Lily White

This is a post about decades of science. This science doesn’t fit the normal template of “science,” of experiments and testable hypotheses and the like. Then again, a lot of research on humans rarely does. We’re humans, after all.

Still, this post draws on many, many years of peer-reviewed empirical work. This body of work has focused on how people classify and judge each other, and how power is inevitably part of how humans interact.

The case I will examine is what happened with Danielle N. Lee, a young African-American biologist. Dr. Lee has her own blog, Urban Scientist, part of Scientific American blogs. Last Friday, Dr. Lee posted on being called an “urban whore” in an email from an editor at Biology Online. They asked her to write something for them, and Dr. Lee refused once she learned that she would not be compensated for her work. The Biology Online emailed her back, “Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”

Dr. Lee addressed what this email meant to her in the context of being a professional scientist who is also an African-American woman. You can see her video response here, and find her overall post here at Dr. Isis’ website. The reason for that is Scientific American took her post down. They didn’t consult her. They just removed it.

The first indication of why came in a tweet from Mariette DiChristina, the editor-in-chief of Scientific American. She wrote, “@sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area and was therefore removed.”

In other words, the Scientific American reaction was one of determining boundaries and what counted as appropriate or not.

An important question becomes, Why?

DiChristina penned a response today, highlighting her position as Editor-in-Chief in the title of the post.

We recently removed a blog post by Dr. Danielle Lee that alleged a personal experience of this nature [prejudice and inappropriate treatment]. Dr. Lee’s post pertained to personal correspondence between her and an editor at Biology-Online about a possible assignment for that network. Unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post. Although we regret that this was necessary, a publisher must be able to protect its interests…

There are many ways to interrogate the response from Scientific American’s editor-in-chief. The comments on DiChristina’s post are an excellent place to start. But I’m not so concerned here about the mop-up after negative press. I’m interested in what happened and why on Friday. Here are some insights garnered from anthropology.

These insights come in two linked sets. First, in a confrontation like this, race, gender, and class inevitably come into play. All three are on vivid display, though the one I think might be quite important – class – is given the least attention. Second, power was exercised. Scientific American invoked their legal right, something the bloggers signed onto as part of the fine print, and summarily dismissed Dr. Lee’s post from their site. Obviously they felt justified in doing so. Part of the reason why has to do with race, gender, and class, but it’s not a full explanation. Scientific American surely thought they were in the right in more than a legal sense, and here ideology and money come into play.

Let me say here that, yes, this is my interpretation. That’s how a good part of human science works. It draws on decades of scholarship and applies it to a novel situation. It’s not an exact science, but it’s quite empirical – these sorts of things come up over and over again.

Let me also say that I am being quite specific here in my register – in the tone and quality of language, aiming for “scienciness” (think “truthiness”), a reasonable tone that evokes science and being measured and the importance of evidence and all that. In other words, I am speaking exactly like the white scientist who lives in a nice house that I am.

Gender, Race, and Class

Dr. Lee’s case just slaps one across the face with cultural anthropology’s triumvirate of gender, race, and class. She gets called an urban whore by a guy? In explicit contrast to her being an “urban scientist”? Gender is easiest of the three to evoke. She wants money to do what she does? – she must be a whore, making this guy’s life difficult.

Urban whore becomes the marked category, the gendered one. This is not rocket science. In fact, it’s a lot clearer than rocket science. Online writing has made this point again and again, so I won’t belabor it here.

For me, it’s the combination of race and class that is more interesting and more telling. One thing I admired quite a lot about how Danielle Lee wrote her original post was her use of language.

My initial reaction was not civil, I can assure you. I’m far from rah-rah, but the inner South Memphis in me was spoiling for a fight after this unprovoked insult. I felt like Hollywood Cole, pulling my A-line T-shirt off over my head, walking wide leg from corner to corner yelling, “Aww hell nawl!” In my gut I felt so passionately: “Ofek, don’t let me catch you on these streets, homie!”

And then Dr. Lee code-shifted, moving to a voice that likely felt more comfortable to most readers of Scientific American.

