Neuroanthropology: what it is and how is it researched

To acquire a precise knowledge of the human being it is inevitable to adopt a polyhedral vision, which unites the various disciplines at the bosom. The goal is to describe the thing underlying its complex reality. From neuroscience to anthropology, they all have the capacity to provide answers to the eternal questions that our very curious species has asked about itself.

Despite this, a remarkable independence has traditionally been maintained between them, as if not necessary to further their fundamental purpose. All this meant that the prospects for greater integration could not be unfolded, more in tune with the phenomenon that one aspired to unravel, and that even a mistrust developed between them.

In recent times, however, the need to forge alliances based on multidisciplinarity is quite undeniable. It is from them that the theoretical and practical heritage has spread and expanded, and with it all scientific development. Joining forces has never been more important than it is today, in societies as vast and unfathomable as those in which we have had to live.

In this article, we will discuss in detail the characteristics of neuroanthropology, a theoretical framework and a method in which it is the humanist and the empirical. From all this is born an epistemology which motivates the congruent orchestration of what we know about the brain and cultural relations.

    What is neuroanthropology?

    Neuroanthropology was born from the confluence and harmony between ways of understanding the human fact, which in the past were antagonistic or independent: neurosciences (including neurology or psychology) and anthropology. Such a new discipline, officially developed and appearing in the first years of the present century, makes culture the gravitational axis around which its action revolves. This is why he would have the neurosciences as his main ally, as it would be thanks to his consensus and his research, that he could extend his horizon beyond the traditional borders which have “tied his hands”.

    One of the principles of neuroanthropology, from which its existence is justified, is the analogy between psychology and culture. While the former is generally recognized as the neurological basis without a doubt (because the mental and the emotional are built in the brain), the same is not true of the latter. The goal would be to break with this biased view of the scope of cultural influences, and to assume in them also the capacity to modulate the structure and the functions of a body which governs the fundamental processes by their dynamics and your comprehension.

    The perspective of neuroanthropology emphasizes that culture is an explanatory element of human behavior as powerful (if not more) than biological needs. And it is on it that depends the network of meanings common to all human communities, as well as the way in which the links that could be manifested within it are regulated. It is therefore undeniable that culture has a powerful psychological component and that, since it has vast neurological roots, culture itself must also have some at least to some extent.

    This reasoning has served to model its essential theoretical rationale, and it also has deep empirical evidence. And we know that culture participates in a way in the very complex process of maturation of the central nervous system, Including both its functions and its structure. Numerous studies have demonstrated the role of the cultural whole in perception (orientation of attentional resources in complex environments), social processing (“subjective” evaluation of the behavior of others), emotional experience (affective reactions to events. of individuals), language (the system by which communication is established between two individuals) and the process of attributing causes and effects; all related to specific areas of the brain.

    From all this it can be deduced that the cultural and social foundations of anthropology are important to understanding our species. What current science indicates is that both are potentially explanatory variables of the “differential” patterns of brain activation that have been demonstrated in relation to subjects belonging to different human groups, resulting in disparate experiences between them. Neuroanthropology would seek to provide the answer to an unresolved question for decades of neuroscientific studies: Where are the meanings shared in the brain and how do the mechanisms involved evolve?

    Then, we will abound in the goals and the method of this humanistic neuroscience, to which more and more importance within the multiplicity of the disciplines is recognized in order to pierce the mystery of the man.

    Objectives of your research

    The main objective of this neuroanthropology is to describe the cross-cultural and intercultural regularities (between cultures or within the same community), to identify possible differences between two groups which could be attributable to the tacit effect of symbols and shared rules. This is why he uses both transversal and longitudinal research plans: through the former, the potential divergences would be found in a single temporal moment between two groups, and with the latter, their own evolution over time would be brought into play. evident in a single community. resulting from environmental or relationship changes that may have occurred).

