Ojai 2001 Summary

June 29-July 1, 2001


The FPR sponsored its first 3-day workshop in June 2001. The idea was to start discussing concrete ways to integrate biological, psychosocial, and cultural understandings of human experiences. The founding disciplines included history, anthropology, psychiatry, psychology, neurobiology, epidemiology, and public health. Breakout group discussions covered the following topics (such of which are summarized in this memo):

  • Culture and Development
  • Methodological Issues in Cultural/Neuroscientific Inquires
  • The Neurobiology of and Cultural Influences on Trauma
  • Cultural Perspectives on Psychiatric Theory
  • Cognition, Emotion, Culture, and the Brain
  • Philosophical Issues Involved in Integrating Cultural and Neuroscience.

By the end of the workshop, participants decided to focus on psychological trauma, since it involves a wide range of phenomena that has to the diverse disciplines, such as PTSD, fear conditioning, and the history and politics of social violence. (See Appendix for list of participants.)

1. Philosophical Issues: 2001 Summary (Moderator: Carole Browner)
Participants (8): Barad, Braslow, Edgerton, Fiske, Greenfield, Rubel, Stewart, Tobin.

The group began by talking about reductionism and the pitfalls of circumscribing higher-level research by reducing the area of inquiry to bio-chemical processes. They discussed certain “universals” underlying human behavior that are apparent early on and that “tend to change as people get older” as they acquire different belief systems and cultural knowledge (e.g. the tendency to minimize risk). The group agreed that different levels of scientific inquiry could complement one another in analyzing a particular problem.

Competition vs. cooperation
The group saw competition and cooperation each as “a universal biological phenomenon that is selected for within a society.” The “tension” between these two potential forms of interaction is interesting to both neuroscientists and anthropologists. A key question is whether one or the other is more heavily emphasized in the socialization process and/or is more adaptive. Neuroscience deals with the component processes, but the organization of these processes is an issue for both psychology and anthropology.

The participants agreed that the contribution of neuroscience is not only to identify universals (via reductionism) but also “differences.” Modules for human interactions should consider not only that which is determined by evolutionary processes and genetics but also that which is determined by social stimulation of the brain (e.g. learning). This may represent an area for future collaboration between neuroscience and anthropology. Would using imaging studies to locate social behaviors in specific areas of the brain contribute anything to the questions that nonneuroscientists—psychologists and anthropologists—are trying to understand, or are such localization efforts irrelevant to more socially driven questions?

2. Methodological Issues: 2001 Summary (Moderator: Beate Ritz)
Participants (8): Braslow, Edgerton, Garro, Good, Johnson, Kirmayer, Rubel, Stewart.

Common language
Participants agreed that a common language or languages with which to communicate across disciplines and even within disciplines were lacking. In addition, because the participants had no answers to questions generated from neglected issues, they realized that a better understanding of what culture is must be developed, and that the universality of narrative frameworks and story might be a viable means of generating a common set of tools in order to further understanding of cultural concepts..

Interconnection between culture and biology
At times these two concepts were spoken of as two entirely separate domains, while at other time attempts were made to conceptualize the nature of their interaction, in a manner which is closer to real world experience. The group struggled not only with how to conceptualize culture and the interactions between culture and biology, but how to conceptualize the social environment while taking into account its inherently diverse nature , including the effects of power hierarchies ,inequality, as well as the range of political-economic phenomena. The participants discussed tools or units that can or need to be developed in order to faithfully measure the phenomenon of interest. There was agreement on the fact that, if we could come up with units of measurement that would allow us to view the phenomena under examination, we would be a long way toward accomplishing some of our goals. Itwas also agreed that these measurement tools should be inexpensive, non-intrusive and acceptable within an interdisciplinary framework. Ultimately, the group struggled with finding the right language with which to carry on these discussions.

Need for integrated models
Consensus was reached among the participants that a need existed for integrated models, specifically, , models that draw upon various disciplines and generate hypotheses; that the work being undertaken is empirical; and that the question being posed is how to achieve agreement on the object of analysis, or with objects of analysis and measurement between researchers working in different domains and with different models.

