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A Failure of Empathy? Review of Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil

By Karen A. Frenkel

The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (Basic Books, 2011) is the third book in a trilogy by Simon Baron-Cohen, the renowned Professor of Developmental Psychopathology and Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge (UK). I have not read the first two works, Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind (MIT, 1995), his exploration of cognition and empathy with particular regard to autism, or The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain (Basic Books, 2003), which is about gender differences and emotional reactions to people, or affect, and empathy. But based on the new book, I want to read both.

The goal of this concise, accessible work is to understand human cruelty. According to Baron-Cohen, describing barbaric behavior as “evil” explains nothing. Instead, he attempts to link it to a lack of “empathy,” which has been the subject of a considerable amount of neuroscientific (especially functional neuroimaging) research recently. Ultimately, Baron-Cohens argues that empathy is an essential natural resource to be cultivated in the interest of one-on-one interactions and beyond that, of international peacekeeping.

“Empathy erosion” arises from corrosive emotions like bitter resentment, desire for revenge, hatred, or the desire to protect, Baron-Cohen says. Treating someone as if they are an object––ignoring their thoughts and feelings, that is, their subjectivity––is one of the worst things a person can do to another, he says. A person suspends empathy when thinking only about his or her own mind (single-mindedness) because empathy is the ability to “identify what (someone else is) thinking or feeling and respond to that with appropriate emotion,” according to Baron-Cohen. An empathic person does not merely ask someone how they are feeling, rather he or she avoids hurting their feelings, contemplates how to make them feel good, and considers the impact of his or her words and actions on others. The empathic person listens to what is said and notes how it is said. This ability is not like a toggle switch; it instead resembles a dimmer, Baron-Cohen asserts.

Just as levels of empathy ebb and flow in a person depending on whether or not they are preoccupied, they vary in the population. The area under the classic bell curve that most interests Baron-Cohen is the low end—those who entirely lack empathy; borderline personalities, psychopaths, and narcissists. He portrays each in short case studies so that readers recognize types in an informal and clear style so that you feel he is talking to you.

He also offers a tour of the parts of the brain activated by tasks purporting to show the ability to empathize. An example is the medial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self-awareness, and a person’s ability to compare his or her point of view with that of another. His short, clean, jargon-free sentences tell you what you need to know and examples appear in just the right places––the hallmark of fine science writing.

Baron-Cohen is careful to distinguish persons with empathy-lacking personality disorders from those on the autistic spectrum, who tend to “systematize” the world, that is, they focus on detecting and analyzing patterns. He describes one person living with Asperger syndrome who recorded temperature, rainfall, and wind speed in thousands of notebooks in order to try and predict the weather, for example. A person with such a mind may not be able to tolerate imprecision or change, and other people’s behavior may be beyond comprehension. Empathy for others is therefore compromised. Unlike the personality disorders listed above, persons living with autism can develop a moral code; they must learn it through systematizing, however.

Noting that parents of persons with autism exhibit “mild difficulties reading the mind in the eyes of others,” and that siblings show intermediate activation of the amygdala during face processing, Baron-Cohen moves on to the genetics of empathy. Genes are associated with measures of empathy, he says. Anticipating objections that this is deterministic, he counters that genes are not the only deterministic factors––early environment is, too. “Should we simply sweep such genetic evidence under the carpet just because it makes us feel uncomfortable?” he asks, “In the pursuit of trying to understand how human beings can end up doing awful things to each other, we have to look at all the evidence, not just the bits that suit our worldview,” he argues. I say, well said.

Baron-Cohen offers several studies of twins to make his point, carefully explaining experimental design. He shows that nearly all studies of empathy in twins have found a greater correlation on empathy measures among identical twins, who share the same genes, compared to fraternal twins, who are not genetically the same. Describing his own research, Baron-Cohen tested for genes involved in the synthesis and receptors of oxytocin, the hormone associated with trust and generosity, and the related peptide hormone, arginine vasopressin. Of 68 candidate genes his group selected, four showed a strongly significant association with empathy. Baron-Cohen’s enthusiasm and the easy way he includes the reader in this quest make him a compelling storyteller. “We waited with baited breath while the genotyping took place and wondered whether the substantial time and money we had invested would all be to non-avail. Imagine our excitement wen the results came through,” he writes.

The final chapter, Reflections on Human Cruelty, recaps the salient points of previous chapters and then develops into an essay on the dangers of past indifference to cruelty and to terrorism today. Verging on moral philosophy, Baron-Cohen meditates on his thesis and raises questions that might pull it apart. He reflects on Hannah Arendt’s characterization of Adolf Eichmann and the “banality of evil,” for example, and notes David Cesarini’s criticism that Arendt observed only the beginning of the Nazi war criminal’s trial. Had she stayed longer, she would have seen how he exercised creativity in planning mass murder––that he was not just blindly following orders, Baron-Cohen says, summarizing Cesarini. For Baron-Cohen, the banality of evil, like the concept of evil itself, as he states in beginning of the book, are insufficient. To explain Eichmann’s behavior, his reduced empathy must be examined “in terms of social forces and individual factors,” Baron-Cohen says.

Looking at human cruelty today and cycles of violence, Baron-Cohen discusses terrorists, who kill innocent civilians to further their political agendas. “If my theory is correct,” he says, “we would have to say that terrorists have zero degrees of empathy. Is this true?” If so, we would have to condemn acts like the bombings of South African government buildings that Nelson Mandela coordinated as leader of the African National Congress, and the Haganah’s bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946, which was orchestrated by Menachim Begin, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize at Israel’s Prime Minister and shared it with Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat.

But then Baron-Cohen writes that terrorists target their victims because they believe their freedom and identity are threatened, so the unempathic act is not necessarily the result of lack of empathy. “The belief and/or the actual political context may drive the behavior,” he says. Nevertheless, at the moment the 9/11 terrorists committed their acts, their empathy was “switched off,” he says. As the terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers, they no longer cared about the welfare and feelings of their victims, he claims. The discussion of the 9/11 terrorists seems brief to me, however. Baron-Cohen quickly shifts to the response; Tony Blair’s remark that “history will forgive us” for invading Iraq, amounts to “judging an act only by its distant outcomes while ignoring its immediate outcomes,” Baron-Cohen asserts. That act “itself may be unempathic irrespective of whether the ends justify the means.”

Addressing human nature more broadly, Baron-Cohen asks whether all of us are capable of killing. According to his theory, only those with low empathy can commit murder, thus he concludes that most of us are incapable of killing because of our “average or above-average empathy levels.” But the key question in his book––whether an underactive empathy circuit in the brain explains human cruelty––cannot yet be answered because all the data are not in, he says.

Discussing capital punishment, Baron-Cohen calls for nurturing empathy so that we do not dehumanize perpetrators of heinous crimes. He writes:

If unambiguously “evil” individuals (a candidate for their category might be Hitler) felt remorse for their crimes and had been punished, would we try to focus on their good qualities, with an intent to rehabilitate them? My own view is that we should do this no matter how bad their crime. It is the only way we can establish that we are showing empathy for the perpetrator, not just repeating the crime of turning the perpetrator into an object and thus dehumanizing them. To do that renders us no better than the person we punish.

Further, Baron-Cohen says empathy is an underutilized, taken-for-granted resource we must nurture. He closes with the remarkable mission of two fathers, who are members of an organization born of blood and suffering called The Parents Circle. The fathers, one a Palestinian and the other an Israeli, each lost a son to the other side. Now the pair tours the mosques and synagogues of the globe. Recently they visited a London synagogue Baron-Cohen was attending. “I am Ahmed. . . . My son died in the Intifada, killed by an Israeli’s bullet,” one said in greeting the congregants, “I come to wish you all Shabbat Shalom.” Said the other, “I am Moishe…My son also died in the Intifada, killed by a homemade petrol bomb thrown by a Palestinian teenager. I come to wish you all Salaam Aleikem.”

Bathed in their loss, their empathy for one another is a tiny drop, but each drop of empathy waters the flower of peace, Baron-Cohen comments. Unlike religion, empathy “cannot oppress anyone,” he says. For Baron-Cohen sees empathy as “the universal solvent. Any problem immersed in it becomes soluble.”

I hope he is right. The idea seems convincing on paper. When will we test that hypothesis?


Counterplay: FPR Interviews Anthropologist Robert Desjarlais

Science writer Karen A. Frenkel interviews anthropologist Robert R. Desjarlais for the FPR.

Robert R. Desjarlais is Professor of Anthropology, and recently held the Alice Stone Ilchman Chair in Comparative and International Studies, at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, NY. His interests include the cultural construction of experience, subjectivity and intersubjectivity, death and mourning, and the political economy of illness and healing. He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the Nepal Himalayas, with the residents of a homeless shelter in Boston, and among competitive chess players. He is the author of Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992); Shelter Blues: Sanity and Selfhood Among the Homeless (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997); Sensory Biographies: Lives and Deaths Among Nepal’s Yolmo Buddhists (University of California Press, 2003); and Counterplay: an Anthropologist at the Chessboard (University of California Press, 2011). He is currently writing his fifth book, titled Subject to Death: Yolmo Buddhist Engagements with Life, Loss, and Mourning.

KAF: You get into the heads of your sources in a very intimate way and write sensitively about them. Let’s talk about your interviewing and observation methods and how you developed them.

RD: The main conceptual framework I have in mind when I’m doing research is to see how peoples’ lives are put together, and to understand how they experience their lives and the worlds they live in. The fancy word for that in phenomenology is the “lifeworld.” What is the lifeworld of a person or a group of people I’m trying to understand? My methods are geared toward that kind of interpretative work – to delve into their lifeworlds, and to ask what are the different dimensions that contribute to them, from cultural dynamics to history to language to psychological processes to biology. My aim is to tap into a lifeworld, and when it comes to writing, to consider how to convey that to readers in interesting and accurate and fair ways.

KAF: Whatever works in the moment, depending on the temperament of your interlocutor, right?

RD: Exactly. I’m trying to attend to what their concerns are, as well as  the practical aspects of the interview. I much prefer to do interviews face-to-face and make people comfortable with our work together. If they have a certain energy, it’s good for me to have a sense about that. Often I come in with a template of questions to draw from and see where the conversation goes. Often I’ll go back to these same people, to talk some more, and fill in the blanks. Then, through working with different people, I’ll get a sense of the different perspectives that are involved here. I also spend a lot of time hanging out with people, living alongside them, and participating in what they’re involved with.

The term in anthropology for this is “participant observation,” where you participate in peoples’ lives, but you are observing all along, taking notes, mental or written, about what’s going on. Right now, I’m working on a section of a new book on death and funeral rites in Nepal called Subject to Death. For this section I’m drawing on my understanding of these rituals, based on ones I attended myself, dating back to the late 1980s. I’ve done a lot of research talking with people, and I’ve been considering how Buddhist perspectives tie into all this, so that I have a good sense of  the logic and history behind the rites.

KAF: Is there an anthropologist whose work and methodology you particularly admire?

RD: When I was in graduate school, the key one was Clifford Geertz. He taught at the University of Chicago and then Princeton University’s Institute of Advanced Studies. He did what he came to call “interpretive anthropology” – where one tries to understand cultures on their own terms, through interpretive methods. Geertz argued that an anthropologist should work to comprehend cultures in much the same way that a literary critic does in trying  to analyze and understand a literary  text. That was the guiding framework for me as I developed as a cultural anthropologist. People have moved beyond that because they’ve concluded that cultures are not like texts; they’re much more fluid, much more politically charged, to the point where the concept of distinct and bounded “culture” has come into question. Also, Geertz’s writing style was rich, humanistic, and he had a literary sensibility in trying to explain how these worlds work. That has shaped my work as well. More recently, I’ve been interested in the writings of the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, as well as other contemporary anthropologists, including Michael D. Jackson, who has been advocating what he calls existential anthropology, wherein one tries to ascertain the existential imperatives and challenges that human beings often face in their lives. I have also been influenced by a lot of novelists.

