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March 14, 2020

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December 5, 2011

Neuro-Anthropology: A step backward or forwards?


Neuroscience is an incredibly broad subject. The world that we live in is touched by the brain in so many ways; it is the brain that allows us to experience and investigate the world itself. The new field of Neuro-Anthropology hopes to find the link between how people interact with their environment, and each other, and the biological processes within the brain. How does the brain, in conjunction with the environment, affect what decisions we make and what we do? This seems like a mighty task, bringing together the ethical issues inherent to both fields and once again grappling with the age-old question: Nature or nurture? Interestingly, in his paper, "Humans, Brains, and Their Environment: Marriage between Neuroscience and Anthropology?" Georg Northoff reiterates the argument that the separation between nature and nurture is not applicable to the brain; that it transcends both to form a synthesis because it connects to the world in such an intimate way.
Northoff also summarizes a somewhat worrisome study by Gutchess et al., 2006 in which the neural activity of people in western and eastern cultures was compared. They found differences in the way that people processed information based on whether they lived in an individualist or collective culture. This is very interesting and highly relevant to the idea that the nature of our minds is influenced and synthesized to the nurture of our surroundings. But, such research also makes me worry about the focus on the differences between us. Throughout the history of cultural anthropology racist arguments have been made based on the idea that people from opposing cultures are inherently different and therefore "savage" or in need of "civilizing". I don't think that similar arguments could hold up in today's society but does knowing that someone in another society is fundamentally different all the way to the level of brain functioning change how we relate to one another? Does it make differences seem more acceptable since they are part of the internal biological function of the brain? Or, does it make our differences seem even greater and unapproachable?
Also, this new coalition between anthropology and neuroscience makes me think about the limits of the field. Does neuroscience really have the ability and power to describe things as complex as entire cultures. Can it explain why people act how they do, why they create their world in specific ways under different conditions? Does it have the ability to look out at such a macroscopic level? I feel like it might be stretching it bounds a little too far. Can the firing of Action Potentials really tell us this much?
Of course, these are the same tasks that anthropology, as a field, has been trying to tackle for a very long time. So perhaps, it isn't such a pipedream after all. It is, at the very least, a very interesting marriage between two very broad fields.

Source: http://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(10)00141-8
Posted by      Megan M. at 10:19 PM MST
Tags: anthropology
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