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Wesleyan University

Review: NEUROSCIENCE AND THE FALLACIES OF FUNCTIONALISM


Author(s): William M. Reddy
Review by: William M. Reddy
Source: History and Theory, Vol. 49, No. 3 (October 2010), pp. 412-425
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40864500
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Historyand Theory49 (October20 10) , 4 12-425 WesleyanUniversity
20 10 ISSN: 00 18-2656

REVIEW ESSAYS

NEUROSCIENCE AND THE FALLACIES OF FUNCTIONALISM

On Deep Historyand the Brain.By Daniel LordSmail.Berkeley:University


of
Press,2008. Pp. 286.
California

ABSTRACT

Smail'sOnDeepHistory andtheBrainis rightlycriticalofthefunctionalist


fallacies
that
haveplaguedevolutionary theory,sociobiology,andevolutionary psychology.However,
hisattempttoimprove ontheseeffortsreliesonfunctional thatthemselves
explanations
thelessonsofneuroscience.
oversimplify In addition,likeexplanationsin evolutionary
psychology, are
they highly and
speculative cannot beconfirmed or disprovedbyevidence.
Neuroscienceresearchistoodiversetoyielda single
picture ofbrain Somere-
functioning.
centdevelopmentsinneuroscienceresearch,however, dosuggest thatcognitive
processing
a kindof"operating
provides system" thatcansupport a great ofcultural
diversity material.
Thesedevelopments includeevidenceof"top-down" processinginmotor invisual
control,
in
processing,speechrecognition, and in "emotion regulation."The that
constraints such
a systemmayplaceoncultural learningandtransmission areworth Atthe
investigating.
sametime,historiansarewelladvisedtoremain waryofthepitfalls offunctionalism.

neuroscience,
Keywords: "top-down" culture,
processing, functionalism, stress
emotion,

Functionalists and theiropponentshave been wagingbattlesin the social sci-


ences forgenerations. Claude Lvi-Strauss 's structuralanthropology developed
in oppositionto thefunctionalism of Britishsocial anthropology fromthe1930s
through the1960s.1CharlesTilly'sinterest in conflictand proteststemmedfrom
a rejectionof 1950s Parsonianfunctionalism in sociology.2The struggle overa
Marxistapproachto culturein the1970swas largelya disagreement overtheat-
tribution of political-economicfunctionsto ideologicaland culturalformations.
Gradually, socialhistorianscameto eschewfunctionalist approaches, alongwith
othervarieties ofcausalexplanation. Theydevelopeda decidedpreference forthe
of
concept "origins" over thatof "cause," for example, because so manycauses
couldbe listedforanyevent.3 Singling outone influenceon an event as the"real"
causewas simplyarbitrary, manycametobelieve.Attributing an underlying func-
tionto a specificbehaviorpattern orinstitution, ora specificdimension ofbehav-
ior (forexample,kinshipor production), was simplyone commontypeof such

1. See, forexample,Claude Lvi-Strauss,


Totemism, transi.RodneyNeedham(Boston:Beacon,
1963).
2. See, forexample,CharlesTilly,"The Modernization of PoliticalConflictin France,"in Roads
fromPast to Future(Lanham,MD: Rowman& Littlefield, 1997),51-108.
3. LawrenceStone,TheCauses oftheEnglishRevolution, 1529-1642(New York:Harper& Row,
1972); RogerChartier, de la Rvolution
Les originesculturelles franaise(Paris:Seuil, 1990).

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NEUROSCIENCE AND THE FALLACIES OF FUNCTIONALISM 4 13

arbitrary monocausalarguments. Certainculturalhistorians hesitatedto endorse


even themodifiedexploration of origins,settling fora resolutehistoricism that
seeksonlyto understand thecoherenceof specificmoments.
In thelastfewyears,someleadersoftheculturalturnhavegrowndissatisfied,
callingfora return to "explanation" in historical research.4 Theyare surelyright
to suggestthatlinguisticand symbolicconnections are nottheonlything.And
Daniel Smailis surelyright, in hisnewbook,On Deep Historyand theBrain,to
suggestthatrecentresearchin theneurosciences supports majormodifications in
ourunderstanding oflanguage,symbolism, andmeaningful practice.But Smail's
suggestions oftengo toofar.He seemsattimesbenton reintroducing functionalist
explanation in a wholesalefashion,ratherthanproceedingwiththecautionthat
decadesofdebatewouldseemto warrant.
Smail is well awareof parallelcontroversies overfunctionalism in thefields
of evolutionary biology,sociobiology,and evolutionary psychology. He offers
a livelyaccountof StephenJayGould's attackon adaptationism. Noteverytrait
is adaptive,Gould insisted;noteverypiece of DNA has been sculptedby the
struggle forsurvival.Ourchromosomes arefulloffreeriders, Gouldargued,with
plentyofevidencetobackhisview.5Smailis keenlyawarethatbothsociobiology
andevolutionary psychology relyon purelyspeculative functional explanations of
behavior. They remain speculative because theygenerate no testablehypotheses.
Quitesimply, currentneuroscience is incapableof graspingstructure at thelevel
thatwouldbe necessary toidentify a genetically basedbehaviorpattern thatcould
be subjectedtoevolutionary pressure. It is noteven clear at what levelin thebrain
one would look forthe behavioral"modules"thatevolutionary psychologists
posit.Smailrightly critiquesDavid Buss,forexample,a prominent evolutionary
psychologist. Buss maintained thatmodernwomendisplaya preference forolder,
financially secure men because, over the eons of human evolution, it was adap-
tiveforwomento selectmenwho could provideforthem.However,as Smail
pointsout,ethnographic researchon hunter-gatherer societiesshowswomento
be theprincipalfoodproducers. The menwhohuntin suchsocietiesoftenshare
themeatamongthemselves, as well,beforecominghome.It therefore does not
matter whomone is married to;one getsthesameshare.If suchsocietiesareany
guideto pastpractices, thentherewas no evolutionary pressureof thekindBuss
proposed. Smail notes,as well, that Buss's relianceon personalads of theearly
1990s- themainsourceof evidenceforhis study-provideda skewedaccount
of present-day practice(141-143). Smail goes further, reasonablyarguingthatit
is veryunlikelythatbehavior"modules,"suchas a femalepreference forolder
men,couldbe selectedfor.Thereis notenoughDNA in humanchromosomes to
code all the"modules"deployedbytheaveragehumancommunity, forone thing.
Even iftherewere,it is hardto see how selectivepressurescouldbe exertedon
individualmodules,giventhewaytheymustinterlock in a community's collec-
tiveendeavors.

