Localizing “Culture” in the Brain

Today was the second day of classes. Everybody still can hardly wrap their head around the fact that the new semester started before Labor Day … To me, however, it already feels like I have been at the Department for weeks: So much talking, advising, reading, having dinner and coffee together, so many skilled faculty members (with a sense of humor!!), and, of course, amazingly helpful and friendly fellow graduate students. Since I will almost certainly want to write a lot about the readings for my courses later (three to five standard history of science/technology works plus primary sources and articles each week), I want to seize today’s opportunity and share some earlier thoughts stimulated during a discussion in January: One of my professors mentioned a conference on evolutionary psychology he had attended years ago where a research group presented a paper1 explaining that they had managed to locate culture in the brain by using fMRI. Wow! How could anyone ever define “culture” precisely enough in order to allow setting up an experiment on the brain’s reactions when it is opposed to culture, let alone localize (material foundations of) culture in the brain?!

I searched basically every piece of knowledge that I had acquired during the last seven years of study in order to find something that could help me clarify the (im)possibility of the evolutionary psychologists’ claim. Mathematics were not of much help here, and my background in the history of science seemed much too small to be productive. Luckily, however, I remembered a course on the philosophy of language: Think about a dog. (Yes, please do!) What do you have in mind? A picture of a dog? The barking sound?—I would bet that you think of a sentence of a dog, or, rather, “dog” as the linguistic representation and the idea of the animal.

This incidence can give us a clue what the evolutionary psychologists might have found when they tried to detect culture in the brain: If somebody told me to think about culture while I was lying in a scanner, I would rather have an impression or idea of the term “culture” in mind than culture itself, i.e., the actual music, art, or the like. If they had exposed test subjects to culture, instead of “culture,” they definitevely would have had to deal with many individual reactions to the chosen stimuli, not with a common neuronal culture network. Besides, I am sure they could not have narrowed these multi-faceted reactions to one simple brain area corresponding to their claim of being able to localize culture in the brain—not various reactions to cultural assets.

I am convinced that the research group found something, i.e., that their data allowed them to infer what they did by following the usual methodology. I personally like the idea that what they found in the brain might have been simply a linguistic representation of the term “culture” (analogous to dog/”dog”), not a material correspondent of the complex entity. And, to be honest, finding demarcated material foundations for the representation of a two-syllable word would already be a tremendous scientific success—and one which is an inherently impossible claim for fMRI research.

1 Unfortunately, I know neither the authors’ names nor the title of the article, and have to rely fully on my professor’s explanation in the following.

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