Right now, I’m reading Moby Dick and love it. In effect, it’s an ethnography of the whaling industry and what it’s like to be on the ship. It’s quite inspiring to see how Melville laid it out. It’s a portrait of the lifeworld on the Pequod and a character analysis of Captain Ahab and other personalities.

KAF: In your most recent work, Counterplay, your approach is different from the Buddhists of Nepal in Sensory Biographies, in that you are playing games with your sources or interlocutors. It’s a very personal work, about your journey and about wanting to get away from thinking about death. Do you think that in being in the chess world, which is a world unto itself, and playing with your interlocutors, that you were doing anthropology in a different way?

RJ: Yes. At first I didn’t think of doing anthropology. I was just playing chess. I felt I had moved away from anthropology after I finished Sensory Biographies. Chess was so much more interesting to me at the time. I had in back of my mind that perhaps I could write about it, and I would tell my anthropology colleagues that I might do so. But for a couple of years I was just playing chess. It seems that this was a good way to do fieldwork because I was observing a world while actively engaged within  it. But my main priority was to get better at chess and enjoy playing with other people. Then slowly I realized I could start writing about it. It was then that I started to  put my thoughts on paper. But it was a different kind of engagement, both in terms of topic and the activities involved. When I was in Nepal, I was clearly doing research to gather information. When I was at the chessboard, I was trying to figure our how I could get better at the game.

I also wanted to write a book that was less scholarly and more accessible for a general audience. That shaped how I wrote it, too.

KAF: How does playing with your chess interlocutors inform the way you’re going about writing your new book?

RD: There are several dimensions. Something about chess and the elements of play came to the fore for me. Play is a very fascinating concept, in part because there are so many dimensions to it. Whether it’s simulation, fantasy, engagement with other people, or any creative activity and production – these all have elements of play. Play has a lot of affinities with ritual too, and that has added to my understanding of how these things work. At the same time, what I learned a lot from writing Counterplay  is how to write about peoples’ lives from a narrative, non-fiction approach – creating portraits of people and telling stories.

That’s in Sensory Biographies as well, but Counterplay suggests  a different way of going about it.

I like the ludic element in Counterplay, ludic in the sense of “play,” something playful. But the word ludic is  also associated etymologically with illusion and creating, with playful fantasy. Writing often embodies that. We see the ludic element in Moby Dick where Melville plays with the reader and these forms that he’s writing about. He’s playing with language and the way the characters  speak. We can sense the influence of Shakespeare there. A Buddhist world is very sympathetic to that because it very much understands the world as one of play, that themes are constantly coming and going, that what you see is not fully real, in the way that you see it. Things are ever shifting. If you think about it, the physics of a chessboard is similar to the physics of a Buddhist world. There are force fields of energy coming into play and out of play in different ways.

KAF: Would you please give an example?

RD: With any chess position you have arrangements of forces – the Queen, the King, the Bishops, rooks, the pawns. They’re all really bundles of energy moving in time and space. When advanced players look at a chess position, they will not see the material objects on the board so much as they will forces of energy in relation to one another. A Buddhist monk would probably say their take on the world is similar to that. From a Buddhist perspective, a person  is not  a stable, permanent self, or a concrete materiality, but a forcefield of energy.

KAF: Is there much chess playing among the Yolmo?

RD: Not really. I played games now and then in Kathmandu but it’s not a main tradition. A Buddhist practitioner once told me that chess is very Buddhist in spirit. I would agree with that.

KAF: You write about the effects of globalization on chess in cyberspace. Could you comment on the effects of cyberspace? It seems to me that a lot of what goes on in chess in cyberspace happens in cyberspace in general. Do you agree?

RD: Yes. Much of what is happening in the world of chess just now, with the advent of computer technologies – faster games, an endless and ever-growing mass of information and databases, computational analyses, remote, anonymous interactions between people – is taking form in our lives more generally.

KAF: I wonder what you think about the influence of cyberspace on the peoples of the world and their cultures. Will cyberspace make cultures more similar, or are cultures going to express themselves differently in cyberspace? Are we heading towards a world culture?

RD: Probably a little of both. We’re heading into a cyberculture where information is being constantly exchanged – there’s a fluid, fast-paced exchange of images and information shaping our lives. This will take on different manifestations in different parts of the world, given what’s already there culturally, and how people understand information and simulation.  For instance, I can imagine that simulation and virtual realities in a Tibetan Buddhist world would be perceived differently than they would  in a Christian fundamentalist society – the nature of truth, the nature of imagery, would be known and perceived differently.

I do see the nature of communication as different than it was just a few years before. Last night, for example, I was trying to learn more about digital photography and wanted to know what kind of tripod to get for my camera. So I asked questions through Google like, “What’s the best tripod?” and immediately got some decent answers. Fifteen years ago that was unthinkable. And I see this with my students. The use of text messaging and social networking sites are shaping, in a fundamental way, the nature of self and how they represent themselves to others. It’s shaping the nature of communication, the nature of time, how information and relations work through time. One of my students wrote a nice paper about anxiety in the age of text messaging and how, if you don’t hear back from someone within a few hours after sending them a text, that can be anxiety-provoking. All of this is playing into the nature of selfhood and relationships.

I see similar forces involved with the people I work with in Nepal. Yolmo people are setting up websites to represent their culture. I may be contributing to that this summer, as I’m thinking of taking photographs of people in the Yolmo region, the villages they live in, and the material aspects of their lives, and then create an on-line archive of sorts with these images. I’ll talk with people and see what they think. The website could be a collaborative effort with the people of Nepal.

It would be good to create some kind of documentation of Yolmo culture, because it’s changing quickly. Generations are changing as well. But there are cultural concerns about whether people want their pictures on the Internet. If I photograph a farmer, does he have an understanding of what’s going to happen with that image? Does he understand what the Internet is, and how his image will circulate? There’s also the consideration of when people die, you’re not supposed to say the name of the deceased, in part because the dead don’t have need for names, and invoking the name of a deceased person can bring up bad memories, so I have to think through what is involved in creating lasting visual representations of people on the Internet.

KAF: You comment that chess grandmasters are arrogant and less-than-whole persons. Some are two-dimensional and only come alive through chess. You also describe the danger and addiction to chess. The obsession that can envelope a person. Do you think cyberchess is making that worse?

RD: Yes, at least to an extent. For some people it is. Some are getting so caught up with the informational possibilities of the game. I saw that with myself. I often found myself thinking that I needed to know everything about a particular variation of a chess opening, and I would devote hours to learning about it .This has happened with my friends, too – this informational obsession. The cyberworld contributes to that. And there are online chess servers where people can play for hours on end, and that, too, can quickly become a compulsion.  It’s different from a few years ago when people just came to play chess at a chess club one evening a week, and it was a rather social experience, with people chatting in a back room.

KAF: Have you learned anything from chess that’s applicable to mental illness?

RD: Yes, this theme of obsession. I didn’t think of it that way, but these themes get played out in society as a whole. Obsession. Paranoia. Suspicion. Anxiety. These themes get played out in chess in terms of peoples’ lives when it comes to questions of mental illness or madness. If you look at any domain in life, you would see themes of madness, how things can go mad or wrong, in intensive ways So in Moby Dick you see how Ahab becomes obsessed with vanquishing a certain whale and how it has lasting reverberations with other people.

KAF: Are there obsessions like that in Nepal?

RD: That’s a good question. One key thing there is how much to withdraw from the world, because there is a very strong focus on detachment from loved ones at the end of life. The intensity there is not really obsession, but obsession is a kind of intensity. How much to remove oneself from the world is a kind of intensity – an  amplification, a sensibility, a certain desire. Then there is the sadness and nervousness that people  have at the end of life, and concerns about what will happen when they die and leave others, as well. In Nepal, a key theme is connection with other people and so the inverse dimension of that is disconnection with others.

KAF: I’m puzzled. I would think they would be more at peace with dying because they know it’s temporary, but I guess they’re not because of the 49-day transition.

RD: Most do understand that it’s temporary and that they’ll move on to another life. But once you die, you will never see the people you’ve been living with your whole life. You will never see them again, and you don’t know where you’ll be going. There is also the question of where you will get reborn and in what kind of lifeform. Karma is a determinant of that, but one cannot be sure how it will take form. Along with all that, the 49-day transitional period between one life and the next is very bewildering. You enter this dream-like, in-between state, where a lot of phantasmagoric images come at you. It can be very discombobulating to know that’s coming. In a larger sense there is reassurance that there is continuity, but things end at the same time, too.

KAF: You write, “words and gestures often converge with utterances sounding in time with the assertive placement of pieces and the pounding of chess clocks.” And then you quote anthropologist Thierry Wendling, who writes, “the gesture, the blow on the chessboard, or on the clock, dramatizes the expressivity of speech; the body serves as a technique of language.” What resonated for you in that?

RD: People often see chess as just a mental phenomenon – that chess is very disembodied. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Chess is very interactive. You can hear your opponent’s breath, and you can sense his gasp if you make a move that surprises him or takes him off guard. You sense your opponent’s bodily presence. You hear the ticking of the clock.

So one of the things I wanted to convey is that chess is multi-dimensional. There is so much going on at any moment – from interactions between people to biology, to the brain, and cultural history. All these factors weigh in.

KAF: And you lose all that with cyberchess.

RJ: Yes, that’s one of the disconcerting things. Some people say they don’t like playing chess online because they like the tactile feel of chess pieces and the face-to-face presence of someone sitting across from them. I was surprised that they put it so tangibly. I tend to play a couple of games online each day. It’s a weird feeling, because when you’re playing against these random, anonymous human opponents, there is very little  social interaction to speak of, no language or looks exchanged. People are anonymous. You play a game and then disconnect. It’s almost like a phantom social interaction. It’s sort of like Chat Roulette. You have a similarly brief interaction. It’s also close to Internet dating. If you meet someone at a party and make plans to get together at some point later on, there’s usually some accountability; people keep to their word. But if you make plans on the Internet with someone, that person might not show up, and not give it a second thought. The sense of morality is different online.

KAF: Is there an analogy in the real world?

RD: There’s something about the lack of face-to-face interaction on the Internet that is like driving on the highway and giving someone the finger.

KAF: You discuss the concept of counterempathy on p. 69 of Counterplay:

These days, players often adopt “counterempathy” measures by mixing up their opening strategies and chess-playing styles so that their prospective rivals cannot pin down their inclinations. Some players are concerned about their opponents “reading their minds” while playing, and they try not to let on too much about what they’re thinking. One grandmaster from Russia told me he advises his students that if they discover an effective sequence of moves, they shouldn’t think too hard or long on it, as their opponents might be able to intuit that sequence themselves. These concerns are in line with what anthropologists have gathered through their cross-cultural studies: instead of empathic alignment always being a welcome phenomenon in human societies, it’s often the case that “too accurate an understanding of the inner states of another may actually be experienced as an impingement or violation,” as anthropologist Kevin Groark puts it. Empathic insight can be a dangerous weapon.

The counterempathy guards tend to come down once a game is over. Opponents often meet up after a contest and go over the game just completed, in a collaborative fashion. They do so in part to gain a better sense of what their counterparts were thinking during the game, as well as to share their own thoughts, prompting moments of mutual understanding.

While these efforts at agonic and mutual empathy are an integral part of chess culture, it’s also understood that if a player has too much caring concern for an opponent, to the point of feeling sorry for him if he loses, that feeling can get in the way of being a strong player.

What do you think about this tension between playing someone and they’re an opponent, but then afterwards you have this chance to team up and understand what happened in the game and share your mutual love for the game. But that might weaken you somehow.

RD: Yes, it’s very double-edged – what you know and what you want to share with the other person. It’s woven into how people interact. Once I came across that, it surprised me because we tend to think of empathy as a social good, it’s good to have empathy and be involved with people who are empathically attuned. But sometimes too much empathy  into another person can be dangerous, or perceived as such in certain circumstances. You want to know what’s going on in the other person’s world, but you don’t want them to know too much about your own. So chess players can be rather cagey. I remember once a friend and I were studying variations of a chess position one afternoon. The next Monday night at a chess club I played one of those variations against another person, in a casual, friendly game. My friend got annoyed with me, and said, “Don’t show what we’ve been studying to other people. We have to keep it secret.” So it’s sorcery in a way. You don’t want to spread around what you know because it can come back to haunt you.

