Week 2: Roepstorff et al (2010) Enculturing brains through patterned practices

Given the general dismay of the group to the previous session’s reading, we attempted to narrow in on a much more concrete way of understanding of culture that would not just homogenise across vast swathes of the world’s population. As such, we turned to Roepstorff and colleagues’ suggestion that the concept of culture should be replaced with what they call “patterned practices” – a term they claim is intellectually indebted to the work of French theorist Pierre Bourdieu.

After discussing a case study from the history of anthropology in which Franz Boas was able to disentangle a selection bias in linguistic surveys of Native American languages by showing that a researcher’s prior patterned practices prejudiced their ability to discern linguistic structure; Roepstorff and colleagues examine two case studies in favour of their patterned practices approach:

  1. An examination of how one’s lexical environment can affect phoneme perception. Recent studies on the salient pattern identifications in language between Estonians and Finnish, English and Hindi, and Russian and Korean speakers shows that one’s previous experiences, and normative behaviours adopted from one’s everyday life, shapes how one discerns salient patterns in nature. This case study is expanded to include a discussion of how training to be a jazz musician alters an agent’s response to certain auditory stimuli.
  2. A set of cases drawing on the work of Henrich and colleagues (2005, 2010) on how agents from different societies behave differently and problem solve in different ways when faced with a range of economic games. (We then returned to these in the following week)

I personally enjoyed this paper and am keen to try and pin down in a concrete fashion what is exactly meant by “patterned practices” and by what mechanism it is that they affect neural plasticity and cognitive capacities. The closest I can find to a definition is the notion that patterned practices are how groups of humans order their everyday lives according to “specific and semi-stable patterns of inter-action, i.e. practices” (p. 1057). Several key features of patterned practices are identified.

  1. They are shaped by material conditions, social dynamics and normative orders
  2. There are relevant/specific patterned practices for cognitive tasks – and this entails subgroups within larger populations (this means that research on cultures need not find “exotic” peoples and can just be done on clearly defined subgroups such as: teenage movements, football fans, mathematicians, rugby players, jugglers, doctors, etc.)
  3. Patterned practices is a form of embodied and distributed cognition
  4. Pattern practices form neural networks

This last connection is important because it draws a direct link between functional output and neural correlates. This is a desirable methodological feature: it gives practices a material basis; “mediates between micro- and macro-level phenomena”; and importantly demonstrates that both levels are necessary for explanations of behaviours in cognitive tasks. Viz. that an account of cognitive norms is essential to understanding how agents behave: “Patterns of practice are shaped by neural networks as well as belief systems and normative orders” (p. 1057).

Roepstorff and colleagues emphasise that this approach entails a conceptual shift away from individuals and onto an ongoing process of feedback loops of practices shaping groups of interacting neural networks and how they in turn shape the practices. Such a project requires interdisciplinary efforts.

Lastly, and given my biases, I am sceptical that this can be properly articulated through predictive coding as they attempt at the end of the paper. But also intrigued by the notion that their project is conducive to links to distributed cognition.







Henrich et al 2005 “Economic man” in cross-cultural perspective: Behavioral experiments in 15 small-scale societies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 795-814.

Henrich et al 2010 The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 61-83.

Roepstorff et al 2010 Enculturing brains through patterned practices. Neural Networks, 23, 1051–1059.


Additional links:

Here is a video in which Andreas Roepstorff discusses interdisciplinary research and his approach to trying to use anthropology to inform neuroimaging studies.


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