The group recognized that not everyone agrees on which units of analysis are critical and should be studied. The differences between neuroscientists and cultural anthropologists is extreme. The latter examine socio-political situations, while the former examine micro-level processes, which can only be viewed with special equipment. The million-dollar question then becomes, how to get those elements on some continuum where people can feel that they’re talking with each other, not only to each other? Also, how does one make these conversations fun and pleasurable while assuring that they contribute to the research of both parties in a meaningful way? The issue of meaning was discussed at length. Where does meaning reside? But the central issue was that economic and disciplinary approaches exclude different units or ideas of what reduction is, and the participants advocated awareness of different levels and units.

3. Cultural perspectives on psychiatric theory and practice (Moderator: Marjorie Kagawa-Singer)
Participants (9): Good, Karno, Kirmayer, Keh-Ming Lin, Lopez, Maldonado, Ritz, Weisner, Wilce.

Genetics and ethnicity
The discussion took place primarily at the macro level. The group talked about genetics and ethnicity. Keh-Ming Lin briefly summarized the current research on how morphisms and drug metabolism–and also ethnicity–are related to the frequency of certain polymorphisms. Despite the acknowledgement that poymorphisms may reflect environmental adaptations, there was much concern about the study of genetics and ethnicity. One concern is the question of categorization. Typically the categories are ethnic groups, as defined in the United States. What does it mean to categorize people in terms of being African-American or Asian-American or Caucasian and so on? Laurence Kirmayer observed that such categorization promotes “a racial science.” Keh-Ming Lin, who summarized this research, also cautioned the group to consider its preliminary nature. There are only two or three studies that find such associations, and they’re very much in need of replication.

Medical schools, departments of psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry
The group felt that such issues, including a deeper one concerning the socioculture of biological psychiatry, need to be examined. Laurence Kirmayer suggested that perhaps the FPR should analyze how the direction of research is tied to the political and economic interests of these entities. After all, the “gift” of such a foundation is that it can examine “fragile issues” that would not interest, say, the pharmaceutical industry.

Clinical practice and training
Another discussion centered around the issue of clinical practice and training. Some participants believe that in terms of training and practice, mental health workers are integrating socio-cultural approaches in a sensitive, appropriate, and effective way, and they cited specific examples. However, Laurence Kirmayer said that his cultural consultation service in Montreal reviews cases every day in which cultural problems need sorting out, and that “people … are misdiagnosed … not because of the lack of a biological marker… but because of the incredible insensitivity and obliviousness to their social circumstances and the lack of training of clinicians.”

Global recommendations
Participants felt that The FPR should address the growing imbalance in which human predicaments and mental disorders are being understood mostly from a biological perspective. This is not to say that neuroscience and biology are not important, but biology has primacy over the social sciences when perhaps they should more appropriately be viewed as fundamentally complementary processes.

4. Culture, Trauma and Neurobiology: 2001 Summary (Moderator: Marvin Karno)
Participants (11): Barad, Browner, D’Andrade, Fiske, Guarnaccia, Hollan, Kagawa-Singer, Kinzie, Maldonado, Mullin, Wilce.

Definition of trauma
The group addressed the issue of what constitutes “trauma,” as well as basic, related questions such as whether it’s a unitary or heterogeneous phenomenon, and whether it means the same thing across species. The group agreed that answering these questions, with careful consideration of biological implications, would contribute to our understanding of what trauma is, as well as its outcome.

Trauma’s effects
The group raised the question of whether or not past experience, including subjection to pervasive and persistent trauma, might be immunizing, at least to some extent. The majority felt that such experiences are most probably “disorganizing” in the long term. This led to the issue of whether or not ritual subjections to pain constitute trauma, or if pain, when expected in such contexts, is nontraumatic. For example, do initiation rites, which are undeniably painful to the children who experience them, constitute trauma. Do such experiences have the same long-term effects, do they lead to PTSD?