It wasn’t just that he called me a whore – he juxtaposed it against my professional being: Are you urban scientist or an urban whore? Completely dismissing me as a scientist, a science communicator (whom he sought for my particular expertise), and someone who could offer something meaningful to his brand. What? Now, I’m so immoral and wrong to inquire about compensation?

As David Kroll writes, “@SciAmBlogs permits “fuck” but not southern US, inner city vernacular. My hypothesis…”

Dr. Lee, it seems, made the mistake of sounding too ghetto. She let that part of her get out, and oh no, we can’t have that. Or as Editor-in-Chief DiChristina put it, “I’d like to elaborate on the original brief statement on Twitter that this blog fell outside Scientific American’s mission to communicate science. While we interpret that mission with a lot of latitude, Dr. Lee’s post went beyond and verged into the personal, and that’s why it was taken down.”

I wish I could sound so ghetto as Dr. Lee, but I’m the white guy, so I get to write like this. But I won’t get judged for letting my inner white guy out. I can have fun using words like “ghetto.” Not everyone gets that same easy permission.

Power: Ideology and Money

Gender, Race, and Class are pretty boring on their own. Well, for me at least, since they don’t really affect me all that much. (Ask the people they do affect, and you’ll get a much more visceral response.) But it’s also an interesting question of how gender, race, and class acquire so much social force. In anthropology, that question is often answered by drawing on the concept of “power.” Power inevitably affects social interactions between people, shaping what is acceptable and what is not, and often hiding what’s really going on in obfuscations that people generally find believable.

Ideologies do that sort of work. And science, along with being a way of generating an empirically-validated body of knowledge, also works as an ideology. Certain types of things get to count as “science” and other types of things do not. Dr. Lee’s post was not appropriately about “discovering science.” It was “too personal” and facts “weren’t verified.” And, quite simply, it was “therefore removed.”

But why was this post so threatening as to merit removal? It’s not about the red herring of Biology Online being an online affiliate of Scientific American (i.e., it pays for ads). Might it be because the post stands in such stark contrast to much of Scientific American’s audience?

Scientific American is quite specific about its audience. “Science Consumers Are High Wealth Consumers,” the press kit quite specifically states. And given the lack of any mention of minorities amidst its demographics, it’s easy to assume that not a lot of minorities are reading Scientific American. And, finally on the gender sider, for the magazine, it’s 71.9% male. Online, it’s a bit more balanced, only 58% male.

This sort of analysis shouldn’t be so easy. I shouldn’t be able to write this post on a Sunday night. But it’s just so obvious – gender, race, and class shape what has happened to Dr. Lee in profound ways. The ideology of science – of what counts and what doesn’t – becomes central to justifying what is done. And the publisher is very explicit about “protecting its interests,” which rely on the type of high wealth consumers who read the material that Scientific American publishes.

Why does this matter? It matters because what science is depends vitally on who creates and consumes science. Dr. Lee makes this point much better than I can. Last January she wrote the post, A Dream Deferred: How access to STEM is denied to many students before they get in the door good.

For kids like my students – inner-city kids from poor families (whether working-class or on welfare), average or below-average academic performance, some with behavior problems – interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) dies by 10th grade and one of three things kill the promise of opportunity.

-Lack of resources
-Benign discouragement by well-meaning adults
-Active exclusion by powerful gatekeepers

The last part was prescient, wasn’t it?

Category: Critique, Gender, Inequality, Society, Variation | 14 Comments

Anthropology: Growth and Relevance, Not Popularity

Anthropologists can suffer from Jared Diamond envy. Here in the United States we bemoan when Diamond’s latest book rises on the bestseller list. While he might deliver anthropology-lite to the masses, he’s not even an anthropologist! goes the lament. It’s not even good anthropology, others add. Undergrads could take it apart.

Then the questions begin: Where are all the popular anthropologists? Why don’t we have one or more Jared Diamonds ourselves?

