Laurence J. Kirmayer gave a talk on cultural neuroscience and psychiatry last year that I have found very informative. In his talk, Kirmayer emphasizes that the brain needs to be understood as part of a larger social, cultural and political system. The talk was given on the 3rd of December 2010 at the “Talking Brains” conference at the “Einstein Forum” in Potsdam. In order to listen to the talk, link here, click on the play-button on the right side of the page and skip the intro (if you wish, since it is in German).
During his talk, Kirmayer starts by describing the ways in which the brain is culturally constructed. He concludes that culture shapes the brain on different levels (structure, architecture & function but also on a metalevel: it influences paradigms – with a reference to critical neuroscience) and time-scales (evolution, individual development). Kirmayer goes on to talk about the history of a cultural construction of the brain, but cautions the listener that most of this history is rooted in a rather racist and primitive thinking and that a certain legacy of it persists to this day, as mirrored by a tendency to look at issues in a decontextualized way. He continues with an introduction of the notion of contemporary psychiatry as applied neuroscience and explaines why genetics and neuroimaging are both appealing and limited. In the section on cultural diversity within psychiatry, Kirmayer talks for instance about ethnoracial categories and explains why such categorization is not appropriate. He finally gives a short introduction to cultural neuroscience with examples of studies for example by the SACN and CSCN labs. In this section there were two particular expressed ideas that I am very fond of. The first one refers to the fact that individualism and collectivism are constructs that are not appropriate to describe the variablity within cultures and that there are various ways of configuring an individual sense of personhood. The second idea is related to the fact that dividing the world in polar halves (e.g. East vs West) can’t be accurate and it often isn’t symmetrical either (e.g. the “East” is constructed as an imaginary mirror of the “West”). Kirmayer concludes his talk by stating that in psychiatry, differences need to be embedded in a socio-political context, that these differences need to be confronted, not ignored, but it is essential to set up an ethical framework for doing so.
Laurence J. Kirmayer, MD, FRCPC, is James McGill Professor and Director, Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, McGill University. He is Editor-in-Chief of Transcultural Psychiatry, a quarterly scientific journal published by Sage (UK) and directs the Culture and Mental Health Research Unit at the Department of Psychiatry, Sir Mortimer B. Davis Jewish General Hospital in Montreal where he conducts research on mental health services for immigrants and refugees, psychiatry in primary care, the mental health of Canadian Aboriginal peoples, and the anthropology of psychiatry.