Summer Institute on Cultural Neuroscience 2013

By Sarah Mahler

Editor: Sarah Mahler is Professor of Anthropology at Florida International University. Daniel discussed her book, Culture as Comfort, here at Neuroanthropology, but you can also learn more at the spiffy website for the book, here. Sarah has extensive expertise in the study of migration, including its effects on the people left back home in communities where many members are out-bound. But she’s also developed an interest in neuroanthropology, as she explains in her piece… 

I recently returned from the Summer Institute on Cultural Neuroscience (SICN) hosted by the Center for Culture, Mind and the Brain at the University of Michigan from July 15-26th.  For those of you unfamiliar with SICN, this was the 4th consecutive summer for this institute, offered by the center’s co-directors, Shinobu Kitayama and Carolyn Yoon.

Participants in the Summer Institute on Cultural Neuroscience

Participants in the Summer Institute on Cultural Neuroscience

In attendance were some twenty participants from a wide array of countries: China, Korea, Japan, the U.S., Israel, France, Portugal, the UK, Canada, India, and the Netherlands.  Most were PhD students in psychology with a smaller number of psych and marketing post-docs.  Katell Morand, an ethnomusicologist from France interested in music’s effects on the brain, and me were the only anthropologists in attendance and neither of us really specializes in studying brain-culture connections.  She and I were there to learn rapidly, but we also found ways to contribute.

The SICN’s format was concentrated but simple: one or two major figures in the cultural neuroscience (CN) field presenting each day with discussion and Q&A structured in, fMRI lab sessions to gain exposure to this neuroscience method, massive amounts of nightly reading, a small group project at the end to apply the knowledge we acquired to a topic of our own interest, and plenty of social time with participants and organizers.  The SICN was intense but that aided a great deal in bonding. (Liz Losin also posted on this conference here at Neuroanthropology on the 2013 meeting of the International Cultural Neuroscience Consortium.)

The line-up of speakers included a very solid array of CN’s leaders:  Shinobu Kitayama (Michigan), Hazel Markus (Stanford), Richard Nisbett (Michigan), Denise Park (UT-Dallas), Jason Moser (Michigan State), Steven W. Cole (UCLA), Brian Knutson (Stanford), Kai Vogeley (U Cologne), Joan Chiao (Northwestern), Emily Falk (U Penn), Israel Liberzon (Michigan) and Randy Nesse (Michigan).

For those reading this post unfamiliar with CN, Joan Chiao of Northwestern, one of its leaders, defines the field as: “a theoretical and empirical approach to investigate and characterize the mechanisms by which [the] hypothesized bidirectional, mutual constitution of culture, brain, and genes occurs.”  In short, CN examines cross-cultural differences and looks for evidence of these within the brain both structurally and, in particular, functionally.  They address questions such as, “What brain regions and networks are active when people from different cultural backgrounds process the same information (such as pictures, scenarios, music, etc.)?”  (For a rundown of some good recent cultural neuroscience, see Daniel’s piece from earlier this year.)

To answer their questions, practitioners of CN utilize two primary methodologies: ERP (event-related brain potentials  — electrical impulses) and fMRI (functional MRI scans).  ERP involves detecting brain waves using electrodes placed on the scalp and is very effective at producing data nearly simultaneously with a stimulus.  Using fMRI involves capturing increased blood flow to stimulated brain areas.  Compared to ERP, fMRI is milliseconds to seconds slower since it takes time for the stimulus to cause the blood flow, but what fMRI loses to ERP in terms of time, it makes up in much better spatial location of activity.   As you can readily see, these methods do not study brains “in the wild” as neuroanthropologists are more likely to do.

Cultural Neuroscience is about a decade old and its publication rate indicates both the maturation of this subfield and the explosion in neuroscience more generally.  (For a good reference to these papers plus a useful critique of CN, see Martínez Matteo et al. 2012 “Concerns about cultural neurosciences: A critical analysis” in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.)