This pursuit of popularity is a mistaken one, I believe. It’s as if we want to turn Monty Python and the Holy Grail into a Jerry Bruckheimer action movie:

Anthropology isn’t really built that way.

Pursuing Relevance

Far better if we pursue relevance. Doing so means broadening our concept of popularity. We can find audiences that more closely match what we do as anthropologists. These might not be the mass audience some of us crave. But they might be the right audience.

A good example of this type of relevance is Liz Bird’s Asaba Memorial Project, which examines the impact of a terrible 1967 massacre during Nigeria’s civil war. Bird recently put together a video on this work, which has been taken up through social media in Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora.

This work focuses on local relevance rather than mass popularity. 6000 views is nothing like Diamond, but as more and more anthropologists take to these forms of dissemination, our reach will grow. We should aim for the long-tail of the world, rather than swinging at the fences hoping for that mega-hit.

Growth Matters

Growing the field also matters. Increasing over overall size is key to increasing our overall impact. Anthropology is a small discipline. Growth means that we can research more of the world’s diversity and better address the myriad problems we face today.

Training more students also means more people access what we do. Most of our students go onto careers outside the discipline, and that’s a good thing. They carry anthropology with them, and then they start to solve the problem of how to make anthropology relevant to a particular job or issue. It’s the sort of grassroots growth that will last.

Given how we work as a discipline, our impact often comes through how we intersect with others. Skulls and artifacts need to be seen, often touched, to truly appreciate, and then context provided to understand their import. Field work is a day-to-day endeavor, something achieved over the long-term. Our “it’s complicated” message requires time to convey, and works better if there’s interaction that can help illustrate what’s going on.

What anthropology does isn’t easy to package into sound bites.

We need people to have an impact, not stars.

Category: Application | 5 Comments

The cultures endangered by climate change

By Greg Downey

The Bull of Winter weakens

In 2003, after decades of working with the Viliui Sakha, indigenous horse and cattle breeders in the Vilyuy River region of northeastern Siberia, anthropologist Susan Crate began to hear the local people complain about climate change:

My own “ethnographic moment” occurred when I heard a Sakha elder recount the age-old story of Jyl Oghuha (the bull of winter). Jyl Oghuha’s legacy explains the 100o C annual temperature range of Sakha’s subarctic habitat. Sakha personify winter, the most challenging season for them, in the form of a white bull with blue spots, huge horns, and frosty breath. In early December this bull of winter arrives from the Arctic Ocean to hold temperatures at their coldest (-60o to -65o C; -76o to -85o F) for December and January. Although I had heard the story many times before, this time it had an unexpected ending… (Crate 2008: 570)

Lena Pillars, photo by Maarten Takens (CC BY SA)

Lena Pillars, photo by Maarten Takens (CC BY SA)

This Sakha elder, born in 1935, talked about how the bull symbolically collapsed each spring, but also its uncertain future:

The bull of winter is a legendary Sakha creature whose presence explains the turning from the frigid winter to the warming spring. The legend tells that the bull of winter, who keeps the cold in winter, loses his first horn at the end of January as the cold begins to let go to warmth; then his second horn melts off at the end of February, and finally, by the end of March, he loses his head, as spring is sure to have arrived. It seems that now with the warming, perhaps the bull of winter will no longer be. (ibid.)

Crate found that the ‘softening’ of winter disrupted the Sakha way of life in a number of ways far less prosaic. The winters were warmer, bringing more rain and upsetting the haying season; familiar animals grew less common and new species migrated north; more snow fell, making hunting more difficult in winter; and when that snow thawed, water inundated their towns, fields, and countryside, rotting their houses, bogging down farming, and generally making life more difficult. Or, as a Sakha elder put it to Crate:

I have seen two ugut jil (big water years) in my lifetime. One was the big flood in 1959 — I remember canoeing down the street to our kin’s house. The other is now. The difference is that in ‘59 the water was only here for a few days and now it does not seem to be going away. (Sakha elder, 2009; in Crate 2011: 184).