    For the study of what has been called the “cultural brain”, the latter would be more relevant, because it would allow an analysis of neuroanatomical covariation linked to basic social learning processes and experiences shared by groups human beings involved in their study. This mixture of science and knowledge, impossible to conceive of just a few years ago, is the foundation of neuroanthropology as defined today.

    In addition to this great goal, neuroanthropology also aims to achieve a number of specific goals. The first is looking for one definition of correlations between cognitive-behavioral changes associated with cultural aspects and the function or structure of the nervous system objectified by neuroimaging techniques. After that, statistical procedures should be used to trace how they interact. Finally, longitudinal studies would be planned to explore “live” how this relationship unfolds in the very environment in which the subjects live (ecological validity).

    In short, neuroanthropology describes human behaviors that take place in a cultural setting (as building blocks of coexistence), and attempts to associate them with brain substrates that could serve as physical support.

    Once this analysis has been carried out, we will proceed to the comparison of what is known in one city with what is happening in others, in a search for universal or specific keys that can correspond to the social aspects of each of them. It is also expected delineate the mechanisms of brain change linked to diversity within the same human group, or caused by environmental / interpersonal fluctuations in which they were able to participate. The independent variable in this case is therefore the culture itself.

    Methods in this scientific field

    The method of neuroanthropology is humanistic in nature, but it brings together resources common to empiricist science. It therefore combines the ethnography of social anthropology (which consists of “immersing yourself” in the communities sought, by assuming their way of life during the period required by the project) and laboratory analysis, where the independent variable is manipulated. In that case, a field study would first be carried out (to request data) and subsequent quantitative experiments could be designed, Always in compliance with ethical standards on the preservation of societies.

    This way of proceeding, which involves a series of two relatively independent phases (qualitative and quantitative), is called neuroethnography. With the application of the same, the necessary sensitivity towards the object of analysis is preserved, which is none other than the social life of individuals and whose symbolism they show to understand the world around them, and determines how the brain can be involved in these dynamics. Participant observation must be combined with knowledge of neuroscience, and would require a multidisciplinary approach (teams of very diverse professionals).

    To cite just one example, recent studies in this perspective have sought to explore how love is expressed neurologically, across different cultures. The conclusions on this subject suggest that the totality of the cultures in which the human being participates has in the linguistic heritage a word to indicate this feeling, but not only that: also a similar neurological response is seen in subjects from completely different backgrounds (Activation of the reward circuit, insula and pale balloon). While there are nuances when it comes to interpersonal relationships, the evidence indicates that love (as such) has a deep ‘root’ in the nervous system, and that we all experience it the same way. .

    Many studies have emerged to determine other social constructs, such as violence or authority, which explore not only the obvious differences in behavior (which until now have been the main focus of anthropology), but also if these phenomena can be operated organically.

    There are studies that investigate neural variables within society itself, following cultural consensus as a paradigm. In this case, it is a question of exploring the degree of cohesion of certain ideas and customs among the members of a group, of locating in their brain which structures are responsible for ensuring the sustainability of the cultural baggage.

    In short, it is a method which must have the necessary technical knowledge and personal expertise. The latter is essential in time to solve the famous “problem of two worlds”. This conflict, often perceived as a “source of bias” on the part of the observer on what has been observed, involves the corruption of information gathered by researchers due to preconceptions stemming from their own cultural background. Thus, each neuroethnographic look involves a naked prism, always full of surprise at the discovery of a rich and diverse planet.

    Bibliographical references:

    • Domínguez, J., Turner, R., Lewis, E. and Egan, G. (2009). Neuroanthropology: a humanistic science for the study of the cultural-brain link. Cognitive and Affective Social Neuroscience, 5, 138-47.
    • Roepstorff, A. and Frith, C. (2012). Neuroanthropology or simply anthropology? Go experimental as a method, as an object of study and as an aesthetic of research. Anthropological Theory, 12 (1), 101-111.

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