Neuroanthropology and Education

Neuroanthropology and Education

Jesse Martin 20/09/2018 5

This piece presents a very different view of education. Contributed to my current class by Aaron Chubb (one of my students) this week as a part of my class. I thought that it was really interesting.

Aaron Chubb

I have studied cultural anthropology (B.A. 2005) and adult education (M.Ed. 2012). It’s now onto psychology and neuroscience. Up until this week I have been learning about these disciplines in their own right. I have decided to use this blog entry as an opportunity to combine forces and explore some literature in the relatively new field of neuroanthropology, with aid from its predecessors: cultural neuroscience and cross-cultural psychology. These summations will hopefully begin a conversation on possible implications for learning and education; and any ethical concerns.

The theory that genes interplay with the environment in their expression is well established in neuroscience. It’s not a nature or nurture debate, the two are inextricably linked. Anthropological approaches to neuroscience build upon this understanding in looking at the interplay of culture and biology while bringing a critical view to some of neurosciences universal claims (Sasaki and Kim, 2017). The notion that cognition is shaped by culture is not new to psychology (Nisbett and Miyamoto, 2005). The use of neuroscience methodologies with previous findings in cross-cultural psychology have shown difference in brain activation patterns where there are similar cognitive tasks butdivergent cultures (Han & Northoff, 2008).

Sasaki et al (2013, in Sasaki & Kim, 2017) have reviewed several studies demonstrating culturally specific gene expression and behaviour. In other words, in a different cultural context gene expression lends itself to divergent, even contradictory behaviours. This is known as the differential susceptibility hypothesis (Sasaki and Kim, 2017). These studies have shown differences in gene expression regarding autism that is contingent on cultural context (Nikolaidis & Gra, 2010 in Sasaki and Kim, 2017). These finding extend to hormone levels where successful adjustment of immigrants to Canada can depend on levels of endogenous plasma oxytocin (Gouin, Pournajafi-Nazarloo, & Carter, 2015 in Sasaki and Kim, 2017).

Neuroimaging technologies have been used to compare the brain activity of students from different cultures while performing cognitive tasks. They have found significant differences in brain functionality across different groups. Tang, et al, compared English and Chinese speaking students solving the same math problems. They found that the Broca and Wernicke areas, known for language processing, lit up with the English speakers. However, the Chinese speakers showed the premotor and visual cortex lighting up, suggesting more visuospatial processing. Interestingly, the two groups showed similar speed and accuracy in solving the math problems (2006, in Sasaki and Kim, 2017). Studies in cultural psychology have seen similar results, where working on an abstract problem out loud worked better for European Americans than it did for the Asian Americans, who did more poorly when speaking the problem out loud than working it through in their head(ibid).

These studies are interesting, but there are some ethical and methodological caveats. With a history of cultural relativity, and attempts to avoid ethnocentrism, anthropology allows for a more critical look at some of the universal claims made by neuroscience and psychology. One critique of the gene and environment framework is its functionalist approach, with the focus on divergent outcomes as deficits, as in psychopathology. The gene-culture model attempts to view divergent behaviours as adaptations to their own cultural contexts, valid in and of themselves (Sasaki and Kim, 2017).

Dichotomous views of the West and the Other are problematic and easy to fall into. Students of anthropology are familiar with the critiques of Edward Said (1978) on Western conceptions of the ‘Orient’. It is easy to fall into a problematic duality of categorizing everyone as ‘collectivist’ or ‘individualist’, or even ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’. Methodologically, the way to avoid some of these pitfalls have been to do what anthropologists do. You have to go into the field and consider context or you end up making sweeping armchair generalizations from a neuroscience laboratory. This extends to well-meaning educational administrators and teachers uncritically using said neuroscience (Sigman et al, 2014).