(Currently, Eastern Russia is struggling with unprecedented flooding along the Chinese border, and, in July, unusual forest fires struck areas of the region that were permafrost.) As I write this, the website CO2 Now reports that the average atmospheric CO2 level for July 2013 at the Mauna Loa Observatory was 397.23 parts per million, slightly below the landmark 400+ ppm levels recorded in May. The vast majority of climate scientists now argue, not about whether we will witness anthropogenic atmospheric change, but how much and how quickly the climate will change. Will we cross potential ‘tipping points’, when feedback dynamics accelerate the pace of warming?

While climate science might be controversial with the public in the US (less so here in Australia and among scientists), the effects on human populations are more poorly understood and unpredictable, both by the public and scientists alike. Following on from Wendy Foden and colleagues’ piece in the PLOS special collection proposing a method to identify the species at greatest risk (Foden et al. 2013), I want to consider how we might identify which cultures are at greatest risk from climate change.

Will climate change threaten human cultural diversity, and if so, which groups will be pushed to the brink most quickly? Are groups like the Viliui Sakha at the greatest risk, especially as we know that climate change is already affecting the Arctic and warming may be exaggerated there? And what about island groups, threatened by sea level changes? Who will have to change most and adapt because of a shifting climate? Daniel Lende (2013: 496) has suggested that anthropologists need to put our special expertise to work in public commentary, and in the area of climate change, these human impacts seem to be one place where that expertise might be most useful.

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Category: Consumption, Critique, Development, Inequality, Society, Technology | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Oxford Biocultural Anthropology Bibliography

Biocultural Nature CultureOxford Bibliographies has just published my entry Biocultural Anthropology into their excellent series on Anthropology.

The bibliographies are expert guides to the literature, with introductions to each section of the bibliography as well as short summaries of each citation. Biocultural Anthropology opens:

Biocultural anthropology exists at the intersection of cultural and biological approaches. Given how concepts, methods, and institutions have changed with regard to “biology” and “culture” since the early 1900s, the biocultural intersection has proven a dynamic space. It is also a contested space, where claims about human nature and culture and about science and ethnography have often come into stark contrast.

It contains 180+ citations that cover a broad spectrum of biocultural anthropology, from introductory pieces and overviews to the foundations of biocultural anthropology, divisions and controversies, methods, applied approaches, and two relevant examples drawing on my own expertise in neuroanthropology and addiction.

One thing I aimed to do with the bibliography was provide historical coverage of biocultural approaches in anthropology in relation to the field’s holistic tradition. I was inspired here by George Armelagos, both by his recent publications and conversations we had while I worked on the bibliography.

Another goal I had was to pick out good orienting texts for people coming from different sides of the biology/culture divide in anthropology. Here Kate Clancy provided some key inspiration:

We also need to identify the essential reading for biocultural anthropology. What is the canon? What do biological anthropologists need to read to become conversant in cultural anthro? What do cultural anthropologists need to read to become conversant in bio anthro? I can probably identify most of the biological readings, but certainly not the cultural, and hope my readers do.

Certainly I don’t think I’ve laid out “the canon.” But I did try my best to provide readings that will help people interested in biocultural approaches become conversant with core biological and cultural approaches.

I also didn’t shy away from controversies, because I believe it’s important to recognize the tensions – both intellectual and political – that fracture attempts at synthesis within anthropology. As the recent flare-up around Napoleon Chagnon and his book Noble Savages shows, such tensions remain a vibrant part of this middle ground in anthropology.

It’s safe to say that the selections represent my own take on biocultural approaches, and that has a lot to do with my graduate training at Emory University, my subsequent work at Notre Dame, and my present job at the University of South Florida. All three places have their own integrative approaches, and I hope I’ve at least been able to bring to the table some of what each place has offered me.

I know there are readings I left out, and more that I missed (including one I just found this morning!). The Oxford Bibliographies can be updated, so feel free to leave a comment or send me an email if there is some key article, book, or chapter that might help improve the overall entry.

The entire Oxford Anthropology Bibliography is edited by John Jackson Jr.. It’s getting close to 90 entries already, so it is a robust resource. However, it’s closed-access, so you need an institutional subscription to access the full bibliography.

