The emergence of neuroanthropology: Exploring the cultured brain

Are our brains a product of culture, or is our culture a product of our brains?

Writer: Chrysi Anastasaki
Editor: Eleanor Mackle
Artist: Lola Artiles

The goal of neuroanthropology is to investigate the biological mechanisms and evolutionary processes that underpin our culture. Until recently, the connection between brain development and culture remained largely unexplored, but the integration of neuroscience and anthropology is starting to provide fresh insights on the matter. This has the potential to answer exciting questions, including: are our brains a product of culture or is our culture a product of our brains? 

Anthropologists try to understand why humans behave the way that we do. They study human behaviour and social life, using symbols, historical evidence, and practices of different cultures. On the other hand, neuroscientists are interested in how our brains work. They study the structures in the brain, using a variety of experimental and observational methods, with the aim of understanding cognitive function. Neuroscientists use tools including behavioural tests and imaging techniques, such as MRI. 

There is substantial evidence to suggest that culture is linked to neural activity: from low-level perception and attention to high-level language production, calculation, music, emotion or self-awareness. Thus, neuroanthropology provides a novel lens by which researchers can distinguish and compare neurological mechanisms that are associated (or not) with cultural behaviours. To explore this in more detail, let’s take a look at three human evolutionary practices: emotions, rituals and human kinship. 

Emotion is central to culture and its expression relies extensively on language production. In Japanese, the term ‘amae’ refers to the desire to be socially dependent on others. In Micronesia, the Ifaluk civilization uses the word ‘fago’, which refers to a loving, empathetic form of compassion. An example of ‘fago’ is when a caring mother tends to her sick child. Often, words such as ‘amae’ and ‘fago’ do not have a direct English analogue, so it would be useful to create behavioural experiments for native speakers of these languages containing such words as stimuli. This would enable researchers to identify the areas of activation for these words and determine whether they have distinctive neural pathways. 

Furthermore, some anthropologists claim that rituals are the foundation of human socialisation. They require contribution from diverse aspects of cognition, ranging from the processing of multi-sensory stimuli to motor skills, symbolic learning and emotional memory. Some of these aspects have been linked to certain brain structures thanks to the results of neuroimaging studies. For example, the amygdala is a tiny, almond-shaped area of the brain, and scientists have demonstrated that it responds to emotions, including fear, disgust, and anger. Further studies linking neuroimaging experiments with anthropological practices such as rituals could allow scientists to study activation in regions, including the amygdala, to enhance our understanding of how emotional memories are processed in different cultures. 

Furthermore, Dr Joan Miller, Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research, compared the ethnography of kinship (how family relationships are structured across different nations) between groups of people from Tamil Indian and British populations. This study showed that in the British kinship system, the father’s brother and the mother’s brother are considered ‘uncle’ and are equal to each other but less powerful than the father of the family.  In Tamil Indian families, however, the father’s brother has the same power as the father (they are both called ‘appa’) while the mother’s brother is called ‘maman’.  Some scientists speculate that these differences in kinship reflect cultural differences in brain structure or even neural activation. Neuroimaging techniques can be deployed during behavioural experiments, such as face recognition for different relatives, to identify trends and allow neuroanthropologists to investigate these ideas further. 

It would also be interesting if this new field of neuroanthropology could be used to examine the long-lasting debate of nurture versus nature. In one of the most popular modern books on the subject, The Encultured Brain, editors Lende and Downey explain that deep enculturation refers to the long-term adaptation of neural systems to cultural concepts until they become ‘neurological anatomy’. It seems that both nature (our brain and our nervous system) and nurture (the culture we are brought up in) shape human evolution and development.

Even though neuroanthropology is a fascinating new research field, it is important to consider its limitations. The lack of suitable experimental methods forces the field to rely extensively on interdisciplinarity and brave testing attempts. Also, researchers are invited to bridge the gap between their own knowledge and culture and the culture that it is examined, which is often a challenging task.

Overall, the combination of anthropology and neuroscience is creating a new toolkit that will help scientists to conduct experiments in order to investigate the cultural element of our brains, such as emotion, ritualistic behaviour and the structure of kinship in families. This enriches our theoretical and biological understanding of the human brain. It will also contribute to our understanding of societal issues, such as intercultural awareness and education, and could even be used to inform policy. 

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