SPA Interview with Dr. Greg Downey and Dr. Daniel Lende


This week on the blog we are featuring a partial summary of an interview with Dr. Greg Downey and Dr. Daniel Lende, conducted by Kathy Trang, as part of the Society for Psychological Anthropology “Voices of Experience” series. In this audio conversation, available in full here, the doctors discuss their work establishing the field of nueroanthropology. Together, they served as co-editors of The Encultured Brain: an Introduction to Neuroanthropology, available from MIT Press.

The SPA “Voices of Experience” series is a venue to showcase the range of work that psychological anthropologists engage in, and to give listeners, virtually attending the live events, the opportunity to ask prominent scholars in the field about their work.

spa voices logoThe interview begins with an introduction of the authors and an acknowledgement of the wide diversity of interests and geographic locations of the audience. Then, Kathy Trang launches into a general discussion about the academic frustrations that led to the foundation of neuroanthropology.

Kathy Trang: We’ll start with the origins of neuroanthropology. As you guys detailed in the nueroanthroplogy book which was published in 2015, as well as various other platforms, such as the blog, one of the impetus behind nueroanthropology was the dissatisfaction that you both felt with either sociocultural theory or with biological anthropology. Could you tell us a little bit more about your frustration at that time? And what you felt from the standpoint of your research was missing?

Dr. Greg Downey: My dissatisfaction was really quite simple. When I was in Brazil, I was working on with Capoeira practitioners, practitioners of this Afro-Brazilian martial art. It’s pretty arduous, pretty demanding, like a lot of martial arts and acrobatics. This was a physical discipline. And the people there were claiming that it has all these effects. And I was trained straight up cultural anthropology, University of Chicago, They would say, the people I was interviewing were always working and learning alongside, would say “Oh, it changes the way you move, it changes the way you perceive. You see differently, you balance differently.”

I kept writing this down, good classic social constructionist, interpretive anthropology. At some point, I was like “is this plausible?” I mean, could it really do this? I realize that it was an empirical question that in fact I had to look outside the culture anthropology I had been taught to find out. As I started to explore sort of the neuropsychology of skill acquisition and training and sports, I found out that not only was it plausible but there were all kinds of interesting documented effects. I realized the culture theory, in this sense, around the question of embodiment, I’ll come back to the word embodiment at some point, it was pointing in the direction of neurological change without actually attempting to theorize about neurological change or explore neurological change. In a sense, I kind of felt like the cultural theory I had been taught was under ambitious. There was a clear boundary with the biological and they didn’t want to cross it, but in the process that meant that they were ignoring a lot of the effects of the enculturation I was seeing.

In a sense, it was feeling like I was up against an artificial boundary that had been drawn for me by my training, and I was dissatisfied with that. Maybe I should hand that over to Daniel. Where were you?

Dr. Daniel Lende: I would more emphasize the excitement of trying to combine neuroscience and anthropology. In my case, I had worked as a councilor to kids that had drug problems in Colombia prior to starting grad school. And then I went to grad school in the biocultural program at Emory University, and so it was an integrative program but nonetheless there was a biological/cultural split there.

I didn’t find ways to always connect what I was learning with social theory or from evolutionary theory to what I already knew about these kids’ lives in Bogata, Colombia.

For example, addiction is often referred to in shorthand as “queire mas y mas” – to want more and more – in Colombia. I came across a paper, a 1993 paper by Kent Berridge and Ann Robinion, that talked about addiction and correspondence between neuroscience and anthropology. I wanted to pursue that more.

Trang: Coming in pursuit of neuroanthropology, to you guys what really defines neuroanthropology? That is, how do you demarcate neuroanthropology from closely related disciplines, such as psychological anthropology, for instance, or cultural neuroscience, and/or population neuroscience?


Daniel  Lende

Dr. Daniel Lende, via the University of Southern Florida Department of Anthropology

Lende: I’m going to tackle the first part of that, more in relation to psychological anthropology. I think Greg and I have always been pretty clear that neuroanthropology is what it says, the combination of neuroscience and anthropology. The word anthropology is full, so it’s more emphasis on anthropology than neuroscience. We’re both anthropologists.


It is an approach that aims to, at the one hand permit anthropologists to draw cognitive science broadly, I would say, in pursing their own research questions, specifically questions they have that are field-based, get data in field-based settings. But as an outcome of doing that type of work, suddenly we have a rich appreciation of what we call “brains in the wild.” That then can provide feedback to neuroscientists, cognitive scientists working in laboratory settings, and also, in both our cases, but for example in my case, clinicians working with addiction, or in Greg’s case, coaches and other people working in applied sciences. So our field-based approach is something that makes neuroanthropology distinctive from some of the other traditions that emphasize the nuero side.

In terms of psychological anthropology, I think we drew a lot on how psychological anthropology recognizes cross cultural variation and mental processes and how psychological anthropology emphasizes the individual in context. But I would say that we have found more inspiration in neuroscience in the third way of cognitive science as a way to really try to grapple with empirical questions that came up during fieldwork. Now today we can develop it differently and take that integration of neuroscience and anthropology to sort of develop new framework to examine patterns of human variation in more naturalistic settings.

