Finding Middle Ground on Neuroscience

Bubble Eye GoldfishLed by books like Raymond Tallis’ Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanityand Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld’s recent Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, there’s plenty of neuro-bashing going on. Even USA Today is getting in on it, with its June 22nd piece, Has neuroscience left us ‘Brainwashed’? That’s mainstream.

This piece is not about how right or wrong the critics are. They are right on the over-extension of scientific results, right on the crude and often misguided popularization that can have little to do with the science, and right that things really go wrong when scientists’ over-extension and the popular imagination come together in nasty ways that have little to do with the science and a lot to do with power and culture. See, for example, the work of Cordelia Fine and the Delusions of Gender.

But that doesn’t mean that the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater. The critics leave one feeling that whoa, maybe this should have never happened in the first place. And that’s an untenable position. One, it already has happened – neuroscience has become part of the popular imagination. And two, the questions being posed about humanity and the science of ourselves are ones can be fruitfully answered by drawing on good science and good interpretation, wherever such work may be found.

A suite of defenders of neuroscience have rallied forth in recent days, ones that operate in this border zone. Critical inquiry is necessary, but so too is the science of neuroscience. Here are three to highlight.

Gary Marcus and The Problem with the Neuroscience Backlash

The worst possibility of a full-scale, reckless backlash against neuroscience, to the exclusion of the field’s best work, is that it might sacrifice important insights that could reshape psychiatry and medicine. A colleague at N.Y.U., the neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps, wrote in an e-mail: “It would be ridiculous to suggest that we shouldn’t use brain science to help in the treatment/diagnosis of mental disorders, but if one takes the [current backlash] to the extreme, that is the logical conclusion.” …

For now, we still need fields like psychology and psychiatry, which take the mind as their starting point, rather than the brain, to complement neuroscience. The basic elements of psychology, like beliefs, desires, goals, and thoughts, will likely always play a key role in our understanding of human behavior, which is why science needs researchers who study the mind every bit as much as it needs researchers who study the brain. Our aim should not be to pick the brain over the mind, or vice versa, but to build stronger bridges between our understandings of the two.

[Keep going. The goldfish reference is coming...]
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Category: Addiction, Brain, Critique, Mind, Society | 14 Comments

International Cultural Neuroscience Consortium meeting: The Breadth and Depth of Cultural Neuroscience

ICNC_2013I recently returned from the first meeting of the International Cultural Neuroscience Consortium, hosted by Joan Chiao at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. As a cultural neuroscientist myself, I was incredibly excited to be attending one of the first meetings focused specifically on questions concerning the interactions between culture and the brain, but even I was not prepared for the breadth and depth of cultural neuroscience research that this meeting showcased.  I also found that the meeting’s attendees were impressively diverse, not only in terms of their cultural backgrounds, but also their areas of expertise and career stage.

In this post, I’ll highlight research presented at the meeting from several of the most compelling current research areas in cultural neuroscience, particularly work that underscores emerging themes in cultural neuroscience. Here I’ll cover presentations on culture and emotion, intergroup processes, and gene-culture interaction.

The meeting took place over three days. Presentations included 1) Poster sessions featuring the work of a number of graduate students, 2) Symposia about current research, as well as conceptual and methodological issues in cultural neuroscience, 3) Workshops on areas of the field’s growth, such as defining culture in cultural neuroscience research, 4) A keynote lecture by an anthropologist and one of the early pioneers in neuroimaging, Robert Turner, and finally, 5) Talks by several members of the NIH on the ever-important topic of funding.

 

Current Themes in Cultural Neuroscience:

 Culture and Emotion

emoticons2I thought one of the most interesting research topics at the meeting focused on the ways that culture shapes people’s emotional experiences – and the physiology that accompanies such experiences. This theme was epitomized by the work of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and her graduate student Xiao-Fei Yang based at University of Southern California. Dr. Immordino-Yang studies the relationship between emotions and bodily states.