4. See, forexample,VictoriaE. Bonnelland LynnHunt,"Introduction,"


in BeyondtheCultural
Turn,ed. VictoriaE. Bonnelland LynnHunt(Berkeley:University
ofCaliforniaPress,1999), 1-34.
5. StephenJayGould, The Panda's Thumb:More Reflections in NaturalHistory(New York:
Norton,1982).

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4 14 WILLIAM M . REDD Y

Smailnotesyetanotherproblemwithevolutionary explanations of humanbe-


havior.Generally, theyrely on an oversimplified model of cognition, whichhas
been rejectedby neuroscientists such as AntonioDamasio.6Smail summarizes
Damasio's viewsas follows:"experiences areconstantly beingmediatedthrough
brain-bodychemistry; thereis no thinking thatis independent of thefeedback
mechanism linkingsensoryinput,bodychemistry, bodymap,and neuralac-
the
tivity" (144-145).
In spiteoftheseseemingly insuperable however,Smailseemsbent
difficulties,
on savinga functionalist of
style thinking from theover-simplifications ofevolu-
tionary psychology. Smail develops his two criticismsofevolutionary psychology
intoa sweepingvisionof humanhistory. The firstcriticism is thatevolutionary
psychology leavesoutculture;thesecondis Damasio's pointaboutfeedback.
In arguingfortheinfluence of culture,Smailoffersthefollowing"admittedly
speculative but nevertheless instructive" scenario:"Let us assumethatthereis a
moduleforrecognizing social subordination in appropriate settings andrespond-
ingaccordingly. It is a reasonable assumption, since recognizably similarbehav-
ioralpatterns arecommoninvirtually all primate societies"(143). Herethenotion
of behavioral"modules"is reintroduced, despiteearliercriticism. Accordingto
Smail,humansin thepresenceof social superiors commonly, andunconsciously,
"speak witha highervoice, carrya submissivegrinon theirfaces,and laugh
immoderately at thebad jokes made by thoseabove them"(143). The module
thatcodes forthiskindof behavior,Smail surmises, "mayhavebeenmoribund"
in small-scalesocietiespriorto theagricultural revolution. But once large-scale
agricultural societies emerged, parents, byactingaccording thedictatesofthis
to
module,shapedthesynaptic configurations oftheirchildren. Primatestudiessup-
portthisconjecture, Smailbelieves.In thisway,cultureandgeneticprogramming
interacted toenhancea configuration ofbehaviorsthatwas previously suppressed.
Thus, afterraising numerous- quiteconvincing-doubtsabouttheexistenceof
behavioralmodules,Smailturnsaroundandproposestheexistenceofatleastone
modulebasedon primatestudies.
The agricultural revolution, theshiftfromnomadichunter-gatherer societiesto
settledagricultural societiesabout5,000yearsago,accordingto Smail,createda
"newneurophysiological ecosystem, a fieldof evolutionary adaptationin which
thesortsof customsand habitsthatgeneratenew neuralconfigurations or alter
brain-body states could evolve in unpredictable ways" (155). As Smail's prose
marchesforward here,thereferences to thespeculativeand merelyinstructive
character of his scenariosfallaway,and we are invitedto subscribeto theexis-
tenceofa "fieldofevolutionary adaptation" createdatthedawnofwritten history,
in whichvarious"neuralconfigurations" (modulesinteracting culture)were
with
likely to "evolve" due to their functional appropriateness.
But subscribing to theexistenceof thisnew fieldis equivalentto subscrib-
ingto unbridled functional speculation, of a kindthathistorians havecome,with
good reason, to avoid. Smail is suggesting that certainbehavior patternsevolve
withinculture,evolve not because genes change- althoughoccasionallythey
6. AntonioDamasio, Descartes' Error: Emotion,Reason, and the HumanBrain (New York:
Putnam,1994).

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NEUROSCIENCE AND THE FALLACIES OF FUNCTIONALISM 4 15

might-butprimarily becausethesepatterns finda fertileterrainfortheirreplica-


tionwithincultures. A large,bureaucratically organized agriculturalsocietysuch
as ancientEgypt,forexample,provideswide scope forbehaviorpatterns based
on thesubordination module.
Of course,thereis abundant evidencethatearlyagricultural socialorderswere
highly hierarchical.
Of course, humans have known for millenniathattraining is
crucialand thathabitand customare verypowerful. Neuroscienceresearchhas
shownthatconstant repetition ofbehaviorscan altersynapticstructures- that,in
effect,neuralarchitectureis, in part,a productof learningandculture.Butto say
thathighvoicesand submissivegrinsare"adaptive"in a bureaucratic monarchy
and can be passedon via learningis to rushfarbeyondwhatneuroscience can
currently confirmor disprove.To take such speculationseriouslyis to open a
Pandora'sbox offunctional imaginings.
Withinthe"Postlithic" societiesofthelast5,000years,accordingto Smail,the
subordinationmodulehasbeendrawnon togenerate a varietyofsocialstructures.
For example,Smail notesa parallelbetweenbaboonbehaviorand thebehavior
ofcertaineleventh- andtwelfth-century Europeancastellans.Studiessuggestthat
high-ranking femalebaboonsdominateotherfemalesby subjecting themto ran-
dom,unpredictable terror. Subordinate femalesexperiencehighlevelsof stress.
HumanPostlithic societiesalso "saw an increaseintherangeordensity ofdevices
and mechanisms thatgeneratedstresshormonesin thebodiesof subordinates."
Politicalbehaviors"converged on thesesolutionsbecausethisis howpowerwas
mosteffectively maintained" (167). Medievalcastellanshituponthesame strat-
egyas baboonmatriarchs, Smailassuresus. "The sourcesareconsistent ... on the
randomand unpredictable natureof castellanabuse" (163). Thatrandomabuse
mightinducehighlevels of stressis plausible.However,the suppositionthat
stressinducesstablesubordination in humansentailsa functionalist leap offaith.
Thereis simplyno supportin neuroscience forsucha supposition.
Manyneuroscientists arepainfully awarethattheylackgeneraltheories.7 They
develop paradigms to suit their methods of study. Sometimes these paradigms are
consistent withone another;oftentheyare not.A separategenreof studieshas
developed,called "meta-analysis," to attempt integration of theever-expanding
forestof experimental paradigms.8 It is all too easy to findstudiesthatwill sup-
port a wide varietyof inferences about theneurologicalfunctions of behaviors.
7. See, forexample,thediscussioninTimothy D. Wilson,"The Psychology ofMeta-Psychology,"
in ScientificApproachesto Consciousness,ed. JonathanD. Cohen and JonathanW. Schooler
(Mahwah,NJ:Erlbaum,1997),317-332.
8. A statistical
argument formeta-analysis arisesfromtheviewof some specialiststhatthestan-
dardone-study testof significance leads to systematicunderestimationof relationships.
However,
meta-analysts arepainfullyawarethatwhencarrying outmeta-analyses
(analysesofdatafrommany
studies)theymustconfront theconstant problemofreconciling thediverseoperational definitions
that
experimentalists deviseto suittheirmethodologies. Thereareno generallyagreed-upon definitions
of
thesimplestterms,suchas anxiety, mood,thesubliminal, affect.See, forexample,Patrick
attention,
J.Curran,"The SeeminglyQuixoticPursuitof a CumulativePsychologicalScience,"Psychological
Methods14 (2009), 77-80; FrankL. Schmidt,"StatisticalSignificanceTestingand Cumulative
Knowledgein Psychology:ImplicationsforTrainingof Researchers,"PsychologicalMethods1
(1996), 115-129.A searchof the PsycINFO databaseon January10, 2010 yielded4,309 articles
withtheterm"meta-analysis" in thetitle.See also thehow-tomanualby HarrisCooper,Research
Synthesis and Meta-Analysis:A Step-by -StepApproach,4thed. (ThousandOaks,CA: Sage, 2010).

