Neuroanthropology: results and problems by the end of the first decade of research

© 2013 K.V. Istomin

2013 – № 2 (6)

Кириллл ИстоминAbstract: The article addresses a new scientific movement which appeared at the intersection of neurobiology and social sciences – neuroanthropology (cultural neuroscience). These are ‘theoretical and empirical studies which describe mechanisms that help culture, brain and genes to mutually shape each other’. The author analyses theoretical and methodological basis of this movement, its short history, issues appearing while conducting research. Joint research of neurobiologists and ethnographers / cultural specialists is also explored. Summarizing briefly empirical studies in neuroanthropology during the last decade, the author turns his attention to a series of revealed problems which require solution to advance the new scientific movement.

Key words: neuroanthropology, neurophysiology, neurobiology, Cultural Neuroscience, ethnography, cross-cultural psychology, mirror neurons, hippocampus, mental maps, collective representations, theory of cognitive styles, MRT


The relation between human cultures and the regional peculiarities of human biology has been so far discussed by anthropologists from one single point of view: that of the impact (or more correctly lack of it) the biological peculiarities can have on culture. The very possibility of the opposite influence that is of the cultural impact on the human biology has been so far largely ignored. On the other hand, recent studies in natural sciences suggest that such an influence can take place. Furthermore, recent findings in neuroscience indicate that culture can directly influence some aspects of microanatomy and physiology of the human brain, which is the organ most directly associated with the subjective and intersubjective phenomena the social scientists have been traditionally interested in. These findings can seriously alter our understanding of the ontological status of these phenomena and their relation to human consciousness. In other words, the recent findings in neuroscience can put the relation between culture, society and the human brain in an entirely new light. Therefore, these developments cannot be ignored by anthropologists, particularly by those who are interested in theoretical generalizations.

The primary aim of this article consists in raising awareness of anthropologists of the recent research on relation between culture and the brain. I will try to give an overview of empirical studies in this area which has already been named Neuroanthropology or Cultural Neuroscience. Particular attention will be paid to theoretical generalizations the empirical results suggest and to the methodological and theoretical problems of the research.

Intellectual roots and empirical foundations of Neuroanthropology

Our knowledge of the human brain has grown enormously during the last 30 years, after the new non-invasive methods of anatomical and functional research on human brains – most notably the positron-emission tomography (PET) and the magnetic-resonance tomography (MRT) – were developed over the 1980s – the beginning of 1990s. One notable observation made during this period was that the human brain is surprisingly plastic. It constantly changes its functioning and, up to a rather significant degree, anatomy in response to changes in its environment. Interestingly, in the case of the Brain, this environment includes not only material components such us temperature, presence and quality of various physical substances, etc., but also non-material ones, most notably the quantity and quality of interaction with other human beings. This fact was first demonstrated at the beginning of the 1980s by John Cacioppo and his colleagues. These researchers managed to show that loneliness and neglect in childhood can induce changes in the brain that are not qualitatively different from a physical trauma. Since the quality of interpersonal interactions itself depends on the particular anatomy and function of the human brain, Cacioppo concluded that the physical structures of the brain and the non-material social environment are complexly related. The researcher suggested that studying these complex relations is so important for both neuroscience and social sciences that it deserves a special academic discipline. He coined the term “Social Neuroscience” as a title for this new direction of research.

However, it was only in the first years of our century that the research in social neuroscience as it was envisaged by J. Cacioppo has indeed got momentum. This was related to the research by Eleanor Maguire and colleagues on London taxi drivers. The researchers have observed that the taxi drivers in London have significantly larger gray matter volume in their hippocampi in comparison to both bus drivers and the general population of London. Hippocampus is a part of the brain which, as it has been known already since the 1970s, is responsible, among other things, for spatial orientation and navigation using so-called mental maps. Maguire and colleagues have demonstrated that the gray matter volume in the hippocampi of the taxi drivers is directly correlated with the length of time the drivers practiced their trade. They concluded, therefore, that the increase of gray matter in the hippocampi of taxi drivers represents a plastic adaptation of their brains to the task of effective navigation in London, the task they frequently face due to their trade as taxi drivers, that is due to social reasons. In other words, Maguire and colleagues managed to demonstrate that the socially bound and socially induced experience can literally shape human brains in the course of life.