It’s well established that one bodily component of emotion, its outward expression in terms of gestures and facial expression, is shaped by cultural norms. For example, East Asians tend to value less emotional expressivity than European Americans. What has been unclear is whether these cultural display rules also influence people’s internal experiences of emotion.

Dr. Immordino-Yang described a study aimed at answering this question. She used anthropology-style open-ended interviews about emotional stories to induce emotion and measure its expression in her study participants. She paired these interviews with brain imaging and heart rate measurements to measure the bodily states accompanying the emotions the induced.

Interestingly she found that it was not people’s assessments of emotion that differed based on cultural background, but the relationship between these feelings and the bodily states (both heart rate and brain activity) that accompanied them, suggesting that cultural experience may be shaping the way people translate bodily reactions into emotional feelings, rather than the intensity of those emotions themselves.

Although there were many other excellent presentations on culture and emotion, Dr. Immordino-Yang’s work stood out because her she measured both the cultural and biological sides of her question in great depth, inducing a full-blown emotional experience in the lab and measuring multiple biological correlates of emotion. I believe such approaches, which combine anthropological and neuroscience methods, are what will be necessary to allow cultural neuroscience research to reach its full potential. Research like Dr. Immordino-Yang’s, focusing on how cultural norms shape emotion will likely be critical for increasing the customization and efficacy of mental health treatment.

 

Intergroup Processes

Another theme at the meeting, one that’s especially near and dear to my heart, was that of intergroup processes, i.e. the interactions between people from different cultural/ethnic/racial groups. Although this topic has previously been subsumed under the umbrella of social neuroscience, and is undeniably social in nature, I believe cultural neuroscience has much to contribute to this research.

I especially enjoyed the presentation of Dr. Bobby Cheon, a postdoctoral researcher at the Nanyang Business School in Singapore. Dr. Cheon studies how cultural and social context influences between- and within-group social processes, such as prejudice and empathy. It is all too well known that discrimination and prejudice exist, but we still don’t have a complete understanding of the factors that drive these intergroup processes.

Dr. Cheon presented a series of studies aimed at elucidating both the social-environmental and biological factors that make people perceive groups other than their own (i.e., “outgroups”) as threatening. He found that those with a genetic variant that has been associated with greater sensitivity to environmental threats (a variant of of the serotonin transporter gene) were more likely to be influenced by prior negative experiences with outgroup members – and even general perceptions that the environment was threatening – and then discriminate against outgroup members. Dr. Cheon’s findings suggest that biological and environmental factors interact to shape prejudicial behavior.

One thing that was particularly convincing about these results is that he found the same genetic effect on prejudicial behavior against both real-world stigmatized ethnic and social groups and artificially created social groups in the lab, giving us increased confidence in the generality of these findings. Having a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying negative intergroup behavior like discrimination and prejudice is important in an increasingly globalized world, and may inform interventions aimed at lessening the incidence of such behavior.

 

Gene-Culture Interactions

hands_holding_two_puzzle_piecesA final theme that stood out to me at the meeting was the interaction between specific genetic variants and the cultural environment, such that the same genetic variant can produce dramatically different influences on behavior depending on the cultural environment of the person who carries it. In fact Dr. Chuangsheng Chen, a geneticist based at UC Irvine, said in his presentation that many geneticists now believe that one of the primary drivers of modern day evolution is human culture.

One of the highlights in this research domain for me was the work of Dr. Heejung Kim based at UC Santa Barbara. Dr. Kim studies the interplay between human culture and human psychology and biology. As highlighted in the previous work by Dr. Cheon, there are now a number of well-established relationships between genetic polymorphisms and behavioral tendencies. What is less well understood is whether these gene-behavior relationships manifest themselves the same way in every cultural environment.

Dr. Kim asked this question in terms of the oxytocin receptor polymorphism (OXTR rs53576), which is related to socio-emotional sensitivity. She compared the effects of different gene variants between Americans and East Asians, two cultural groups in which the norms about social behavior are known to differ.