Another critical approach anthropology would offer neuroscience is the literature on cultural differences in what we call adolescence. The notion became popularized with Coming of Age in Samoa. Margaret Mead challenged the idea that a tumultuous adolescence was universal (1928). Mead found that adolescence was not a time of strife for young Samoans and theorized the difference was their societies more relaxed view towards sexuality and a lack of pressure on the obligations of the transition from child to adult. She was comparing the Samoans to her cultures anglo-protestant work ethic and views on sex. Yet, neuroscience and psychology continue to use a largely WEIRD sample (White, Educated, Industrial, Rich Democrat) of student volunteers (extra credit) as it’s the more readily available group from which to extrapolate data. And you still see the universal claims (Henrich et al, 2010).

The impact of anthropology on education includes its part in making space for a recognition of multiple epistemologies (ways of knowing the world), and embodied learning. A recent influx of studies on embodied learning in education (Fugate, Macrine& Cipriano, 2018), a concept borrowed from anthropology, shows new potential for learning strategies that break away from the mind-body dualist split (Seligman and Brown, 2009). Valuing indigenous knowledge systems at the post-secondary level should include honoring the recommendations on education and knowledge in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report (2015). Indigenous epistemologies often diverge from Western forms of knowing with an emphasis placed on connecting the individual to nature, revering elders and the responsibility to share knowledge in the community (Dei, Hall and Rosenberg, 2000 in Merriam and Kim, 2008). At the University of Lethbridge there are Blackfoot elders available for students several times a week. Education can go beyond a respect for multiple epistemologies and recognize that learning can go both ways—that Western students and educators can learn from their indigenous counterparts too (Merriam and Kim, 2008). And the elders on campus are available for all students. However, an uncritical approach can easily fall back into the Orientalist view of the West and the rest.

Viewing education from a neuroanthropological perspective provides a framework for understanding that our findings in psychology and neuroscience, when applied to education, may not be sufficient to capture all students experience. It may only be representative of the 12% of the world who are WEIRD (Henrich et al, 2010). As scholars at the UofL, we can develop an appreciation for learning that is flexible to local and cultural contexts. This includes considering students from all cultures, while attempting to avoid an Orientalist approach.


Fugate, J. M., Macrine, S. L., & Cipriano, C. (2018). The role of embodied cognition for transforming learning. International Journal of School & Educational Psychology, 1-15.

Han, S., & Northoff, G. (2008). Culture-sensitive neural substrates of human cognition: A transcultural neuroimaging approach. Nature Reviews Neuroscience9(8), 646.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world?. Behavioral and brain sciences33(2-3), 61-83.

Mead, M. (2001). Coming of age in Samoa. 1928. NY: Harper.

Meriam, S., Kim, Y.: Non-Western perspectives on learning and knowing. New Dir. Adult Continuing Educ. 119, 71–79 (2008)

Nisbett, R. E., & Miyamoto, Y. (2005). The influence of culture: holistic versus analytic perception. Trends in cognitive sciences9(10), 467-473.

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism: Western representations of the Orient. New York: Pantheon.

Sasaki, J. Y., & Kim, H. S. (2017). Nature, nurture, and their interplay: A review of cultural neuroscience. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology48(1), 4-22.

Seligman, R., & Brown, R. A. (2009). Theory and method at the intersection of anthropology and cultural neuroscience. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience5(2-3), 130-137

Truth and Reconciliation Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

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  • Annie Philip

    Not only can the mind influence the body as seen in the examples above, but the body may well influence the mind.

  • Ellie Manby

    Amazing piece of content

  • Ryan Clegg

    Embodiment is also a reaction to standard cognitive science’s interpretation of the brain, with a mind that functions computationally in the brain as does a computer program in the hardware of a computer.

  • Jacques Hanson

    If our perception is accurate, the need for internal concepts and mental representations then goes away and is replaced by perception-action systems associated with sensorimotor action within the environment.

  • David Gruszczak

    Perhaps an engagement of sensory anthropology can enhance the work on perceptual-motor systems as embodied cognition in neuroanthropology.

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Jesse Martin

Higher Education Expert

Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.


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