I was attracted to the summer institute because, as I was doing the background research for my new book Culture as Comfort, I became familiar with Kitayama and others’ publications on cultural “values.”  I had found very good (and usually non-anthropological) studies of how children learn in general and “identities” in particular, but less on learning “values.”  I wanted to better understand these “sticky” ideas that help people in “imagined communities” (Benedict Anderson 1991) feel connected, but how are these learned?  This inquiry led me to cultural psychology and from there to CN.

Basically, CN researchers have dedicated a great deal of effort to investigating what Geerdt Hofstede (Culture’s Consequences, 2001 and earlier publications) long ago identified as a principal distinction between communalism and individualism, also mapped these differences into comparisons between East and West.  This terminology—but not the east-west comparison—is practically abandoned by CN researchers who compare interdependent and more independent “cultures” (the use of “cultures” is deliberate here as I explain below).  The basic idea is that some peoples view the self as inseparable from their wider social context (family, friends, etc.) while other peoples understand the self as a largely independent entity.  In the former, the unit of analysis includes multiple people while in the latter it is the sole individual.

The research by the Institute’s presenters has focused very intensely on showing that, for example, photos from Facebook pages of westerners tend to focus on individuals while easterners include much more of the surrounding context; when offered colored pens, easterners will tend to take the most common color while westerners prefer the more unique color, etc.  These differences, they argue, are not just present, but they affect a multitude of everyday experiences.  For example, if you want to be successful at getting smokers in East Asia to stop, you’d better advertise how their smoking affects others while in the “West” you focus on how it affects you.

Additional CN research on major cross-cultural values differences (still following the lead of Hofstede) has entered the realm of power distance through research on “tightness-looseness” (how much people are closed or open to change, difference, etc.) and social dominance (whether people view society as more naturally hierarchical—people know and stay in their position—or more egalitarian—people de-emphasize hierarchies even if they exist and expect individuals to be able to move across statuses rather than being relegated to life-long positions).

CN papers consistently report measurable differences, particularly the majority of studies that compare easterners (Asians and usually East Asians) and westerners (primarily “Caucasian” or “European” Americans).  The researchers also engage in theorizing the causes of these observable differences.   Not surprisingly, their analysis emphasizes these as learned cultural perspectives, but there is also a growing volume of research connecting genetic polymorphisms with behavior differences.  Recent research that Kitayama and Steve W. Cole (UCLA) presented at the Institute exemplifies this trend, though they are not the only ones going in this direction.

Cole focuses on social genomics—the complex gene-environment interactions producing different cultural strategies which, in turn, promote survival.  For instance, research on rats indicates that social isolation and social instability are related to inflammation responses in the immune system.  Kitayama and colleagues link human genetic polymorphisms to east-west cultural patterns mentioned above.  For example, they study the neurotransmitter dopamine.  The DRD4 dopamine receptor has several variants which are not evenly distributed across populations.  To cut to the chase, they argue that the 7R version is both more common in European Americans (their term) and associated with more independent behaviors while the 2R version that is disproportionately found in Asian Americans is more associated with interdependence.  In sum, they argue that people do not just learn to be more inter- or independent, but that biological inheritance likely plays a role as well.

How does all this resonate with you?  I imagine that those publishing in neuroanthropology will feel more comfortable than those closer to classic cultural research. I encourage all readers to avoid snap judgments but, conversely, to take CN very seriously. Why?  After sitting in their midst for two weeks, I admire what they have been doing particularly given the relative inattention anthropologists have given to the phenomena they study. I have witnessed their admiration for perspectives beyond their discipline as well as for qualitative methods .  There are also multiple areas where people with a neuroanthropological orientation can make constructive input.  Let me develop these ideas with the rest of this essay.

