2012 Conference Planning Workshop on Culture, Mind, and Brain

Conference Planning Workshop Summary

The serene play of light and solid form in the I.M./C.C. Pei-designed Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center was a fitting setting for a workshop last Fall moderated by FPR advisory board member Steven López on the emerging neuroscience of culture. The main objectives were “to discuss ideas about bringing the study of culture, social world, and neuroscience together,” as well as plan the next FPR-UCLA interdisciplinary conference.

In the opening session participants representing particular research areas – cultural neuroscience, neuroanthropology, cultural psychology, psychological anthropology, cultural psychiatry, and genetics – were asked to speak briefly about their respective research interests and future directions for the benefit of the diverse group of twenty anthropologists, clinicians, psychologists, and neuroscientists.

Cultural neuroscientist Joan Chiao (Northwestern) gave a brief overview and then described five research findings or interests shaping the field. Cultural neuroscience explores the mutual constitution of culture and biology, including questions of culture–gene coevolution and acculturation. Major findings/future directions: (1) Researchers have distinguished cultural differences at the neural level for behavior that may appear similar across cultures. (2) Group (e.g., East/West) differences don’t necessarily equate with cultural (e.g., collectivistic/individualistic) differences, particularly cultural-value differences, although both levels of comparison (the former ecological, the latter psychological) are valid in their own way, Joan said. (3) (more controversially) “Huge” structural differences between East Asian and Western participants have been observed in virtually every lobe of the brain by Denise Park and colleagues. (4) Researchers are also studying the role of population genetics: How are the differences at the genetic level shaping psychological or neural processes? (5) Finally, researchers are studying epigenetic or developmental influences of culture on the brain.

Neuroanthropologist Greg Downey (Macquarie) gave an overview of neuroanthropology, which he described as a “dimension of psychological anthropology” informed by the new tools and fresh insights of neuroscience into basic neural as well as higher level cognitive processes. Neuroanthropology poses a different set of questions related to, e.g., evolution or the neural plausibility of indigenous accounts that psychological anthropologists tend to accept at face value. Politically, neuroanthropology also bridges a longstanding divide between cultural and biological anthropology. Neuroanthropologist Daniel Lende (University of South Florida) added that neuranthropology aims to (1) put ethnographic (ways of seeing and understanding) human variation in concert with our current understanding of how the brain works, and (2) understand how culture “works,” taking into account both neuroscience and anthropology.

Cultural Psychologist Shinobu Kitayama (University of Michigan) provided a brief history of his field, which twenty years ago “rediscovered” culture through the work of Tom Weisner, Alan Fiske, and Richard Shweder, and, sought to understand how “culture and the psyche make each other up” through the creative use of psychology’s experimental techniques. Findings initially focused on East/West differences, which Shinobu described as a “simplistic but useful heuristic tool to get the field started.” He then highlighted future directions or corresponding questions: (1) the importance of going beyond the East/West paradigm by considering findings from, e.g., evolutionary psychology re parasite risk (“how ecological conditions might influence psychological processes and cultural values”). (2) The increasing interest in social disparities in wealth, status, and power. (3) The interest in residential mobility and mechanisms of cultural change or maintenance, including diversity of subgroups, using classic “priming” paradigms as well as looking more deeply at the culture of these subgroups. (4) Culture as a source of brain plasticity and genes as an important mediating element between culture and human mind.

In his overview, psychological anthropologist Doug Hollan (UCLA), who was struck by the convergence in all these areas, said that “more and more” people within psychological anthropology are embracing the cross-fertilization of fields. But, he added, “we can’t forget the complexity of the social world,” including such aspects as race, class, gender, income disparities, etc., which can have a significant affect on behavior. Psychological anthropologists are particularly attuned to the “ecological validity” of the work they produce (often over a long-term period in the field) as a full-fledged reflection of life in a variety of settings around the world in a way that laboratory scientists are not.

Cultural psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer (McGill) began by saying that the study of mental health problems and their resolution is in a sense dependent on all the other fields at the table for “models and ideas about what the sources of the problems are and what their solutions might be.” Cultural psychiatry is “driven” by the facts of human diversity, by a globalizing world, but there is also a very strong presumption in psychiatry of the universality of conceptual models, methods, and practices despite evidence of much cross-cultural variation in the incidence, expression, and course of mental illness (as well as the significant role of social adversity in psychic suffering).

A “huge and interesting question” for the social and cultural neurosciences, he continued, is how social processes are translated into an vulnerability to mental and physical disorders and/or resilience. Cultural psychiatry has a close relationship with medical anthropology, which has been critical of the way the theories and ideologies of clinical practice (and scientific research, more generally) are embedded in value systems, and the field also stands to gain from a critical look by neuroscientist Suparna Choudhury and others at how we construct our models, including groups of people. Finally, he said that we can use the notion of culture as (1) a set of ideas about how the social world is constructed and reproduced, but also (2) how assumptions come into play in our own theory construction. In terms of future directions, he said that researchers have to be attentive to the hybridization of culture; it no longer seems realistic to distinguish people on the basis of discrete groups. Culture today may have less to do with ethnic group membership and more to do with modes of participation in various subgroups. He concluded by saying that work in epigenetics offers the possibility of understanding how environmental experience is inscribed in the genome via more interactional models.

Laurence provided a perfect lead-in for geneticist Steve Cole (UCLA), who described the “tremendous” effects of the environment on the “behavior of the genome, (creating) a sandbox of possibilities,” the realization of which depends on what geneticists call “ecology.” From a psychological or anthropological perspective, “ecology” is ultimately processed through our brains, leading to the research question, how does the social signal transduction take place?

Less well explored, he said, is the contribution of cultural and symbolic systems in determining how you subjectively make sense or meaning out of objective environmental conditions. That in turn is the “gateway to the environmental regulation of genomic biology,” by means of, for example, the perception of the world as a safe and nurturing environment. “We are starting to recognize, “ he continued, “ that a wide variety of social epidemiologic relationships . . . are structured by these worldviews, (which) end up creating a sort of chronic threat signal that . . . kicks off these genomically programmed defensive responses.” With chronic exposure, it’s possible to remodel the biological characteristics of the body at the molecular level “by changing the tuning characteristics of tissues, potentially including the brain.” He said the immune system was a good model for thinking about how differences in our experiences of the world could lead to differences in the expression and activity of our genes.

The discussion continued over dinner at a nearby restaurant. The input from the workshop participants was invaluable in terms of organizing our 2012 conference. Let me take this opportunity to say how deeply we appreciate the generosity and thoughtfulness of all concerned!


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