KAF: Your three books seem to me to be quite different. Do you agree?

RD: The running theme is that I’m mostly interested in understanding distinct lifeworlds. Some anthropologists are more interested in developing theory on various topics. I’m mostly interested, more like a novelist would be, in portraying a particular world, in much the same way Jane Austen and Fyodor Dostoyevsky did. That’s what I’m most interested in, and the conceptual frameworks at hand get woven in to that. Each book is an exploration of a world, the world of the homeless shelter, of chess players, the world of dying and death. After I finish the book I’m writing now, I might write a book about friendship.

KAF: How long was Sensory Biographies in the works, from conception to field work to publishing? Because I wonder if you were decompressing from it.

RD: I think that’s right. I started research in 1997, and I made several trips to Nepal – in the summer of ’97, spring ’98, the summer and fall of 2000 and the fall of 2001. The book was published in 2003. I finished writing it in the spring of 2002, so it was a five-year project. Most of my books are like that. They take several years to complete, especially while I’m busy with teaching, as well. To complete a decent draft of a book manuscript, one has to write for a good full year – about a chapter a month.

KAF: You couldn’t do your work with the same kind of continuity as with chess, right? Because you could be immersed in that world.

RD: With my work in Nepal, there’s always a sense of toing and froing, going to Nepal and getting a sense of what I’m trying to understand, and then returning home and writing it up for months and even years at a time. Then going back and trying it out my ideas and understandings on people. There’s very much that sense of back and forth, of being close and far away. But in the chess world it was a complete immersion for several years. The other major difference is that the chess world comes out of my culture. I grew up playing chess, too. It was very much an auto-ethnography – writing about my own world. And Nepal is always different, always other, and I never feel I have a fully-realized, intuitive feel for the culture. It evolves from understandings that develop through time, and it can be jolting when I’m writing. There’s always a sense of newness and otherness. I never really feel I know that world completely.

KAF: How did you develop your focus on attitudes towards death in Nepal? Why did you focus on that?

RD: I’m asking myself that these days. When I was doing the life histories for Sensory Biographies, I decided to work with elderly people. They, themselves, spoke about their time of dying. The two people I worked with most  were both in their mid-80s, and they would talk about how they had only a few more years to live, which turned out to be the case. So they talked about what it was to be at the end of their life and what they could anticipate after they died. I picked up on those concerns and they were comfortable talking about them. I also became further intrigued with these very interesting ritual processes that kick in after a person dies – from the cremation rites to the funeral rites – they’re very interesting not just because of the seriousness of the subject matter, but what they say about the nature of consciousness, culture, and transformation in rituals, and life and death. It held my interest and I felt there was a story to be told there. Even when I during the chess book I would dream about these themes. I wasn’t sure, when I was writing the book on chess, if I would come back to this material. But I had written half of Subject to Death already – and I had put so much into it that I felt I should come back and finish it.

KAF: And in the end of your “Prelude to Subject to Death” you say that the book is really about life.

RD: Yes. I’m realizing that it’s really about the vitality and continuity of life. When I first started, I saw termination everywhere. Now I see vast swirls of continuity. For several years now, I’ve taught a course called “Engagements with Death and Mourning.” But this fall I’m teaching a new course called “The Anthropology of Life Itself.” That might lead to work on this topic down the road.

KAF: Do you feel that anthropology, more than any other discipline, gives a sense of complexity of culture and its influences on individuals?

RD: I think so, but I’m biased. There is a multi-dimensional perspective inherent in anthropology that is very important. There are so many factors weighing into a situation. An anthropological sensibility trains one to see the world in that way. I see that in teaching my students, for they soon become aware of all the factors that need to be taken into account to make sense of how peoples’ lives are put together.

KAF: There is a concern that when you embed yourself in another culture and observe and take photos, maybe you impinge on that culture, in an analog to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, where you affect what you’re studying. How do you get around that?

RD: It’s  tricky. I’m not sure you can completely get around it. I often think an anthropologist’s presence is not as influential as people feel, especially these days. I think I’ve had a small impact on peoples’ lives, compared to the effects of globalization, migration, and the advent of technologies. An image I once thought of is that I’m on a surfboard on top of a wave of change. But I’m not the one generating the wave. People I talk with would agree, I think

One has to keep a lot in mind when doing fieldwork. The best way for me is to develop a collaborative approach. I write books and there’s an agreement with the people about what I should be writing about, that a kind of support and a good can come out of that. The people I work with are very concerned with promoting their ethnic identity. It’s important for them to solidify and to publicize who they are within the Nepali world and  beyond. So they see my work as helping to do that. It can also help to create a record of who they are both now and who they were in the past. I see it as mutually beneficial rather than exploitative. Some feel anthropology is inherently associated with colonialism, but I don’t agree. There is something to the  idea that Westerners are going to other places and studying and observing and defining them in a certain way. But anthropology doesn’t have to be exploitative.

KAF: What do you think of the relatively new field of cultural neuroscience? Do you think brain anatomy differs across cultures and is shaped by it?

RD: That’s a good question. I can’t say I’m up-to-date on current research. There is also the question of what is anatomy as opposed to processing. I see things in terms of complex interactions of forces and factors. The brain is clearly an important dimension of it. It’s great to develop a field like cultural neurology, but the danger is to make things too brain-centered – to see it as the locus and driver or the “house” where everything is happening. Neuroprocessing is just one component of a very complex system of interactions. You have language, material objects, consciousness, relationships between bodies, cultural histories – and all of that weighs in together. So if we look at these funeral rites that I’m attempting to understand, for instance, the brain is clearly a part of that – how the rituals are interacting with the brain – but there is so much more going on. There are relationships between people, associations between memories, material objects, dreams, imagination. The brain is of course woven into that, but it’s only one element of a larger system of interactions.

KAF: What can anthropologists learn from cultural neuroscientists, if anything? Given their different approaches, can they collaborate?

RD: Definitely. What anthropologists can learn is a greater understanding of how the brain works, how it perceives information, and the subtleties of neural processing, thinking, imagining, sensing, and remembering. That’s a kind of black box in anthropology now. We’re writing about consciousness, emotions, and empathy, but we don’t have a fine-tuned understanding of how the brain is working with these things. So what one needs is a unified theory, in much the same way that people are looking for that in physics. That would interest anthropologists, too – looking at a phenomenon and knowing all that’s going into it. So for instance, I’m learning about digital photography. I was reading about how light works and how the brain perceives light and color that kind of perception is very different from a camera recognizes light and color. This is important to know, and the knowledge from this can be highly generative of insight and understanding. I would similarly be interested in how the brain perceives music and ritual practices and how these practices  have an effect on the brain. These are all fertile questions to explore, but anthropologists are cautioning against getting too reductionistic about it – just saying the brain is doing everything and that it all comes back to the brain.

KAF: Professor Desjarlais, thank you so much for your time.


Interview, Israeli Public Radio

“Homo Ludens,” Jonathan Rowson, New in Chess

“For Love of the Game,” Chronicle of Higher Education

Foreword Reviews, March/April 2011

“Counterplay: An Interview with Robert Desjarlais,” ChessLife Online, United States Chess Federation

Review of Ramachandran’s “The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human”

Science writer Karen A. Frenkel reviews V.S. Ramachandran’s sixth book, “The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human,” (W.W. Norton, 2011). Ramachandran  is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute.

Like the “Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allen Poe’s heart-pounding short story,  V. S. Ramachandran ’s The Tell-Tale Brain is an exciting read. In his sixth book, the acclaimed neuroscientist explains the brain’s most intriguing and enigmatic characteristics. But the similarity between the two works ends there, because Poe’s narrator is notoriously unreliable, whereas Ramachandran is a hugely talented authority in his field. He is also a gifted storyteller who delves into areas beyond his direct expertise. He explains why our brains are plastic, the reasons amputees sense their missing limbs, the blending of senses known as synesthesia, and hypothesizes about the riddle of autism. But he also extends his exploration beyond neuroscience, offering insights into why art appeals to us. He examines this highly cross-cultural human endeavor through the new realm of neurasthenics.

My favorite chapter is the one on autism, perhaps because this worldwide phenomenon has eluded us for so long.  Ramachandran thinks that because autistic children have difficulty miming and imitating other’s actions, the key to unraveling this mystery may be mirror neurons, or rather a deficiency in them. This, in turn, results in a “deficient theory of other minds,” he says, that is, the inability to “automatically project intentions perceptions, and beliefs into the minds of others.” But that is not truly an explanation, says Ramachandran; it doesn’t do much more than restate autistic symptoms – lack of empathy, impaired intention-reading, no mimicry, non pretend play, and hampered language learning. So Ramachandran offers a hypothesis – that the main cause of autism is a dysfunctional mirror-neuron system – and also takes the reader through the design and implementation of an experiment. He shows that in certain circumstances, a medium-functioning autistic boy named Justin does not produce the same brain waves as a normal child. Specifically, when Justin watched someone perform a simple action like opening and closing his fingers, electrodes on Justin’s scalp did not show the suppression of mu waves (electromagnetic oscillations in the frequency range of 8 to 13 Hz and appear in bursts of 9 to 11 Hz. The wave patterns arise from synchronous and coherent electrical activity of large groups of neurons in the human brain).

Ramachandran and his team concluded that although Justin’s motor-command system was intact because he could open doors, eat, and draw, for example, his mirror system was deficient. Ramachandran and his colleagues performed the same test on ten more children and since then other scientists have confirmed this observation using other techniques. Thus Ramachandran not only sheds light on autism, but along the way teaches readers about the scientific method. This is his MO throughout this fine book. He fluidly weaves in his questions, takes the reader on a scientific journey, and rewards us with the method’s payoff – results.

Two chapters on art and the brain, “Beauty and the Brain: the Emergence of Aesthetics,” and The Artful Brain: Universal Laws,” are interesting, but less successful.  Ramachandran writes that beneath all the staggering variety of styles of art, there may be general principles or artistic universals that cut across cultural boundaries. He asks whether we can derive a “science of art,” and despite acknowledging that art is a celebration of individual imagination and spirit, goes on to try to convince the reader that we now know enough about human vision and the brain to “construct a scientific theory of artistic experience.” This will involve universal laws or principles, analogous to the Buddha’s eightfold path to wisdom and enlightenment. Ramachandran’s list actually has nine laws of aesthetics, and he defends it by stating that the list does not diminish the important role of culture in the creation and appreciation of art. They are: grouping, peak shift, contrast, isolation, peekaboo (or perceptual problem solving), abhorrence of coincidence, orderliness, symmetry, and metaphor.

I enjoyed Ramachandran’s explanation of the law of grouping (the repeated use of a color on unrelated objects throughout a canvas) in terms of evolution—that it evolved to defeat camouflage and to detect objects in cluttered scenes. But Ramachandran really captivated me with his discussion of Isolation, describing the artwork of an autistic girl named Nadia. Three-year-old Nadia drew a horse with fabulous lines that evoked speed and aggression so that the animal seemed to leap from the paper. But the artist could not converse or barely tie a shoelace.

Drawing by 3-year-old Nadia

Many people preferred her equine rendition to one by Da Vinci, says Ramachandran yet how can an autistic child draw better than one of the greatest geniuses, he asks. The answer is that a portion of her brain — a “spared island” in the right parietal lobe (which is responsible for special skills) functions normally. Furthermore, Ramachandran suggests that the poor functioning in many other brain areas free Nadia’s right parietal to get the lion’s share of her attentional resources. Ironically, Nadia outgrew some of her autism during puberty only to completely lose her artistic ability; she could no longer allocate the bulk of her attention to that activity.

This prompts Ramachandran to ask two questions: Is it possible that we less-gifted, normal people also have latent artistic talents waiting to be liberated by brain disease? And if so, would it be possible to unleash these talents without actually damaging our brains or paying the price of destroying other skills? Ramachandran describes pioneering work by another scientist in transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which harmlessly and temporarily inactivated portions of normal adults’ brains. Interestingly, subjects in the experiment suddenly produced beautiful sketches. The astonished Ramachandran thinks up a way to use fMRI to explore this further.