Important Ideas from the SICN for Neuroanthropologists (and beyond) to ponder:

First of all, neuroscience is not only with us but it is gaining speed and investment.  Just ths year both Europe and the U.S. announced huge investments in mapping the brain.  Additionally, neuroscience is reaching the greater public like few other sciences before it.  Every year, dozens of new, popularly written books are published written by or about neuroscientists.  Their work is also regularly featured in the media.  Can we say the same about anthropology or sociology, etc.?

Second, cultural neuroscientists study cultural variations detectable neurologically while completely ignoring the cultural context of doing research: gluing wires to people’s heads or asking them to lie still while their bodies are strapped into gurneys and then inserted into what, to many, might seems like an eerie post-modern version of a cold womb.  Might there be cultural consequences on participants of participating in these research cultures, engaging with their peculiar artifacts and rituals?  That question never was discussed in the two weeks, although I waited for it.  Are there are emotional and psychological consequences of these experiments?  Imagine trying to convince some of your key informants to get their relatives to participate.  No wonder the studies to date have very, very limited experimental reach (more below).

Third, as Domínguez Duque and collaborators (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2010) as well as other neuroanthropologists have identified, CN tends use culture more as a variable (a synonym for a nation for example) than as a concept.   At the SICN I found that the presenters were generally more sophisticated in their use of the term, though the tendency to equate culture with nation, racial group or even hemisphere still occurred. That is, it is quite common to hear comparisons that made me feel very uncomfortable such as “Asian Americans compared against European (or worse yet Caucasian) Americans and Easterners versus Westerners.  To her credit, Hazel Markus engaged in the longest discussion during her presentation.  She stated that culture takes multiple forms and is evident not only cross-nationally but also between socioeconomic classes, generations, religions, and other sub-national groups.  She cited Clifford Geertz and quoted him as saying of observational studies that researchers need to ask, “What the devil are people up to?”  Yet when it came time to get down to research design, her work like the others, depended upon small, questionable samples used to represent much larger groups, be they nations, “cultures,” classes and so on.

Fourth, critiques of neuroscience open up space for other scholars’ strengths, in particular, the ability to collect and analyze people’s subjective ideas and place them in broader contexts.  That means there is ample space, and a few model studies, for collaborations that use the respective strengths of both CN and other disciplines in mixed-method studies.

Neuroscientists find associations between brain regions and behaviors; they also find patterns in their neural data that often contradict what subjects say they think.  The classic case here is implicit biases.  As evidenced for many types of bias by Project Implicit among other scholars, people who declare they do not hold prejudices nonetheless demonstrate these in their behaviors and on their fMRI scans.  In short, this is a classic case of people saying one thing but doing quite another.

However — and this is a big however — much of the neuroscience research falls short in explaining what it feels like to experience bias.  Anthropologists and other social scientists are excellent at attending to the meanings and significance people attach to their experiences, behaviors and beliefs.  Moreover, we are adept at the very kinds of exploratory research that CN needs to plan its (expensive, time consuming) experiments.

Consider the blended methodological research on cultural differences in optimism/pessimism that Katell’s small group proposed in the institute.  Their research design began by identifying polls citing the French as the most pessimistic people on Earth, even more so than Afghans.  But why?  To get at the cross-cultural distribution of pessimism, this team included a qualitative stage where they would gather data from different media across several societies and analyze them using text analysis for concepts related to optimism and pessimism, such as the degree of control people indicate that they have over their lives and their time orientation as more or less future-oriented.

These concepts and their variability across the societies would then inform the second phase of the study which would use a NC methodology to test the neural correlates of optimism/pessimism in study subjects from these same societies.  The result would then have both neuroscience and qualitative data with the likely outcome being a more nuanced interpretation of the former’s results.  These types of multi-method studies are not mere ideas.  Joan Chiao emphasized in her institute presentation and to me personally that neuroscience is not going to get the first-person perspective no matter how thoroughly it maps the brain and solves other problems.

