Culture, Mind and Brain Conference – Day Two

Day Two featured three great sessions: (1) Stress and Resilience, (2) The Cultural Neuroscience of Cognition and Self, and (3) Pathways to Interdisciplinarity. We also saw Rob Lemelson’s powerful documentary, Standing on the Edge of a Thorn. You can find coverage of Day One here.

Stress and Resilience

I had fun chairing this session; the four presenters put on a synthetic display of how culture, mind and brain come together in understanding stress, trauma, and our responses to adversity.

Paul Plotsky spoke of his research on development and early adversity using a rat model in his talk Early life adversity, allostasis, and resilience. A simple intervention – removing a rat pup from its mother early in life for eighteen hours – produced lifelong negative changes in the baby rats’ ability to handle stress. The main conduit for that change: the mother’s disorganized behavior, where she no longer engaged in calm mothering but rather moved around the cage in a highly aroused state.

Many people nodded along, as this research is fairly standard stuff now. We know that early stress, particularly in sensitive periods, can really push the HPA axis and up stress reactivity. We also know, based on important work by Michael Meaney and Plotsky, that rat mothers’ play a central role in helping rat pups regulate their own biology. Then Plotsky delivered the ringer.

He changed the environment. Instead of the standard experimental model, where mothers were housed in a one-room cage, he introduced a “two-bedroom condo.” Mothers, rather than running around anxiously in the one-room cage upon return of their long-lost pup, could now move their nest and the pup to the new bedroom. This change facilitated the dame’s return to normal mothering behavior, so much that the dramatic life-long effect of the “adverse event” went away!

So it wasn’t really the adverse event, it was the adverse event and the social relationship. And it wasn’t really the adverse event and social relationship, it was the adverse event, social relationship, and local context! Some amazing experimental work.

To summarize: A humanly-designed and deliberately executed event, a new understanding of how open and dynamic our biology is, how interactive social relationships mediate biology, an operating environment that played a significant role in organizing behavior (and thus biology), and the power of altered developmental trajectories (when pushed by a confluence of factors).

Or five factors:
-Social construction
-Biological embedding
-Agentive relationships
-Operative environment
-Dynamic development

[All right, time to rein it in a little bit – I could write so much about each talk, but I’ll try to aim for short. Or at least shorter…]

Lance Gravlee showed these factors in action with his talk on Cultural meaning, social structure, and the stress process: Lessons from hyptertension in the African Diaspora. Gravlee jumped right into the debate of how to understand race and its relation to biology and health, including the dubious notion that race indicates a certain “biological type”. Race does not equal biology – it is a false comparison, an equivalence that unravels under even a little critical analysis of the concept of race and a little understanding of human variation. Yet the alternative hypothesis, that the social construction of race can actually drive biology and health, is rarely tested.

It should be, and Gravlee’s research is a great demonstration of why. First, he showed how that social classification of “race” (or “color” in Puerto Rico) actually drove health disparities, indicated by differing blood pressures, in his research. A biological measure of skin color did not. Rather, the social category that one was placed in made the difference. Second, he showed that parsing out this social variance can help reveal how biological variance matters. Genetic variance begins to shape health in certain social environments, including the social experience of racism. I’ve written on this research before in the post Race, Genetics, Social Inequality, and Health.

Brandon Kohrt spoke on From ethnography to epigenetics: Mixed methods mental health research in Nepal. One of the striking things about Brandon’s work is how he brings together biocultural anthropology and applied psychiatry in his long-term work in Nepal. This particular talk highlighted the complex negotiations of child soldiers as they returned home. Contrary to what many might think, being a soldier wasn’t the adverse part of their experience. Rather, the return home to their village, with social isolation, village fear, the return to oppressive social roles, and similar social factors, was actually the difficult part, and clearly linked to mental health among these youth. Addressing the social side of their mental health at the village level produced corresponding improvements in the children’s psychosocial well-being. For more on Brandon’s work, he has a recent paper in the applied neuroanthropology special issue on how he has applied a similar approach to working with Nepali refugees.

Carol Ryff in her talk Varieties of Resilience in MIDUS presented work on resilience over the lifespan, showing how being able to bounce back and maintain hope in the face of adversity can lead to substantial improvements in aging and in having a longer life. Resilience as a type of psychosocial strength can thus afford protection against biological risk factors and adverse health outcomes, and seems to emerge from the dynamic interaction of the individual with an embodied nervous system in particular social and cultural contexts. Ryff also highlighted the incredible dataset offered by the MIDUS study, with its extensive longitudinal work that is open access. So please go play with the great data!

Culture, Cognition, and Self: Understanding Neuroplasticity

The second session of the day featured a great line-up of researchers focusing on cultural psychology and cultural neuroscience. Denise Park gave her talk on Culture wires the brain: A cognitive neuroscience perspective. Park helped innovate the necessary methods to do cross-cultural imaging and then showed with her research that even perceptual tasks like object recognition – assumed to work the same everywhere – varied cross-culturally at both behavioral and neural levels.