Although Ramachandran’s nine laws are intended to explain why artists create and why people enjoy viewing it, I enjoyed section on metaphor mainly because of his enthusiastic description of the Nataraja, a 12th century Indian sculpture of the cosmic dance of Shiva. Ramachandran writes:

But the sculpture is much more than that; it is a metaphor of the dance of the Universe itself, of the movement and energy of the cosmos. The artist depicts this sensation through the skillful use of many devices. For example, the centrifugal motion of Shiva’s arms and legs flailing in different directions and the wavy tresses flying off his head symbolize the agitation and the frenzy of the cosmos. Yet right in the midst of all this turbulence – this fitful fever of life – is the calm spirit of Shiva himself. He gazes at his own creation with supreme tranquility and poise. How skillfully the artist has combined these seemingly antithetical elements of movement and energy. . . .

Throughout his book, Ramachandran invites us to share his curiosity, his zest for exploration, and his love of knowledge. Through his eloquence, he makes them contagious.

Waking, Dreaming, Being: FPR Interview with Philosopher Evan Thompson

Science writer Karen A. Frenkel interviews philosopher Evan Thompson (University of Toronto) for the Foundation for Psychocultural Research about his new book in progress, Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience and Mediation.

Photo by Raphaele Demandre. Dharamsala, India. October 2004.

Evan Thompson, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, works in the areas of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and comparative philosophy. He is the co-author (with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch) of the groundbreaking book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, (MIT Press, 1991), one of the first books to explore systematically the relationship between Buddhist philosophy and cognitive science, and to argue for the “embodied” approach in cognitive science. Thompson is also the author of Colour Vision: a Study in Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Perception (Routledge, 1995) and Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Belknap Press, 2007), and co-editor, with Philip David Zelazo and Morris Moscovitch, of the Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

KAF: You are interested in the central problem of whether consciousness is a primary phenomenon not wholly dependent on the brain and can’t be reduced or understood as anything else. And in your new book, you call for acknowledging the contribution of these traditions to understanding the mind. On the other hand, you point out that science has contributed to knowledge of evolution and brain development. Please say more about your position on how we can get these two approaches to collaborate in our understanding of the mind and whether or not it transcends the brain.

ET: I’m interested in the nature of the mind. On the one hand, we have contemplative traditions with  expertise in examining first-hand the nature of the mind from within, where “from within” means through direct experience in a rigorous way that involves training attention, emotion, and awareness so that basic characteristics of the mind manifest in a clear way. On the other hand, we have our scientific tradition. Historically, the scientific tradition emerged in a way that excluded the mind—the mind was treated as subjective, and science was interested in things that are objective and public. So if you look at the rise of physics, for example, we have a bracketing off of subjective experience. But in the 20th century that method was turned back on the mind through experimental psychology. Today we can record what’s going on in the brain. Through neuroscience, due to new tools like brain scans and electrophysiological recordings, we try to see what’s going on in brain while someone is having a visual experience, or while sleeping, or dreaming. We try to investigate the mind through the brain. I’m interested in how these two ways of understanding the mind relate to each other and can be brought into a productive interaction. This comes down to the problem of consciousness because when we look at brain recordings when someone’s falling asleep, is asleep, or dreaming, what we have are measures of the brain that have some relationship to consciousness, to the person’s experience. On the other hand, what we’re looking at in the meditative traditions is the mind or consciousness through direct experience. So the deep question that the encounter of these traditions raises is: What is the nature of consciousness? The traditional position of many contemplative traditions is that consciousness is primary, in the sense that it’s where we start from, where all our evidence comes from, and is what we always have to relate back to. So there is no way to meaningfully talk about getting outside of consciousness to see how it measures up to something else, because we’re always working within consciousness. From a scientific perspective, however, we’re looking at biological processes. It’s not as if consciousness is observable apart from a brain and a body. So our touchstone is always incarnate, embodied. We have these two inseparable aspects of consciousness—the experiential and the embodied. And so the question arises: is the biological primary or is the experiential primary?

We need to think about a new way of doing

the science of the mind, the science of

consciousness. This new way integrates

biology and psychology with phenomenology

and works directly with first-person

experience in a laboratory setting.

KAF: What do you think?

ET: What I want to do in my new book, which is a work in progress called Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience and Meditation, is show that we can’t prioritize one over the other. We have to have a non-dualistic perspective.

On the one hand, from the scientific side we have to recognize that we’re always working within experience. Scientists perform measurements that relate back to their own experience as observers and they communicate what they observer to other scientists. This takes place within social experience. So there’s no way to get outside of experience there.

On the other hand, from the contemplative perspective, experience is primary, but it’s always embodied. In meditation, you put the body in a particular posture and orient it in certain ways. You’re also in a communicative context with other individuals, such as your teacher or the practice community.  So it’s misguided to think we can prioritize one over the other—the experience or the embodiment, We need a non-dualistic perspective that doesn’t valorize one over the other.

But that leads to the concrete question, especially if you’re a scientist, how do we work with that perspective concretely? What do we actually do? We need to think about a new way of doing the science of the mind, the science of consciousness. This new way integrates biology and psychology with phenomenology and works directly with first-person experience in a laboratory setting.

KAF: Can you give an example?

ET: One way in a neuroimaging experiment, for example, is to investigate attention or awareness with individuals who have trained their minds in meditation. The working hypothesis is that trained meditators can make reports about their experience that are quite refined and precise compared to the reports we get from inexperienced undergrads. I have in mind experiments where someone is in a brain scanner and we ask them to report about some aspect or quality of their perception or emotion. With more detailed and refined first-person reports we can enrich the information available about experience and how it relates to the brain.

Here’s another example. In the last five years there’s been a renewal of interest in mind wandering or “spontaneous cognition,” as psychologists call it. This goes back to William James. The mind flows in a “stream of consciousness,” to use James’ metaphor. Mind wandering reflects self-organizing activity that you miss when you put someone in a controlled experiential situation and give them a task. When left to its own devices the brain spontaneously generates images, thoughts, plans for the future. So neuroscientists have been putting people in scanners and their minds are allowed to wander. And then the scientists probe the subjects, asking them, “when your mind was wandering at a certain moment, were you aware or not aware that it was wandering?” The hypothesis is that a person who practices certain kinds of meditation would be faster at noticing when thoughts arising and be able to describe them more precisely, such as being able to say what intention or feeling was behind the thought, whether the thought lead to another one, whether there was an immediate awareness of the thought arising, or whether it was noticed later, and so on. Highly trained meditators can make these reports because meditation trains attention and awareness of the mind itself. That’s not to devalue the importance of working with people who don’t have meditative training; in fact, it’s very important to compare them and to control for other factors like age, culture, and gender.

KAF: So someone would be in an fMRI machine spacing out and if a neuroscientists saw more flow of blood in a particular part of their brain at a certain moment they would ask what they was thinking about and see if that changed blood flow?

ET: You’d be in scanner and have a repetitive task to do, like whenever you see a letter instead of a number, you press or withhold pressing a button. It doesn’t demand too much attention so your mind naturally wanders. Then the scientists randomly ask, “Were you on task or off?” and if off task, “Were you aware or not for being off task?” Then they compare the blood flow in various brain areas immediately prior to someone saying they were off task and aware, or off task and unaware. Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia is doing this mind wandering work and I’m collaborating with her on studies with meditators.

Here’s another example: you’re in the scanner and you see a red bar graph like a mercury thermometer and the red level goes up or down depending on what your brain is doing. You can try to make it go up or down through various mental procedures. If you’re trained in meditation, you might have greater flexibility to make the bar move.

KAF: What are some applications for this ability?

ET: The management of chronic pain. We know that some aspects of pain are sensory and some aspects have to do with whether you respond to this sensory aspect adversely or with acceptance. Brain areas that have to do with judgmental response to pain are affected by meditation training. So you can combine meditation training and neuro-feedback about these regions to try to help such patients learn mental pain management skills.

KAF: In your book you use phrases like “examining the brain from within,” “first-person exploration,” and “meditative insight.” What do you mean by them?

ET: I use the word “insight” in a precise way that comes from Buddhist philosophy and mediation. It means the ability to discern what’s happening precisely in your experience from moment to moment. It’s different from focusing your attention on one thing continuously without distraction. It requires stability of attention, but the point of insight is not simply to stabilize your attention but to hold your mind quiet and unwavering so that you can discern fluctuations like the arising of a feeling or thought, or the way that feeling leads to memory. Or the way a pain sensation biases you towards an aversive reaction so that you can work with that bias and loosen it so that you can deal with that pain more adequately. So the Buddhist practice of insight targets that discerning capacity of the mind; it’s what enables us to see things as they are instead of through all our habitual filters.

In the context of working on the neuroscience of consciousness, the hypothesis would be that people with training in meditative insight can provide more nuanced information about consciousness than others who don’t have that kind of training. One example I find particularly fascinating is work on dreaming. In the last couple of years, it’s been recognized that lucid dreaming (knowing you’re dreaming when you’re dreaming) is a robust, valid state of consciousness that’s different from ordinary dreaming and from being awake. Some neuroimaging pilot studies have been done on lucid dreaming. Meditative traditions in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism work with lucid dreaming as a state of consciousness that can be used to train the mind and work with negative emotions, which are so strong in dreams. I hypothesize that those with meditative training would make good participants in experiments on lucid dreaming because they can inhabit this state in a robust and stable way and report on it by making certain kinds of eye movements while dreaming.

KAF: Meditators can report on their eye movements?

ET: The way this works is when you’re in a dream and you know you’re dreaming, and your dream ego looks left and right and so on, that shows up as regular eye movements in the REM stage, when the eyes start out moving irregularly. If you have a pre-established code for what these regular eye movements mean, you can use that as way of making reports, and as a marker of when the dream became a lucid dream. The dreamer can report on some quality of the dream. You could ask the dreamer to jump up and down 10 times in the dream and signal when they begin and finish.  Then you can compare that to jumping up and down when they’re awake. Why is that interesting? It tells you about the time course of motor activity in the brain and the subjective sense of time in the dream state compared to the time it would take to make those movements in the waking stating.

KAF: It enables us to compare brain activity to what’s going on in the mind during a lucid dream.


KAF: Let’s go on to religion and science. You object, in your book, to the bifurcation we see today between religious extremism and the scientific materialist tradition because they don’t recognize the contemplative traditions. What’s the best way to get them to recognize the contemplative tradition and use it so that we may survive together?

ET: We have to create a scientific culture that recognizes the value of contemplative experience, and we have to create a culture of wisdom or spirituality that recognizes the value of science. We have to hold the two together. If we can’t or don’t, we will slide into one or other extreme—the resurgence of anti-scientific religious fundamentalism based on outmoded belief systems that are not valid and sustainable, or sustainable only in violent, terrible ways, or a scientific reductionism that doesn’t recognize the value of contemplative traditions, including the way that religious traditions have been the home where contemplative traditions have developed and flourished.

To be fair, many elements in religious history have been antagonistic to mysticism and contemplative experience, so it’s not as if reductionistic scientific trends are the only problem for contemplative traditions.

We have to move beyond this situation if we’re going to be a wholesome and healthy culture. The way I see forward is to working within both science and contemplative traditions to create a science that recognizes the importance and value of these traditions, while also transforming these traditions with scientific knowledge. I see this as potentially leading to a new post-religious or secular spirituality. I mean “secular” in the sense of a place where many different traditions can meet and hold something in common for the common good.

KAF: It’s interesting that your way out of this is that scientific culture should modify itself rather than the religious extremists. Why is that?

ET: Religious extremists should modify themselves. It’s important to challenge religious extremisms in a multitude of ways including from within the religious traditions themselves. I don’t mean to exclude that. But my strategy in this book is to show how science can be enriched and to point to different ways of thinking about science and religion from what we see in authors like Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Sam Harris is actually a bit different, in that he ends his book, The End of Faith, by talking about consciousness and meditative experience. It’s important for him that this be something that’s seen as valid. Hitchens sometimes says similar things, so there’s diversity among these authors and their positions. But the critical dismissal of religion most associated with Dawkins takes religion at its absolute worst, but has no discussion of how religion is not the same as theism, or how religious traditions have been the home for contemplative experience and how that kind of experience is a source of wisdom and insight relevant to science.

