Brain and cognition: the significance of culture?
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2010
Brain and cognition: the significance of culture?
A presumption of many scientists, and of many people reading/using their research, is that neural and behavioral sciences are aimed at describing "universal" features of the human brain and its cognitive processes, features that exist across humans of all cultures. There are though bodies of observations within the neural and behavioral sciences that call such a presumption into question, both in particular cases and, perhaps, in general. We will explore some examples of such bodies of observations, using them to think more about whether a presumption of universality is either necessary or sufficient for research in the neural and behavioral sciences and, if not, what alternative presumptions might be more appropriate.
- Culture as disability
- The americanization of mental illness
- Culture-sensitive neural substrates of human cognition: a transcultural neuroimaging approach
- The encultured brain: why neuroanthropology? why now?
Some relevant thoughts from last week:
Depression and biology: what's to understand?
I don’t mean to simplify a highly complicated neural problem like this but it seems that it can be seen easier if broken down to its core ... vpina
understanding the biological “core” would be extremely useful, but it will not explain the full story. It will not fully explain the variability that exists nor will it offer simple solution answers ... EB Ver Hoeve
Depression and "illness"
It is important to acknowledge that mental disorders such as depression and anxiety are illnesses so that people who are affected by them realize they don't have to live with the pain. There are treatments available and upon recognizing that they have an illness perhaps people will be more likely to seek those treatments to improve their quality of life ... Sasha
Depression is something that should be cured then, right? These people are not living healthy and normal lives, right? However, what if we're not right? ... mrobbins
Our society gives such deference to Western medicine and "hard sciences". As a result, these institutions have set the precedent for what is to be expected from a health care field and from health care professionals. Unfortunately, psychology, and especially neuroscience, is not as cut-and-dry ... meroberts
Illness and culture
if you're telling me that, despite my harmlessness, my vivid reality is incorrect, that my feelings of euphoria are wrong, that my habits are abnormal, and that I have to take pills that will leave me feeling numb and apathetic, then I might say screw you. I'm not saying I entirely disagree with Sasha or Vidya, but I wonder if we can explore this a bit further before drawing such close comparisons to other physical but unknown illnesses: these importantly differ in how we *as patients* desire ourselves. ... David F
why does it really matter if we call depression (or ADHD) an illness or not? ... LMcCormick
What do we mean by "illness"? Are "illnesses" "objective" characteristics of individuals, universally recognizable? What role does "subjectivity" and culture play in the definition of "illness"? In the etiology of "illness"? What are the implications of all of this for research on "mental health"?
Discussion summary (Megan)
We began our discussion with a recapitulation of last week’s topic, depression pharmacotherapy. Several interesting questions were raised regarding ethics and researcher responsibilities. Among these were: “Can we ethically model depression? In animals? In humans?”, and “Is it appropriate to devote 90% of research efforts to pharmacological treatments on a neurotransmitter level?”. This last question gave rise to the streetlamp example. Arguably, we should be looking for answers in the “light” from the streetlamp instead of groping blindly in the dark. In other words, we should continue developing an already established body of research instead of spreading our resources over a broader field. However, I believe it could also be argued (and feel free to disagree) that researchers should also be focusing efforts in the unknown/unexplored territory to further our understanding of depression and its possible treatments.
Perhaps if the universal understanding of depression (its etiology, symptoms/manifestations, and treatments) were further developed, we wouldn’t have to return to our question of whether or not depression should indeed be classified as an illness. Unfortunately, we must continually confront this issue because of the variability in the definition, diagnosis, and treatment of depression. This variability could be a result of the variability and uniqueness of the human mind. Certainly, if we acknowledge the fact that no two brains/minds are the same, then it should be realized that a mental health illness might not manifest itself the same way in different people. Yet there is still a core set of symptoms that are generally agreed upon and regarded by mental health care professionals to be indicative of depression. Will depression then become an umbrella term for variations in this set of symptoms? Or will depression eventually be narrowed down to one definitive illness? Is that even possible given the breadth of variations in the “wiring” of the human brain/mind?
If it is possible to narrow our definition of depression, why aren’t treatment protocols tailored to individual needs/symptoms? Why is there such pressure (especially in American societies) to “fix” depression, and to “fix” it quickly with pharmacological treatments? Perhaps society is to blame for the prevalence of depression. But which society? To find the answers to these questions, one must look at cross-cultural interpretations of depression, as well as other illnesses. Additionally, it is important to note the differences in societal views and individual perceptions of the same mental illness. These discrepancies can result in socially induced mental illnesses, stigma associated with these illnesses, or societal trends in diagnoses. Perhaps some disorders are culturally based. Perhaps cultural perceptions of “normalcy” create and aggrandize differences between people. Acknowledging and accepting differences (both cross-culturally and within one’s own culture) would greatly reduce the stigma associated with mental health disorders.
Continuing conversation in on-line forum below