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4 16 WILLIAM M . REDD Y

The neurophysiology ofstress,forexample,is comparatively wellknown,andthe


discovery ofthisconfiguration is a greatsuccessstoryintherecenthistory ofneu-
roscience.Buttheresultsofthisresearcharehardlyunivocal.Stresshas peculiar
effectson memory thatmightconceivablybe manipulated bya cleveroverlordto
enhancehisorhersalienceas an objectoffear.A littlebitofstressenhancesmem-
ories.However,persistent stresscan cause a deterioration of memory. Research
on post-traumatic stressdisorder(PTSD) suggeststhattoo muchstress,induced
byviolence,is likelyto backfire. Sufferers of PTSD are,ifanything, morelikely
to reproduce random, unpredictable incidents ofviolence,thanto humblysubmit
to them.9 RichardJ.Davidsonand associatesspeculate,forexample,thathippo-
campalatrophy duetohighlevelsofthestressneurohormone cortisol"willbe ac-
companiedbyprofound affectivechangesandwillimpairan organism's abilityto
adaptively regulate emotion in a context-appropriate fashion."10 If so, thatmight
helpto explain,notwhycertaineleventh- andtwelfth-century castellanswereso
effective,butwhythepoliticalorderof thecastellansseemedin constant danger
ofdegenerating intochaos.We arebackinthefamiliar dilemmaoffunctionalism:
contradictory functional explanations can be readilygenerated foralmostanyso-
cial phenomenon, and thereis to
no way adjudicate between them.
Smail is certainly rightto proposethathistorians pay attention to advancesin
neuroscience. Researchon stressmayverywellbe helpfulto historians working
on politicalinstitutions andpractices. Forexample,severalscholarshavesuggest-
ed in recentyearsthattheetiologyoftraumamayhelpto elucidatesomeaspects
ofFrenchpoliticsduringtheTerrorofthe1790s.11 Butcurrent researchon stress
no
provides easy answers. Neuroscience is stilla longway from understanding
all thewayscortisol"functions" in thebrain,muchless how stressmightbe en-
listedto "function," in some unequivocalway,in a social context.Historians'
firstapproach to the "stress"paradigmoughtto be critical, therefore,in linewith
Ian Hacking'sworkon whathe calls "transient mentalillnesses"ora historian of
science'sapproachto thepositedsubstancecalled"phlogiston" in theeighteenth
century.12"Stress"is a newadditionto theEnglishemotionvocabulary, and itis
turning up in other languages as well. Borrowed from its scientificcontext, it is

9. For a review,see S. J. Lupienet al., "The Effectsof Stressand StressHormoneson Human


Cognition:Implicationsforthe Field of Brain and Cognition,"Brain and Cognition65 (2007),
209-237. See also Sarah L. Halligan,David M. Clark,and Anke Ehlers,"CognitiveProcessing,
Memory,andtheDevelopment of PTSD Symptoms: Two Experimental AnalogueStudies,"Journal
of BehaviorTherapyand Experimental Psychiatry 33 (2002), 73-89; Daniel M. Wegner,Frances
Quillian,and Christopher E. Houston,"MemoriesOut of Order:ThoughtSuppressionand the
Disturbance of SequenceMemory,"Journalof Personality and Social Psychology71 (1996), 681-
691. See also R. S. Lazarus,"FromPsychologicalStressto theEmotions:A Historyof Changing
Outlooks,"AnnualReviewofPsychology 44 (1993), 1-21.
10. RichardJ.Davidson,AndrewFox, and Ned H. Kalin,"NeuralBases of EmotionRegulation
in Nonhuman Primatesand Humans,"in HandbookofEmotionRegulation, ed. JamesJ.Gross(New
York:Guilford, 2007), 57.
11. See, forexample,PatriceHigonnet,"Terror,Traumaand the 'Young Marx' Explanationof
JacobinPolitics,"Past and Present191 (2006), 121-164;BarryM. Shapiro,TraumaticPolitics:
The Deputiesand the King in theEarly FrenchRevolution(University Park:PennsylvaniaState
University Press,2009).
12. Ian Hacking,Mad Travelers:Reflectionson the Realityof TransientMental Illnesses
(Charlottesville:UniversityPressof Virginia,1998).