She found that among those with the more socially sensitive variant of the polymorphism (those with at least one “G” allele), Americans reported seeking social support to deal with stress, whereas East Asians – living in a culture where emotional support seeking is often considered inappropriately burdensome to others – did not report such behavior. Similarly, she found that Americans with the socially sensitive variant reported greater emotional well-being than those without it (presumably due in part to their emotional support seeking behavior), whereas East Asians did not show a relationship between this genetic variant’s presence and emotional well-being.

I found Dr. Kim’s work especially strong because she made a direct connection between a gene-environment interaction and a clinically relevant measure, emotional well-being. This work suggests that we need to understand the ways that genes and the environment interact if we want to treating medical conditions effectively across cultures.

As you can see this was an amazing meeting that highlighted both the breadth and depth of the emerging field of cultural neuroscience. Stay tuned for a follow-up post with some observations about the future directions of cultural neuroscience!

 

 

 

 

 

Category: Announcements, Brain, Culture | 4 Comments

Neuroanthropology on Brain Science Podcast

Brain Science PodcastGinger Campbell, who runs the great Brain Science Podcast project, was kind enough to feature Greg and myself for her 97th episode. We discussed The Encultured Brain with Ginger for over an hour, and now the podcast is up:

Neuroanthropology: What Is It and Why Should You Care?

The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology [2012] edited by Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey makes an impassioned argument for why neuroscience and anthropology should be working together to unravel the ongoing mystery of how our brains make us who we are. The latest Brain Science Podcast (BSP 97) is a thought-provoking conversation with Downey and Lende. After explaining that anthropology can offer neuroscience field data about “brains in the wild,” we explore two case studies that demonstrate the promise of this new partnership.

Thanks so much, Ginger, for having us on our show. We really enjoyed it.

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Neurocriminology, Meet Human Development

Fence and GateThese are two lines of research that will hopefully increasingly merge… Neurocriminologist Adrian Raine’s new book The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime presents a biological approach to criminal behavior, but a biology that increasingly recognizes developmental and environmental influences even while insisting “wait, it’s the biology…”

Infant Mental Health presents human development as relational and contextual, even as its research shows how brain development and our developmental trajectories both instantiate and shape how each of us develop as a person. It’s more the theoretical flavorings and basic orientations that keep the research apart, not some fundamental difference in what the results are showing. An encompassing paradigm – of encultured brains
- can help bring these approaches into more fruitful conversations.

So first Adrian Raine’s book is reviewed in The Guardian with the deadly wrong title, How to Spot a Murderer’s Brain. Skip over the first half and its biology vs culture framing. When it gets to Raine seeing that his own brain scan looks like a pscyhopath’s, like the same people he was studying as criminals, things suddenly get much more interesting.

Raine’s biography, then, was a good corrective to the seductive idea that our biology is our fate and that a brain scan can tell us who we are. Even as he piles up evidence to show that people are not the free-thinking, rational agents they like to imagine themselves to be – entirely liberated from the limitations set by our inherited genes and our particular neuroanatomy – he never forgets that lesson. The question remains, however, that if these “biomarkers” do exist and exert an influence – and you begin to see the evidence as incontrovertible – then what should we do about them? …

Reading Raine’s account of the most recent research into these reactions, it still seems to me quite new and surprising that environmental factors change the physical structure of the brain. We tend to talk about a child’s development in terms of more esoteric ideas of mind rather than material brain structures, but the more you look at the data the clearer the evidence that abuse or neglect or poor nutrition or prenatal smoking and drinking have a real effect on whether or not those healthy neural connections – which lead to behaviour associated with maturity, self-control and empathy – are made.

