For biologists, ‘culture’ usually means a Petri dish containing cells growing in a medium of nutrients, but for anthropologists, the word has a different meaning. Edward B. Taylor defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”, and for anthropologists, that is what the word denotes: the full range of learned human behaviour patterns.
Some aspects of human culture, such as art and verbal communication, are universal (shared by all cultures). Other aspects are specific to particular cultures, each of which has its own norms and ritualistic behaviours. For example, in Egypt, where I was born, it is considered extremely rude to expose the soles of one’s feet or shoes to others, whereas in Britain, where I live, this is not considered at all rude.
It seems logical that individuals born into one culture will have slightly different models of the world than those born into other cultures. Because the brain is the seat of all learned behaviours, and where models or representations of the world are formed and housed, it follows that these cultural differences will be reflected in the neural networks encoding those models and, therefore, in various aspects of brain function.
Whereas neuroscientists investigating memory and learning have concentrated on how individual experiences alter the connectivity of cells in the brain, research in the emerging discipline of neuroanthropology seeks to explain the effects of common experiences – or ‘culture’ on the brain’s circuitry.
Juan Dominguez, a Ph.D. student at the University of Melbourne, is conducting research into the effects of culture on the functioning of the brain. Domingues defines neuroanthropology as the study of the effects of ‘enculturation’ on the human brain, the relationship between the brain, subjective experiences and culture, and the evolution of the neurobiological mechanisms that underpin culture. At an anthropology conference held in Cairns last month, he proposed that the culture one is born into has a direct effect on how the brain functions.
“In certain societies and cultures there are certain patterns of behaviour, people may make certain evaluations, have certain opinions, there are certain tasks that are culturally specific,” says Dominguez. “We should find that the brain would have some sort of bias acquired through exposure to culture.”
To investigate this, Dominguez is planning to carry out neuroimaging studies on people from two different cultures which assign kinship relationships differently. Whereas both paternal and maternal uncles are referred to in Western cultures as ‘uncle’, in certain other cultures, such as Tamil, paternal uncles are referred to as ‘father’. Tamil and Anglo-Saxon Australian participants will have their brains imaged while looking at photographs of family members.
Domingues and his project supervisor, Douglas Lewis, say that such differences in the wiring of the brain apply not just to people from different cultures, but also to peer groups and sub-cultures within the same culture. An individual brought up in a culture will become adapted not just to living in that culture, but also to the particular group or sub-culture to which they belong. That adaptation should, according to Domingues and Lewis, be manifested in certain modes of behaviour specific for that culture, sub-culture or group.
Models or representations of the world differ from culture to culture, from sub-culture to sub-culture and from group to group, with individuals in each defining and interpreting their biophysical surroundings in a unqiue way, so as to produce their own cognized environment. This is a representation of the operational environment – the ‘real’ world – which is encoded in the circuitry of the brain.
The notion of the cognized environment has led some anthropologists to take a fresh look at human consciousness. According to biogenetic structuralism theory, consciousness is the neurophysiological response to the effects of the ever-changing operational environment on the cognized environment. As such, consciousness is conditioned by culture, with the dominant thoughts in a particular culture impacting upon the cognized environment – and its neurobiological basis – of individuals within that culture.
According to neuroanthropologists, previous theories of consciousness have neglected to take into account the effect of cultures on the consciousness of their members. The neuroimaging studies planned by Dominguez, and other, similar studies, may begin to shed some light on how culture conditions brain function, and an understanding of reality as a social construction may begin to shed light on the true nature of human consciousness.