The publications by Maguire and her group were followed by an avalanche of research on how different aspects of social realm influence structure and functioning of the human brain. Several research directions, each having its own research agenda, problems and methodological approaches, have rapidly crystallized. The examples are Neurolinguistics (a study of the impact of different languages with particular grammars and/or the situation of multilinguism on the brain), socioeconomic neuroscience (a study of the impact of social and/or economic stress and inequality on the brain), and several others. Of course, such an important aspect of sociality as culture also could not be ignored and a special direction of research called Neuroanthropology or Cultural Neuroscience has rapidly branched and started its development.

The birth of Cultural Neuroscience. The first attempts to build a theory and a research program for the new discipline

Although empirical research on the impact of culture on the human brain started soon after the seminal publications of Maguire and colleagues, it was not until the middle of the 2000s that the terms “Cultural Neuroscience” and “Neuroanthropology” were coined to designate this direction of research. The first formal definition of Cultural Neuroscience I am aware of was proposed by Chiao and Ambady in their chapter for the Handbook of Cultural Psychology (edited by Kitayama and Cohen) published in 2007. These authors describe Cultural Neuroscience as an empirical research on mechanisms through which culture, brain and genes mutually constitute and shape each other. In 2008, Robert Turner and Charles Whitehead published a paper containing the first attempt to outline the theoretical foundation and methodological basis of the new discipline.

In their paper Turner and Whitehead make use of the concept of collective representations first introduced by Emil Durkheim more than a century ago. In accordance with Durkheim, collective representations are phenomena that objectively exist only because a sufficiently big group of people believe that they do. These include religion, money, laws, customs, etc. Their objective existence is proved by their ability to shape human behavior. Turner and Whitehead note that in order to start shaping human behavior, collective representations should be internalized by all members of the society. In other words, the collective representations should become a part of individual knowledge and skills of every member of the society. As it has been demonstrated by Maguire, since practicing certain complexes of knowledge and skills on every-day basis leads to certain changes in the brain, internalizing collective representations should be the main channel through which culture influences the brain. On the other hand, the neural changes produced can further influence cognitive process by making it easier to learn and process some kinds of information rather than other kinds. This can produce a backward effect on the collective representations and through them on culture. To make it short, culture and the brain mutually shape each other through collective representations.

Based on these theoretical ideas, Turner and Whitehead proposed the following cycle of research in Cultural Neuroscience, which, in their opinion, should be a joint enterprise of anthropologists and neuroscientists. First, anthropologists should find and describe collective representations that exist in a certain culture. Then neuroscientists should propose and demonstrate experimentally the impact these collective representations have on the brain structure and functioning. They should also build up hypotheses on how these neural imprinting of collective representations can influence other aspects of cognitive processes. These hypotheses can be then tested by the means of comparative cognitive tests on representatives of different cultures. Finally, anthropologists can use these results to explain relevant peculiarities of the culture they study.

Empirical research, main findings and problems in cultural neuroscience 

Unfortunately, the productive collaboration between neuroscientists and anthropologists as envisaged by Turner and White has failed to develop. This can be explained by the post-modernist deconstructivist ethos that became prominent in western anthropology since 1980s. Neuroscientists have rapidly learned that due to this ethos they and most anthropologists simply speak different languages, which precludes a fruitful collaboration. On the other hand, neuroscientists have found eager collaborators among cultural (cross-cultural) psychologists, who have never broken with the positivist approach. In cross-cultural psychology, on the other hand, most empirical research over the first decade of the 21st century has been informed by the theory of cognitive styles (the Nisbett-Kitayama theory). It should not be surprising, therefore, that the majority of research in cultural neuroscience has also been informed by this theory.

