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Jane Guyer: Cultures and Currency

New findings in brain science converge with a founding proposition of cultural anthropology: that the capacity of the human mind/brain for perception, retention, storage, retrieval, combination, application, and creativity with respect to knowledge is shaped by training and experience across the life course. Because the cultures of world history have varied so widely, anthropologists are always attentive to the possibility of learning something new about this astonishing and intricate capacity.

We asked Jane Guyer, the George Armstrong Kelly Professor in the Department of Anthropology, who conducts research on money and culture, and social and economic anthropology, to give us an example of how the human brain is shaped by certain experiences.

Jane Guyer: In coastal West Africa, for example, people memorized prices, payments, credit, and debt in networks that managed extensive valuable trades, stretching over vast areas. Cognitive scientist and anthropologist Ron Eglash argues that fractal logic is a profound principle of African thought and aesthetics. So the arts may be relevant to number memory. While studying the Ashanti gold weights with an undergraduate class, we wondered whether the figurative weights, associated with proverbs and stories, might work as discussion points during bargaining and mnemonics for mental accounts. One source describes counting currencies as a choreography. As far as I know, however, we do not yet have systematic interdisciplinary research on number and performance arts in the human mind/brain, for the peoples of the world whose history and ethnography testify to extraordinary mental capacities that literacy and written records have perhaps rendered redundant. Brain scientist Stanislas Dehaene has studied in the Amazon region and appreciated that “exact calculation requires cultural tools.” A conference co-organized by myself and colleagues Naveeda Kahn and Juan Obarrio here at JHU explored the ethnography of present-day “Number as Inventive Frontier.” A range of disciplines would be needed, however, to examine composition and operation of the “tools,” logic, and inventions to which these works refer: memory and social cues; linguistic terms for mathematics; the philosophy and logic of number itself; and the aesthetics of association and resonance.