Conference Planning Workshop Summary

The serene play of light and solid form in the I.M./C.C. Pei-designed Ronald Rea­gan UCLA Med­ical Cen­ter was a fit­ting set­ting for a work­shop last Fall mod­er­ated by FPR advi­sory board mem­ber Steven López on the emerg­ing neu­ro­science of cul­ture. The main objec­tives were “to dis­cuss ideas about bring­ing the study of cul­ture, social world, and neu­ro­science together,” as well as plan the next FPR-UCLA inter­dis­ci­pli­nary conference.

In the open­ing ses­sion par­tic­i­pants rep­re­sent­ing par­tic­u­lar research areas – cul­tural neu­ro­science, neu­roan­thro­pol­ogy, cul­tural psy­chol­ogy, psy­cho­log­i­cal anthro­pol­ogy, cul­tural psy­chi­a­try, and genet­ics – were asked to speak briefly about their respec­tive research inter­ests and future direc­tions for the ben­e­fit of the diverse group of twenty anthro­pol­o­gists, clin­i­cians, psy­chol­o­gists, and neuroscientists.

Below is a brief sum­mary of their remarks.

Cul­tural neu­ro­sci­en­tist Joan Chiao (North­west­ern) gave a brief overview and then described five research find­ings or inter­ests shap­ing the field. Cul­tural neu­ro­science explores the mutual con­sti­tu­tion of cul­ture and biol­ogy, includ­ing ques­tions of culture–gene coevo­lu­tion and accul­tur­a­tion. Major findings/future direc­tions: (1) Researchers have dis­tin­guished cul­tural dif­fer­ences at the neural level for behav­ior that may appear sim­i­lar across cul­tures. (2) Group (e.g., East/West) dif­fer­ences don’t nec­es­sar­ily equate with cul­tural (e.g., collectivistic/individualistic) dif­fer­ences, par­tic­u­larly cultural-value dif­fer­ences, although both lev­els of com­par­i­son (the for­mer eco­log­i­cal, the lat­ter psy­cho­log­i­cal) are valid in their own way, Joan said. (3) (more con­tro­ver­sially) “Huge” struc­tural dif­fer­ences between East Asian and West­ern par­tic­i­pants have been observed in vir­tu­ally every lobe of the brain by Denise Park and col­leagues. (4) Researchers are also study­ing the role of pop­u­la­tion genet­ics: How are the dif­fer­ences at the genetic level shap­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal or neural processes? (5) Finally, researchers are study­ing epi­ge­netic or devel­op­men­tal influ­ences of cul­ture on the brain.

Neu­roan­thro­pol­o­gist Greg Downey (Mac­quarie) gave an overview of neu­roan­thro­pol­ogy, which he described as a “dimen­sion of psy­cho­log­i­cal anthro­pol­ogy” informed by the new tools and fresh insights of neu­ro­science into basic neural as well as higher level cog­ni­tive processes. Neu­roan­thro­pol­ogy poses a dif­fer­ent set of ques­tions related to, e.g., evo­lu­tion or the neural plau­si­bil­ity of indige­nous accounts that psy­cho­log­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gists tend to accept at face value. Polit­i­cally, neu­roan­thro­pol­ogy also bridges a long­stand­ing divide between cul­tural and bio­log­i­cal anthro­pol­ogy. Neu­roan­thro­pol­o­gist Daniel Lende (Uni­ver­sity of South Florida) added that neu­ran­thro­pol­ogy aims to (1) put ethno­graphic (ways of see­ing and under­stand­ing) human vari­a­tion in con­cert with our cur­rent under­stand­ing of how the brain works, and (2) under­stand how cul­ture “works,” tak­ing into account both neu­ro­science and anthropology.

Cul­tural Psy­chol­o­gist Shi­nobu Kitayama (Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan) pro­vided a brief his­tory of his field, which twenty years ago “redis­cov­ered” cul­ture through the work of Tom Weis­ner, Alan Fiske, and Richard Shweder, and, sought to under­stand how “cul­ture and the psy­che make each other up” through the cre­ative use of psychology’s exper­i­men­tal tech­niques. Find­ings ini­tially focused on East/West dif­fer­ences, which Shi­nobu described as a “sim­plis­tic but use­ful heuris­tic tool to get the field started.” He then high­lighted future direc­tions or cor­re­spond­ing ques­tions: (1) the impor­tance of going beyond the East/West par­a­digm by con­sid­er­ing find­ings from, e.g., evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy re par­a­site risk (“how eco­log­i­cal con­di­tions might influ­ence psy­cho­log­i­cal processes and cul­tural val­ues”). (2) The increas­ing inter­est in social dis­par­i­ties in wealth, sta­tus, and power. (3) The inter­est in res­i­den­tial mobil­ity and mech­a­nisms of cul­tural change or main­te­nance, includ­ing diver­sity of sub­groups, using clas­sic “prim­ing” par­a­digms as well as look­ing more deeply at the cul­ture of these sub­groups. (4) Cul­ture as a source of brain plas­tic­ity and genes as an impor­tant medi­at­ing ele­ment between cul­ture and human mind.

