By Aarthi Muthukumar
What does it mean to be human? Perhaps it’s our anatomy, and the way we’ve categorized ourselves in evolutionary theory. Or maybe it’s the fact that we have big brains, dedicated to solving complex problems and contemplating the meaning of existence. Whatever the answer may be, we can all agree that we spend most of our lives thinking about ourselves.
When looking within our minds, this realm of science can be attributed to neuroscience and psychology. Our psychology and neural anatomy expresses itself externally as our personalities, which collectively builds societies. These societies in turn cultivate pockets of culture unique to their geography, social contracts, and linguistic differences. All together, it creates a domino effect: our neural psychology affects our personalities, which affects the culture of the society we are raised in. It is here that we notice a transitional area between the natural sciences and the social sciences; a bridge between neuroscience and anthropology.
We of course know about the existing fields of science and their major subtopics. But within these subtopics are transitional subjects that bridge seemingly unrelated topics. Out of these transitional subjects comes a new field, one that has often gone unnoticed in the great expanse of scientific research: neuroanthropology. Neuroanthropology involves brain anatomy and its connection to how cultural upbringing affects an individual’s psychology and physical neural anatomy. It provides a two-faceted perspective to the age old question: who are we, and why are we the way we are? The neuroscientific aspect of the field allows for the exploration of brain function, while simultaneously answering anthropological questions pertaining to culture and social interactions. Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn discuss and outline the scope of this field in their paper, “A cognitive theory of cultural meaning”. Neuroanthropology, answers two questions: “what are the neural mechanisms enabling cultural understandings and practices” and “how did these mechanisms evolve?”
Examples of neuroanthropological studies can be found in the research of traumatic psychological disorders. A study was done in US War Veterans suffering from PTSD, where researchers focused on the difficult transition veterans made when returning back to civilian life. It was found that PTSD could be prevented in veterans that developed social connections when they returned home. A link was found between mental health and social culture. The study shows how society’s views of “normal behaviors influence the degree to which an individual feels happy”. The study connects neural psychology with social interactions and the culture in which the veteran lives in, creating a holistic approach to the treatment and prevention of PTSD.
- Lende, Daniel H.; Downey, Greg, eds. (2012). The Encultured Brain. doi:10.7551/mitpress/9219.001.0001. ISBN 9780262305679.
- “A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Meaning.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, psycnet.apa.org/record/1997-36884-000.
- Kintzle, Sara, et al. “PTSD in U.S. Veterans: The Role of Social Connectedness, Combat Experience and Discharge.” Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland), MDPI, 22 Aug. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6164108/.