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NEUROSCIENCE AND THE FALLACIES OF FUNCTIONALISM 4 17

nowwidelyusedin waysthatmayhavelittleto do withthemetabolism ofcorti-


sol. Beforehistorians can safelyborrowideasfromnewresearchinneuroscience,
theymustgivethatresearcha criticalreading-a readinginformed byawareness
of thelong,scandaloushistoryof erroneousbeliefsin thesocial sciences,and
theiroftendisastrous adoptionas commonsense.13
Smail incorporates Damasio's emphasison feedbackmechanismsinto his
conceptof "psychotropy." Psychotropy is Smail's wordforthewholerangeof
"mood-altering practices,behaviors,and institutions" (161) through whichcul-
tureengageswithneurophysiology. Everything humans do has an effecton their
An
brainchemistry. omniscient observerwouldbe able to trackthe riseand fall
of variousneurochemicals in anygivenperson'sbody,Smail suggests.This ob-
serverwould findthat"serotonin, dopamine,all the androgensand estrogens,
and dozensof othersbesides"(157) riseand fallfollowingfairlyslow rhythms,
withoccasionalspikesanddipsof"epinephrine, norepinephrine, orcorticotropin-
releasinghormone"accompanying episodesof rageor fear.Wall Streettraders,
teenagers, and otherswouldbe foundto havecharacteristic patterns.Smailcites
in a
studiessummarized bookbyRobert Sapolsky M. that allegedlydemonstrate
thatlower-ranking groups,whencomparedwithmoreprivileged groups,have,on
average, lower levels of dopamine and serotonin intheir brains (neurotransmitters
associatedwithfeelingsof well-beingand readinessto act) and higherlevelsof
stresshormones (158).14Smailalso citesa 1996 studybyRichardE. Nisbettand
Dov Cohenshowingthat"Southern men,whentheyexperience affronts,
typically
experiencerapid increasesin levels of testostorone and cortisol,whereas North-
ernersdo not."15 For Smail,Nisbettand Cohen confirm that"Cultureis indeed
coded in humanphysiology" (159). However,Smail does nothelpthereaderto
understand whether theeasytriggering ofstresshormones inSouthern menis evi-
dencethattheyranklowerthanNorthern menandaremoreeasilydominated-as
theSapolskystudywouldlead one to suppose- or whether it means,as Nisbett
andCohenpresume,thatSouthern menaremorecombativeandtherefore notas
easily dominated as Northern men. The Pandora's box of functionalistopportun-
ismis creakingopenhere.
ForSmail,besidesan appreciation ofthesocial subordination module,thereis
a secondlessonhistorians shoulddrawfromcontemporary neuroscience. Cultural
psychotropy, Smail in
believes,began "deep history," during which "Paleolithic
humansocietiesadded a new rangeof mood-altering practices,includingsong,
dance,ritual,and a varietyof mood-altering substances, oftenconsumedin the
context ofrituals."Therangeofmood-altering substances andpractices continued
togrowafter theagricultural revolution. Inthepastfewcenturies, "ithasexpanded
ata prodigious pace as thedevicesbecameavailabletoan ever-wider spectrum of
thepopulation" (160). The consumer societynowprovidesus with"a dizzyingar-

13. See thediscussionof Foucault's indictment


of social-scientific
errorin Linda MartinAlcoff,
Real Knowing:New Versionsof the CoherenceTheory(Ithaca, NY: CornellUniversityPress,
1996).
14. RobertM. Sapolsky,WhyZebrasDon't Get Ulcers,3rded. (New York:TimesBooks,2004).
15. Smailis heresummarizing theconclusionsofRichardE. NisbettandDov Cohen,TheCulture
ofHonor:ThePsychology of Violencein theSouth(Boulder,CO: WestviewPress,1996).

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4 18 WILLIAM M . REDD Y

rayofpracticesthatstimulate theproduction andcirculation ofourownchemical


messengers," including instant accesstopornography on theInternet, Hollywood
thrillersleaving audiences breathless,shopping malls that induce "the production
of panic-inducing hormones, a body-state subsequently eased throught theactof
purchase."Shoppingitselfhas become"mildlyaddictive."Food anddrugs,legal
and illegal,deliver"a steadydose of caffeineor opioidsor stimulate thehuman
endocrine to produceitsownarrayof neurochemicals" (161).
Fromtheagricultural revolution on,mostofthesemood-altering deviceswere
deployedto buttress submissionwithinhighlyhierarchical social orders,Smail
argues.These included,undertherightconditions, frequent independent redis-
coveryby"alpha individuals" of the patternofrandom abuse, "because itis a psy-
chologicaldevicetowardwhichcertainpoliticallyadaptivebehaviorswill con-
verge"(169). Theyalso includedthe"soothing"effects of religiousliturgies-as
evidencedin recentfunctional magnetic resonance imagingstudiesof Tibetan
monks(172). Smailnotesthat"thesoothing consequencesofreligion, infact,cre-
ate a problemforthemodelI outlinedearlierthatassociatesstresswithpolitical
subjugation. The problemis thatrulersandtheirminionssponsornumerous litur-
and
gies,ceremonies, spectacles arguably that reduce stress in subordinates." But
theater, games,spectacles,marvelous beasts,medals,andtableauxmightfunction
likedrugs,as Etiennede la Botiearguedinthesixteenth century, andthus"might
wellbe linkedto theexerciseoftyranny" (173).
This is justone of manypassageswhereone feelsthatSmail is beingentirely
too easy on himself.Untestable functionalisthypotheses can be quicklydevised
to accountseductively forevidencein a variety of ways- oftenmutually contra-
dictory ways. But for Smail, contradiction and untestability do notpose obstacles
to thiskindof speculation. He incorporates contradictory interpretations intohis
scheme,hedgingthemaboutwithmightsandpossibly s. We areleftwiththepro-
posal thatthefunction ofrandomabuseis to inducestress,andthusto dominate,
and thefunction of ceremonyand spectacleis to soothe,and thusto dominate.
ForSmail,all culturalphenomena areto be explainedas basedon mood-altering
effectswhosefunction is to lendsupportto a statusquo. Whatevermood-alter-
ingeffecttheyapparently have is deemedto supporttheregimein place. Like
thefunctionalists critiquedby StevenJayGould,Smail is a believer:Whatever
is, is adaptive.To be fair,Smail does notexpecthis readersto rallyto anyone
of his hypotheses; he onlywishesto sketchouta fieldof possibilities openedup
by neuroscientific discoveries. But forbattle-wearyveteransof thedebatesover
modesof production, infrastructure and superstructure, class struggleand class
consciousness, patriarchy and feminist consciousness, theOedipuscomplex,or
subaltern speech,following Smailontothisfieldmustinevitably looklikea great
step backwards.
Smail suspectsthatChristianity condemnedsexualindulgence, masturbation,
gossip,andalcoholconsumption becausethesebehaviorsthreatened theefficacy
ofthechurch'salternative meansofinducingtheflowofsoothingneurotransmit-
ters:liturgies, rituals,prayer, confession (178). Butanything can be explainedthis
way.The explicitsexualityofTantricritual,forexample- diametrically opposed
to Christian sexualdoctrine-couldjustas easilybe accountedforas a meansof

