The Making of a Cultural Neuroscientist

My name is Liz Losin and I’m a social and cultural neuroscientist. I’m currently a postdoctoral researcher in Tor Wager’s lab at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I’m delighted and honored to be joining Neuroanthropology!

Here, in my first post, I’ll tell you how I came to study cultural neuroscience and give you an insider’s perspective on how the field has grown. I’ll also tell you a bit about my specific research interests and give you an idea of what I’ll be blogging about.

I started on the path towards a career in science in the 4th grade when I read Koko’s Kitten, the children’s book about Koko, the gorilla whom Dr. Penny Patterson taught to use American Sign Language. I, too, wanted to communicate with apes and find out how they thought! I had set my sights on studying primate cognition.

In middle school and high school, my journey towards a career in primatology was facilitated by information, advice and encouragement from a number of generous scientists, which I was able to parlay into my web page for other young people interested in primatology: Primatology Future Tense. I am especially grateful that these scientists were willing to engage in science outreach at a point when this had to be done by answering my emails through Gopher and sending me books in the mail rather than simply directing me to a pertinent blog. I realized my childhood dream in college when I completed an honors thesis on chimpanzee communication with Bill Hopkins at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

Although I was passionate about this work, I realized that part of what led me to study apes was a curiosity about the origins of human cognition. It seemed that some of the questions that fascinated me the most, such as the mechanisms underlying complex human cultural capacities, could not be answered from studying nonhuman primates alone.

This interest in studying human culture and cognition solidified when, in a single semester, I took Joe Henrich’s Psychological Anthropology class and Jim Rilling’s Social Neuroscience class at Emory University. Psychological Anthropology opened my eyes to cultural diversity in cognition and behavior, but I was left wondering how this diversity was instantiated in the brain. In contrast, Social Neuroscience provided insights about the neural correlates of human social behavior using functional neuroimaging. I was surprised, however, that none of the studies we discussed in class, not even studies of racial perception, considered subjects’ own cultural backgrounds.

I realized that neither discipline was providing a complete picture of human behavior and its underlying mechanisms, and this realization led me to my next goal, the one I am still pursuing: to use my training in anthropology and neuroscience to study the bidirectional interactions between culture and the brain.

When discussing this career goal in my graduate school interviews 7 years ago, studying culture and the brain was practically unheard of. The reactions I got from many of the faculty in the neuroscience programs to which I applied gave me a clue as to why. They ranged from questioning the feasibility of studying such high-level questions with neuroscience methods to telling me, in as many words, that I was committing career suicide.

It was clear that in 2006, the disciplinary boundaries between the social and natural sciences were a formidable barrier to studying culture and the brain at many of the universities where I interviewed. Although many of these boundaries still exist today, the field has come a long way. We now have a journal, Culture and Brain, a conference, the International Cultural Neuroscience Consortium conference, and a summer school, The University of Michigan Center for Culture, Mind, and the Brain Summer Institute in Cultural Neuroscience (which will be in it’s 4th year this summer). In addition to a host of empirical papers, there have been a number of review articles, special issues and conference symposia devoted to cultural neuroscience. The field has a Wikipedia page, and searching for “Cultural Neuroscience” on Google yields over 21,000 hits.

As for my own growth as a cultural neuroscientist, although I did not accomplish the goal I expressed to my graduate school advisor of being the first researcher to use the term cultural neuroscience- I believe that honor goes to  Joan Chiao at the Northwestern University- I was able to find an academic home in the FPR-UCLA’s Culture, Brain and Development program and participate in the growth of this promising new field.

My dissertation research (supervised by Mirella Dapretto and Marco Iacoboni) focused on examining the neural mechanisms underlying cultural learning.

I began by considering anthropological theories about imitative biases, theories to which I was introduced to in that Psychological Anthropology class as an undergraduate. According to those theories, people’s tendencies to imitate certain kinds of individuals over others (e.g. to prefer others like them, or those high in status) would likely increase the efficiency of cultural learning. I used functional MRI to investigate a) what neural systems support these imitative biases and b) how they may differ depending on one’s own cultural background.

