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Brain and culture - The mutual bootstrap


Turner,  Robert
Department Neurophysics, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Turner, R. (2014). Brain and culture - The mutual bootstrap. Talk presented at Guest Lecture. Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, Bonn, Germany. 2014-03-24 - 2014-03-24.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0018-45EE-6
To understand a human brain, one must understand the cultures in which it was formed. One ultimate task of the brain scientist is to try to explain the biography of the individual. If we cannot identify, at least in general terms, how some attribute arrived in a given brain, we are far from a scientific understanding. But it is clearly preferable if the terminology thus employed could be easily translated across languages and cultures. I discuss the ontologies of physics, anthropology, psychology and neuroscience, and comment on the ethnocentric nature of (especially) that of psychology. Using concepts drawn from Durkheim, on the one hand, and experimental results from imaging neuroscience, on the other, I attempt to provide a more general picture of how cultures shape human brains, and are shaped by them. This mutual relationship is based on the formation of memories. I discuss this from a Hebbian perspective, in relation to the reward system of the brain and the survival needs of the individual, while stressing how important it is to recognize the remarkable competences of the brain’s wetware. Among these is the ability of the brain to rewire and reshape itself in the process of adaptation to experiential demands. I will show experimental evidence of this reshaping, using MRI and fMRI data. The cultural pressures that shape our brains take the form of the need to internalize collective representations, enabling social competence. However, cultures themselves co-evolve with the genomes of their participants, again resulting in a mutual bootstrap. Genes shape our culture, which shapes our brains, which shape our culture, which shapes our genomes. The observation that our brains are continually changing in their physical structure leads to the question of the durability of personal identity. Can this be regarded as a collective social achievement?