In his overview, psy­cho­log­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gist Doug Hol­lan (UCLA), who was struck by the con­ver­gence in all these areas, said that “more and more” peo­ple within psy­cho­log­i­cal anthro­pol­ogy are embrac­ing the cross-fertilization of fields. But, he added, “we can’t for­get the com­plex­ity of the social world,” includ­ing such aspects as race, class, gen­der, income dis­par­i­ties, etc., which can have a sig­nif­i­cant affect on behav­ior. Psy­cho­log­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gists are par­tic­u­larly attuned to the “eco­log­i­cal valid­ity” of the work they pro­duce (often over a long-term period in the field) as a full-fledged reflec­tion of life in a vari­ety of set­tings around the world in a way that lab­o­ra­tory sci­en­tists are not.

Cul­tural psy­chi­a­trist Lau­rence Kir­mayer (McGill) began by say­ing that the study of men­tal health prob­lems and their res­o­lu­tion is in a sense depen­dent on all the other fields at the table for “mod­els and ideas about what the sources of the prob­lems are and what their solu­tions might be.” Cul­tural psy­chi­a­try is “dri­ven” by the facts of human diver­sity, by a glob­al­iz­ing world, but there is also a very strong pre­sump­tion in psy­chi­a­try of the uni­ver­sal­ity of con­cep­tual mod­els, meth­ods, and prac­tices despite evi­dence of much cross-cultural vari­a­tion in the inci­dence, expres­sion, and course of men­tal ill­ness (as well as the sig­nif­i­cant role of social adver­sity in psy­chic suffering).

A “huge and inter­est­ing ques­tion” for the social and cul­tural neu­ro­sciences, he con­tin­ued, is how social processes are trans­lated into an vul­ner­a­bil­ity to men­tal and phys­i­cal dis­or­ders and/or resilience. Cul­tural psy­chi­a­try has a close rela­tion­ship with med­ical anthro­pol­ogy, which has been crit­i­cal of the way the the­o­ries and ide­olo­gies of clin­i­cal prac­tice (and sci­en­tific research, more gen­er­ally) are embed­ded in value sys­tems, and the field also stands to gain from a crit­i­cal look by neu­ro­sci­en­tist Suparna Choud­hury and oth­ers at how we con­struct our mod­els, includ­ing groups of peo­ple. Finally, he said that we can use the notion of cul­ture as (1) a set of ideas about how the social world is con­structed and repro­duced, but also (2) how assump­tions come into play in our own the­ory con­struc­tion. In terms of future direc­tions, he said that researchers have to be atten­tive to the hybridiza­tion of cul­ture; it no longer seems real­is­tic to dis­tin­guish peo­ple on the basis of dis­crete groups. Cul­ture today may have less to do with eth­nic group mem­ber­ship and more to do with modes of par­tic­i­pa­tion in var­i­ous sub­groups. He con­cluded by say­ing that work in epi­ge­net­ics offers the pos­si­bil­ity of under­stand­ing how envi­ron­men­tal expe­ri­ence is inscribed in the genome via more inter­ac­tional models.

Lau­rence pro­vided a per­fect lead-in for geneti­cist Steve Cole (UCLA), who described the “tremen­dous” effects of the envi­ron­ment on the “behav­ior of the genome, (cre­at­ing)  a sand­box of pos­si­bil­i­ties,” the real­iza­tion of which depends on what geneti­cists call “ecol­ogy.” From a psy­cho­log­i­cal or anthro­po­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, “ecol­ogy” is ulti­mately processed through our brains, lead­ing to the research ques­tion, how does the social sig­nal trans­duc­tion take place?

Less well explored, he said, is the con­tri­bu­tion of cul­tural and sym­bolic sys­tems in deter­min­ing how you sub­jec­tively make sense or mean­ing out of objec­tive envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions. That in turn is the “gate­way to the envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tion of genomic biol­ogy,” by means of, for exam­ple, the per­cep­tion of the world as a safe and nur­tur­ing envi­ron­ment.  “We are start­ing to rec­og­nize, “ he con­tin­ued, “ that a wide vari­ety of social epi­demi­o­logic rela­tion­ships … are struc­tured by these world­views, (which) end up cre­at­ing a sort of chronic threat sig­nal that … kicks off these genom­i­cally pro­grammed defen­sive responses.” With chronic expo­sure, it’s pos­si­ble to remodel the bio­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of the body at the mol­e­c­u­lar level “by chang­ing the tun­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of tis­sues, poten­tially includ­ing the brain.” He said the immune sys­tem was a good model for think­ing about how dif­fer­ences in our expe­ri­ences of the world could lead to dif­fer­ences in the expres­sion and activ­ity of our genes.

The dis­cus­sion con­tin­ued over din­ner at a nearby restau­rant. The input from the work­shop par­tic­i­pants was invalu­able in terms of orga­niz­ing our 2012 con­fer­ence. Let me take this oppor­tu­nity to say how deeply we appre­ci­ate the gen­eros­ity and thought­ful­ness of all concerned!