Understanding neural functioning across cultures

By Jonathan Moreno, August 18, 2008

I’d like to change the topic for a moment. What strikes me about the reaction to the National Research Council report (“Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies”) in the past few days is the attention that is being paid to the intersection of neuroscience, conflict, and culture. Both traditional philosophers and pioneers in neuroscience have long suspected that there may be differences in the way people from different cultures both process information and the way they understand what it is to process information. The former point is a bit more straightforward but could be attributed to behavioral psychology (a tradition that runs from St. Augustine to B. F. Skinner), or evolutionary biology (including E. O. Wilson’s sociobiology). There is no reason to rule out the possibility that powerful new techniques for reading many individual genomes could develop the field of “comparative cultural genomics” so that a physical substrate of these differences could be identified. Whatever degree of accuracy this data could provide would be of enormous interest to both national security officials and diplomats.

The second point calls to mind an M. C. Escher work. Perhaps the way different cultural groups typically understand what they are doing when they are, fill in the blank–experiencing, learning, reflecting, deliberating, praying, or otherwise engaged in some form of reverie–itself has an influence on the way information is processed and stored. What I have called comparative cultural genomics could tell us whether that is the case or not. But if it did, the task would seem to be incomparably more complicated if there were serious doubts about whether our science-based system for understanding neural activity is commensurable with other modes of understanding.

In other words, we might end up right back where we started. The most efficient option might be to “go native” rather than attempt some translation via neuroscience. And the only way to confirm our success would be to get along with the natives when we expect to, and not when we don’t expect to. This point was brilliantly made by W. V. O. Quine in his classic, “Word and Object.” In the end, our ability to know how others know is a theory, however sophisticated its expression, and what stands behind the theory remains a question of philosophical wonder.

Topics: Biosecurity