The ever-evolving connection between culture and human biology.

An Interview with Carol Worthman, Ph.D.

Can you please give us a brief description of what you study?

What I study with my lab is the interaction of culture and biology as they shape differential mental and physical health. Currently, we have a few studies around the world examining these interactions. For instance, we have one in Vietnam where we’re looking at the impact of the introduction of television on adolescent sleep patterns and mental health. In another study, we’re examining the prevention of inter-generational transmission of HIV/ AIDS and fetal alcohol syndrome. In Nepal, we have an ongoing study that is following a sample of ex-child soldiers and looking at the long-term effects of involvement and recovery after the war. In a separate sample using a Nepali village population, we’re looking at the effects of caste, stressors and traumas, and what helps or exacerbates risks.


What led you to the study of comparative human biology?  

It was recognition of the well-known phenomenon that the West has separated mind and body; we need to get over that because they clearly work together. Our western mode of inquiry embeds this separation, so we needed a new type of science that puts these two back together.


How did you become involved with the Mind & Life Institute?

My involvement happened for two reasons. The first is that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is on faculty here at Emory University. Along with his regular visits, the Mind & Life Institute has held a few events here. In another capacity, I run the neuroscience component of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative. Some of the people who were most interested in becoming involved were ones who were working in contemplative sciences, like Susan Bauer-Wu, Wendy Hasenkamp, Jenny Mascaro — all of them were invited to work with us on this program. That made me more aware of their work and also familiarized them with my work. I’m not the typical Mind & Life person. I don’t do contemplative studies so sometimes I’m both surprised and grateful to have been included in this great enterprise.


What role does Mind & Life have in your work?

Mind & Life explicitly aims to bring together embodied selves with the worlds of practice that aim to shape mind, which I would expand to include the cultural worlds in which we operate. I’m keen to contribute to the Mind & Life enterprise because what they are trying to do is to bridge the types of gulfs in order to move the science forward, and also to move society forward. That said, I think it’s a small part of what we need to do because contemplative practices are only a particular part of a larger range of what cultures do as practices. Contemplative practice is just one example of how cultures shape our behaviors, meanings and emotions, and how those all shape our well-being.


What are some of your responsibilities as a member of the steering council for the Mind & Life Institute?

What makes Mind & Life exciting is that this is an organization that is evolving. And under Susan Bauer-Wu, there is a lot of momentum to build on the past and move forward with increasing depth, such as turning our focus to social engagement and social justice. Part of what I see the steering council doing is listening to what the leadership of Mind & Life is thinking and connecting them back to the scientific and academic communities as well as a wider society.  By doing so, we help build that interface to shape and support Mind & Life programs.


Does your involvement with Mind & Life Institute inform your direction as a researcher?

Of course! There is an emerging emphasis within Mind & Life on social justice, which is a large component of comparative human biologist’s concerns in terms of health disparities, the impact of social inequalities and marginalization on people’s life outcomes. I’ve never really framed this type of work in a social-justice perspective; rather, I typically do it in terms of policy. I’m sure it’s going to affect my work and in terms of tapping into that perspective and finding ways of talking about those organizations who work on social justice and how to potentially contribute to their work.

Another way that Mind & Life affects my work is that there aren’t that many anthropologists or human biologists who work on the interface of mind-body culture. Therefore, we’re attracting a range of different students with whom I subsequently develop new kinds of work to support their diverse interests. For instance, one of my students, Tawni Tidwell, is the first Westerner to enter and complete Tibetan medical school both in China and India. She has experienced Tibetan medical education practices, which are radically different than Western biomedical education, in the sense that the physicians are themselves embodied instruments for diagnosis. In contrast, Western biomedicine has offloaded diagnostics to instruments and machines. In the case of Tibetan medicine, the body is the lens through which the healer engages the patient. This has exposed me to different ways of thinking about human biology and medical education.


What Mind & Life initiatives are exciting for you?

I’m excited to have been part of moving Mind & Life to become more socially engaged and inclusive in an effort to pull in more constituencies. I’m also excited to include social context within contemplative sciences, which has been missing. For instance, we invite monks with 10,000 hours of practice to be studied in an fMRI scanner, which is great, but limited in many ways. So last summer at the Summer Research Institute, there was emphasis on context. This year as well, we have really moved this forward with the theme of intersubjectivity and social connectivity. In particular, Professor Rhonda Magee is focusing on the social-justice dimension of contemplative practices by bringing in communities of color who have developed their own systems of resilience, sensibilities, and responses to the shifting social-political landscape.


After years of teaching, what has brought you the greatest fulfillment?

The greatest fulfillment is that science and society are always evolving. Every student is different so I’m never bored. I’m constantly working with students on how to build skills. It’s not about knowledge; it’s about developing skills and capacities. Particularly for the scientific paradigm, that’s a huge shift in the way science is taught and done. It remains a very hierarchical apprentice-type system. There is a growing emphasis on collaboration and working with groups particularly because I work internationally. For instance, one of my grants includes American students, Nepalese physicians, NGO’s, social scientists and scientists. It’s all about building human capital.

That’s not the classic way we see ourselves as educators, but every project, whether here or abroad, is about building human capital. If we take my life’s perspective seriously, then we have to ask ourselves who are these kids in our classrooms? What’s going on in their minds and bodies and what gets in the way of their learning, what gets in the way of their creativity, and how do we better mobilize that in a classroom and beyond?

Carol Worthman, PhD, is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology, Director of the Laboratory for Comparative Human Biology, and founding leader of the neuroscience track in the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative. She is also a Mind & Life Fellow and a member of the Mind & Life Steering Council.

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