Still, each entry does include have a substantive taste online. And if you want to read something more, consider going back to Kate’s post I Can Out-Interdiscipline You: Anthropology and the Biocultural Approach, the one I wrote On Biocultural Anthropology, and the Anthropology Report round-up Interdisciplinary Anthropology and Biocultural Approaches.

Link to the Biocultural Anthropology bibliography.

Photocredit: “Biocultural Diversity” at Natural Justice; original found here.

Category: Application, Culture, Theory, Variation | 2 Comments

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).
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Category: Announcements | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Great Ape Faces

Great Ape Faces

I just love the individuality of all those faces. Original image found in Yahoo article, Chimp Genetic History Stranger Than Humans’. And for a nice piece on animal subjectivity, see Brandon Keim’s Being a Sandpiper: The Science of Animal Consciousness.

Update: Image credit to Ian Bickerstaff. Saw that in the LiveScience article on this research. Here’s the link to his website. It appears that the individual photos were taken of the apes at Ape Action Africa. From Bickerstaff’s site:

all of the individuals featured in this series live at mefou park sanctuary in cameroon, run by the british n.g.o. ‘ape action africa’, and each one is a victim of the illegal bushmeat trade that threatens the long-term survival of many primate species. each individual will have witnessed the killing of several family members during the event that led to his or her capture and many will have suffered abuse at the hands of his or her captor prior to the good piece of luck that led to them being rescued by ape action africa.

Category: Evolution, Fun | 4 Comments

Vision in Free Running

I just came across this amazing video of a parkour athlete which illustrates the visual skill needed for free running. There’s also timing, balance, flexibility, and more involved, but by using a camera linked to the person’s eye gaze, this particular video demonstrates how much vision matters in doing this sort of running and jumping. It’s an acquired skill, done in the context of this particular sport.

Greg has written a lot about this type of perceptual skill, and how understanding skills matters to neuroscience and to anthropology. Here are three excerpts from his 2009 paper (pdf), Cultural variation in elite athletes: does elite cognitive-perceptual skill always converge?

Excerpt #1

This paper explores how a ‘skills-based’ model of enculturation, inspired by the theoretical work of anthropologist Tim Ingold (2001), might lead us to better conceptualize the nature and origins of cultural differences in cognition. Ingold (ibid.: 416) advocates treating enculturation as ‘enskilment,’ noting that different individuals within the same culture will achieve unequal proficiency and develop idiosyncratic techniques to accomplish the same ends (see Downey, 2005; Grasseni, 2007). Focusing on the acquisition of skills and, by analogy, enculturation shifts our perspective from a concentration on the end-point, the mature expert or culture-bearing individual, to the developmental processes that produce distinctive perceptual abilities, cognitive patterns, physiological capacities and conceptual resources.

Excerpt #2

Elite athletes from different cultural groups can serve as test case because experts make evident in exaggerated form the divergent expertise produced by distinctive developmental environments. High performing outlier populations like musicians (Kelly & Garavan, 2005; Münte et al. 2002), taxicab drivers (Maguire et al. 2000), and jugglers (Draganski et al. 2004) all demonstrate distinctive patterns of neurological development. Skill acquisition typically entails neurological remodeling, but in sports, increased proficiency often leads to more widespread physiological change in skeletal muscle, the cardio-vascular system, and even bone composition (see Ericsson & Lehmann 1996).

Excerpt #3

Cultural difference in sports will likely be most profound in the most complex skills, those demanding an integrated onstellation of perceptual, motor, and cognitive refinement as well as physiological adaptation. In contrast, the athletic skills that have been studied most closely in neuropsychology are tightly constrained and limited—hitting a fast pitch, blocking a penalty kick, making a putt, returning a serve in tennis. The task constraints of basic skills may limit possible solutions strategies more than in open-ended skills like captaining a cricket side in the field while also catching and studying opposing batsmen… In these complex situations, a player can essentially redefine ‘the problem’ by subtly shifting the unfolding dynamics or focusing upon realizing different opportunities.

