Buffering, Porosity and Brain Health in Uganda
TWCF Number
Project Duration
November 1 / 2022
- October 31 / 2025
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
Amount Awarded

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Ian Corbin
Institution The Brigham and Women's Hospital, Inc.

Cyrus Olsen
Institution The University of Scranton

This study, from a team directed by Ian Corbin, seeks to examine the role played by social networks – human and non-human – in influencing health-seeking behaviors associated with brain health in Uganda. The researchers hypothesize that kinship relations, including ancestral and spiritual actors, strongly influence health-seeking behavior and thus must be studied qualitatively and quantitatively to ensure sound principles guide future health interventions.

The proposed study has two complementary aims. The first is empirical: (1) To determine the various ways that social networks impact treatment-seeking for a group of 50 participants in Uganda. To do this, they will collect data on patient behavior and social connections using a network mapping and survey tool called PERSNET.

The second aim is theoretical, (2) To develop from the data a theory of the benefits and dangers of viewing humans as “porous” or readily influenced by outside forces and actors, in the context of healthcare. The applied potential of this theory is to support the design of culturally and contextually appropriate brain health interventions.

This study is motivated by a recognition of the shortcomings of the disease-centric model of medicine, which prioritizes technological and biomedical solutions to physical health while failing to recognize the influence of the social or cultural environment on wellbeing. Referencing Charles Taylor’s conceptualization of the “buffered” and “porous” models of personhood, the researchers propose that the current disease model of health care must evolve in a way that recognizes the porosity of human beings, and the interconnectedness of individuals to their broader social context. This project seeks to contribute to this aim.

The project is led by an interdisciplinary team from the Human Network Initiative, which includes a philosopher, neuroscientist and theologian, building on existing research partnerships in Uganda. The Human Network Initiative is located in the Neurology department of Harvard Medical School / Brigham and Women’s Hospital and seeks to explore the manifold and massive ways that interpersonal community, or its lack of presence, affect brain health and general flourishing.

The outputs of this study will include academic papers, op-eds, and a chapter in Corbin’s forthcoming Yale University Press book. The team plans to engage a documentary filmmaker to produce a short, accessible film about the research and findings, and host a conference in Uganda to publicize them. We hope that our outputs will be an aid in the construction of a more porous modernity, in Uganda, America and beyond, impacting the ways that practitioners, patients, social scientists, humanitarian agencies and faith-based communities think about networks and health-seeking behaviors.

Footnote: According to Taylor, the “buffered self” model of personhood is marked by a clear boundary between mind, body and outer world and is the dominant model in modern Western society. By contrast, the “porous self” exists in a world in which the borders between physical, mental and social worlds are blurred, and outside agencies such as spirits exist and are able to cross these borders. (see Taylor, C. A Secular Age. Belknap Press. 2018).

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