Neuroanthropology or ethnographical neurosciences?

In Cognition and Culture, we often emphasize the value of experimental methods combined with fieldwork when studying culture. In contrast, using the tools of anthropology in psychology is rarely advocated but is also worth pursuing. Mindhacks reports an interesting interview where neuroanthropologist Daniel Lende discusses why we need an understanding of both culture and neuroscience to get a fully integrated account of human thought and behaviour (it is in Scientific American Mind's Mind Matters blog).







Lende discusses his work on integrating cultural factors and the neuroscience of the dopamine reward system in a study of addiction in Colombian teenagers.

A common approach in neuroscience is to take experiences labelled by everyday words and try and find what changes in the brain when someone says they are having the experience.

The problem is that the definitions of the labelling words may be indistinct ('love'), incoherent ('belief') or understood differently in different cultures ('anxiety').

The approach Lende advocates is to take an anthropological approach to the problem. In other words, attempting to understand what a concept or label means in a particular culture so the neuroscience can be integrated in full knowledge of the diversity of the experience.

This predicament is where neuroanthropology can be so helpful. In order to draw connections between neuroscience and real world situations, I went out and talked to people to understand craving and addiction from their point of view. This type of real-world data can both challenge and inform ideas based on animal models and neuroimaging studies.

Daniel Lende:

In translating the dopamine research, my work with adolescents proved crucial. They knew what they experienced far better than I did. Using systematic interviews across a range of involvement with drugs (hard-core users to having never tried drugs), I saw three areas of overlap between research on dopamine and compulsive involvement with addictive substances.

First was the emphasis that researchers placed on “wanting.” I was lucky in Colombia; addicted adolescents often described their experiences as “querer más y más,” to want more and more.

Second, dopamine affects shifts in attention, which meant that some adolescents couldn’t focus on anything else when they knew an opportunity to consume was about to come along.

Third, adolescents described a sense of being pushed toward something—an urge that rose up without conscious desire.

A scientific discipline is supposed to be defined by its object: psychology is the study of the mind, anthropology the study of culture and economics the study of monetary exchanges. Indeed, this was the case when these disciplines were founded, before the rise of experimental methods in psychology, fieldwork in anthropology or modelisation in economics. Today, however, we tend to define these disciplines by their methods, rather than by their objects: doing anthropology is conducting fieldwork, doing sociology is analyzing surveys, doing economics is building models, and so on. For instance, in psychology, it is often assumed that you’re not a psychologist if you do not run experiments (or, worse, if do not do brain imaging).

What about coming back to the original definition? Psychology would be the study of mind (rather than the study of experimental results), and every method would be worth using, be it an experimental approach, interviews, brain imaging or models. Daniel Lende would not be a neuroanthropologist (he is mostlty interested by the brain), but a neuroscientist using a variety of methods (brain imaging as well as interviews).

It sounds trivial. But these methods are rarely combined in practice and coordinated to serve a common theoretical purpose.

If you want more details about neuroanthropology, you may go to the Neuroanthropology blog.

1 Comment

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    Olivier Morin 17 November 2008 (09:16)

    Interesting point. I am afraid things are likely to evolve in exactly the opposite direction: methods and skills are more bankable than theory in many fields. Using a specific, easy to identify method gives an immediate appearance of professionalism. Theories are much more common, and their quality is much more difficult to control. Even if a theory has powerful implications about, say, the way the brain processes a sentence, if it makes no predictions in terms of localization or cell activity (many excellent theories of syntax do not provide such predictions), it won’t be considered neuroscience, even though no one can deny that your object of study is the human brain. The shiny ”neuro” label is much praised and envied, so scientists try to control what gets the label and what does not in the cheapest and easiest possible way.
    In philosophy, things are even worse, because philosophers never really had a proper object of study. Founders of the analytic tradition sought to give philosophers at least a proper method, and that method was to be conceptual analysis. Since then, that method has proven few things for sure, except that there is no such thing as pure conceptual analysis. In my view there is nothing wrong with philosophers being general theorists without any specific method, but obviously, in the academic power game, we need more than that.