Week 8: Downey & Lende (2012) Neuroanthropology and the Encultured Brain

Given the glaring issues in cultural neuroscience discussed in the previous week we turned to the corrective offered in the recent field of Neuroanthropology (although there was a debate about whether it is a new field). Neuroanthropology is an attempt to tackle two distinct tasks in bringing together anthropology and the wider cognitive sciences:

  1. To provide a robust notion of culture for neuroscientific explorations of the brain
  2. To make anthropology more savvy as to the findings of cognitive science

The paper itself is more of a manifesto or survey of a wide range of material. And it has a staggeringly large and very useful references section. I found this to be the most useful aspect of the paper – as a launch pad towards investigating cases of encultaration of which I would like to discuss two:

1. Jugglers in comparison to non-jugglers (Draganski et al 2004): this experiment involved an examination of dramatic short-term changes in “learning driven” neural plasticity – 3 months training from no-skills, then no activity for 3-months. Neuro-imaging showed significant short-term plastic changes . This research shows that macroscopic alterations can be induced by experience and not only through injury and ageing. At the time the study was done, experience induced plasticity and anatomical changes had been found in mammalian brain structures. And Draganski and colleagues’ goal was to demonstrate that these findings can be extended to humans through a longitudinal study carried out on people learning to juggle. After an initial brain scan in which all participants were unskilled in juggling – and against a control group who did no training – participants were asked to train for 3 months until they could juggle for at least 30 seconds. Brain scans were then carried out again after another 3 months in which all participants had ceased juggling again. At the second scan, members of the juggler group displayed significant macroscopic changes in grey matter with “transient bilateral expansion in mid-temporal and left posterior intra-parietal sulcus”. At the third scan, this change was observed to of diminished as a result of participants ceasing to train. This experiment went against traditional conventions of the time and demonstrated that “learning induced cortical plasticity is also reflected at a structural level”. However, they acknowledged that discerning what these changes are at the microscopic level (either synaptic bulk or increased cell genesis) required further studies. If the physical act of juggling can alter the macroscopic structure of the brain, could “juggling” and manipulating symbols and other external representational vehicles induce similar plastic changes? More importantly, is this transformational or is it just neuronal recycling and merely an alteration?

2. Mathematical expertise: one of the best pieces of evidence of enculturation is that the different developmental trajectories of agents from differing cultural-cognitive niches can have an impact not only on the performance of mathematical tasks, but also on the neural correlates associated with this task (Tang et al 2006). In a commentary on this experiment Cantlon & Brannon (2007) identify numerous cultural practices that could be responsible for this qualitative difference: [1] abacus users versus pen-and-paper – with the former placing a larger emphasis on motor patterns (these physical movements themselves can act as accompanying stable representational gestures – Hutchins 2005). Additionally [2], differences in writing systems (logographic vs alphabetic – the former has a much higher visual complexity); and this is related to [3] differences in working memory loads due to the relative complexity of verbal referents for the base-ten counting system (to count to a 100 in Chinese only requires 11 words as opposed to 28 in English).Evidence of the extra cognitive loading of the latter system is evident in behavioural experiments where children language users from both groups are given money to purchase products. Chinese speakers are much more likely to use notes with values over ten whereas English speakers were far more likely to use notes with values below ten even when using a larger valued note was a more expedient strategy. [4] Another explanation for these results could be the differences in preferred cognitive strategies. However, given that there are many idiosyncratic strategies to approaching the task of numerical cognition, and although these vary widely intra-groups, it is hypothesised that these variations are smaller than the inter-groups differences. Lastly, [5] differences in education systems – including an increased credence given to mathematics in China as opposed to English speaking countries – could also contribute to explain these differences.


Another big issue to which we returned was how members of different fields (e.g. anthropology and neuroscience) have differing theoretical vocabularies and accompanying interests. And that this sometimes results in agents from these different fields regarding the same object of inquiry in such different ways as to talk past each other or in direct conflict. I am very interested in this aspect of scientific communities in general. Peter Galison (1998), drawing on anthropological linguistics, has argued that this issue can be overcome by creating “trading zones” in which technical “pidgins” and “creoles” can be devised so that agents from differing fields can converse more freely. And I wonder whether this might be an interesting way of understanding the project of neuroanthropology.

cog sci and how to combine lab and ethno.png

And the further issue of how one combines the differing levels of analysis from ethnography to lab experiments is something that I think would be of great help to the general project of cognitive science. In the two diagrams above, the first is a sketch drawn by one of the pioneers of cognitive science – George A. Miller (2003) – who clearly saw anthropology as a core part of this interdisciplinary project. And the second diagram is taken from Jim Hollan and colleagues (2000) paper exploring how distributed cognition can be explored in the context of design studies in human-computer-interfaces; here they have sketched the possible relations between laboratory experiments and ethnography (they provide more details in the text – see reference below).







Cantlon & Brannon 2007 Adding up the effects of cultural experience on the brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(1), 1-4.

Downey & Lende 2012 Neuroanthropology and the Encultured Brain. (pp. 23-65) in D. Lende & G. Downey (Eds.) The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Draganski et al 2004 Neuroplasticity: Changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature, 427, 311-312.

Galison 1998 Image and logic: a material culture of microphysics. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Hollan et al 2000 Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 7 (2), 174–196.

Hutchins 2005 Material anchors for conceptual blends. Journal of Pragmatics, 37, 1555-1577.

Miller 2003 The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 7 (3), 141-144.

Tang et al 2006 Arithmetic processing in the brain shaped by cultures. PNAS, 103(28), 10775-10780.


Additional links:

Here is a more detailed outline of the book at the Neuroanthropology blog – which also has many articles on this topic.

Here is an interview with Daniel Lende from 5 years ago on Dr. Kiki’s Science hour.


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