Hat-tip on the video to Kotaku, This Is Mirror’s Edge In Real Life. It Is Terrifying

Update: I just came across a new paper which seems relevant to the sort of skill demonstrated here by the parkour participants. It’s Learning without Training by Christian Beste and Hubert Dinse (2013).

Achieving high-level skills is generally considered to require intense training, which is thought to optimally engage neuronal plasticity mechanisms. Recent work, however, suggests that intensive training may not be necessary for skill learning. Skills can be effectively acquired by a complementary approach in which the learning occurs in response to mere exposure to repetitive sensory stimulation. Such training-independent sensory learning induces lasting changes in perception and goal-directed behaviour in humans, without any explicit task training.

We suggest that the effectiveness of this form of learning in different sensory domains stems from the fact that the stimulation protocols used are optimized to alter synaptic transmission and efficacy. While this approach directly links behavioural research in humans with studies on cellular plasticity, other approaches show that learning can occur even in the absence of an actual stimulus. These include learning through imagery or feedback-induced cortical activation, resulting in learning without task training. All these approaches challenge our understanding of the mechanisms that mediate learning. Apparently, humans can learn under conditions thought to be impossible a few years ago. Although the underlying mechanisms are far from being understood, training-independent sensory learning opens novel possibilities for applications aimed at augmenting human cognition.

Category: Perception, Skill | 2 Comments

Lisa Barrett: Facing Down Ekman’s Universal Emotions

The Scream (After Edvard Munch) by David NeelBoston Magazine has a fantastic profile of the work by psychologist Lisa Barrett that takes on Paul Ekman’s theories of universal emotion types, with corresponding facial expressions. The article is About Face: New Theory – Emotions and Facial Expressions Not Directly Related.

First excerpt:

“Honestly, this is going to sound terrible,” Lisa Barrett told me when I asked her about Ekman and his original study. “But at first, when I read that work, I thought, Well, nobody can take this seriously. This can’t possibly be right. It’s too cartoonish.”

Barrett is a professor of psychology at Northeastern, and for years she’s been troubled by Ekman’s ideas. People don’t display and recognize emotions in universal ways, she believes, and emotions themselves don’t have their own places in the brain or their own patterns in the body. Instead, her research has led her to conclude that each of us constructs them in our own individual ways, from a diversity of sources: our internal sensations, our reactions to the environments we live in, our ever-evolving bodies of experience and learning, our cultures.

This may seem like nothing more than a semantic distinction. But it’s not. It’s a paradigm shift that has put Barrett on the front lines of one of the fiercest debates in the study of emotion today, because if Barrett is correct, we’ll need to rethink how we interpret mental illness, how we understand the mind and self, and even what psychology as a whole should become in the 21st century.

Second excerpt:

One afternoon last fall, I met Barrett at George Howell Coffee, in Newton, only a block or two from her home. While explaining exactly how the brain creates emotion—or, at least, how she believes it does—she opened a computer to show me what looked like a grainy black-and-white mishmash on the screen. “When most people look at this,” she said, “they don’t know what it is. It’s an example of experimentally induced experiential blindness. Your brain is taking in visual sensations from an object, but it can’t make sense of what it is.” The brain tries to fill in the blanks, she explained. “Some people see a lobster, some people see a bunny.”

What we were actually looking at, Barrett told me, was a bee. I couldn’t see it. But then she started clicking back and forth between that picture and a new one, which was very clearly a close-up of a bee’s body. Suddenly the grainy nonsense in the first picture snapped into bumblebee stripes. Now that I knew what I was looking at, I could see it, and for an instant everything I knew about bees flooded into my mind: their hum, their wings, their bumbling flight on a hot summer’s day, the taste of their honey. “Now,” Barrett said, “can you not see the bee? Every time you see this, you will always see the bee. Because right now your mind is adding information from your past experience to create the image of the bee.”

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Category: Body, Brain, Mind, Variation | 9 Comments

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