The Foundation for Psychocultural Research is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation based in Los Angeles that supports and advances interdisciplinary research projects and scholarship at the intersection of culture, neuroscience, psychology, and psychiatry, with an emphasis on cultural factors as central, not peripheral. It was founded in 1999 by Robert B. Lemelson,a documentary filmmaker and psychological anthropologist on the UCLA faculty. The FPR’s scientific advisory board includes internationally recognized leaders in the fields of anthropology, pscyhology, psychiatry, neurobiology, epidemiology, and public health on the faculty at UCLA and USC.
A key objective of the foundation is to create, nurture, and sustain connections among anthropologists, research and clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, and neuroscientists who are interested in issues of fundamental social and clinical concern and train the next generation of scientists. This is implemented through research and research training programs as well as a series of workshops, conferences, and publications that allow participants to think across disciplinary boundaries. Areas of topical focus since 1999 have ranged from the impact of psychologically traumatic experiences and other forms of human suffering, the wide diversity in the experience, expression, and regulation of emotion across cultures, the formative effects of early life experiences, and most recently global mental health and illness, particularly the significance of culture and context in psychosis and autism. The FPR is a key supporter of the Culture, Brain, and Development (CBD) programs at UCLA and HampshireCollege and a new program focusing on Culture, Brain, Development, and Mental Health (CBDMH) at UCLA.
The FPR and other interdisciplinary efforts in cultural psychiatry and psychological anthropology were responding in part to the combined effects of excessive reductionism in neuroscience and the profound influence of the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 1981) on categorizing mental disorders across the globe. From a cultural standpoint, both developments were criticized for failing to consider the historical, social/political, and cultural contexts of human suffering (e.g., Kleinman, 1988; M. Good, Brodwin, B. Good, & Kleinman, 1992; Kleinman, Das, & Lock, 1997; Kirmayer, 2000; and Csordas, 2002). From the time of its founding in 1999, the FPR was unique for its commitment to the idea that culture is “inscribed” in the brain through developmental processes. This idea challenges the traditional “one-size-fits-all” model of mid-20th century psychology, which assumed “a basic universality of human constitution and experience” (Choudhury & Kirmayer, 2009).
Potential areas of focus described at the FPR’s first advisory committee meeting in October 2000 included finding a way to conceptualize biological and cultural interactions for conditions like OCD or PTSD that would result in better methods of prevention, intervention, and treatment. In practical terms, participants in the FPR’s first interdisciplinary workshop at Ojai in June 2001 advocated mixed method approaches that could recognize and help integrate multiple levels of analysis – from biological processes like postpartum olfactory learning, to psychological concepts like attachment, to social, cultural, economic, and political conditions affecting mother-infant interactions – as well as the variation in human environments, behaviors, and experiences (FPR, 2001).
These ideas were put into practice at the FPR’s first interdisciplinary conference on PTSD, which was co-sponsored by UCLA, in December 2002. At that time, some of the best empirical evidence for biological effects of psychological trauma came from animal models of fear conditioning. Several biologists and experimental psychologists, including Michael Davis, Gregory Quirk, and Michael Meaney participated in the conference, along with psychologist Edna Foa, whose treatment of PTSD symptoms is based on the concept of exposure (the clinical analogue of fear extinction in animal models). The conference also included historian Mark Micale and anthropologists Allan Young, Alexander Hinton, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and a panel of trauma survivors from the Congo, Afghanistan, and Laos, whose presentations shed light on the historical, societal, and moral dimensions of trauma, which take their own toll on individual biology and psychology. Several more workshops, conferences, and two major publications have since achieved modest success in integrating diverse models and levels of analysis.
In keeping with the goal of bringing together culture and neuroscience to address a common set of concerns, in 2010 Dr. Robert Lemelson and the FPR expanded the funding of the FPR-UCLA Center for Culture, Brain, and Development (CBD) to include a new program in Culture, Brain, Development, and Mental Health (CBDMH).
The primary objective of CBDMH, which is co-directed by psychological anthropologist Doug Hollan of UCLA and cultural psychologist Steve López of USC, is to establish a strong research and research training program in cultural psychiatry, with an emphasis on integrating neuroscience and social science perspectives. The initiative is organized around ongoing, sustainable field sites in India, Mexico, and Los Angeles.
Over the next decade the FPR is in a unique position to make central contributions to our understanding of the interrelationships between culture, biology, development, and mental health and illness, as well as to the ongoing debate regarding the use of rapidly emerging neuroscientific knowledge (from relatively simplified lab scenarios) in identifying, treating, and preventing psychiatric disorders.