Neuroscience and Anthropology (June 30, 2014)

Understanding Mental Health:
Why Neuroscience and Anthropology Should Work Together

by Daina Crafa

June 30, 2014

The culture and the brain are intimately intertwined – each shaping the other. Starting early in childhood, our culture shapes the neural networks in our brains responsible for cognitive and social processing, as numerous studies demonstrate. On the other hand, the brain we are born with filters cultural information and helps provide unique interpretations and applications of the culture that surrounds us. For example, we might be born to a culture that encourages communality. However, if we are more solitary by nature, then we will also be more solitary relative to our culture. On the other hand, we might seem very social compared to someone who has been born into a culture that specifically promotes solitude. The neural processes are of course much more complex than the term ‘solitude’ connotes, but the principle illustrated here remains: both culture and the brain contribute to who we are.

The relationship between culture and the brain may be key to understanding mental health. As much research demonstrates, many syndromes and idioms of distress vary across cultures. Just as culture-bound syndromes only emerge in specific cultures or under certain cultural conditions, the appearance of symptoms varies even in disorders, such as anxiety or schizophrenia, that exist across most cultures. The existence of this phenomena suggests that cultural influences play a significant role in shaping the face of many disorders.

Likewise, findings from neuroscience demonstrate that certain neural processes may be correlated with specific symptoms. For example, disruptions in specific areas of the prefrontal cortex, which is a large region in the anterior part of the brain, have been implicated in the difficulties interpreting other people commonly observed in autism or schizophrenia. Other areas of the brain, such as amygdala, appear to be involved in fear processing of disorders, include general and social anxiety. In cross-cultural comparisons, these areas of the brain have also shown different responses to social stimuli. In other words, they appear to have different activity patterns across cultures. These experiments have not yet been tested in clinical populations; however, given the symptomatic variations of disorders across cultures, it is likely that neural activity varies too.

One of the biggest flaws of these experiments is their over-simplified view of culture. A majority compare neural processes associated with individualistic versus collectivistic values in “Eastern” versus “Western” populations, while others look at race-based in-group/out-group effects. In both cases, the definition of culture is based on geography or ethnicity rather than any specific cultural quality.

Combining neuroscience and anthropology has the potential to result in a richer and more nuanced understanding of mental health disorders and their variations across cultures. Through my monthly contributions to the AMHIG Blog, I aim to provide synopses of studies and issues in neuroscience that relate to culture and mental health.

If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, look out for my upcoming paper:
Crafa, D., and Nagel, S. K. (in press). Traces of culture: the feedback loop between brain, behavior, and disorder. Transcult. Psychiatry.

©Daina Crafa, 2014. All rights reserved.

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