Combining psychology and anthropology

Andrea Bender combines psychology and anthropology to observe how our language and culture shape the way we perceive the world.

Andrea Bender
PSYCHOLOGIST AND ANTHROPOLOGIST: Andrea Bender is convinced that anthropology can help cognitive psychology to better appreciate cultural differences in cognition. On the other hand, she believes that anthropology can benefit from the sound methodologies that psychology has developed to investigate cognitive processes in a very thorough manner.
Kim E. Andreassen

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A few years ago, Dr. Andrea Bender was an anthropologist and chair of an international research group at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research ZiF, Bielefeld. Now, she is an associate professor at the Department of Psychosocial Science at the University of Bergen (UiB).

“I started with anthropology because I was interested in how people in different cultures perceive the world and think about it. But then I realised that the discipline that could tell me even more about what perceiving, thinking and other cognitive activities really mean, is cognitive psychology,” explains Bender.

“One of the strengths of the Department of Psychosocial Science in Bergen is that it is home to such a broad variety of perspectives. This is exactly what creates the conditions for new ideas, and what makes the University of Bergen such an inspiring academic environment,” says Bender, who shares her time between research in anthropology and psychology.

Discovering cognitive skills in Stone Age people

Bender´s main research interest focuses on how culture and language affect cognition. She is conducting research on how people perceive the world, think about it, make categorisations and draw conclusions based on their language and cultural background.

Recently, Bender was asked by the renowned archaeologist, Professor Christopher Henshilwood, at the Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion (AHKR), to collaborate on his new project on early modern humans in South Africa, who came up with ideas and innovations about 100,000 years ago.

The project is in the final round of qualifying for Centre of Excellence (SFF) status in Norway. The centre will be called Centre for Early Human Behaviour. Henshilwood leads the project which has roots in archaeology, but draws on various disciplines.

“For a while now, I have been interested in how culture, language and cognition co-evolved in the human species. So, when Henshilwood asked me if I was interested in collaborating in his project, I thought that was a perfect way of combining all the topics I am interested in,” Bender says.

Bones and tools reveal language ability

By studying the remains of bones, artefacts and tools Bender and her colleagues will try to find out how people may have reasoned and used logical thinking in the Stone Age, what kind of concepts they could have had, whether they used language and how that would have affected the evolution of humans as a species.

“There is of course no way of getting directly at what humans at that time were able to do or not to do, but there are some indications,” explains Bender.

The size of the skull makes it possible for neuroscientists to assess cognitive capacities, and pieces of genes from the skeletons provide information on whether people had certain mutations that are necessary for developing language.

The researchers also use discoveries of tools and weapons to reconstruct how the artefacts were put together or maintained, and thereby gain an idea of which cognitive abilities the early humans minimally had.

The main point is that the researchers will combine different approaches to get the answers.

“Our key approach is to integrate all kinds of sources of information and all these bits and pieces of evidence into computer models and simulations of how cognitive evolution may have worked. We will never know with absolute certainty whether we are right, but we can make a valid guess of how it was,” Bender underlines.

Learning from hunter-gatherers

Using her anthropological knowledge, Bender will also use information about contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, whose way of living – including hunting, fishing and collecting shells – resembles those of the early modern humans.

“It is of course not possible directly to compare contemporary hunter-gatherers with early modern humans, because they are separated from each other by a 100,000 years, as is all of the world’s population today. But some experiences will have been similar, and one can learn from things they know and from how they deal with certain situations and events,“ Bender believes.

Combining this comparisons with all the bits and pieces from the sites, all the information will be put into computers models and simulations of human evolution.

“I believe this project will shed a lot of new insights on the evolution of language and cognition from a broader perspective than what has been done before. I think the project on early humans is one of the most interesting projects on how culture and language affect cognition, I have participated in,” says Andrea Bender.