Neuroanthropology

For a greater understanding of the encultured brain and body…

Archive for March 16th, 2008

The history of mind-altering mechanisms

Posted by gregdowney on March 16, 2008

Katherine MacKinnon of St. Louis University just dropped me a line to point out a recent book review in The New York Times, I Feel Good, by Alexander Star. Star reviews the book, On Deep History and the Brain, by Daniel Lord Smail (University of California Press). Amazon raters are giving it 4.5 stars at the moment, if you want to check it out through the bookseller. Normally, I’d trust Daniel to write our best stuff about ‘mind-altering’ chemicals of all sorts, but this book review just set me to thinking, so I thought I’d put my own two cents in.

Smail wants to tell the story of humanity as a series of ‘self-modifications of our mental states,’ according to the reviewer Star:

We want to alter our own moods and feelings, and the rise of man from hunter-gatherer and farmer to office worker and video-game adept is the story of the ever proliferating devices — from coffee and tobacco to religious rites and romance novels — we’ve acquired to do so. Humans, Smail writes, have invented “a dizzying array of practices that stimulate the production and circulation of our own chemical messengers,” and those devices have become more plentiful with time. We make our own history, albeit with neurotransmitters not of our choosing.

Smail is really a historian, but his venture into a kind of neuro-history shows the robustness of the emerging awareness that the brain is shaped by what humans do. Star points out that most ‘macro-history’ these days — long, sweeping accounts of human evolution and what is sometimes called something prosaic like the ‘rise and fall of civilizations’ — is not being written by historians, but rather by folks like Jared Diamond. In contrast, Smail is a medieval historian.

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Posted in Addiction, Animals, Cultural theory, Emotion, Evolution, Food & Eating, Neural plasticity | Leave a Comment »

I’m Not Really Running: Flow, Dissociation, and Expertise

Posted by dlende on March 16, 2008

The British long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe won last year’s New York City Marathon.  In a later interview, discussing the struggles and pains of running a marathon, Radcliffe said, “When I count to 100 three times, it’s a mile.  It helps me focus on the moment and not think about how many miles I have to go. I concentrate on breathing and striding, and I go within myself.” 

Gina Kolata used that quote in her article, I’m Not Really Running, I’m Not Really Running, which talked about dissociation strategies and peak performances: “The moral of the story? No matter how high you jump, how fast you run or swim, how powerfully you row, you can do better. But sometimes your mind gets in the way.  ‘All maximum performances are actually pseudo-maximum performances,’ Dr. [Bill] Morgan said. ‘You are always capable of doing more than you are doing’.”

Kolata recounts how this applies even to the everyday struggles of training: “Without realizing what I was doing, I dissociated a few months ago, in the middle of a long, fast bike ride. I’d become so tired that I could not hold the pace going up hills. Then I hit upon a method — I focused only on the seat of the rider in front of me and did not look at the hill or what was to come. And I concentrated on my cadence, counting pedal strokes, thinking of nothing else. It worked. Now I know why.  Dr. Morgan, who has worked with hundreds of subelite marathon runners, said every one had a dissociation strategy.”

Besides covering her own experience and having a brief mention of Tibetan monks, Kolata writes about how the brain can affect training and performance: “ ‘Imagine you are out running on a wet, windy, cold Sunday morning,’ said Dr. Timothy Noakes, an exercise physiologist at the University of Cape Town. ‘The conscious brain says, “You know that coffee shop on the corner. That’s where you really should be”.’ And suddenly, you feel tired, it’s time to stop.  ‘There is some fatigue in muscle, I’m not suggesting muscles don’t get fatigued,’ Dr. Noakes said. ‘I’m suggesting that the brain can make the muscles work harder if it wanted to’.” 

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Posted in Learning, Skill acquisition, Sport | 6 Comments »

More on persuasive, irrelevant ‘neuroscience’

Posted by gregdowney on March 16, 2008

Continuing on the subject from my previous post, Mark Liberman has a nifty little post on ‘The Functional Neuroanatomy of Science Journalism’ on the blog, Language Log (tip of the hat to Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock for alerting me to this one). Liberman points out some of the same things that I argued in the previous post, but he also brings in a very careful reading of a number of recent pieces in the press that attracted quite a bit of attention while really offering very little in the way of something new, except for the Unexpected Flavor of Neuroscience to spice things up!

One of the pieces that Liberman discusses is an article on the ‘hard-wiring’ of maternal instincts that Daniel explored in an earlier post, ‘Headline: Maternal Instinct Is Wired Into The Brain.’ Liberman nominates the original article by Tara Parker-Pope of The New York Times as an example of what he believes is a leading candidate for the ‘Most Pernicious Science Narrative of the Decade’:

1. Consider the hypothesis that (Stereotypical-Observation-X-About-People).
2. Brain Researcher Y used fMRI to show that (some experimental proxy for) X is (somewhat) true. Now we know!
3a. Optional bonus #1: Now we know why! It happens (somewhere) in the brain!
3b: Optional bonus #2: This shows that X is hard-wired and biological, not all soft and socially constructed.

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Posted in Brain imaging | 2 Comments »

 
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