Monday, February 11, 2013

Dirk Hanson - The Encultured Brain: A Book Review

Over at his interesting and informative blog, Addiction Inbox, Dirk Hanson reviews the recent book from editors Daniel H. Lende Greg Downey - The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (2012). This looks like a cool book, and a necessary one. There is still a powerful resistance among philosophers and neuroscientists to accepting that the mind and brain are shaped as much by culture as they are by genetics.

The review is from October of 2012 - I'm a little slow sometimes in getting things shared. Hanson is the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction.

The Encultured Brain: A Book Review


How biology and culture jointly define us.
Anyone who follows academia knows that the broad category of courses known as the Liberal Arts has been going through major changes for some time now. In a sort of collegiate scrum to prove relevance and fund-worthiness, disciplines like sociology, anthropology, human ecology, cultural psychology, and even English, have been subjected to a winnowing process. The clear winner seems to anthropology, which has expanded its own field by connecting with modern findings in neuroscience while simultaneously swallowing up what was left of sociology. 
It makes sense. Take addiction for an example. Anthropology is a natural and accessible discipline within which to connect the two often-conflicting facets of addiction—its fundamental neuroarchitecture, and the socioenvironmental influences that shape this basic biological endowment. In The Encultured Brain, published this year by MIT Press, co-editors Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey call for a merger of anthropology and brain science, offering ten case histories of how that might be accomplished. The case histories are lively, ranging from the somatics of Taijutsu martial arts in Japan, to the presence of humor among breast cancer survivors. These attempts to combine laboratory research with anthropological fieldwork are important early efforts at a new combinatory science—one of the hot new “neuros” that just might make it.
I have corresponded with Daniel Lende, one of the book’s co-editors, and I am happy to disclose a mention in the book’s acknowledgements as one of the many people who formed a “rolling cloud of online discussion” with respect to neuroscience and the new anthropology. I am pleased to see that the thoughts of Lende and Downey and others on the emerging science of neuroanthropology are now available as a textbook.
The term “neuroanthropology” was evidently coined by Stephen Jay Gould. A number of prominent thinkers have dipped into this arena over the years: Melvin Konner, Sarah Hrdy, Norman Cousins, Robert Sapolsky, and Antonio Damasio, to name a random few, but the term didn’t seem to get a foothold of note until Lende and Downey began their Neuroanthropology blog, now at PLOS blogs.
The term has the advantage of meaning exactly what it says: an engagement between social science and neuroscience. Lende and Downey look ahead to a time when field-ready equipment will measure nutritional intake, cortisol levels, prenatal conditions, and brain development in the field. As such, neuroanthropology fits somewhere in the vicinity of evolutionary biology and cultural psychology. As a potential new synthesis, it is brilliant and challenging, representing an integrative approach to that ancient problem—how our genetic endowment is influenced by our cultural endowment, or vice versa, if you prefer.
Read the whole review.
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