Cultural Anthropology has historically been a discipline suspended between humanistic and scientific modes of interpretation and explanation. Since the late 1970s, much of general cultural anthropology has retreated from scientific models and has embraced a radical form of what Robert Lowie once called “ethnographic particularism.” This term—which Lowie coined to label one manifestation of the Boasian tradition—refers to a principled reluctance to generalize beyond the level of the cultural group. This stance—which is similar to that of a Romantic such as Herder– reflects an antipathy toward scientific reasoning, a suspicion that the Western scientific tradition may distort the cultural realities of others.
I am sympathetic to the politics of those who want to be careful about protecting the cultural rights of indigenous communities. However, for reasons I have discussed in detail elsewhere, I am not sympathetic to the particularistic position as an intellectual stance. Thus I am encouraged by signs of renewed interest—perhaps particularly among younger cultural anthropologists—in the intersection between cultural interpretation and emerging scientific understandings in areas such as human evolution and neuroscience.
Caught in Play provides many opportunities to explore such intersections. Some experts have suggested that our capacity to have a rich imaginative life is closely tied to the development of our brains through evolution, specifically to the growth of our enormously powerful and subtle capacities for social interaction. That is, our deep engagement with entertainment is founded upon some very basic and important human mental abilities.
One could pursue this relationship in many ways. To name some I have not investigated, one could focus on the role of specialized neurons for facial recognition or upon the role of neurotransmitters such as dopamine as people engage in entertainment. So far, I have explored only a few of the possible avenues. In my comments here, I will focus on four areas where the theories and findings of biologists, psychologists, and cognitive neuroscientists offer rich opportunities to deepen our understanding of how people interact with entertainment:
1. Theory of mind
2. Simulation Theory
3. Mirror Neurons and Imitation
4. Emotional and Dissociation
Theory of Mind
Some scientists argue that certain non-human primates and monkeys can reason in an elementary way about what their conspecifics know. But consider the following possibility: I see you folding your hands and bowing your head and infer that you are praying, so I know that you are acting as if you have faith in a higher power but other things about your behavior suggest to me that you are feigning such faith in anticipation of the elected office you plan to run for next year.
The behavior I observed was folding your hands and bowing your head, the inference goes far beyond this. There is no doubt that only humans can attribute and grasp mental states at this level of complexity. And this extraordinarily subtle grasp of our own and others’ possible intentional states is, many now argue, a fundamental ability that can account for a wide variety of seemingly human behaviors such as language and reflective agency. Thus if we can understand the neural basis of a theory of mind, we have a good start on understanding what is unique about the human nervous system.
More to the point in the present context, one can see that the whole topic of theory of mind has some close relationships to the question of how people engage and are moved by narrative. In the first place, having a fully developed theory of mind entails considerable imaginative capacities. Second, if we are constructed to be able to grasp the intentions of others from small clues, small wonder that we can do this whether those others are real or fictional.
I recommend the following as places to start in learning about the theory of mind:
• Michael S. Gazzaniga, Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique (Ecco/Harper-Collins, 2008)
• Alvin Goldman, Simulating Minds (2006, Oxford University Press).
• Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
How do human beings accomplish the sorts of understandings entailed in having a theory of mind (or, to use an alternative term, how do humans mind-read?) There are several rival explanations for this that are debated by experts; the most prominent explanations seem to be rationality theory, theory-theory and simulation theory.
Although I have published arguments that proceed from rationality theory, of late I have converted to an adherence to simulation theory. I wish I could tell you that this conversion grows out of a thorough and careful examination of the merits of the rival explanations, but the truth is that this is more like one of those conversions that happen when the king converts. Simulation theory just fits better with my current research interests, and it is also easily reconciled with recent developments in neuroscience (see below). I say this to caution readers that they cannot look to me for a balanced evaluation of the rival theories of mind-reading.
Simulation theory is based on the simple proposition that we understand other minds by simulating them, by asking “what would I be up to if I were doing all the things that person is doing?” Actually, in most of the simulation theorists I have read, there is an assumption for at least basic sorts of mind-reading, we don’t even have to ask ourselves this question, it happens automatically. The is now widely assumed to happen at least in part because of a mirror neuron system in the human brain—see the following section.
I have found two authors to be most helpful in presenting simulation theory and the arguments that support it. (Although I should caution that “simulation theory” covers a lot of territory and therefore one can’t assume that all the people I label in this way have exactly parallel views.) The first of these is Michael Tomasello, in his book The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Harvard University Press, 1999). Tomasello doesn’t talk that much about simulation theory as such, but I understand his stress on the fundamental importance of “joint attention” to be a view that is highly compatible with simulation theory.
A more explicit discussion of simulation theory can be found in Alvin Goldman’s Simulating Minds (Oxford University Press, 2006). Goldman is a philosopher by training, but he has been a leader in understanding the relevance of neuroscientific findings for the question how human beings read other minds. He is one of the original proponents of simulation theory, and his book carefully reviews the alternative arguments before presenting a detailed version of simulation theory.