KAF: Is it more important to bridge the gap now than ever before?

ET: It’s more important than ever because these extremisms are stronger than ever before. Religious extremisms are particularly troubling and it’s very important to transform religious traditions in a why that maintains and enriches what’s best, which are the contemplative traditions and the social ethics informed by them, while leaving behind regressive and outmoded belief systems. That’s never been more important than now in world history. In the case of science, it’s very important that we have a deep inner appreciation of the mind and ways of working with it in a wholesome manner because this is a culture that suffers from a variety of ailments like ADHD that we treat try to treat with exclusively pharmaceuticals means. Our population is also an aging one that needs to deal with sickness and death. Our culture also inculcates certain habits of attention in children through video games and texting. I don’t mean to criticize these technologies in and of themselves, but they’re unhealthy when not placed in a richer, wider context of wholesome attentional functioning and mental wellbeing.

To create a rich science of the mind that’s

adequate to the complexities of mind, we

need a more precise language for talking

about the mind, especially at an experiential

level…. Indian and Tibetan traditions … have

very systematic, precise descriptions of

mental processes from the perspective of


KAF: When you were talking about reporting states of mind, I wondered about having to overcome the language barrier, that is, the difficulty of describing them and interpreting how they’re reported.

ET: First, to create a rich science of the mind that’s adequate to the complexities of mind, we need a more precise language for talking about the mind, especially at an experiential level. In western philosophy this was of concern to William James and philosophers in the phenomenological tradition, like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Edmund Husserl. In Indian and Tibetan traditions we have very systematic, precise descriptions of mental processes from the perspective of experience. These are arguably very helpful to recent developments in western science. For example, neuroscience and psychology have recently challenged the idea that there’s a sharp separation between thinking and feeling, or between reason and passion, or cognition and emotion. If you try to map these distinctions onto the brain, they make no sense. There is no area of the brain that is a thinking area vs a feeling area. If any area can be described as a cognitive area, it’s also a crucial area for emotion. Interestingly, Indian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions have very detailed taxonomies of mental phenomena, but no sharp distinction between cognition and emotion. Things are taxonomized in a different way—according to whether they’re wholesome states of mind, like compassion, or unwholesome states like envy or hatred. Attention is neither wholesome nor unwholesome in itself. These taxonomies have to do with looking at the mind so it can be trained and shaped in wholesome ways. Within that framework, some things we would call cognition are in some places and some things we’d call emotion are in other places, but there’s no distinction between cognition and emotion. This kind of taxonomy can be a useful and refreshing perspective for western science. I’m not saying we can take it and impose it on the brain. That’s too naïve.  But it could provide a shift, a different way of looking at how the mind works. That could be and has been very inspiring for neuroscientists like Richie Davidson, who’s done a lot of work on the neuroscience of meditation.

Second, when working with foreign cultural and linguistic traditions, for example long-term Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, immediately a complicated dialog has to take place in order to do  psychological or neuroscientific investigations into how their meditative practices might affect the brain and its structure and functioning. We need to understand what these practitioners are talking about when they describe their experiences. That understanding requires second-person perspective in a laboratory where we work with someone who is skilled in mediating between western science and the Tibetan language and meditative philosophical perspective. To do this kind of experimental research on meditation, you need a multi-talented team. So we get a different kind of neuroimaging lab—one with people who have an array of skills in meditation, Tibetan language, philosophy, and neuroscience. We’re creating a much richer field of knowledge than what happens when we just run studies on American undergraduate students. It’s not as if this field is just there, waiting to be put into action; we have to create it.

KAF: Are there a few such labs now in the US?

ET: There are a number of teams in Europe, the US, and Canada. Richie Davidson has spearheaded a lot of this research. He has published major scientific studies and has a big lab devoted to this kind of research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. There are others in various places.  Amishi Jha at Miami University works on mindfulness training and its impact on attention. Kalina Christoff , who I already mentioned, is working on meditation and mind wandering. Adam Anderson at my university, the University of Toronto, uses mindfulness based stress reduction, which is a clinical secular adaptation of yoga and Buddhist meditation, to investigate emotion and how we experience the self. Tanya Singer in Leipzig at the Max Planck Institute is working on empathy and compassion and meditation. Within neuroscience it’s a small group of people compared to the majority.

Within clinical psychology there many people examining mindfulness based stress reduction and mindfullness-based cognitive therapy. There are a number of groups in the US, Canada, England, and Europe. This kind of research is much more widespread than the neuroscience research on meditation.

KAF: Cultural neuroscientist Shinobu Kitayama believes that studying the brain with fMRIs and EEGs will make it possible to see how culture might be transformed into a biological process. He believes the brain is very malleable and designed to incorporate cultural information. Your work is very cross-cultural too. So do you think Western and Eastern minds may be wired differently, so that each may implement contemplative or meditative traditions differently?

ET: I wouldn’t say it that way. “West” and “East” are very general categories. “West” includes North American, Europe, and South America, and “East” encompasses Japan, China and Korea and India.

KAF: OK. But you know what I’m getting at. Might an Indian do mediation differently than a New Yorker like me?

ET: We don’t know because we don’t have enough studies and evidence that speak directly to that. But given the kind of work being done in cultural neuroscience and at the interface with anthropology, we have very good reason to believe that culture strongly shapes how the brain and the body develop. Connecting this work to meditation is speculative because we don’t have evidence that speaks directly to the way culturally different practices or styles of meditation affect the brain. But it’s reasonable to think that the way attention is trained or the way different cultures support habits of attention might be reflected in the way brain systems for attention are structured and organized. It’s reasonable to believe this. One caveat is that many people think everyone in Asia meditates. But in many Asian cultures, the majority of Buddhists don’t meditate, though they participate in social practices that have a meditative dimension. And those who do meditation don’t learn to meditate as young children. Most Asian cultures don’t start training in mediation until adolescence—maybe 15, 16 or 17. You may be trained in other things, such as memorizing texts if you’re a young monk, which indirectly train attention. So all of this is to say we really need much more research that relates the culture to the meditative practices to the brain systems, and this research hasn’t been done. But cultural neuroscience has a great perspective for looking at the kind of research that needs to be done here.

KAF: Do you think the contemplative traditions can enhance neuroplasticity and how flexible the mind and brain may be? Has this been shown?

ET: We do have some evidence from Richie Davidson’s lab. He looked at how attention is changed as a result of intensive insight or Vipassana meditation practice. He tested visual attention along with EEG measures that are well-known and well-understood markers of attentional processing. He ran attentional tests on individuals before they went on an intensive three-month retreat and after the retreat, and compared their performance also to non-mediators. He found that three months of Vipassana meditation significantly improves the function of attention and that this is reflected in EEG brainwaves associated with attention. There are other studies that show there are pretty significant changes to attention as a result of meditation. They tell us that, yes, intensive mediation practice leads to significant changes in attention and that these changes are reflected in brain functioning.

KAF: I’ll just be devil’s advocate for a moment. The contemplatives that you describe who have observed their own process of dying, have had the luxury, it seems to me, of dying during peaceful times or circumstances. I wonder if you think this tradition would help when someone is dying in an emergency or a time of war?

ET: That’s a really great question. One centerpiece of the contemplative traditions is practicing to increase awareness of death and mortality and to try to create a wholesome frame of mind that can meet death when it happens. We do have anecdotal reports of Tibetans who’ve been tortured and imprisoned who say that what got them through the torture and helped them survive was their ability to recognize that the torturer was also a sufferer, in the sense that the torturer was committing an act that was destructive to his own mind, ordered by someone else, and who was ignorantly perpetuating his own suffering. Not necessarily in the same way as the person tortured, obviously. But that he was in a predicament, that he was unhappy and in a condition of suffering.

This ability to feel compassion for someone who is severely mistreating you suggests that these monks may be exceptional individuals. This also relates to scientists who are interested in why some people who suffer severe trauma, such as these monks, don’t develop PTSD, and what mediation might or might not have to do with this kind of resilience. In any case, this kind of resilience suggests to me that the ability to deal with death in variety of situations as a dying person or caregiver could be significantly improved by having contemplative ways to face suffering.

The crucial point here is that we are a culture

that refuses to face the reality of dying, that

flees from it, that does everything it can to

hide it, and creates horrific hospital

environments in which to end one’s days. A

scientific culture that has a contemplative

mindset and allows itself to recognize the

reality of death, and works with that

contemplative perspective to create situations

more socially harmonious and beneficial to

the dying and those dealing with the dying, is

something we desperately need.

The crucial point here is that we are a culture that refuses to face the reality of dying, that flees from it, that does everything it can to hide it, and creates horrific hospital environments in which to end one’s days. A scientific culture that has a contemplative mindset and allows itself to recognize the reality of death, and works with that contemplative perspective to create situations more socially harmonious and beneficial to the dying and those dealing with the dying, is something we desperately need. There are people already working with this in hospice care. Joan Halifax, Roshi, a Buddhist teacher in Santa Fe, NM, has a contemplative training program called “Being with Dying” to help clinicians be more effective with end-of-life care. That’s where I see real value of the contemplative perspective on death.

KAF: You write that attention is unstable and that meta-awareness is hard. I think it’s getting more unstable with people multitasking—kids listening to iTunes while playing video games and doing homework these and other technologies on in the background. I worry that they spread attention thin, whereas video games are one-pointed concentration, to use your phrase. So how can we get kids who grew up with these technologies to be contemplative? What if they don’t want to be?

ET: That connects to work people are trying to do with mindfulness and education. What may be the most important is to develop mindfulness training methods or programs that aren’t religious but secularize and can be used in public school settings. Mindfulness methods with no religious content and acceptable to those you come from one religion or another, or no religion.

KAF: Is there an attempt to do this with religion?

ET: Within religion there are contemplative movements within Christianity and Judaism in religious schools. I don’t know about Islam.

KAF: You’d like to see it secularized?

ET: I’d like to both see secular and non-secular. Both are essential. I also think it’s urgent to restructure schools in a way that doesn’t simply import these mindfulness methods into the schools and leave everything else unchanged. They need to be integrated with other ways of restructuring curricula so that they’re integrated in a meaningful way.

I’m a child of the ‘70s. I was raised around yoga and meditation. Some of it was funny and was the silliness of the times but other aspects of it were very important and had lasting value for me. I learned a very simple breath-centering mantra when I was around seven years old. It was crucial for me to have the sense that there was a place to go mentally to center myself in order to deal with the difficulties you face when you’re a kid. That’s a human birth right. We all have that ability and we should all be a given some training that gives us that ability just as we’re trained to learn the multiplication tables and play basketball. That would be really important. Kids who want to resist it will and that’s not worth directly fighting. It’s more important to make this available. Kids fight things at different developmental stages and it’s important for kids to fight certain things so that’s part of life and not troubling to me. But if all we have are texting and video games and iPods and things like that to capture our attention, then we’re unbalanced. It’s not that we should get rid of those things and they won’t go away anyway. It’s that they should be situated in broader, richer context.

KAF: The New York Times recently ran two stories about meditation and Yoga coming back.  “Look Who’s Meditating Now,” was in the Fashion and Style section. There’s a celebrity and it references celebrity faddism with the Kabala. It mentions that the squash team at Trinity College begins its meets by mediating together. The other story, “Agent Pursues a Cut of the Yoga Boom,” was a local piece.  But there was a meeting in December and there were some statistics about how meditation may reduce hypertension and diabetes. Can you comment on whether there’s fashion here or whether the contemplative tradition can get diluted.

ET: On the one hand, anything that improves quality of life is great. On the other hand, it’s a dilution of the real point and purpose of contemplative traditions to assimilate them into the American self-help agenda. The self-help agenda is about a self that is very egotistically conceived and the meditative traditions are about breaking that down and creating a sense of compassion and connectedness and empathy for other suffering beings—not just humans but also animals. There is an element of fashion and faddism. A self-help agenda can assimilate something new that’s driven by marketing. I’m don’t think that’s of particularly deep, lasting value.