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NEUROSCIENCE AND THE FALLACIES OF FUNCTIONALISM 4 19

encouraging thefaithful to gettheiroxytocinanddopamineat thetempleinstead


of through private sex acts.16Whatevermood-altering effectsa practiceor ritual
seemsto have are endowedby Smail witha function. "In theEuropeanMiddle
Ages,teachersroutinely beattheirstudents, dimlyawarethatcarefully measured
dosesofpaincan be singularly effective as a memory-retention device"(172).
Smaildoes notindicatehowthiskindofinterpretation is supposedto influence
a culturalhistorian'sapproachto theChristian doctrineoforiginalsin.It was this
doctrine, afterall, thatcondemnedall indulgencein sexual pleasures.17 It was
also thisdoctrine thatencouragedteachersto beattheirstudents. Smail seemsto
downplayor ignoretheimpactof suchentrenched doctrines on humanbehavior;
inthissensehisconceptofcultureis truncated.
Likewise,he does notconsidertherevolution in ideasabouthumannaturethat
presaged modern socialand politicalrevolutions.Instead,Smailarguesthat,start-
ingin theeighteenth century, commercial distributionof mood-altering symbols,
texts,andsubstances begantosubvert hierarchies.Theeighteenth centurybrought
a floodof mildlyaddictivecommodities: novels,newspapers, pornography,gos-
sip in salonsand cafs,caffeine, rumand gin,tobacco,chocolate,chilipeppers,
opium.Commercebrokethemonopolyofthehierarchy on soothing practicesand
undermined itsabilityto inducestress.The term"addiction"tookon itsmodern
meaning.The tradein thesecommodities "actedas a solventof an old regime"
(186). Industrialsocietybrought newsourcesof stress,and also newwaysof re-
ducingit.For Smail,revolution is as easyto explainas stability;botharereadily
producedby"psychotropy."
To be fair,again,one mustpointoutthatSmailwarnshisreadershe is offering
only"sketchy observations." His aimis modest."A neurohistorical approachdoes
notchangetheobjectsof study.Whatit offersis a new interpretive framework,
wherehumanneurophysiology is one of theenvironmental factorsin macrohis-
toricalchange"(185). Smail deservescreditfortakingon an issue of greatim-
portance. He deservescredit,as well,forhedginghisspeculations withappropri-
atewarnings. Humanneurophysiology certainlyis fundamental to humanaction,
andtherefore to history.
Historians constantly deploy some kind of psychological
commonsenseintheirworkinanycase,as Smailpointsout(159-160).Historians
oughttherefore to striveto remaininformed of therevolutionary new develop-
mentsin neuroscience.
WhereSmail can be faultedis in takinghis neuroscience morefrompopular-
izingbooks such as thoseof Damasio and Sapolskythanfromactualresearch
reports.Wherehe can be faultedis in suggesting thatneuroscience andevolution-
arypsychology are somehow part of a coherent
single, body of researchwhose
all
practitioners agree on itsimplications. Where he in
can be faultedis reducing
thelessonsof neuroscience to theidea of themood-altering effectsof actions,
substances, and neurotransmitters. "The universality of basic humanphysiology
maymeanthatall humans,ultimately, will be temptedby thesame packageof

16. See, forexample,David GordonWhite,Kiss oftheYoginT:"TantricSex" in Its SouthAsian


Context(Chicago:UniversityofChicagoPress,2003).
17.JamesA. Brundage, Law,Sex,and ChristianSocietyinMedievalEurope(Chicago:University
ofChicagoPress,1987).

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420 WILLIAM M . REDD Y

sensoryinputsand bodystimulations," Smail warnsin his conclusion,"and that


thecapitalisticmarketplace, evolving itdoes inDarwinianfashiontowardopti-
as
malsolutions, willeventually hiton theperfect packageofpsychotropic products
andmechanisms" (188). Neuroscience is neither so clearin itsresults,
norso nar-
rowin itsrangeof interests, thatitsrelevanceforhistorians couldbe summedup
withSmail'snotionofpsychotropy.
Recentneuroscience is mosttrenchant, and mostrelevantto historians' inter-
ests,in theway it has undermined traditional notionsaboutthestructure of the
self.No onehasbeenabletocomeforward withthealternative tothesetraditional
notions.Buta number ofresearchers, including James A. Russell,RichardJ.Da-
vidson,Daniel M. Wegner, JohnA. Bargh,StephenM. Kosslyn,JamesJ.Gross,
andothers, haveoffered a rangeofnewtheoriesaboutthearchitecture oftheself,
of theunconscious, of cognition, of emotions.18 All of theseproposalsreject,in
variousways,thatvisionof theself,originating withtheGreeks,thatdividedit
intofaculties:reason,will,affect,memory, imagination, appetites.
Smaildoes notconsiderthisimplication of neuroscience research;butno one
reallyhas a good grasp on thisissue. The isolated neuroscience breakthroughs
thatundermine thereceivedvisionof theselfare collectedforevaluationonly
in fragmentary fashion,mostlyin reviewarticles.No one subfieldoffers enough,
on itsown,to set aside thetraditional conception of the self.At the same time,
reviewsseldomdo an adequatejob of drawingtogether thethreadsof various
subfieldsbecausethesesubfields oftenoperatewithdifferent methodologies, rely-
ingon theirownjargonandapplyingtheirownstyleofparadigmto explaintheir
results.Foran outsiderthevariousfieldsthatconstitute neuroscience representa
andbewildering
frustrating riverfullof iceflow,whereitis almostimpossibleto
findfirmfooting.The momentone getsone's balanceon one piece of ice, new
findings breakit up, or interdisciplinary collaborationclumpsit togetherwith
others.
A good exampleis thenewresearchfieldof "emotionregulation," recognized
bythepublication ofan anthology knownas a "handbook"bytheGuilford Press
in 2007.19As theeditor,JamesJ.Gross,shows,thenumberof researcharticles
dealingexplicitlywithemotionregulation grewfroma handfulin the 1980s to
about600 duringthe 1990s,to over2,700 in thefiveyearsfrom2001 to 2005.
Whenone looksmorecloselyat theemotion-regulation paradigm, however,one
findsthatit has developedby attributing a primarily, butnotexclusively, con-
sciouscontrollingroletocertainneuralcircuits involvedinaffect, anda primarily,
butnotexclusively, unconsciousautomaticroleto certainothers.Thus,emotion
18. Relevantexamplesof theirmanypublicationsincludeJamesA. Russell,"Core Affectand
thePsychologicalConstruction of Emotion,"PsychologicalReview110 (2003), 145-172;Richard
J. Davidson,DarenC. Jackson,and Ned H. Kalin,"Emotion,Plasticity, Context,and Regulation:
Perspectives fromAffectiveNeuroscience,"PsychologicalBulletin126 (2000), 890-909;RichardM.
Wenzlaffand Daniel M. Wegner,"ThoughtSuppression," AnnualReviewofPsychology 51 (2000),
59-91;JohnA. Barghand TanyaL. Chartrand, "The UnbearableAutomaticity of Being,"American
Psychologist 54 (1999), 462-479; StephenM. Kosslyn,G. Ganis,and W. L. Thompson,"Neural
Foundationsof Imagery,"NatureReviews:Neuroscience2 (2001), 635-642; Kevin N. Ochsner
and JamesJ.Gross,"The NeuralArchitecture of EmotionRegulation,"in Gross,ed., Handbookof
EmotionRegulation, 87-109.
19. Gross,ed.,HandbookofEmotionRegulation.