Fifth, CN and psychology more generally are in the middle of a WEIRD crisis.  In their highly influential 2010 paper in Behavior and Brain Sciences, Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan have argued very effectively that the overwhelming majority of all psychology studies have been conducted on tiny samples of university undergraduates from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) populations (for a wonderful graphic if this problem, see or see Greg’s discussion of the WEIRD paper from 2010).  Despite this methodological weakness, thousands of studies using these small-N populations with questioned reliability are published yearly.

Such convenience sampling is unlikely to change due to costs, but anthropologists and other social scientists can and, I argue, should engage cultural neuroscientists in dialogues about potential remedies for the sampling issue.  Additionally, we can provide valuable input to their largely unquestioned use of highly problematic terms such as comparing “cultures” using categories including “Caucasian Americans,” “European Americans” and “East Asians,” let alone “westerners” and “easterners.”

With some exceptions, most presenters at the summer institute showed no qualms about making inferences from their tiny samples to large, presumably national or even continental patterns.  When I questioned such usage, my concerns were not taken too seriously for two reasons, I believe.  First, the research is still more exploratory than explanatory so the importance now is finding effects and reporting those to colleagues skeptical that culture matters.  Second, the expense of doing ERP and, in particular, fMRI is so high that small N studies are likely to be an unavoidable limitation.  This may open more doors for other social scientists relying on small samples.  The bigger issue to my mind is making unquestioned inferences to national populations, an isomorphism of equating peoples to territories marked by national boundaries that Gupta and Ferguson (1992), among others, have criticized.

Given that I attended the SICN with the goal not only of learning more but also of promoting collaboration and greater mutual understanding, I was grateful to have participated in this summer institute. Several other participants thanked me for my periodic interventions.  Katell shared similar experiences, and we were both glad to attend. Over the course of the two weeks, I realized that to keep track of, let alone command, this burgeoning literature, researchers really have to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to it and that has consequences.  Like any other area, as we specialize, we typically lose sight of the larger picture, of the linkages to broader phenomena and their literatures. As I have spent several years reading across and not within disciplines in preparation for writing Culture as Comfort and have also focused on broad understandings of human experience in my 20+ years as a professional anthropologist, I saw frequent and fertile connections between CN and other areas—connections others told me they did not make until I spoke up.

The best single example comes from one of the PhD students.  She told me that she found my “way of thinking” very useful. When I asked her to elaborate, she wrote that it helped her,

realize that [in my training] I have been restricted to a really narrow and biased [view on] ‘cultural difference’. For example, in this field of study, we stick with mainly independence vs. interdependence, analytic vs. holistic, promotion vs. prevention, etc. There should be a lot of other multi-level variations that cannot be captured by these criteria! Maybe cultural psychologists just ignore or are not able to detect them…

Upcoming Conference – Opportunities for the Neuroanthropology Minded to Present Their Work to CN

So where does this lead?  I encourage readers to familiarize yourself with as much CN work as you can.  For me, it was wonderful to meet the researchers, to hear them present their work and to meet many in person.  The SICN format also provided ample opportunities to engage with the next generation of scholars who will continue to build the field, important people with whom to network.

A really great upcoming opportunity to meet together is the 2014 International Cultural Neuroscience Consortium (ICNC) meeting to be held at the same center at University of Michigan April 18-19.  The conference will be only the second of the ICNC; the first was held earlier this year at Northwestern with Joan Chiao as the organizer. Shinobu Kitayama and Carolyn Yoon, the Institute’s co-directors and sponsors of the upcoming ICNC event, met with me and agreed that it is possible to attach a half-day to the ICNC to host a dialogue between attendees from CN, cultural psychology and anthropology (and beyond) if we wish.  And they very much encouraged us to submit our research for this conference.

So now I encourage you to prepare presentations for when the Call for Papers comes out this fall.  I’m sure the information will be shared in an upcoming blogpost.  I also encourage those of you who are stimulated by this post to attend next year’s SICN.  Applications will not be due until the spring, so there is plenty of time to set aside the second half of July and to raise the $1000 (grad students) or $2000 (faculty) price to attend.  I found it well worth the investment.

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