And now onto the second article, DSM, NIMH on mental illness: both miss relational, historical context of being human written by Infant Mental Health specialist Claudia Gold. Dr. Gold comes at behavior and mental health problems from a different perspective…

The growing discipline of Infant Mental Health offers just such a paradigm. This discipline is characterized by four key components. First and foremost, it is relational, recognizing that humans (and that includes their genes and brains) develop in the context of caregiving relationships. Second, it is multidisciplinary. Experts in infant mental health offer different perspectives. They come from many fields, including, among many others, developmental psychology, pediatrics, nursing, and occupational therapy. Third, it encompasses research, clinical work and public policy. The field looks at mental health within the context of culture and society. And last, it is reflective, looking at the meaning of behavior, not simply the behavior itself. The ability to attribute motivations and intentions to behavior is uniquely human, and research has shown that this capacity is closely linked with mental health.

These two approaches often think they are on separate sides of the fence. But what has happened is something a bit different. Each field placed a fence, saying “We don’t go there…” But the research has increasingly nudged the fence of each approach a bit further afield, eventually crossing into the realm of the other. The disciplinary fences are still there, but they’ve pushed so far into the other’s territory that suddenly there is a whole field in between. On that fertile land new paradigms will be grown. Greg and I outlined such an approach in our 2012 paper Neuroanthropology and Its Applications: An Introduction.

Gold mentions work on Adverse Childhood Experiences, and how the ACE people have become increasingly applied in their work. I wrote about the ACE approach and applied neuroanthropology last year in the post Neuroanthropology, Applied Research, and Developing Interventions.

This approach to intervention and policy is one that recognizes context, behavior, and meaning as equally important components alongside more targeted techniques that fields like psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience have developed. We know from previous work with mental illness that in general, a pharmacological treatment and a psychotherapy treatment work better together than either one on its own.

This approach pushes that formula one step further, recognizing the anthropological dynamics of applied work and the ways we can achieve targeted effects both matter.

Category: Brain, Development, Mind, Plasticity, Society, Stress | 5 Comments

Our Inner Voices

Mulholland Our Inner VoicesA pastiche of a post, putting together ideas and research on inner voices:

-How to document the conversations we carry on with ourselves most everyday (in the West at least)
-The importance of inner voices for rebuilding our notion of mental illness
-The role hearing voices (and working with those voices) can play in therapy for schizophrenia
-What it’s like to be without such an inner voice
-The inner voices in addiction.

The post points to how we might rethink clinical practice and laboratory tests in ways that reflect better the natural history of our own voices, and the power of language in our lives. That, in turn, would lead to both conceptual reworkings and applied impact.

I find myself increasingly concerned that people continue to take interdisciplinary efforts like neuroanthropology to mean that everything must be reduced to the biology, as if that’s somehow an explanation. Well, it’s certainly a socially important one right now, but I have my doubts about its scientific validity for humans.

So this post is a reduction to language, it could be said. The overall theme is the conversation we carry on with ourselves, the voices we contain within our minds, and how that is central to how we are – and needs much more research.

I’ll start with the work of inner dialogues by anthropologist Andrew Irving, bring in a post about hearing voices and hallucinations from Ruminations on Madness, address Tanya Luhrmann’s work on schizophrenia and working with inner voices, bring back some great work by Greg on language and neuroanthropology, and then speak about how language, particularly our inner voices, matters deeply in addiction.

Andrew Irving and Documenting People’s Voices

In New York Stories, anthropologist Andrew Irving captures the inner dialogues people carry on with themselves as they walk the streets of the city. He combines visual, linguistic, and psychological anthropology together, using cameras and tape recorders to record people speaking out loud the same interior monologues we carry on with ourselves.

Irving has just been featured in a great write-up by Ferris Jabr over at Scientific American, Mrs. Dalloway in New York City: Documenting How People Talk to Themselves in Their Heads.