Georg Northoff gave a fascinating talk on Understanding the self: A cultural neuroscience approach. He showed the importance of the cortical midline structures in mediating our sense of self and aimed to distinguish between a more identity/autobiographical sense of self and a more subjective/embodied sense of self, with the cortical midline parts of the brain more involved in the subjective experience of self. He also drew on Kant and psychology to explain better how the resting state can become part of on-going neural activity, apart from simple stimulus-response models often used. The resting state can become part of internally-guided functioning, alongside externally-guided functioning that is at the core of many psychological approaches.

Tanya Luhrmann gave her talk Hearing voices in Accra and Chennai: How culture makes a difference to psychiatric experience via video. The video is available online so please go check it out (just click on the link). In it, she shows how cultural interpretations of hallucinations and voices, and of what is “mental illness” and how that is socially negotiated, create dramatic differences in illness experiences and problems across different societies.

Shihui Han in his talk 5-HTTLPR polymorphism moderates the association between a cultural value and the social brain network showed that sense of interdependence, a psychological trait found to vary across societies and even contexts (with the right cultural priming), also can be influenced by serotonin polymorphisms. These differences also show up in brain imaging. Han advocated for a network approach to self, rather than trying to localize functions to specific areas; patterns of activation in conjunction with context and culture seem to be a better empirical model. This insight was quite close to Northoff’s research, and much closer to a neuroanthropological approach to self. Finally, Han highlighted the new journal, Culture and Brain, that he is heading up.

Shinobu Kitayama, with his talk Error-related brain activity reveals self-centric motivation: Culture matters, started with a history of cultural psychology work on independent/interdependent construals of self across cultures. He showed how cultural background plus experimental design to encourage self- vs. other- orientations led to different patterns of responding among European-Americans and Asians. He lauded cultural psychology’s increasing engagement with cultural neuroscience, and called for greater unpacking of the concept of “culture” in experimental work.

In his comments on the session, Laurence Kirmayer highlighted the multiple forms of self long studied by anthropologists, as well as the multiple approaches to culture that have been developed. In both these domains, cultural neuroscientists and cultural psychologists can find multiple avenues to keep expanding their research. Researchers need to bring the same level of sophistication to the study of culture that they do to the study of biology.

Standing on the Edge of a Thorn

Rob Lemelson gave the first public preview of his powerful new documentary, Standing on the Edge of a Thorn. It centered on the story of Lisa, a Javanese girl, who travels from child to young woman over the course of the film, trying to cope with rural poverty, village stigma, and a deeply troubled family, immersed in mental illness and the sex trade. You can find the trailer and further description here.

The film illustrated themes from the conference – the importance of context and family relations, the impact of adversity and the importance of resilience, the need for cross-cultural approaches. At the same time, however, its ethnographic approach, placing us in the middle of this family and this village over many years, shows just how far the science has to go to capture even part of the complexity that we negotiate each day.

Multiple Pathways to Interdisciplinarity

A round-table discussion on how researchers can become more interdisciplinary in their approach rounded out the second day. Scholars young and not-quite-as-young reflected on how they reached this particular point, being at a conference on Culture, Mind, and Brain, and the lessons learned that others might embrace on their own routes to synthetic research.

Here is a good time to turn to Storify and #cmbucla, where the tweets help in delivering succinct points from each person.

Mirella Dapretto: Well, this one is mine – Dapretto emphasized the institutional context that can facilitate such training and research, as well exemplified by the Center for Culture, Brain and Development that she leads.

Tom Weisner: 1) be lucky to find place where people care about interdisciplinary study of culture-mind-brain. Find one! 2) Pick a project that forces you to be interdisciplinary. Money clarifies your thinking — go find it. 3) Find career-long collaborators.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang: Education as an inter-disciplinary field, with a problem-focused inter-disciplinary agenda. One problem in trying to master different fields: can feel like trilingual kid. Everyone thinks you’re deficient because you’ve got vocab & production in 3 disciplines. It just takes time to get up to speed in each area. So patience.

Liz Losin: Interdisciplinary programmes like the FPR vital for fostering research on culture mind & brain. The need for new challenges as well, such as embracing doing science in public and cultivating public engagement. Another way to be interdisciplinary.

Carol Worthman: Interdisciplinarity is about being humble and learning how to listen. We stand on the shoulders of giants. But we have to realize that colleagues, both present and past, have something to offer, even if we don’t quite grasp it at first. They are smart people, so try to understand why they work so hard on what they are doing.

Shinobu Kitayama: Distinction between thinking interdisciplinary and discipline-centered research. His thinking is more interdisciplinary than his work – work is mostly social psychology, trained as experimentalist. So be really good at your home discipline. Create a base. When you have base, people will share ideas with you.

And that draws to a close coverage of Day Two of the Culture, Mind and Brain conference. I wish I could have written even more… But for more, do check out the succinct Day One coverage. Even better, check out the conference website, which has ongoing updates of news related to the conference and the presenters and should soon have video of the presentations themselves.

Website/Blog for Culture, Mind and Brain: Emerging Concepts, Methods, Applications

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