Downey: I’m going to pick up the cultural neuroscience side of this, because I end up talking to a lot of cultural neuroscientists and I really admire their work but one of the things they run against is they are neuroscientists first, not cultural theorists first. They work with a cultural model they can operationalize quite easily. That’s often a very limited model. Frankly, it looks very old fashioned; it often looks like it’s just running the same tests on different what are basically ethnic groups, wherever they have an fMRI machine and comparing the results and calling the differences the culture. There’s all kinds of intellectual problems with that, but it shows that if you put the experimental design first and the cultural theory kind of a distant, last place, you can wind up with some very unsophisticated accounts of what you’re actually getting in the fMRI, especially when you’re just contrasting populations that we know that there’s a long history of drawing these very blunt comparisons between, say Asians and Westerners. Cultural neuroscience I think in some ways there’s a good conversation to have but we have to bring an operationalizable cultural theory to that.

Lende: Similarly, the whole population neurosciences or population-based epidemiological models for thinking about neurological variation, they’re really interesting but they’re very much based on a kind of exposure-epidemiological demographic model.  I think they’re a little less developed than the cultural neurosciences, so there’s an idea of exposures.  We can talk about brain differentiation as a result of exposure. Culture isn’t just an exposure, like being exposed to an environment insult or a pathogen of some sort. The danger of medicalization in this case is that it removes a lot of the most interesting interesting phenomena. Certainly, my work in skill acquisition and sensory training, it’s very difficult to model this as exposure because it’s this really, really long term projects that unfold over time and stages to enculture the brain in a particular way. We have a lot of conversation with all three of those, but there’s limits that we run up against.

TrangI know that in one of your publications, Greg, you had critiqued this sort of return to cultural dimensions. What to you guys is culture for neuroanth? What is the best take, or an adequate take, of culture for neuroanthros?


Dr. Greg Downey, via his personal website

Downey: Daniel and I have been arguing about this for the past week, just so you realize. I just think of culture as a really lousy ptolemaic kind of category, a pre-Copernicus category in which people slap on any difference between groups and they’re often times applying it to completely different sorts of things. They’re using a Parsonian model of what’s causing it, a pure symbolic layer of existence. To me, every time I read cultural theory it’s like we’re theorizing fifteen different things at once. And it’s no wonder we have a morass. What people are getting at with culture is just the idea that there are some differences between groups, between peoples, that are induced, that are not innate in their biology. How do we think about that pattern of both similarity with group and differences between group? The whole sort of hermeneutic model that culture is interpretation is part of what limits us from seeing the neurological impacts of enculturation process. I think we’re going to have to disassemble culture into pieces to figure out how to theorize it.


LendeI have a more pragmatic approach to how to think about culture as neuroscientist and anthropologist. One of the first things is to recognize that most of the models of human variation used in psychology and cognitive science broadly, are models of individual variation, often based on the idea of a bell curve. Whereas most of the phenomena anthropologists, particularly cultural anthropologists, study are shared phenomena. In other words, most people share the same amount of variation, which is why on the individual basis approach of assessing culture doesn’t necessarily get at the shared depth that can tie a group together and make them distinctive from other groups, whatever level you’re talking about. In Greg’s case it can be the Capoeira practitioners, in my case it can be people who gather together in certain scenes, drug use scenes in Bogata, up to talking about much broader things, in my case for example, why Colombia might have had, at the time of doing research there, lower drug use rates than the United States. What sort of sociocultural reasons explain that? It’s not necessarily an exposure because the epidemiological exposures are actually quite similar between the United States and Colombia.

From that recognition of looking at the shared aspect of human life, I would just outline that those series of different types of cultural approaches that can be useful to different types of research questions. I think in many ways the interpretive approach, coming from Geertz, can be quite useful in understanding certain things that people report. For example, a lot of the interpretation of what drug use meant to my informants were accessible to using psychological anthropology approaches. But that’s a different type of culture theory than one that’s more place-based, that would have drawn ritual or what’s happening in a particular scene. That’s different from an approach that might emphasized by the idealogical dimensions that surround our understanding of neuroscience and the production of neuroscience. Those are also different from more practice-based approaches which Greg engages with more than I do. I think there’s a variety of types of culture theory and they can be useful in different ways and at different times just as there’s a  variety of neuroscientific approaches out there.


The interview with Dr. Downey and Dr. Lende continues, and concludes with a question and answer session with listeners who were virtually tuned in during the live recording of the interview. The full audio interview recording is available here.

Dr. Greg Downey is a Professor of Anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He attended the University of Chicago. His work is focused in Brazil, the Pacific, and the United States and his research interests include the census, sports, dance, and skill acquisition. His current project is human echolocation among the blind.  Dr. Downey is the author of several books, including Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (2006) from Duke University Press and Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (2005) from Oxford University Press.

Dr Daniel Lende is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. He trained at Emory University. His research interests include substance use and abuse, stress and resilience, the intersection of anthropology and nueroscience, and public and applied anthropology. He has done work in Colombia and the United States. His book, Addiction: A Search for Understanding, is currently in preparation.

Kathy Trang is the Electronic Publications Editor and Anthropology New co-Editor for SPA.




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