In order to acquire precise knowledge about human beings, it is essential to adopt a multi-faceted vision that brings together in its lap the various disciplines whose purpose is to describe what underlies their complex reality. From neuroscience to anthropology, all have the capacity to provide answers to the eternal questions that our curious species has formulated about itself.

Despite this, a remarkable independence between them has traditionally been maintained, as if they were not needed to advance their fundamental objective. All of this meant that prospects for greater integration, more in keeping with the phenomenon they were trying to unravel, did not unfold, and even mistrust between them arose.

In recent times, however, the need for partnerships based on multidisciplinarity is undeniable. It is from these alliances that the theoretical and practical body of knowledge has been extended and expanded, and with it all scientific development. Joining forces has never been as important as it is today, in societies as vast and unfathomable as those in which we live.

In this article we will deal in detail with the characteristics of neuroanthropology, a theoretical framework and a method in which the humanistic and the empirical concur . From all this, an epistemology arises that motivates the congruent orchestration of what is known about the brain and about cultural relations.

What is Neuroanthropology?

Neuroanthropology is 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. So new a discipline, that it is being developed and officially emerged in the first years of this century, makes culture the gravitational axis around which its action revolves. To do so, it would have neuroscience as its main ally, since it would be through its consensus and research evidence that it could extend its horizon beyond the traditional limits that have “tied it down”.

One of the principles of neuroanthropology, from which its existence is justified, is the analogy between psychology and culture . Although the former is usually recognized as having a neurological basis without any doubt (as the mental and emotional are built in the brain), this is not the case in the latter. The aim would be to break with this biased view of the scope of cultural influences, and to assume in them the capacity to modulate the structure and functions of an organ that governs fundamental processes for its dynamics and understanding.

The perspective of neuroanthropology points out that culture is an explanatory element of human behavior as powerful (or even more so) as biological needs . And the network of meanings common to all human communities depends on it, as well as the way in which the links that could be manifested within it are regulated. It is undeniable, therefore, that culture has a powerful component of a psychological nature, and that since this has extensive neurological roots, culture itself must also have them, at least to some degree.

This reasoning has served to shape its essential theoretical justification, and it also has deep empirical evidence. It is known that culture participates in some way in the very complex process of maturation of the central nervous system , including both its functions and its structure. There are many studies that have demonstrated the role of everything cultural in perception (orientation of attention resources in complex environments), social processing (“subjective” assessment of the behaviour of others), emotional experience (affective reactions to particular events), language (system through which communication is established between two individuals) and the process of attribution for causes and effects; all of them related to specific areas of the brain.

From all this we can deduce that the cultural and social, the foundations of anthropology, are important to understand our species. What current science indicates is that both are potentially explanatory variables for the “differential” patterns of brain activation that have been evidenced by comparing subjects belonging to different human groups, which translates into disparate experiences among them. Neuroanthropology would seek to offer the answer to an unresolved question during decades of neuroscientific study: where are the shared meanings at a brain level and how do the mechanisms involved evolve?

We will now go on to discuss the objectives and method of this humanist neuroscience, which is gradually being recognised as being more important within the multiplicity of disciplines whose aim is to unravel the mystery of man.

Objectives of his research

The main objective of this neuroanthropology is to describe transcultural and intercultural regularities (between cultures or within the same community), in order to identify possible differences between two groups that could be attributable to the tacit effect of shared symbols and rules. This is why it resorts to both transversal and longitudinal research designs: the former would find potential divergences in a single moment in time between two groups, and the latter would show their own evolution over time in a single community (as a result of environmental or relational changes that may have taken place).

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

In addition to this great purpose, neuroanthropology also aims to achieve a number of specific objectives. The first seeks a definition of the existing correlations between changes in the cognitive-behavioral base associated with cultural aspects and the function or structure of the nervous system targeted by neuroimaging techniques. After that, statistical procedures should be used to trace how the two interact. Finally, longitudinal studies would be projected through which to explore “live” how this relationship unfolds in the very environment where the subjects live (ecological validity).

In summary, neuroanthropology describes human behaviors that unfold within a cultural framework (as basic elements of coexistence), and attempts to associate them with the brain substrates that could serve as physical support.

Once this analysis has been carried out, we would proceed to compare what is known in a town with what happens in others, in a search for universal or specific keys that can correspond to the social aspects of all of them. It is also intended to delimit the mechanisms of brain change linked to diversity within the same human group, or originated by environmental/interpersonal fluctuations in which they may have participated. The independent variable in this case is, therefore, the culture itself.

Methods in this field of science

The method of neuroanthropology is humanistic, but it amalgamates resources common to empirical science. Therefore, it combines the ethnography of social anthropology (which implies “immersing” oneself in the communities that are being investigated, assuming their way of life during the period required by the project) and the laboratory analysis, where the independent variable is manipulated. In this case, first a field study would be carried out (to collect data) and later quantitative experiments could be designed , always respecting the ethical norms on the preservation of societies.

This way of proceeding, which involves a series of two relatively independent phases (of a qualitative type and of a quantitative type), is called neuroethnography. The application of this method preserves the necessary sensitivity to the object of analysis, which is none other than the social life of individuals and the symbolism they display in order to understand the world around them, and determines the way in which the brain can be involved in these dynamics. Participatory observation would have to be combined with knowledge from the neurosciences, and would require a multidisciplinary approach (very diverse teams of professionals).

To cite one example, recent studies from this perspective have tried to explore how love is expressed at the neurological level, according to different cultures. The conclusions on this subject suggest that the totality of cultures in which human beings participate have a word in their linguistic heritage to indicate this feeling, but not only that: also a similar neurological response can be seen in subjects from totally different backgrounds (activation of the reward circuit, insula and globus pallidus). Despite the fact that there are nuances regarding interpersonal relationships, the evidence points out that love (as such) has a deep “root” in the nervous system, and that we all experience it equally.

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

There are studies that investigate the neural variables within the same society, following the cultural consensus as a paradigm. In this case the objective is to explore the degree of cohesion of certain ideas and customs among the members of a group, to locate in their brain which are the structures responsible for guaranteeing the permanence of the cultural baggage.

In short, it is a method that must have the necessary technical knowledge and personal expertise. The latter is essential in the moment of solving the well-known “two-world problem” . This conflict, which is usually considered as a “source of bias” of the observer on what is observed, implies the corruption of the information collected by the researchers due to preconceived ideas coming from their own cultural origin. Therefore, every neuroethnographic look implies a naked prism, always pregnant with astonishment when discovering a diverse and rich planet.

Bibliographic references:

  • Dominguez, J.,Turner, R., Lewis, E. and Egan, G. (2009). Neuroanthropology: A Humanistic Science for the Study of the Culture-Brain Nexus. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 5, 138-47.
  • Roepstorff, A. and Frith, C. (2012). Neuroanthropology or Simply Anthropology? Going Experimental as Method, as Object of Study, and as Research Aesthetic. Anthropological Theory, 12(1), 101-111.