The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology D. H. Lende, G. Downey (eds.) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. xx + 438 pp., notes, bibliog., index. ISBN 978-0262017787. USD $40.50 (Hc.)
Article first published online: 12 APR 2014
© 2014 Australian Anthropological Society
The Australian Journal of Anthropology
Volume 25, Issue 1, pages 113–115, April 2014
How to Cite
Twomey, T. (2014), The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology D. H. Lende, G. Downey (eds.) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. xx + 438 pp., notes, bibliog., index. ISBN 978-0262017787. USD $40.50 (Hc.) . The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 25: 113–115. doi: 10.1111/taja.12075
- Issue published online: 12 APR 2014
- Article first published online: 12 APR 2014
Neuroanthropology investigates the dynamic relationship between culture and the brain, and how this relationship is central to understanding human society and behaviour. The Encultured Brain introduces us to the methods, theory, empirical basis and prospects of this emerging field. While the editors note they are not the first to call for a brain-based anthropology, systematic attempts to investigating the brain culture nexus are relatively new (p. 24). This book is currently the only one dedicated to describing why a neuroanthropological approach is warranted and what it can achieve. The contributors highlight how ongoing advances in neuroscience and cognitive science will facilitate the acceptance and development of brain-based anthropological research. In general, the book aims to justify and advocate this approach, rather than present a textbook style introduction. It articulately highlights how far neuroanthropology has come in a short time, the interest it is generating and its varied applications.
The book is presented in four parts with part one discussing the historical, theoretical, empirical and methodological basis of neuroanthropology. This includes chapters by MacKinnon and Fuentes on primate sociality and by Downey and Lende on human brain evolution. While some anthropologists will be familiar with the arguments and literature in these chapters, part one provides important information and resources for those new to evolutionary anthropology and cultural neuroscience. The main strength of this book is the case studies presented in sections two and three addressing human capacities, skills, problems and pathologies. These highlight that neuroanthropology is applicable to a broad range of subjects, and how it can further our understanding of key issues in social anthropology. For example, Hay investigates knowledge acquisition in traditional and western medical practices; Pettinen discusses habit formation in Taijutsu practice and Downey offers a second chapter focusing on skill acquisition in Capoeira performance. Bouskill discusses the neurology and sociology of humour as a coping method for breast cancer patients, and Campbell explores the relationship between testosterone and notions of male virility in different cultures. Finley provides a neuroanthropological model of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans of the recent Gulf War and Afghanistan conflicts, while Brezis looks at how religious belief and narratives provide order and self-understanding for people with autism. Stromberg relates the chemical aspects of nicotine addiction to the social behaviors that encourage smoking, and Lende's second contribution relates the environmental context of drug seeking behaviors to the neurology of salience incentive and habit formation to provide a more comprehensive account of drug addiction in Columbian youth. Finally, Dressler et al. argue that increases in both cultural consonance and the capacity to produce serotonin are correlated with decreases in measures of depression. The case studies incorporate traditional anthropological theory and ethnographic methods with cognitive science and cultural neuroscience, and relate the phenomena being discussed to specific neurological structures and processes, which makes neuroanthropology different, exciting and controversial. Part four discusses the prospects for this kind of research. Here the editors Lende and Downey propose in their final contribution that neuroanthropology can provide the bridges and bonds that will unite social and biological anthropologists (p. 391–392).
Proponents of neuroanthropology reject biological and cultural determinism that reduce the complex interactions between brain and culture to distinct causes (p. 24). Similarly, they reject Neo-Darwinian explanations for how human minds evolve, develop and operate. A key advantage of neuroanthropology is that it provides an alternative to massively modular theories of the mind, and the means to criticise these in terms of their neurological and evolutionary assumptions. For example, as Downey argues, even relatively ‘hardwired’ neurological systems such as the equilibrium system governing balance can be modified by cultural influences (p. 177). From this perspective, neuroanthropology is well placed to neutralise tensions and help reconcile the divisions between biological and social anthropologists. The book continually stresses and provides evidence for the plasticity of human brains, and neuroanthropologists align themselves with developmental systems theory and the idea of niche construction. Understanding how humans construct, apprehend and negotiate different ‘sociocognitive niches’ is a central focus of neuroanthropology (p. 28). The contributors also suggest that this approach is more holistic than either social anthropology or cultural neuroscience. They argue that a neuroanthropological approach can reveal cultural influences not evident in laboratory experiments and aspects of the brain that are not evident from ethnographic analysis. The case studies all investigate aspects of human social life that are difficult or impossible to study in a lab. They then relate the ethnographic data to cognitive, hormonal and neurological data acquired through experimentation. By integrating laboratory with field research the case studies provide explanations whereby these different approaches complement each other. Bouskill achieves this to good effect by demonstrating that it is the interaction of cognitive and social conditions that make humour a meaningful coping mechanism for breast cancer patients (p. 214).
Most anthropologists will find something that is relevant to their research in this book. However, the broad scope means the treatment of some important issues is limited. For example, important experimental, critical, interpretive and neuroimaging methodological approaches receive only superficial treatment (p. 18–19). Despite this, The Encultured Brain is recommended for social scientists interested in incorporating neurological approaches into their research or how advances in neuroscience are relevant to social anthropology. The book is also recommended for social scientists who are skeptical of brain-based approaches as it will help them better appreciate what neuroanthropology is and what it has to offer. Social and cultural anthropology can benefit from, and make significant contributions to, the exciting advances being made in neuroscience. The Encultured Brain outlines the basic theory and methodology that will allow anthropologists to participate in these advances that are becoming increasingly influential in the scientific community.