This work was supported, both intellectually and financially, by the FPR-UCLA Culture, Brain and Development Program (CBD). CBD is an interdisciplinary, cross-departmental program that provides students training, mentorship and funding to facilitate research that combines theory and methods from these three disciplines. I believe that such programs will be critical in advancing fields that bridge the social and biological sciences, such as cultural neuroscience, because they help students overcome what might otherwise be insurmountable disciplinary boundaries, and provide financial support for work that might be considered too risky for some traditional funding agencies.

In my postdoctoral research, I’m taking my cultural neuroscience research in two new directions that I hope will further increase the potential impacts of its findings. First, I am investigating socio-cultural influences on human health. Specifically, I am investigating how socio-cultural norms and sociocultural similarity between doctors and their patients influence pain perception and other aspects of the medical care experience. I believe that asking cultural neuroscience questions in the context of research on human health is one of the best ways to allow this work to have a direct impact on the lives of others. I also believe that this work represents an important, but mostly overlooked, aspect of human health and disease.

Second, I’m applying new multivariate statistical analysis methods, such as machine learning, to cultural neuroscience questions. Such techniques are better than traditional neuroimaging analysis methods for establishing close connections between brain and behavior. For this reason, I think these new methods will be especially useful in tackling the often thorny questions posed by cultural neuroscience.

In broader strokes, my research interests encompass the use of neuroscience methods to investigate the reciprocal interactions between social and cultural processes in the brain. I’m equally passionate about science outreach. I hope to integrate these interests and my own research experience into my blog posts here on Neuroanthropology.

Some of the areas I plan to cover are: 1) recent advances in cultural neuroscience and related fields, 2) the interaction between this work and society, including its potential applications and impacts on human health, and 3) how cultural neuroscience can inform, and learn from, research on non-human animals. I’m looking forward to being part of the Neuroanthropology community, and I encourage you to add your own thoughts to the conversation in the comments section below! Thanks!

Photo Credits:
Portrait: Neil Losin
Race Research Image: Race modulates neural activity during imitation (abstract)
Liz Demo: Cynthia Lee

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3 Responses to The Making of a Cultural Neuroscientist

  1. Dylan Kerrigan (@rumagin) says:

    Nice story and introduction.

    Reading the abstract to which you look im still left concerned about a sensed determinism within this emerging field.

    For example, there is a clear assumption of the existence of race and races and by implication that this would be uniform across all cultures (ie US race categories are culturally distinct to say Trinidad and Tobago race categories. And Black or African-American Race are not monolithic categories.)

    As has been shown by persons such as Gravlee, Clarence C. 2009. ‘How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality’ in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 139, pp. 47–57, yes race can become real as a determinant of health inequalities but that does not make race any less socially, historically and cultural constituted. The biological evidence for races is slippery and open to interpretation.

    My fear with much of the abstracts i read in Culture and Brain or here, is the simple chicken and egg question. Much of the research seems to make assumptions in terms of science, language, and concepts that are themselves culturally specific. The deduction is self reinforcing. You find what you are looking for.

    That is not to say i don’t see the science and relationship between culture and brain development, rather than those persons in the vanguard need to apply far more anthropology and by that i would suggest reflexivity to their methodologies and experiments. Otherwise the field itself might risk accusations of ethnocentrism and racism itself.

  2. elosin says:

    Hi Dylan,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment! The issues of race as biology vs. culture, and the influence of the researcher’s own culturally situated perspective are things I think about a lot both personally and in my research.

    For me, what is most interesting about the concept of race is how it functions as a social and cultural construct that influences people’s perceptions of others and their interactions with them, and this is the sense in which I primarily investigate race within my research. From this perspective, the broad racial categories people often categorize others into, based on a general set of physical characteristics such as skin color, may be just as influential on a person’s social experiences (at least their superficial ones) as their actual ethnic/cultural identities. The way people are typically categorized by others in turn evokes a predetermined set of stereotypes and accompanying behaviors towards them, which can serve to homogenize the experiences of individuals often assigned to the same racial category even if their actual cultural backgrounds differ greatly. This is why I think it is reasonable to use racial categories in research, if these are the types of effects being investigated. I would love to hear more of your thoughts.