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NEUROSCIENCE AND THE FALLACIES OF FUNCTIONALISM 42 1

regulationis nota newlydiscoveredfunction ofthebrain;itis, instead,a concep-


tualinnovation thatitsadherents believewillproveusefulforguidingresearchin
"affectiveneuroscience"-thelargersubfield, hardlyfifteen yearsold, of which
emotionregulation proclaimsitselfa part.20 Much of theresearchon emotion
regulationis, in the laboratory, indistinguishable fromresearchcarriedoutbyoth-
erswhosee themselves as studying affect,tout court.21
The launchof theemotional-regulation paradigmcan be linkedto develop-
mentsin a varietyof otherfieldsof neuroscience research,suchas researchon
"visualimagery"(thatis, visualizations based on memory or verbalinstruction),
pain,speechrecognition, and "mirror neurons."22 In all these areas,neuroscien-
tistshavediscoveredthatefferent pathwaysare as numerous and activeas affer-
entones,thatis, that"top-down" processingplays a crucial role in all perception
andcognition. Beforeone becomesconsciousof seeingor hearingsomething, of
perceiving a faceorfeelinga pain,circuitsintheprefrontal cortexhavebeenacti-
vatedthrough super-fast upwardleadingpathwaysandhavefedinstructions back
downintoposterior sensory and subcortical system, which instructions appearto
simplify,filter, and/orspeed processingby offering prepackagedguessesabout
sensoryinput.Thus,on hearingtheword"lock" pronounced, Englishspeakers,
within200 milliseconds of theinitiation of thesound,will beginreviewingthe
meaningsofscoresofwordsthatstartwithan 1-sound.Thisreviewis underway
longbeforethepronunciation of thewordis complete.Withinthistimeframe,
eyemovements can beginthatareinfluenced bythemeaningsof suchwords.For
example,participants hearing the word "lock" will look morefrequently at pic-
turesofa keyduringtheperiodthatthefirst halfofthewordis beingpronounced.
Presumably thisadvancedreviewof possiblemeanings,whichis entirely auto-
maticand unconscious,speeds processingby selectivelyreinforcing candidate
words- thosesuggestedbycontextual cues,forexample.23 This advanceseman-
ticprocessing is "top-down," thatis,itis fedbackdowntoaid inthesegmentation
of speechand in wordrecognition. As StephenM. Kosslynand associates,and
many other researchers, have shown, visualprocessingalso includesa top-down
the
component-although precise structureandlocationof variousstagesoftop-
downprocessingremainunclear.24 The architecture of suchsystemsseemswell
suitedforextremely fastpattern recognition, pattern recognition thatis basedon
learning,and is also highly flexible and easily revised. Scores of "hypotheses"
20. Tim Dalgleish,BarnabyD. Dunn,and Dean Mobbs,"Affective Neuroscience:Past,Present,
and Future,"EmotionReview1 (2009), 355-368.
21. Comparethe neuralarchitecture of "affect"in Duncan and FeldmanBarrett'sreviewof
2007 withthatof "emotionregulation"in Ochsnerand Gross's "NeuralArchitecture of Emotion
Regulation."See Seth Duncanand and Lisa FeldmanBarrett, "AffectIs a Formof Cognition:A
Neurobiological Analysis,"Cognitionand Emotion21 (2007), 1184-1211.
22. I have discussedsome of thesedevelopments elsewhere;see WilliamM. Reddy,"Saying
Something New: PracticeTheoryand CognitiveNeuroscience," Arcadia44 (2009), 8-24.
23. Eiling Yee and JulieC. Sedivy,"Eye Movementsto PicturesReveal TransientSemantic
ActivationduringSpoken Word Recognition,"Journalof Experimental Psychology:Learning,
Memory, and Cognition32 (2006), 1-14.
24. M. Bar, et al., "Top-DownFacilitationof Visual Processing,"Proceedingsof theNational
AcademyofScience 103 (2006), 449-454; StephenM. Kosslynet al., "BrainrCBF and Performance
in Visual ImageryTasks: Common and DistinctProcesses,"European Journalof Cognitive
Psychology16 (2004), 696-716.