[Irving] approached strangers at different points in the city. “Excuse me,” he would say, “this might sound like a strange question, but can I ask you what you were thinking before I stopped you?” If the stranger did not run away, he would ask them to wear a microphone headset attached to a digital recorder and speak aloud their thoughts as he followed closely behind with a camera. He would not be able to hear what they were saying, Irving explained, and they would be free to walk wherever they liked and continue their business as usual…

Irving’s videos are permanent records of fleeting thoughts, of dynamic mental processes unfurling in real time. They give us nearly direct access to a kind of internal communication we usually do not share with one another.

Here’s one of the raw videos (you can find more here (YouTube) and here (vimeo), and the Jabr article contains some amalgamations):

Irving describes this monologue, along with two prior others, in his blogpost New York Stories: The Lives of Other Citizens.


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Category: Health, Language, Mind, Society, Variation | 15 Comments

Who’s afraid of a MOOC?: on being education-y and course-ish

On Thursday, 22 March, the then-Tertiary Education Minister of Australia, Chris Bowen, registered for my new, up-coming MOOC (that’s a Massive Online Open Classroom, if you’ve somehow managed to miss it). Apparently, he’ll be taking the course, ‘Becoming human: Anthropology,’ an introduction to human evolution. By the next morning, Bowen had resigned from the Prime Minister’s cabinet and moved to the government back bench, stepping down from his post overseeing tertiary education.

Becoming human graphicI don’t think that the two events — registration and resignation — are directly related.  Well, unless Bowen was thinking that he should register for an online course because he might have more time on his hands…

But the two are definitely metaphorically related, because the discussion of MOOCs has become a forum for debating the future of tertiary education, including a host of political, economic and technological changes: public funding for universities, digitization strategy for education, economies of scale in educational cooperation, the role of entrepreneurs and for-profit institutions, student debt burden, reduced employment in academia, the un-bundling of university degrees (or here), the concentration on student outcomes, growth of university administration, the cost of a university education

Trying to keep up with even a fraction of what is being written about MOOCs is impossible — counting snowflakes in a blizzard — but there does seem to be a pattern: virtually any and every current fear about change in tertiary education is being projected onto MOOCs. You can find a column promising that MOOCs will fix almost every problem facing academe — or make it unfathomably worse — even suggesting that MOOCs are ‘digital sharecropping’ or calling for universities to declare a hiring freeze while we re-examine our long-term strategies in light of ‘MOOC mania’.

Fortunately, because they’re so scalable, everyone with an opinion could fit into a single MOOC.

With the politics and pedagogical debates in mind, I just want to offer some initial thoughts on my own MOOC-related experience and design goals. We can’t really evaluate the outcome yet, as the MOOC still hasn’t started its inaugural run, but we can at least talk about the design and orienting principles, however nascent they may be. This reflection is liable to run into several posts as it’s already a sprawling set of documents on my hard drive.
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Category: Announcements, Evolution | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Advances in Cultural Neuroscience

B_SPR595_ Journal Culture and brain.inddA lot of good stuff coming out around cultural neuroscience right now. Here are the three main things up front, so people can have them. Then I’ll go over them in turn. And finally, a reflective comment at the end highlighting potential differences between cultural neuroscience and neuroanthropology.

Cultural Neuroscience special issue in Psychological Inquiry, with a target article by Joan Chiao and colleagues and commentaries by leaders in the field.

The inaugural issue of the new journal Culture and Brain, with Shihui Han serving as editor-in-chief

A 2013 Annual Review of Psychology article, A Cultural Neuroscience Approach to the Biosocial Nature of the Human Brain, also by Shihui Han and a long-list of leaders in cultural neuroscience

Cultural Neuroscience: Progress and Promise

First off, the new issue of Psychological Inquiry has a target review article “Cultural Neuroscience: Progress and Promise” by Joan Chiao, Bobby Cheon, Narun Pornpattananangkul, Alissa Mrazek & Katherine Blizinsky. Like a BBS article, it comes with a series of commentaries by leaders in the field, followed by a response from the authors. As I write this, the target article is open-access, but the commentaries are not. Here’s the link to the entire special issue.