The group then asked whether studies of trauma across culture have taken into account other sociocultural factors that might ameliorate the traumatic experience, such as the presence or absence of family members. This represented a possible area for future research, since there are relatively few diverses ethnocultural studies of trauma’s effects or, more specifically, studies examining whether cultural beliefs or practices predict better outcomes by providing the experience with a specific meaning. Many of the explanations sought or provided by traditional practitioners are of a moral sort rather than a causal, mechanistic, material sort, and this led to the question of where the drive (toward moral or explanatory frameworks) comes from?
Finally, since the traumatic experience occurs in a specific sociopolitical context, the group wondered how the nature of the experience, for instance undergoing female circumcision or female genital mutilation, changes, at least insofar as the political context regarding the experience changes, e.g., if women seek political asylum.

In balancing neurobiological approaches to trauma with cultural approaches, there was a willingness among anthropologists to consider biological markers to clarify some of their questions about trauma with the understanding that anthropologists have long provided the tools to psychologists and neuroscientists to conduct meaningful cross-cultural research.

5. Cognition, emotion, culture, and the brain (Moderator: Douglas Hollan)
Participants (11): D’Andrade, Garro, Guarnaccia, Johnson, Kinzie, Mullin, Newman, Schore, Schumann, Siegel, Whybrow.

The group discussed the intersection between physiology and culture in shaping the expression of emotion.

Adaptive socialization
Specifically, the group discussed an individual’s integration into a community, with the individual first being exposed to interpersonal communication, then to a group. This integration was then linked to cross-cultural studies, to the diverse ways in which different cultures view and implement the integration process. Also discussed was how the integration of emotion, cognition, and behavior occurs along that continuum.

Possible areas for culture/brain research
Culture shapes both the timing and the content of the developmental process. This raised some important issues concerning critical moments and the relationship between external events and the physical experience of pain. The group attempted to design cross-cultural studies of different attachments, styles, and brain functions. One such study involved placing individuals from different cultures under a controlled stress in a laboratory setting. Setting aside the issue of what kind of stress situation would be both ethical and meaningful, the idea would be to place people in similar stress situations and then measure levels of stress anxiety, such as corticotrophin-releasing factor, heart rate levels, left/right ear canal temperatures (which would measure left/right hemisphere activity/differentiation), and eye gage, Another factor would be a measurement of social masking of emotion and other behavioral markers.

6. Culture and development: 2001 Summary (Moderator: Steve Lopez)
Participants (9): Greenfield, Lin, Newman, Schore, Schumann, Siegel, Tobin, Weisner, Whybrow.

The group proposed that if cultural transmission is the acquisition of shared knowledge that is emotionally communicated, one focus for cross-level research would be capturing the connections between this emotionally learned, shared and organized knowledge as these processes occur. This discussion eventually led to the question, what is the relationship between brain development, input integration, and the experience and expression of emotions in children?

Total Number of Participants (32):

Mark Barad (UCLA)
Joel Braslow (UCLA)
Carole Browner (UCLA)
Roy D’Andrade (UCSD)
Robert Edgerton (UCLA)
Alan Fiske (UCLA)
Linda Garro (UCLA)
Mary-Jo Good (Harvard)
Patricia Greenfield (UCLA)
Peter J. Guarnaccia (Harvard)
Douglas Hollan (UCLA)
Allen W. Johnson (UCLA)
Marjorie Kagawa-Singer (UCLA)
Marvin Karno (UCLA)
David Kinzie (Oregon HSU)
Laurence Kirmayer (McGill)
Keh-Ming Lin (UCLA)
Steve Lopez (UCLA)
Robert Lemelson (FPR/UCLA)
Mario Maldonado
Caitlin Mullin
Deena Newman (UCL)
Beate Ritz (UCLA)
Arthur Rubel
John Schumann (UCLA)
Allan Schore (UCLA)
Daniel Siegel (UCLA)
Charles Stewart (UCL)
Allan Tobin (UCLA)
Tom Weisner (UCLA)
Peter C. Whybrow (UCLA)
Jim Wilce (Arizona)