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422 WILLIAM M. REDDY

havebeenbriefly andunconsciously entertained andrejectedbeforeone identifies


a wordorperceivesa common,everyday object.
The emotion-regulation paradigmconsistsof investigating thetop-downas-
pectsof affectiveprocessing-thatis, mostoften,of processing thatinvolvesef-
ferent pathwaysfromtheprefrontal cortexto theamygdala.25 Affectiveprocess-
ing is notseparatefrom cognitiveprocessing. Subcortical systems such as those
foundin theamygdalaareinvolvedin all thesensorypathwaysandarelinkedto
multiplecentersin theprefrontal cortex.Manyresearchers acceptas a working
hypothesis thattheamygdalais involvedin a kindof earlywarningsystemfor
establishing"valence"withincognitiveprocessing-thatis, fordetermining the
personalsignificance (positiveor negative)of objectsor situations-andthatthe
amygdalais involvedin thepathwaysthatmobilizethebodyforappropriate ac-
tion.Top-downpathwaysfromtheprefrontal cortexto theamygdalatherefore
involvelearning, modulating, regulating, altering, or suppressing suchrapid-fire
subcorticalevaluations.Theyoperatein parallelwithtop-down visual,aural,and
motorprocessing thatalso originatesin regionsoftheprefrontal cortex.As Phil-
ip David Zelazo and William A. Cunningham putit,"[W]e suggestthata stark
distinctionbetweencognitionand emotionreflects an outmodedadherenceto a
fundamentally moralistic worldview(reasonis angelic,passionbeastly).Instead,
we suggestthatemotioncorresponds to an aspectof cognition-itsmotivational
aspect."26
Emotionregulation, as an elementof affective processing,involvesautomatic
as wellas consciouslycontrolled processes.Children, forexample,displayauto-
matictendencies to emotionalinhibition or impulsivity, whichNancyEisenberg
and associatescall "reactiveovercontrol and undercontrol."27 As development
proceeds,childrenlearnto shapetheseautomaticresponsepatterns through "ef-
fortful in accordwithculturally
control," andcontextually appropriatestrategies
of emotionregulation-mostof whichsubserveculturally appropriategoals that
theylearnto espouse.Theselearnedstrategies, or at leastmanyofthem,in turn,
becomeautomatic withpractice.28
The emotion-regulation paradigmis therefore notsuitedto providesupport ei-
thertoNorbert Elias orto Daniel LordSmail.Itdoes notsuggestthat,as civiliza-
tionprogresses,itsmembers achieveever-more internalized controloftheiremo-
tionalresponses.Nordoes theemotion-regulation paradigmsuggestthathuman
historyis dominatedby a successionof mood-altering (stress-inducingand/or
and
soothing)strategies technologies, as Smail speculates.
Smail,andanyhistorian contemplating thelong-term implicationsofadvances
in neuroscience,mustconsiderthehistoryof Westernconceptionsof theself,
and tryto correctfortheimpactof thathistory on heror his own thinking. For
centuries,theChristian doctrineof original sinauthorized extremely negativees-
25. OchsnerandGross,"NeuralArchitecture."
26. Philip David Zelazo and William A. Cunningham,"Executive Function:Mechanisms
Underlying EmotionRegulation," in Gross,ed., HandbookofEmotionRegulation,135-136.
27. NancyEisenberg,ClaireHofer,andJulieVaughan,"Effortful Controland Its Socioemotional
Consequences,"in Gross,ed., HandbookofEmotionRegulation, 290.
28. JohnA. Barghand LawrenceE. Williams,"The NonconsciousRegulationof Emotion,"in
Gross,ed., HandbookofEmotionRegulation, 429-445.

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NEUROSCIENCE AND THE FALLACIES OF FUNCTIONALISM 423

timations of humancapacities,estimations thatwereembodiedin an imagined


architecture ofappetites andpassion(strengthened byoriginalsin)andreasonand
will(debilitated byoriginalsin). The Enlightenment putforward an optimisticre-
versalofthatdoctrine-thevisionofinbornmoralsentiments thathelpedfuelthe
FrenchRevolution.Bothdoctrines includedspecificideas aboutthenaturalcon-
tentofhumanthought andintentions as wellas thepropergovernment ofhuman
thought and intentions. For traditional Christiandoctrinethe self,ungoverned,
was dangerous, malicious,selfish;forEnlightenment optimists, theself,liberated,
was morallygood. Bothof thesedoctrines werewrongabouthumannature,and
sucherrorshave clearimplications forthehistory of theculturalconfigurations
thatpropagate them,as I havearguedelsewhere.29
The nineteenth century saw theriseof a secularizedskepticism abouthuman
nature,fully evident in the teachings of Thomas Malthus or Victor Cousin,but
thiswasjustthedoctrine oforiginalsindisguisedas socialscience.Freudianthe-
oryinherited thispseudo-scientific skepticism. As deployedby Elias and others,
Freudiantheory encouraged scholars to searchfor a singlesetofoccultmeanings
in all culturalcontent, thatis, to findtheOedipusconflict-inborn"desire"and
the"law of thefather"-secretlyat workeverywhere in humanconsciousness.
This doctrine, whentreatedas a keythatunlocksthetruemeaningof conscious
life,is also wrong.Smailproposesa newoccultmeaning, one thatlies intherela-
tionhe positsbetweensubordination and stress,or,alternatively, in therelation
he positsbetweensubordination andsoothing practicesandsubstances. Whenwe
buysomething at themall, for Smail, we do notreally want it,we are justcaught
up ina mildlyaddictivehaze ofpleasure-seeking, orrather soothing-seeking, im-
pulses.
Neuroscience, by contrast, seems to be graduallyuncovering a content-neu-
traloperating system, to use a computer a of
analogy, system greatplasticity, on
whicha greatvarietyof culturalorderscould be built.Emotionregulation, for
example,seemsto be builtin,and therefore universal.It occursautomatically in
newborns, andis subsequently reshapedby "effortfulcontrol," and thisreshaping
is in turnreinforced by repetition. The local culture,whateverit is- assuming
thereis one- necessarily setsthetermsof thisreshaping through themediumof
particular care-givers,mentors, educators.If thislocal "culture" is diverse,dis-
ordered, riven with conflict,indeterminate in manyrespects, as most "cultures"
are to a greateror lesserdegree,thenthis,too,will have itsvariableimpacton
care-giver cuesandpenalties.Emotionregulation happens, justas breathing does,
without willfulintervention.
Culturalvariation andhistorical change concernonly
how,and towardwhatculturally sanctionedends,it is effortfully reshapeddur-
ing development and adulthood.The ideological trajectories-towardgreater
restraintor release- of schemessuchas Elias's or Smail's presumethatwe are
naturally attuned onlyto release,notto self-regulation.
If theanalogybetweenthenervoussystemand a computer operatingsystem
offersa revealingstancefromwhichto critiqueearlierWesternconceptionsof
theselfandemotions, itsusefulnessin otherrespectsquicklybreaksdown.This
29. WilliamM. Reddy,The Navigationof Feeling: A Framework
for theHistoryof Emotions
(Cambridge, UK: CambridgeUniversity
Press,2001).

