Theory and Method at the Intersection of Anthropology and Cultural Neuroscience

Published in: SCAN, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, v. 5, no. 2-3, June 2010, p. 130-137

by Rebecca Seligman, Ryan Andrew Brown

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Anthropologists have become increasingly interested in embodiment-that is, the ways that socio-cultural factors influence the form, behavior and subjective experience of human bodies. At the same time, social cognitive neuroscience has begun to reveal the mechanisms of embodiment by investigating the neural underpinnings and consequences of social experience. Despite this overlap, the two fields have barely engaged one another. We suggest three interconnected domains of inquiry in which the intersection of neuroscience and anthropology can productively inform our understanding of the relationship between human brains and their socio-cultural contexts. These are: the social construction of emotion, cultural psychiatry, and the embodiment of ritual. We build on both current research findings in cultural neuroscience and ethnographic data on cultural differences in thought and behavior, to generate novel, ecologically informed hypotheses for future study. In addition, we lay out a specific suggestion for operationalizing insights from anthropology in the context of cultural neuroscience research. Specifically, we advocate the development of field studies that use portable measurement technologies to connect individual patterns of biological response with socio-cultural processes. We illustrate the potential of such an approach with data from a study of psychophysiology and religious devotion in Northeastern Brazil.

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