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Exploring neuroscience insights into human-place relationships:
The study of how individuals and communities relate to biocultural (co-evolved biological and cultural) environments and derive meaning from these relationships is one of a number of disciplines poised to undergo a watershed change as a result of recent neuroscience insights into human development, thought and behavior.
Our goal at Embodied Ecologies is to help accelerate the end-to-end dissemination of this cutting-edge research by linking scientists in the fields
of neuroscience, interpersonal neurobiology, cognitive science and related disciplines with individuals and organizations involved in on-the-ground biocultural research projects that contribute to the interdependent well-being of human communities and the living systems in which we participate.
Multi-scale well-being: from biological homeostasis to biocultural co-regulation:
Homeostasis, to paraphrase neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, is the process by which an organism maintains its well-being, dynamically regulating its various systems in order to stay within biological parameters compatible with life. Examples of homeostatic parameters in the human body include temperature, pH level, and the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide. When these levels stay within optimal ranges relative to our external environment, the human body thrives--we feel good--but should any of these levels get too high or to low, they threaten the integrity of living systems. If they get too far out of range, it soon becomes a question of life or death.
In looking at the landscape of academic disciplines engaged in exploring and understanding human development and meaning-making, a pattern emerges: this same homeostatic blueprint for the well-being of interdependent living systems is currently being studied at multiple scales:
- in biology, medicine and neuroscience, at the level of relationships between biological systems within an indiviual organism
- in social neuroscience & interpersonal neurobiology, at the level of interpersonal relationships
- in sociology, at the level of community-wide relationships
- in biocultural diversity, anthropology, ecopsychology, conservation psychology, human geography and human ecology, at the level of human relationships to environments
- in ecology, at the level of bioregional and planetary ecosystems
Each of these domains has made tremendous strides in recent decades, yet, due to the long-standing tradition of insularity within academic disciplines, cross-disciplinary efforts to understand living system well-being from a truly integrative, multi-scale perspective have been slow to gain widespread traction. This is where Embodied Ecologies comes in. We're working to build collaborative partnerships at the stakeolder level that will enable researchers and practitioners to examine not only the biological processes linking homeostasis at different scales of living systems, but also the implications of multi-scale homeostatic interrelationship. If our physiological (and psychological) well-being is intimately interconnected with the well-being of the ecosystems we inhabit, then how can we adapt our behaviors and beliefs, our decisions and our processes of meaning-making, to enable the optimal well-being of the interrelated system as a whole?
We're proposing that neuroscience can be to the study of human-ecosystem interrelationship what mathematics has become to the physical sciences: a common language enabling communication, collaboration, and synthesis across multiple domains.
Certain aspects of this interdisciplinary approach are beginning to generate dialogue (consider, for example, Daniel Goleman’s exploration of the neuroscience of “Ecological Intelligence”). However, as noted by a 2010 Harvard Study, the diffusion of cutting-edge science into the hands of most local users who then apply this research in real-world scenarios involves a certain amount of delay--and in some cases, this diffusion takes years. The way we see it, any unnecessary delay could mean the difference not only between health and illness, but between life and death--literally the survival and extinction--of some of the world's peoples, species, ecosystems, languages, and cultures. (Click here to read National Geographic's dire outlook for half of the world's currently spoken languages.) Something needs to be done to make this system work better.
Embodied Ecologies – A “Boundary Organization”
Embodied Ecologies is committed to shortening this time gap. How do we do this? We study the macro-landscape of disciplines related to the health and well-being of humans and ecosystems and identify key areas of opportunity—connections we can help make between people and organizations who share common goals but who may not yet be aware of each other’s work. By facilitating communication and partnership between these stakeholders, we strive to strengthen the end-to-end channels that enable the rapid distribution of validated research data so that it can be utilized in decision-making and integrated into strategies for action. A term increasingly used to describe organizations that do the work we do is “Boundary Organization.”
The Macro-Field of Biocultural Neuroscience
Biocultural Neuroscience is a term we're proposing for an interdisciplinary field examining human relationships to biocultural ecosystems from a multi-scale living systems--a perspective that encompasses the neural correlates not only of how humans sense, navigate, and adapt to natural environments, but also the ways in which we translate these sensory, navigational, and adaptive experiences into meaningful symbolic forms such as language and culture. Biocultural neuroscience empahsizes embodied experience as the key link between ecology and culture, proposing that it is the translation of embodied sensory experience into cognition and expression that allows us to integrate and make sense of our experiences and orient ourselves within multi-scale environments that are constantly changing. As recent neuroscience and cognitive science research has shown, our sensory experiences of our surrounding environments continuously inform not only our thoughts, values and choices, but also the very systems and structures we create to organize the perceptual, social, and material aspects of our worlds--these, too, are expressions of our adaptive responses to the dynamic environments we inhabit.
The idea of biocultural neuroscience is adapted from Biocultural Diversity, an established term describing the interrelationship of biological diversity and cultural diversity. Research undertaken by organizations such as Terralingua, the International Society of Ethnobiology and others has demonstrated how regions of the world rich in biological diversity also tend to have the highest concentrations of cultural diversity. A core idea of this perspective is that maintaining and restoring the diversity of life in local ecosystems and on our planet as a whole "means sustaining both biodiversity and cultures, because the two are interrelated and mutually supportive" (Maffi & Woodley, 2010: 3). Studies have also found that conservation strategies combining linguistic, cultural, and ecological conservation show strong success in retention and transmission of essential ecological knowledge and sustainable land use practices (Maffi & Woodley 2010).
As part of our survey of cutting-edge developments in these different fields, Embodied Ecologies has identified compelling parallels between recent research findings in interpersonal neurobiology and aspects of biocultural diversity. To read more about how these two fields might intersect (and could potentially forge a partnership!), please visit our key questions page.
Join the conversation!
Embodied Ecologies is enthusiastically looking to partner with other organizations who share goals in common. To learn more about our vision and strategy, please check out our programs page. You can also find out more information about a convening we are planning for 2015. If you're on LinkedIn, please join our Embodied Ecologies LinkedIn discussion group. If you have other questions or if you would like to help support our work, please contact us.
Many thanks. We look forward to connecting with you!
Maffi, L. and Woodley, E. (2010). Biocultural diversity conservation: A global sourcebook. London: Earthscan.