Thus, a big group of studies in cultural neuroscience sought to find the neural consequences of internalizing the independent or the interdependent cognitive styles. These neural consequences had to explain the well-known effects of cognitive styles such as analytic vs. holistic visual perception, and the difference in the model of self. These studies have demonstrated difference in brain activation between people having different culturally-induced cognitive styles. Thus, it was demonstrated that among Chinese people the same brain areas activated when they thought about themselves and when they thought about close relatives (mother). Among North Americans, on the other hand, different brain areas were activated in these two conditions (Zhu, Zhang, Fan, & Han 2007). These results closely correspond to the predictions of the cognitive style theory that Chinese should have more interdependent and Americans more independent models of self. Another study (Hedden, Ketay, Aron, Rose Markus, & Gabrieli 2008; see also Ketay, Aron, Hedden, & Chiao 2009) observed a difference in brain activation between Chinese and Europeans while judging the absolute length of a line drown in a frame (analytic perception task) vs. judging its length in relation to the size of the frame (holistic perception task). This difference has also been predicted by the cognitive style theory.

Another group of studies compared brain activation in response to culturally close vs. culturally distant information. Thus it was demonstrated that musical styles common in the culture of a listener provoke more significant brain activation in the TOM area in comparison to the musical styles alien to the listener (Morrison, Demorest, & Chiao 2009). Similarly, people have bigger empathic response towards facial expression of emotions if the face has physical traits that are common to the ethnic group of the observer (Chiao et al. 2008). All these studies confirm the impact of culture on the brain and suggest that the cognitive style is one of the channels through which this impact is provided.

The first decade of the research has shown important practical and theoretical problems that cultural neuroscience has to solve in order to successfully develop. The practical problems are related to the high price of the MRT research and the complicated machinery required for it. This machinery is not movable, which effectively precludes the possibility of fieldwork in the anthropological sense of this word. Methodological problems, on the other hand, include first of all a very vogue notion of ‘culture’ and ‘cultural identity’ that cultural neuroscientists have to work with. This vagueness can be ignored if, as it has been up till now, the research is based on comparing representatives of big nations, such as Chinese and Americans. However, if cultural neuroscientists are to switch their interest to so called traditional groups, the questions like “Who is Saami and who is not” would have to be dealt with somehow. The second problem is the very vogue interpretation of the notion of ‘collective representations’. At the moment, cultural neuroscientists prefer not to deal with the definition of this notion and seem to count on their collaborators (mostly cultural psychologists) in exploring its possible interpretations.

These theoretical problems, as it seems, could be solved if further research in cultural neuroscience will proceed in collaboration between neuroscientists and anthropologists, who have experience to deal with problems of this sort. It seems to me that the failure to establish this collaboration represents the main problem of the cultural neuroscience at the moment.


Western anthropologists feel rather uneasy about cultural neuroscience for two basic reasons. First of all, it seems like they feel that there is a certain relation between cultural neuroscience and racism. However, this feeling is misguided. A statement that culture has physical impact on the human brain does not mean that cultural or ethnic groups are not equal or that their representatives are biologically bound to have the culture they have been born in. Indeed, this impact is not genetic and it is closely related to the process of enculturation, that is internalization of cultural models.

The second reason is the aversion towards the empirical and experimental research that has spread among western anthropologists since the 1980s. This aversion makes western anthropologists poor collaborators for any natural scientific research.

On the other hand, cultural neuroscience seems to be based on sound empirical grounds and cannot be ignored by anthropologists. Furthermore, collaboration between anthropology and neuroscience is likely to be mutually beneficial for both disciplines. Since Russian ethnography is less affected by post-modernist and deconstructivist thinking in comparison to the western anthropology, Russian ethnographers have a good chance to overcome their western colleagues in this respect.


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