KAF: Whom do you most want to reach with your new book?

ET: My hope is to reach a wide audience of scientists, clinicians, and philosophers—professionals and clinicians who have an interest in nature of mind and consciousness and want to know how meditation and neuroscience are creating a new, richer picture of the human mind and consciousness. I especially like the idea of reaching graduate and undergraduate students because they’re the future of knowledge. To inspire them with this vision, that would be a great accomplishment.

FPR Interviews Cultural Neuroscientist Shinobu Kitayama (University of Michigan)

Update 12/16/10: Link to Shinobu Kitayama and Ayse Uskul, “Culture, Mind, and the Brain: Current Evidence and Future Directions,”Ann Rev Psychol 62 (2011): 419–49.

Science writer Karen A. Frenkel interviews cultural neuroscientist Shinobu Kitayama of the University of Michigan for the FPR. References are included at end of post.

Shinobu Kitayama is Professor of Psychology, Director of the recently founded Center for Culture, Mind, and the Brain at the University of Michigan. He also directs the Culture and Cognition Program. Below he discusses cultural neuroscience, its foundations in cultural psychology, theoretical frameworks, and how he views the mind-brain connection in relation to differences between cultures and within cultures. (Photo courtesy of Satoru Hirose.)


KAF: You’ve been involved in cultural neuroscience since the sub-discipline’s inception in 2007. How does it build on your original field of interest, cultural psychology?


SK: I came from Japan for graduate school and I became interested in culture because of what I observed. In the naïve eyes of a young fellow from Japan, what I saw in the US was very interesting and in some ways a bit strange. Back then, almost all of psychology was “made in the USA” – almost all the subjects, research, theories. I had believed those theories would be applicable to everyone, including people in Japan and me, but when I came here I began to suspect that might not be the case. My American friends’ ways of thinking and acting seemed to fit much better with what the theories said about how humans should behave than my ways, or my Japanese friends’ ways, did.

[Although] there was cross-cultural research, most used questionnaires. What was new in terms of what we set out to do two decades ago was the use of behavioral measures like response time, judgment, memory, and so on. These measures are often used to get at habitual, spontaneous, automatic, or even unconscious aspects of mind, which were strongly believed to be universal. They were part and parcel of the “CPU” of the human mind – to use a term that was very popular back then because of the computer analogy. What’s new in what we said, in retrospect, was that these features of the mind may be already cultural in some fundamental ways. We thought behavioral measures (as opposed to the self-report measures used in survey questionnaires) are important because we knew that people say many things that do not reflect what they have in their minds. Their psychological features may be revealed in what they do rather than what they say. Our more recent move into neuroscience has been motivated by very much the same concern. When cutting-edge brain measures like fMRI ERP, EEG or fNIRS became available, it was just a natural extension for me to use these techniques to examine cultural influences on some basic psychological processes underlying people’s cognition, emotion, and motivation.

Theoretically, there are lots of interesting questions to be asked once you start looking at culture and the mind with the brain as a kind of mediating process. Most important, the brain is a biological entity; so by studying brain it will be possible to see how culture might be transformed into a biological process. We believe the brain is very malleable and designed to incorporate cultural information. I think cultural neuroscience has very exciting theoretical possibilities, connecting nature and nurture and trying to understand how culture exists, how it might be important within a much broader evolutionary context.

Just to give you one example, imagine that you live in a culture that takes masculine honor very, very seriously. A gang culture in any American inner city, or some Mediterranean culture, or maybe a military culture might also fit the bill. Members of these cultures have to be very well-equipped to respond very aggressively to a minimum cue of insult from others. There is a lot of education or training for this, which may be carried out by peers, colleagues, and bosses, depending on the specific contexts. But the point is that to get that kind of preparedness requires fine-tuning or, maybe in this case, bolstering of some aspects of your mind and brain. How are the required responses encoded and programmed in the brain? Moreover, in the absence of any insult cue you will just have to be very polite, deferential, or just nice, partly because these behaviors are also essential to avoid aggression toward you by others. So whatever program for explosive anger you might have equipped yourself with to adjust to the culture of honor must also be highly situation-specific. How does that work? Questions like these can be studied in depth with the measures and approaches of neuroscience.

KAF: Why should lay people be interested in cultural neuroscience?

SK: Many people believe the brain is a matter of biology and that it is rigid – that if you have a bad brain you cannot change it. But cultural neuroscience can offer a lot of possibilities that suggest how flexible the mind and brain might be. That’s an important message. It’s an extension of neuroscience in recent years, which takes plasticity seriously. Cultural neuroscience can be very useful because it examines the type of context that is arguably most important for humans. Brain plasticity can occur in a context that is as fine-grained as chemical composition in a test tube. But it’s crucial to examine brain plasticity in a context that is meaningful in daily life, work, and at home, the type of context that we share with a cultural group. For example, the American context may be different from other cultural contexts in Africa, Europe, Japan. These can be studied only by taking a very broad perspective that encompasses the whole human being living in many different places.


KAF: In your 2010 SCAN paper “Cultural Neuroscience of the Self,” you write about the computer model of the brain being limiting and you note the influence of neural plasticity findings and epigenetics. You say the thesis of the mind as “powerfully organized by culture” is under-appreciated and under-researched and cultural neuroscience seeks to restore balance. Ideally, how would you like that to happen?


SK: The first step is to document how the brain pathways and their connections might be different across different cultural groups. We just take it for granted that there is no such difference. But the truth is that we don’t know the answer to this question because we don’t have data. We have no data precisely because we believed the brain is the brain no matter where you go. We are finding preliminary evidence indicating that the ways in which parts of the brain might be connected to carry out seemingly identical tasks could be very different depending on people’s experience across different cultural groups. One working hypothesis could be that this is because of the activities of daily life. An alternative hypothesis could be genetic. But the first step is to document what kind of difference there might be. So that’s the initial goal we have set for ourselves.

The next question to ask is why? This is a much more important step and by asking the why questions it is possible to go beyond the computer metaphor to understand how the mind could be better seen as part of a network of both society and evolution.
















KAF: Do you think the East-West dichotomy is useful or does it hinder us?

SK: It’s useful, but limiting as well. This East-West paradigm is very much like rodents for animal psychologists. You can use it to understand some aspects of the whole picture that you want to paint. It’s only one paradigm, which has strengths and limitations. Animal psychologists learn something about the nature of the psychology of different species by looking at rodents. It’s entirely possible to learn something informative by looking at two groups that are very different in many ways. East and West are very different in terms of history, climate. Ultimately, we won’t know exactly why East-West differences exist, but at the same time it’s only reasonable to start with something you know for sure shows some interesting differences.

Increasingly, however, many researchers have begun looking at different cultural contexts or subgroup contexts other than East or West; it’s both interesting and important to identify variables and factors that underlie various cultural differences. Some are philosophical, ideological, and economic, which might be very important in differentiating cross-cultural psychological differences. This effort may well be very crucial to go beyond the East-West paradigm.






KAF: In your paper you also propose a theoretical framework for understanding cultural–mind interaction. Please summarize it.


SK: Culture influences the brain because culture provide us with “cultural practices” – conventions, routines, and scripts for daily life. For example, we know that after many years of driving a cab in London, one’s hippocampus goes through some structural change. This happens supposedly because of a high demand placed on spatial navigation. Very much likewise, as jugglers juggle some relevant parts of their brains also undergo significant changes. As a result, people become more capable of engaging in some particular action sequences, whether they are driving a cab in a complex city like London, or juggling. To put it differently, because of this engagement in cultural practices, I believe the brain can change in such a way that your processes can function very well within the cultural context. This is a very important part of the self because you begin to form your self by picking up some part of culture, or by appropriating some cultural practices as part of your own and you make your self. The brain you end up having becomes part of the self, which is, in turn, connected and embedded in a cultural context.


KAF: You also write that because the brain reflects culture, brain activation patterns can lead to information about the characteristics of cultures themselves. I was interested in this bi-directionality. Please comment.

SK: This is very abstract, but what’s going on is that culture exists out there offering practices, scripts, and associated assumptions and other ideas and you engage in some of those to change yourself. Your brain can change. Once your brain changes and your self changes, that becomes your agency and you act on the external world to begin changing the world. In American culture, for example, you are supposed to be very self-expressive and persuade other people to make a choice in a pro-active fashion to such an extent that in other cultures it’s considered indecent. But within the US it’s very important to acquire a brain and a self that is capable of doing those things naturally and automatically.

Once you have that system in place, it works very well in a particular cultural context so that it can be part of evolutionary change as well. Over time those who fit in well do well in the reproductive market, and this can change the distribution of genes and so on. Probably you cannot do much alone, but some process like this is distributed all over a given cultural group and everyone contributes. Over a long time, there may be some noticeable change in gene frequency, exactly how a group is organized, and how evolutionary processes might operate, and so on. So there emerges a highly recursive, bi-directional interaction between brain and its surrounding environment.

To put it another way, culture is there initially for an individual who is born in a given place and time, and as a result of culture, you are formed in attunement to some affordances and constraints of your culture. Your self is formed and your brain is formed. Eventually, however, the brain will begin to have influence on the social world. Of course, any single individual may make very little contribution, but if similar processes are distributed across many individuals, as a whole this reverse causation may be substantial. This influence from culture to brain or self and from self or brain to culture always occurs simultaneously, so really this process is recursive. At this point we don’t have enough sophistication to describe this in detail, but it is a big question we need to explore.








KAF: People think of cultural neuroscience as descriptive and operating at the macro level compared to the genetic or molecular level of analysis in the rest of neuroscience. Should that get turned around for cultural neuroscience? Could it reach that level of analysis eventually?

SK: Hopefully. Surely recent work in epigenetics is looking at early socialization to show how experience, particularly traumatic experience, can influence well-being at the level of gene expression. This kind of data can be important and interesting if done across different societies to see if such processes might be similar or different. We need data like this to ask questions to see if any particular principles or theories might be contingent on the particular society in which the study was done. There is increasing evidence that those theories or contingencies may depend on a much larger context, which we call culture. Once we begin to understand this, culture necessarily is part of a fine-grained analysis of how genes are activated or transformed.

To be sure, we are not sophisticated enough today at this stage of development. We are mostly busy documenting possible cultural differences. So this work could be criticized as merely descriptive, but description should come first and you need to know the phenomenon you want to analyze and understand in certain mechanistic terms. The first step, however, is to identify the phenomenon. This really opens up the intellectual terrain you can travel. You and your colleagues are now capable of beginning to explore why such phenomena exist and what the underlying mechanisms might be.

I want to find new things to see and study, new questions to ask and examine, and new ways to frame them. If you avoid the activity of intellectual traveling by considering them “mere description” I am afraid that your science may be very systematic, fine-tuned and in some way may seem very elegant, but it will be very boring. Your theory may be very general, but its applicability may end up being very, very tiny. By using the method of cultural neuroscience, your neuroscience theories may become very general because you force yourselves to broaden your theory’s applicability to different human groups and regions. By doing so, however, I believe that you will end up broadening your thinking as well because you will be realizing that it is not just enough to look only at the brain. You will have to be thinking more broadly about the interface between the brain and culture.

KAF:In your studies of herders and fishermen in different cultures you found that “members of farming and fishing communities, which emphasize harmonious social interdependence, exhibited greater holistic tendencies than members of herding communities, which emphasize individual decision-making and foster social independence.”

What can we do with those findings? How can we use that information? You find these differences but then there is the “so what factor.”

SK: That study is our way to go beyond East-West differences. In the East-West literature we argue that Asians are more interdependent or more social and Americans are more independent and as a result their cognitive styles are also systematically different. So the idea in this paper was that if this is the case, there ought to be interesting variation within culture. If you can identify groups, which vary on the social dimension of independence and interdependence, even though those people share language or other practices they may show significant cognitive differences. So we compared fisherman, herders and farmers in a particular part within Turkey. That may be a small step, but a within-culture comparison like this could allow us to nail some theoretical assumptions we have used in East-West research. Basically, if you want to pin down a theoretical frame, you have to do lots of different things because cultural contexts are not easy to manipulate. So the best you can do is to triangulate by using lots of different kinds of information. So comparing one part of the world with others such that the groups vary on one theoretical dimension, but not on others is a very useful method.