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424 WILLIAM M . REDDY

"operatingsystem"imposesa hostofconstraints on whata "culture"ora coherent


personalitycan be. However, they are notthekinds of constraints expertshave
heretoforeimagined.
Forexample,ethnographic researchon emotionsfocusedfordecadeson deter-
mining whetherspecific emotions- suchas angeror love- werehumanuniver-
sais orculturally
constructed.Although thedebatewas neverresolved,ethnogra-
phersdid uncoversome surprising acrossa wide varietyof cultural
regularities
contexts.Everyethnographic investigationofaffect
foundthatlocal communities
inculcatedbothemotionalnormsandemotionalidealsintheirmembers. The spe-
cificcontentof thesenormsand ideals varieda greatdeal. Fear was praisedby
some,angercultivated byothers;humility was heldup as an idealin someplaces,
pride was promoted in others.In some communities,impulsivity was foundto
be highlyprized,in others,deep reservewas theideal.(Thisbriefsummary only
scratchesthesurfaceofthevariability ethnographershaveuncovered, variability
thatextendsbothto thedefinition of thedomain"emotion"itself,whichis often
consideredto be identicalwiththatof "thought," and to thedefinitions of emo-
tiontermsandtheaffinities among named emotions."Anger"may be associated
withlawlessnessin one place,withjusticein another.) The onlyconstantseems
to be thateverycommunity activelyencouragesemotionalself-shaping on the
individual'spart,andprovidescollectiveperformances intended to advancesuch
self-shaping.30
This kindof culturallysanctionedself-shapingis just whatone wouldexpect
to findifone acceptsthevalidityof theemotion-regulation paradigm.31A great
deal of cognitiveprocessingmustbe carriedout "automatically." Consciously
controlled can reachacrossonlya verylimitedpartof one's cur-
interventions
rentcognitiveprocessing.Whatcountsas "cultural"in manycontextsare the
commonpatterns ofautomatic processingthatindividuals learntogether,through
repetitiousbehaviorandsharedhistory.32Amongthese,affective processingstrat-
egies-as understood in emotion-regulationresearch-are boundto be of great
collectiveconcern.Thesearethepatterns thatshapetheattribution of"valence,"
orpersonalrelevance,to objectsand situations,andprovidethevariousresponse
strategiesthata personmaytry.These responsepatterns mustcohereiftheyare
to othersandto her-or himself.
to ensurea person'sintelligibility if
A "culture,"
itis to cohere,mustincludea setofdoctrines andpracticesdealingwithemotion
regulation, and providea modicumof sharedregulation styles,throughformal-

30. For a review,see WilliamM. Reddy,"EmotionalStylesand ModernFormsof Life," in


SexualizedBrains: ScientificModelingof EmotionalIntelligencefroma CulturalPerspective,
ed. Nicole Karafyllisand GotlindUlshfer(Cambridge,MA: MIT Press,2008), 81-100; see also
Reddy,Navigationof Feeling',WilliamM. Reddy,"EmotionalLiberty:Politicsand Historyin the
Anthropology of Emotions,"CulturalAnthropology 14 (1999), 256-288.
31. Batja Mesquitaand DustinAlbert,"The CulturalRegulationof Emotions,"in Gross,ed.,
HandbookofEmotionRegulation, 486-503.
32. Barghand Williams,"The NonconsciousRegulationof Emotion,"432. This articledefines
automaticity as follows:"Automaticprocessesare characterized by theirunintentional,
relatively
minimalattentional
(i.e., efficient,
effortless resourcesrequired)anduncontrollable natureandopera-
tionoutsideawareness',consciousprocessesaregenerally intentional,controllable, andthe
effortful,
personis aware ofengagingin them."However,as theynote,manyprocessesshareonlysomeofthe
criteria
of automaticity; thereis a continuum fromfullyautomatic to fullycontrolled
phenomena.

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NEUROSCIENCE AND THE FALLACIES OF FUNCTIONALISM 425

ized performances and informal gestures,through speechand example,through


rewardsandpenalties.
Thus a majorconstraint on culturalvariation, if current neuroscienceis any
guide,derivesfromtheneedto steerthe"effortful control"thatindividuals, from
birth,exerttogiveshapeanddirection totheemotionregulation thatthesystemis
alwaysalreadygenerating. Doubtless,inthisrespectandinothers, therearestrict
of
limits, currently unknown character,to the kinds of culturalordersthatcan be
successfully builton sucha foundation.
As researchmethodsdevelop,theemotion-regulation paradigmwillbe subject
tounforeseeable alteration
ortransformation. Historicalorethnographic interpre-
tationsthatrelyon itremaintentative. The lessonof thenewneuroscience is, in
anycase, notlikelyto be that"deep history" was secretlydrivenalonga single
pathby mood-altering neurochemicals.The new scienceof thebrainwill surely
uncoverconstraints on humanbehavior.But theyare likelyto be preciselythe
constraintsthatresultwhena neuralsystemevolvesto supporttheextraordinary
plasticity thoselearned,automaticprocessesinherent
of in languageuse, visual
imagery, and that
affect, intentionality- is, inherent in beinga person.33As the
discoveriesabouttop-down processingand(learned)automaticity continuetoac-
cumulate,evidencegrowsforthecentrality of "culture"in theoperationof the
brain.Neurosciencedoes notyetspeak withone voice. But nothingin neuro-
sciencetodayoffershistorians ready-made causal explanations.Historiansare
therefore well advisedto continueworking to avoidthepitfallsoffunctionalism,
of ethnocentrism, and of anachronism in thosecausal explanations thatso often
solicitourassent.

WilliamM. Reddy
Duke University

33. For a historiographical


review,see WilliamM. Reddy,"HistoricalResearchon theSelf and
Emotions,"EmotionReview1 (2009), 302-315.

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