The abstract for the Chaio et al. review:

Contemporary advances in cultural and biological sciences provide unique opportunities for the emerging field of cultural neuroscience. Research in cultural neuroscience examines how cultural and genetic diversity shape the human mind, brain, and behavior across multiple time scales: situation, ontogeny, and phylogeny.

Recent progress in cultural neuroscience provides novel theoretical frameworks for understanding the complex interaction of environmental, cultural, and genetic factors in the production of adaptive human behavior. Here, we provide a brief history of cultural neuroscience, theoretical, and methodological advances, as well as empirical evidence of the promise of and progress in the field. Implications of this research for population health disparities and public policy are discussed.

Chiao et al. review a wide range of studies, which heartily demonstrates how this field is growing rapidly. Everything from “Individualism–Collectivism and the Serotonin Transporter Gene (5-HTTLPR)” to “SES and Neural Bases of Social Cognition”.

This section comes closest to representing the core summary of cultural neuroscience provided by Chiao et al.:


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Category: Brain, Culture, Plasticity, Variation | 13 Comments

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

Category: Announcements, Brain, Culture, Learning, Mind, Plasticity, Society, Variation | 3 Comments

Introducing Liz Losin, Cultural Neuroscientist

Greg and I are happy to welcome Liz Losin to Neuroanthropology PLOS as a contributor. Liz is a cultural neuroscientist who from the earliest days of her education has sought to bring together neuroscience and anthropology. She’s now a post-doc in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at The University of Colorado Boulder after doing her PhD at UCLA through the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program and the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development.

Liz first came to my attention through her work on science outreach, in particular the video she made on Neuroplasticity for the Society for Neuroscience 2011 Brain Awareness Video Contest.

One of Liz’s early papers, written with her Ph.D. advisors Mirella Dapretto and Marco Iacoboni, remains one of the most explicitly neuroanthropological pieces written by a neuroscientist – Culture in the mind’s mirror: how anthropology and neuroscience can inform a model of the neural substrate for cultural imitative learning (pdf). Liz is someone who takes anthropology very seriously, even as she continues to develop outstanding expertise and breadth of knowledge within neuroscience.

Look for plenty of good stuff coming from Liz. She has an introductory post which should be up soon, and then plans to blog on cultural neuroscience, the impact of neuroscience on society and health (and vice versa), monkeys and apes and humans (a long-standing interest of hers, dating back to her undergraduate work on ape learning and communication), and more.

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Andreas Roepstorff on Neuroanthropology

Andreas Roepstorff is one of the leaders of neuroanthropology. A professor in both anthropology and integrative neuroscience at Aarhus, Roepstorff is co-director of the MINDLab there.

MINDLab is based on fruitful collaborations among leading research groups across Faculties and Institutes at Aarhus University… addressing central scientific problems within culture, music, language and memory. Combining this knowledge with research on novel technologies to examine the living brain, and on the most devastating neurological and psychiatric disorders, we hope to create new means to preserve and recover function and quality-of-life in relation to diseases accounting for 35% of the disease burden in Denmark. MINDLab will also develop new forms of teaching and sharing of knowledge, exploiting crucial synergies across traditional disciplines.

LEVYNA – the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion – has posted an interview with Roepstorff where he discusses his synthetic work in neuroanthropology.

It’s a real pleasure to hear Roepstorff, as I’ve never met him in person. Big hat-tip to Micah Allen for bringing the video to my attention.

If you want more from Roepstorff, you can access a list of all his publications here. One of the best overviews of his approach to neuroanthropology is the paper co-authored with Jörg Niewöhnerc and Stefan Beck, Enculturing brains through patterned practices (pdf available here).

LEVYNA also features a series of interviews with other great scholars, including Harvey Whitehouse and Paulo Sousa.

Category: Brain, Culture | Leave a comment