KAF: You’re interested in developmental cultural neuroscience as a subfield. What studies would you like to see done?

SK: Not just in neuroscience, but also in cultural psychology in general, developmental studies are needed because exactly how we might acquire culture is not very well-understood – exactly when and why. There is some evidence that puberty might be a very important time period in this context and it makes sense for kids to acquire the most up-to-date culture before they move into the reproductive market. It makes sense that puberty is a sensitive period for cultural acquisition, but we don’t know much. That’s one speculation and it needs to be explored. For example, if this hypothesis is right, then the next question could be to explore the brain basis for such sensitivity. One might also examine what cultural practices might be organized to facilitate this sensitivity and so on. These questions are all important I believe.

KAF: What can cultural neuroscientists learn from anthropologists, if anything? Given their different approaches, can they collaborate?

SK: Absolutely. Anthropologists have done lots of investigations on diversity across cultures. You really need to be an expert of any given cultural group if that’s the group you want to work with. I, myself, am a kind of anthropologist of Japanese and Americans because I observe them in my life.

KAF: Do you think they can collaborate?

SK: In principle, yes.

KAF: What about in practice?

SK: In practice we ought to be able to work things out. Historically, however, the relationship is entangled and complicated. There are different opinions about what is meant by empirical investigation. Sometimes differences in opinion are big enough that we find it hard to communicate. That need not be the case, I’m sure. The situation can be much better and I learned a lot from that post-modern, interpretive critique of social science. We try to incorporate that kind of perspective into our theorizing by arguing that what we see as natural may be already cultural because cultural construction can go very, very deep. But I would still insist that experiments, or some so-called scientific way of asking questions, is valid and goes beyond mere constructions. Using numbers is just as meaningful as interpreting cultural artifacts. A very extreme, post-modern anthropologist might have opinions that go against that and on those occasions I, frankly, find it very hard to continue the conversation.

KAF: Do you think eastern and western neuroethics differ? If so, in what ways?

SK: They could. In more traditional domains such as justice and altruism, moral judgment has been shown to vary quite a bit although there are some universal features as well. Neuroethics is very new and in very important ways it needs to deal with problems humans have never experienced before, say, neuro-surgery or brain transplants or whatever. These domains of ethics and morality seem to be a very exciting arena where knowledge of cutting-edge sciences, including neuroscience, must have contact with discourses prevalent in given cultural groups and regions.

KAF: I’ve heard proponents of neuro-enhancement argue that the decision to enhance one’s own brain should be a matter of personal choice. They emphasize the benefits to society of individuals who are smarter, cheerier, etc. Are these arguments persuasive in the East?

SK: This is a complex issue. It seems to me that under certain kinds of cosmology, the body and possibly the mind as well, are conceptualized as part of the nature. In this view, it is not moral to attempt excessive human intervention to change the mind and body. Maybe it is justified to fix problems nature caused (as in medicine, for example). But it is considered immoral to use performance-enhancing drugs, for example. I have some hunch that this kind of cosmology might be somewhat stronger in a more holistic culture where the human is seen as connected to and embedded within the cosmos. Of course, here, I take it for granted that neuroenhancement is analogous to performance enhancement. I am curious to see what the proponents of neuroenhancement may say and how they justify it. If they justify neuroenhancement, I also wonder if they justify performance enhancement as well in, say, the Olympics Games or MLB.

KAF: What is the greatest mystery that cultural neuroscientists have yet to solve?

SK: There are many mysteries. For example, I have begun to suspect that neuroscience measures are often extremely sensitive to social and cultural variables in a way behavioral or even self-report measures are not. I discussed this in some length in our Annual Review (in press) piece. Why? It is not entirely clear. Or consider evolution. Why is it that our DNA is nearly identical to non-human primates and, yet, only we have what we call culture? Only humans have schools, civil traditions, city hall, and airplanes, to say nothing of language. Why? Across cultures, prevalence of mental illnesses like depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia appears to vary quite a bit. Is this a matter of biology alone? Might culture be part of the explanation? Some studies show that personality has some high degree of consistency, whereas some others suggest strong malleability. How come? How might culture be part of a solution to this paradox? Many such questions are in some way within reach within our lifetime I suppose. But there are some big ones as well. The most important is to find out how to integrate cultural processes (which are essentially historical) within a broader scheme of evolution (which is essentially biological), thereby overcoming the duality of nurture and nature.

KAF: What do you think the most exciting area of cultural neuroscience research will be in the next twenty years? Fifty years?

SK: I would bet that in the next 10 or 20 years we will know much more about how what we have so far regarded as basic psychological or neural processes might be qualified by socio-cultural processes. We will know much more about how cross-culturally variable polymorphisms or other genes might be causally related to certain neural and behavioral processes. We may also begin to understand why that might be the case. We will also begin to know exactly how biology has prepared us to acquire culture. This analysis would require a lot of careful developmental studies. Although these studies have yet to be done, they will be sooner or later.

What will happen after a half century? One would hope, as I do, that many of the questions I have just considered will begin to be addressed and understood within a more or less coherent framework. Some big picture may be coming into sight. Or, alternatively. we might be getting back to a kind of basics – to the kinds of observations and theories made by some of the giants in the social and biological sciences like Freud, Darwin, Marx, and others. In terms of a cosmology based on linear change and progress, this might seem like a disaster. But consider an alternative cosmology, one that says such events are circular rather than linear. The real question becomes how much more expanded and elaborated, or how much deeper and fine-grained, our view is going to be in twenty of fifty years time. From the perspective of a more dialectical cosmology, getting back to those giants once again might be a really good thing.


Kitayama, S., & Park, J. (2010). Cultural neuroscience of the self: Understanding the social grounding of the brain. SCAN, 5(2–3), 119–129.

Cultural neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field of research that investigates interrelations among culture, mind and the brain. Drawing on both the growing body of scientific evidence on cultural variation in psychological processes and the recent development of social and cognitive neuroscience, this emerging field of research aspires to understand how culture as an amalgam of values, meanings, conventions, and artifacts that constitute daily social realities might interact with the mind and its underlying brain pathways of each individual member of the culture. In this article, following a brief review of studies that demonstrate the surprising degree to which brain processes are malleably shaped by cultural tools and practices, the authors discuss cultural variation in brain processes involved in self-representations, cognition, emotion and motivation. They then propose (i) that primary values of culture such as independence and interdependence are reflected in the compositions of cultural tasks (i.e. daily routines designed to accomplish the cultural values) and further (ii) that active and sustained engagement in these tasks yields culturally patterned neural activities of the brain, thereby laying the ground for the embodied construction of the self and identity. Implications for research on culture and the brain are discussed.

Kitayama, S., & Uskul, A. (2011). Culture, mind, and the brain: Current evidence and future directions. Annual Review of Psychology (in press).

Current research on culture focuses on independence and interdependence and documents numerous East-West psychological differences with an increasing emphasis placed on cognitive mediating mechanisms. Lost in this literature is a time-honored idea of culture as a collective process composed of cross-generationally transmitted values and associated behavioral patterns (i.e., practices). A new model of neuro-culture interaction proposed here addresses this conceptual gap by hypothesizing that the brain serves as a crucial site that accumulates effects of cultural experience, insofar as neural connectivity is likely modified through sustained engagement in cultural practices. Thus, culture is “embrained” and, moreover, this process requires no cognitive mediation. The model is supported in a review of empirical evidence regarding 1) collective-level factors involved in both production and adoption of cultural values and practices and 2) neural changes that result from engagement in cultural practices. Future directions of research on culture, mind, and the brain are discussed.

Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., & Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 97(8), 4398–4403.

Structural MRIs of the brains of humans with extensive navigation experience, licensed London taxi drivers, were analyzed and compared with those of control subjects who did not drive taxis. The posterior hippocampi of taxi drivers were significantly larger relative to those of control subjects. A more anterior hippocampal region was larger in control subjects than in taxi drivers. Hippocampal volume correlated with the amount of time spent as a taxi driver (positively in the posterior and negatively in the anterior hippocampus). These data are in accordance with the idea that the posterior hippocampus stores a spatial representation of the environment and can expand regionally to accommodate elaboration of this representation in people with a high dependence on navigational skills. It seems that there is a capacity for local plastic change in the structure of the healthy adult human brain in response to environmental demands.

Scholz, J., Klein, M. C., Behrens, T. E. J., & Johansen-Berg, H. (2009). Training induces changes in white-matter architecture. Nature Neuroscience, 12, 1370–1371.

Although experience-dependent structural changes have been found in adult gray matter, there is little evidence for such changes in white matter. Using diffusion imaging, we detected a localized increase in fractional anisotropy, a measure of microstructure, in white matter underlying the intraparietal sulcus following training of a complex visuo-motor skill. This provides, to the best of our knowledge, the first evidence for training-related changes in white-matter structure in the healthy human adult brain.

Uskul, A. K., Kitayama, S. , & Nisbett, R. E. (2008). Ecocultural basis of cognition: Farmers and fishermen are more holistic than herders. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 105(25), 8552–8556.

It has been proposed that social interdependence fosters holistic cognition, that is, a tendency to attend to the broad perceptual and cognitive field, rather than to a focal object and its properties, and a tendency to reason in terms of relationships and similarities, rather than rules and categories. This hypothesis has been supported mostly by demonstrations showing that East Asians, who are relatively interdependent, reason and perceive in a more holistic fashion than do Westerners. We examined holistic cognitive tendencies in attention, categorization, and reasoning in three types of communities that belong to the same national, geographic, ethnic, and linguistic regions and yet vary in their degree of social interdependence: farming, fishing, and herding communities in Turkey’s eastern Black Sea region. As predicted, members of farming and fishing communities, which emphasize harmonious social interdependence, exhibited greater holistic tendencies than members of herding communities, which emphasize individual decision making and foster social independence. Our findings have implications for how ecocultural factors may have lasting consequences on important aspects of cognition.

FPR Review of “Brain: The Inside Story” at NYC Natural History Museum

NYC-based science writer Karen A. Frenkel reviews “Brain: The Inside Story”  for the FPR.

Only 0.001 percent of all living, named species have brains and the potential for consciousness, says Rob DeSalle, co-curator of The American Museum of Natural History’s new exhibit, Brain: The Inside Story. Put another way, he says homo sapiens is the only species – 0.00001 percent of all species – that is conscious. The exhibit emphasizes that the human brain results from millions of years of evolution and also changes from moment to moment, as we experience our world. By showing visitors how the brain processes stimuli and engaging them with multi-media exhibits, artistic renderings, games, and just simple interesting information, DeSalle says he hopes to change their brains for the better.

The exhibit entrance immediately zaps your brain to attention with a spaghetti of wires that buzz and crackle with lines of light projected onto recycled wires meant to represent firing neurons and the brain’s connectivity. The sculpture, by Spanish artist Daniel Canogar, evokes the human brain’s 100 billion neurons and yet there’s an irony to it–we may be the planet’s smartest creatures, but we’re also the most wasteful.

You emerge from this spidery canopy to watch a video of a dancer auditioning for Juilliard. As she moves, the narrator describes the limbic system and how the brain integrates its specialized regions (which work somewhat independently) so that we can accomplish such feats of control and elegance. Parts of a 3-D model of the brain light up in correlation with the dancer’s movements to show that they are controlling motion.

A section on the senses comes next. Soon you arrive at an installation by artist Devorah Sperber, who uses spools of thread to play with perception. Here she’s arranged coils of color that, viewed through a lens, appear to be a matrix resembling Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Nearby is a plaster-of-Paris homunculus with features exaggerated in proportion to the number of senses we have. Its lips are plump and its fingertips swollen because they are especially sensitive to touch, whereas its eyes and ears are comparatively small. This simple sculpture was one of my favorites. Kids will love this, as did my inner child.