Mirror Neurons and Imitation
Mirror neurons are specialized neurons that are engaged both when certain actions (and perhaps emotions) are carried out and when those actions (or emotions) are perceived. They were discovered (more or less accidently, as I understand it) by a research team led Giacomo Rizzolatti, which was working with macaques in a laboratory in Parma, Italy. Since this discovery was made in the 1990s, solid evidence of several different types has accumulated that a mirror neuron system, much more extensive than that in monkeys, exists in humans (in Caught in Play I am more conservative about mirror neurons in humans, but in the 18 months since I wrote that part of the book, I’ve seen more evidence).
In the past decade, an enormous amount of work has appeared on mirror neurons and their implications for understanding human activity. The properties of these cells are important not only for the neuroscientists who do the direct research in this area, but also for the increasing numbers of philosophers, psychologists and anthropologists who are working to apply neuroscience to problems in their fields.
Here’s one example of why mirror neurons are so intriguing. Very soon after birth, human infants will imitate certain facial expressions they observe among their caretakers. Trying to understand how this can happen creates a profound version of what is called a “correspondence problem.” Specifically, how does a newborn human infant recognize an adult as an entity with features like it (the infant itself) has, and how in the world does it know how to translate something it sees into a complex motor program for producing the same expression? Mirror neurons make something like this a lot easier to understand.
More broadly, mirror neurons suggest certain sorts of understanding of imitation, and imitation bears directly on a wide range of distinctively human social behaviors such as language, intentional action and—to take the matter I’m most interested in—how we engage with fictions. At the same time, I would be remiss if I did not insert a word of caution: the fact that mirror neurons may be implicated in a range of distinctly human abilities does not mean that they explain those abilities in themselves. Rather, as is typically the case in thinking about human biology, the goal should be to understand how aspects of our biology interact with social, environmental, and developmental factors to shape human activity.
Here are some sources I have found valuable, stressing again that these are only some possible entries into a vast and expanding literature:
• Susan Hurley and Nick Chater, eds., Perspectives on Imitation: From Neuroscience to Social Science (2 volumes) (MIT Press, 2005)
• Michael S. Gazzaniga, Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique (Ecco/Harper-Collins, 2008)
• Marcel Brass and Cecelia Heyes, “Imitation: Is Cognitive Neuroscience Solving the Correspondence Problem?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9 (2005): 489-495.
• Rizolatti, G. and M. Arbib, “Language within our grasp.” Trends in Neuroscience 21 (1999):188-194.
• Rizzolatti, G. and L. Craighero “The Mirror Neuron System.” Annual Review of Neuroscience 27 (2004): 169-192.
Emotion and Dissociation
The argument of the book is based on the notion that people often engage entertainment (and play activities more generally) by entering mental states that are somewhat different from everyday consciousness. When people do this, they recognize—at least implicitly—that something is happening that is somewhat different from their everyday experience. People may have strong emotional reactions to the entertainment activity, or experiences of absorption in which their attention is narrowly focused on the play, or a mild sense of amnesia (for example forgetting about their location or losing track of time), or a loss of the feeling of authorship of their own action.
These mental states are important for understanding the effects of entertainment, because they are not only the basis for much of the enjoyment we get from entertainment, they also are the basis for our largely unarticulated conviction that whatever is depicted in entertainment is somehow “special.” Entertainment often makes us feel things we usually don’t feel in everyday life, and without thinking about it too much we tend to attribute these feelings to the elements of the entertainment experience. The actors in a movie must have great transformative power, or perhaps it’s the romantic passion that drives their actions in the story, etc. Caught in Play suggests that these mental states are more powerful than we acknowledge in shaping our values and activities.
Contemporary neuroscience offers the resources that we need to begin to understand these states, why they exist and how they are generated in the nervous system. Some sources that I have found to be useful:
• Hatfield, Elaine, John T. Cacioppo and Richard L. Rapson, Emotional Contagion. (Cambridge University Press, 1994).
• Chapter 5 in Michael S. Gazzaniga, Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique (Ecco/Harper-Collins, 2008)
• Chapter 6 in Alvin Goldman, Simulating Minds (2006, Oxford University Press).
• Graham A. Jamieson, Hypnosis and Conscious States: A cognitive neuroscience perspective. (Oxford University Press, 2007)
• Rebecca Seligman and Laurence J. Kirmayer, “Dissociative Experience and Cutlural Neuroscience: Narrative, Metaphor and Mechanism.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 32 (2008) 31-64.
- What are the advantages, for cultural anthropologists, of exploring the neural basis of human activity? In what ways is an anthropological explanation that fits together with what is known in neuroscience more compelling than one that does not?
- What is imitation and how does it differ from other processes such as mimicry or entrainment? Explain how the special properties of imitation might be implicated in human cultural and language processes.
- Why are mirror neurons so important for understanding imitation?
- What is the relationship between having a theory of mind and intentional (goal-oriented) behavior? Can you name examples of emotional contagion that you have observed in your own interactions?
- Typically we understand emotions to have their source within individual persons—what is the explanation for how emotions can be contagious? What role might emotional contagion played in the social groups of human ancestors?
- “Dissociative” mental states are extremely widespread in human social groups. What is the neural basis of these states? What social purposes do they serve?