220,000 visitors from 197 different countries and territories. 22% of visits were by returning visitors, and for 32,000 of the pageviews, people stayed 10 minutes or more on site. There is a core audience out there reading what we write. We thank you, and also thank the great people at PLOS. It was wonderful to meet you in person this year!

So, finally, some of the top posts of 2012. I’ll focus on the major ones Greg and I posted over the year. There were some fun posts, on Zombie evolution and Michael Phelps and his taper, that were popular. But I’ll be more substantive here.

Daniel’s Top Posts:
(1) Inside the Minds of Mass Killers, which covered the Aurora Batman shootings. You can see the follow-up post on Newtown and Violence.

(2) American Anthropological Association Takes Stand against Open Access, followed shortly thereafter by American Anthropological Association Changes Opposition to Open Access (which also included my proposal for a common open-access book review site)

(3) Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Evolution of Inequality – Does Unfairness Triumph After All?

(4) Why Does the United States Rank So Badly in Health?

(5) Neuroscience and Race: Outlining the Neuroanthropology of Race

Greg’s Top Posts:
(1) Roid Age: steroids in sport and the paradox of pharmacological puritanism, with his follow-up piece on Olympic marathons and continued analysis of the sports and politics of athletic enhancement

(2) The long, slow sexual revolution with nsfw video

(3) Tanya Luhrmann, hearing voices in Accra and Chenai

(4) Not allowed to have a small heart: Tourette Syndrome

(5) ‘Man-sheep-dog’: inter-species social skills

Greg and I also had great fun doing a joint post together – a raucous conversation almost – on Thomas Friedman’s Lessons for Anthropologists. Greg followed that up with his own piece on the new PopAnth initiative and the future of popular anthropology more generally.

It’s been a great year. Thank you to everyone. Happy New Year!

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