Another installation demonstrated how our senses can be fooled by the power of suggestion. Under a speaker, at first you think you are hearing rain, but around the corner a diorama of fried bacon shows you that you were really listening to sizzling pork. The curators also inserted information about some rare diseases, like synesthesia, when a person “sees” a symphony. You listen to Alexander Scriaben’s music while looking at notes on a musical staff—the key of C is red, D yellow, F-sharp violet, and so on. Another clever depiction of how genes cause sensing neurons to communicate in unusual ways are two shapes, one spiky, 3-D, pronged star, and another with bulbous protrusions. When asked which might be named Kiki and Booba, 98 percent of people across different cultures assign the harsher sounding name with the sharp-edged shape and the softer name with the smoother shape, according to a famous experiment. During the next month mascot people will wear these shapes touring New York City, to get people thinking about their brains and direct them to the exhibit’s website and vote on their names (and of course publicize the show.)

My favorite part of the exhibit was the neuron gesture table. There I ran into a colleague and we spent about five minutes sliding our hands around and watching the system convert our digits into verisimilitudes of neurons. Their axons strove to connect with neighboring dendrites and create synapses [1]. The table was mobbed.

But nearby were two huge, hanging axons and dendrites that my friend dubbed the “Las Vegas neurons.” We wondered why the makers had painted them a rusty brown and moved on quickly. But beyond octopus-like Vegas, we were rewarded with several excellent descriptions of how synapses work.

Here you can see a video about building the exhibit models:

We came upon a display about Darwin’s work on facial expressions, which addressed the question of whether they are unique to humans. (They are not.) Darwin realized that certain reactions that seem useless, like hair standing on end, can be explained by evolution. We gazed at a photo of a 19th century woman, who, for all her Victorian garb, seemed to snarl like a tiger.

Then we assembled and disassembled plastic brain sections (which brought back memories of a heart puzzle we had when I was a child) and, then (appropriately) moved on to a section on memory and language. The famous H.M. [2], who was trapped in the past by a hippocampal injury, was mentioned. In contrast, autism was presented as having too much memory for details, which interfere with the large picture. And then there was the London Taxi Interactive game. Research has shown that London taxi drivers [3]—who must memorize complicated routes—have enlarged hippocampuses. To play this game, visitors follow the voice of a driver reciting a route from memory.

The 21st century brain section and the conclusion included a video about new therapies like the use of neural implants for paralyzed people and raised ethical issues about brain enhancement. Somehow we missed the Brain Lounge, in which visitors could experience floating projections of the fMRIs of four people: a translator from the United Nations who seamlessly moves from Arabic to English; a classical musician playing tones contrasted with a jamming rock star; and a basketball player reacting to action on and off the court during a game.

In The Brain Shop at the end I cozied up to a grey, stuffed neuron and contemplated buying it for my poodle. He’s smart, but I’m sure he’d treat it like a bone. I wonder––were he to stroll through this show, would his brain alter just a little, too?

Dr. DeSalle is curator in the museum’s division of Invertebrate Zoology and is a researcher at the museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. He is also the author of several books, including the illustrated children’s book Brain (Bunker Hill Press, 2010) and Your 21st Century Brain; Amazing Games to Play With Your Mind (Sterling Publishers, 2010). Two prominent local neuroscientists, Joy Hirsh, Director of the Program for Imaging Cognitive Sciences at Columbia University, and Maggie Zellner, a research associate in Donald Pfaff’s lab at The Rockefeller University, and were consultants.

The exhibit starts November 16, 2010 and runs through August 14, 2011. After that it will go on tour to Comune di Milano—Assessorato Cultura, Italy (from March 2, 2013, to August 18, 2013); the Guangdong Science Center, Guangzhou, China (November 19, 2011, to April 30, 2012); and Parque de las Ciencias, Granada, Spain (July 14, 2012, to January 6, 2013).

The international collaborators had input regarding the exhibit’s design and language, and may insert their indigenous research into the version of show that appears in their country.

For the museum’s preview video, “First Look at Brain: The Inside Story,” see:

For more information, visit amnh.org.

Footnotes/further reading and viewing

[1] Micheva, K. D., Busse, B., Weller, N. C., O’Rourke, N., & Smith, S. J. (2010). Single-synapse analysis of a diverse synapse population: Proteomic imaging methods and markers. Neuron, 68(4), 639–653.

Below is a 3-d video by the Smith lab at Stanford which was included in the paper’s supplementary material: it  provides a stunning visual representation of the billions of synapses in the mouse somatosensory cortex.

[2] For more information on H.M., visit UC San Diego’s Brain Observatory (“Deconstructing Henry: The Re-Examination of the Brain of Patient H.M.”).

[3] Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., & Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 97(8), 4398-4403.

[Abstract] Structural MRIs of the brains of humans with extensive navigation experience, licensed London taxi drivers, were analyzed and compared with those of control subjects who did not drive taxis. The posterior hippocampi of taxi drivers were significantly larger relative to those of control subjects. A more anterior hippocampal region was larger in control subjects than in taxi drivers. Hippocampal volume correlated with the amount of time spent as a taxi driver (positively in the posterior and negatively in the anterior hippocampus). These data are in accordance with the idea that the posterior hippocampus stores a spatial representation of the environment and can expand regionally to accommodate elaboration of this representation in people with a high dependence on navigational skills. It seems that there is a capacity for local plastic change in the structure of the healthy adult human brain in response to environmental demands.

A Conversation with Martha Farah on Neuroethics

Science writer Karen A. Frenkel interviews neuroscientist Martha Farah for the FPR.

Martha J. Farah is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences and Director, Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author and editor of many books about neuroscience and has received many awards. Most recently, the Association for Psychological Science honored her with its 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award. Below, Professor Farah discusses neuroethics in general and responds to questions inspired by her new book, Neuroethics: An Introduction with Readings (MIT Press, August, 2010).

KAF: You’ve been involved in cognitive neuroscience since its beginning three decades ago. What is the greatest change in the field you have witnessed during those years?

MJF: It’s hard to point to just one thing, so much has happened in the last 30 years: functional imaging of cognition, computational models linking single neuron behavior with the functioning of large-scale networks in the brain, the extension of the cognitive neuroscience approach into the study of social and emotional functions. . . .  Maybe the best way to answer the question is to say this: We went from having neuroscience and cognitive science as two separate disciplines to having a truly integrated study of mind and brain.

KAF: You raise many ethical questions in your new book. Do you think the differences between Western and East Asian cultures, which cultural neuroscience literature characterizes as “individualistic” or “independent” (Western), and “collectivistic” or “interdependent” (East Asian), yield different ideas about what constitutes ethical neuroscience?

MJF: That’s an interesting question, to which I wish I knew the answer. Although there are Asian scientists writing on neuroethics, I have not seen these differences crop up, but I also have not been especially attuned to them. It seems clear that this issue of individuality and self-determination does figure in some of the arguments in neuroethics in the West, for example the ethics of brain enhancement. Proponents of enhancement tend to argue that the decision of whether to enhance one’s own brain should be a matter of personal choice, and emphasize the benefits to society of having individuals who are smarter, cheerier, or whatever. It would be interesting to know if these arguments are less persuasive in the East.

KAF: Why should neuroscience students, who intend to conduct research, be concerned with neuroethical issues?

MJF: I don’t think we can do a complete “division of labor” on science and ethics, and assume that our colleagues over in the IRB (Institutional Review Board, which reviews research on human subjects for risk/benefit issues) or the Bioethics Department will worry about the ethics so we don’t have to. Everything we do as scientists – the choice of research question, the methods we use, the way we communicate the results and, in some cases, the way we partner with private interests – all have ethical implications. To be sure, for some topics and at some stages of development these implications will be quite distant and removed from the current scientific realities. But to recognize the ethically consequential decisions and to be prepared for them, we need to have some background. That’s why I encourage neuroscience graduate students to learn about neuroethics.

KAF: Why should lay people be interested?

MJF: Because ready or not, neuroscience is increasingly influencing our lives. People need to be informed consumers of neurotechnology and of neuroscience ideas and claims. We have TV doctors pushing brain imaging as the ultimate way to diagnose mental disorders and even assess marital compatibility. We have school systems investing their limited budgets in supposedly brain-based educational programs. As a neuroscientist, I am very skeptical about these products and services. Unfortunately, most people know nothing about neuroscience and just say “it sounds scientific, it must be good.” A greater familiarity with what neuroscience can and cannot do would protect people by, at the very minimum, leading them to ask some questions before buying, like “what is the evidence that this works?”

The lack of public understanding can work both ways, making people gullible and accepting, but also leading them to reject worthwhile options because those options are unfamiliar and sound like science fiction or Huxley’s Brave New World. For example, some people will not even consider medication for themselves or their kids to help with psychiatric disorders, because the idea of changing one’s brain chemistry sounds wrong, or because they consider such medicines in the same category as street drugs.

KAF: In your chapter “Better Brains,” you write about the neuroethics of neuroenhancement and its inevitability. Why is it inevitable and what are the pros and cons?

MJF: I think it’s inevitable because human nature leads us to try to improve ourselves and to look for shortcuts, and neuroenhancement plays to both of those desires. Early adopters will be strivers with low risk aversion, but once those types start openly using enhancements, then – assuming no horrible side effects show up – the rest of us will say “why not, let’s give it a try,” or even, “I don’t want to, but with everyone else at work doing it, I had better also to keep my job.”

You can see this kind of progression in the history of plastic surgery. Initially it was not for enhancement at all, only for repairing injured soldiers with gruesome facial wounds. When surgery started being done for purely cosmetic reasons, most people thought it was weird or downright wrong. But gradually it gained acceptance and now it’s commonplace.

People have discovered that some of the drugs used to treat neuropsychiatric disorders also affect normal healthy individuals. The most common example of this is the use of ADHD meds by college students. These students report that the meds improve their attention and memory, helping them study more effectively. Drugs used to treat depression and Alzheimer’s disease also seem to have subtle positive effects on mood and cognition in healthy individuals, although their side effects usually outweigh their enhancing effect, so they are not popular for enhancement.  Down the line we may see nondrug treatments used for brain enhancement, for example, transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation. These methods involve different ways of creating weak electrical currents in the brain, and laboratory research has shown that they can enhance some abilities in normal people.

On pros and cons. . . .  The first con that comes to my mind is health risk. These drugs and devices are not tested by normal subjects using them long-term. In particular, most ADHD meds carry a certain risk for addiction, especially when not used for treating ADHD. But there are lots of other risks and worries associated with brain enhancement, including fairness – does it give an unfair edge? Will only the wealthy get to use them? And the risk that people will start to feel compelled to enhance, once a sizable portion of their fellow students or workers are doing so. As for pros, well, assuming it is safe, who wouldn’t want to be smarter, happier, and so on? And wouldn’t it be better for society as a whole to have everyone solving problems more effectively and walking around in a good mood? What if we could enhance compassion? It’s not necessarily all about enhancing oneself at the expense of other people’s positions.

KAF: What is the greatest mystery that neuroscientists have yet to solve?

MJF: Consciousness. I think that would be every neuroscientist’s answer. Where different neuroscientists diverge is on the question of whether we’ll ever be able to solve it. Some are working on the problem with a good deal of optimism, and seem to be saying, “Just give us time, we’re getting there but it may take a while.” In that camp I would put the late Francis Crick.  Others are less optimistic. I wouldn’t say I am 100 percent convinced that we’ll never solve it, but I don’t see even the smallest glimmerings of a start. I fully expect to live and die never understanding how the heck this conscious mind thing that is me is related to the material world.

KAF: What do you think the most exciting area of neuroscience research will be in the next twenty years? Fifty years?

MJF: I think there are so many different fronts in neuroscience where exciting progress is being made, but one place where the learning curve seems incredibly steep is the development of neural prosthetics and brain-machine interfaces. It would not surprise me if we have some fairly significant new ways of altering brain function in humans twenty years from now, using deep brain stimulation and if, in fifty years, we have chips that augment natural brain function and allow us to enhance in ways very different from drugs.

KAF: Thank you so much for your time.

MJF: It was a pleasure Karen. Thanks for the fun and stimulating questions.