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Archive for the ‘Developmental psychology’ Category

Children integrating their senses

Posted by gregdowney on May 27, 2008

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchTwo of the pieces that I have wanted to discuss appear together in Current Biology, both on evidence of sensory integration in adults compared to their integration in children. Nature News carried a story about both articles, One sense at a time, by Matt Kaplan. As Kaplan explains, the research generally supports the idea that: ‘Adults readily integrate sight, sound, smell, taste and touch in their everyday lives without a second thought. But research is revealing that this is not the case with children. Two new studies hint that children under the age of eight only use one sense at a time to judge the world around them.

As I started to discuss in an earlier piece on human equilibrium (long ago — still working on parts two and three), adults learn how to weight different sensory information depending on context and the task at hand, evaluating one stream against another if they conflict. When confronted with two contradictory impressions from different senses — such as video of a person saying one thing and audio of a slightly different word — adult sensory systems figure out a way to integrate the sense world, sometimes creating ‘sensory’ compromises or syntheses. The ability to integrate sensory information is fundamental to normal human functioning, but it tends to undermine certain conceptions of brain ‘modularity,’ as I argued in the earlier post.

But with these two articles, I want to explore something a bit different, so I’m going to tackle each one individually, and then reflect on one issue that I think is important: the tendency to see child development in a teleological framework, that is, as an incomplete version of an adult system rather than as a deployment of the child’s distinctive neural resources. Before you click on ‘read more’ below though, be warned; this piece is a bit long…

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Posted in Developmental psychology, Learning, Perception and the senses | 3 Comments »

Kids falling down

Posted by gregdowney on May 27, 2008

The Appeal of DirtIf, like me, you find the sense of balance and its development fascinating, or if you just want to learn more about toddlers falling over, check out Cognitive Daily’s wonderful piece discussing research on toddlers’ balance. A research team put weighted vests on toddlers to see how they would compensate when they tried to walk, and the poor little folks leaned the wrong way. That is, put a bit of weight on a toddler’s back, and he or she tends to lean backward to try to compensate. Man, little kids are ka-razy!

The piece by Dave Munger is, What backpack-wearing toddlers can tell us about how kids learn to walk. As always, Munger’s discussion is very thorough and gives a great sense for the original research. The work is reminiscent of the research of the late Esther Thelen, one of the psychologists who really opened my eyes to dynamic systems theory and a rethinking of developmental theory.

Posted in Developmental psychology, Embodiment, Links | 2 Comments »

Emotional intelligence in training

Posted by gregdowney on April 7, 2008

Although I’m not a real big fan of some of the work on ‘emotional intelligence,’ here’s an interesting short video of Daniel Goleman on Karma Tube (a positive, social change video site). As the page explains:

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, asks why we aren’t more compassionate more of the time. Sharing the results of psychological experiments (and the story of the Santa Cruz Strangler), he explains how we are all born with the capacity for empathy — but we sometimes choose to ignore it.

I’m really not sure what we gain by putting ‘emotional’ with ‘intelligence’ except that it does seem to increase the importance of empathy and perceptivity for those who undersell these human capacities. That is, I think the furor of ‘EI’ is in part simply that people who normally don’t get just how crucial interpersonal savvy is suddenly notice it.

Nevertheless, Goleman is a good big picture thinker, and in this piece he points out the malleability of human empathy, a crucial consideration for neuroanthropologists. It’s important to point out training effects on these abilities so that we’re not too prone to considering them permanent ‘personality’ traits.

Posted in Developmental psychology, Education, Emotion, Human variation | 1 Comment »

How your brain is not like a computer

Posted by gregdowney on March 17, 2008

At the end of my last post, or the one before that, I had a late-night ‘inspiration’ that must have sounded a bit like an outburst about how our brains are not like computers. There’s lots of good reasons for making that assertion, whether or not it’s an outburst. But one of the key issues is concern about ‘embodiment’ in cognitive science and the discussion of embodied cognition. Daniel, in his comments, put a link to the posting by Chris Chatham, 10 Important Differences Between Brains and Computers, which is excellent. There’s also an interesting discussion of this going on at Dr. Ginger Campbell’s blog on her Brain Science Podcasts, both of which (discussion and podcasts) I strongly recommend. See the first two topics on the list you can find here on ‘Artificial Intelligence.’

For the anthropologists in our audience, however, the term ‘embodied cognition’ is a bit unfortunate, not because it’s not a great term, but because an earlier intellectual movement in anthropology already snagged the adjective ‘embodied’ and then didn’t push the issue far enough to actually deal with physiological and biological dimensions of being embodied. That is, in anthropology, the term ‘embodiment’ has not been allowed to really stretch its wings, and has instead been more narrowly constrained to dealing with phenomenological, interactional, and theoretical issues deriving primarily from feminism, Foucauldian post-structuralism, and Bourdieu-ian sociology. All of these streams are important, but they do not yet engage with the sort of material that cognitive scientists mean when they use the term ‘embodied.’ The danger is that anthropologists will see the term, ‘embodied cognition,’ and it will not seem quite as disruptive to anthropology-as-usual as it should be.

Chatham’s posting makes this key issue clearer in his tenth reason that brains are not like computers: brains have bodies:

This is not as trivial as it might seem: it turns out that the brain takes surprising advantage of the fact that it has a body at its disposal. For example, despite your intuitive feeling that you could close your eyes and know the locations of objects around you, a series of experiments in the field of change blindness has shown that our visual memories are actually quite sparse. In this case, the brain is “offloading” its memory requirements to the environment in which it exists: why bother remembering the location of objects when a quick glance will suffice? A surprising set of experiments by Jeremy Wolfe has shown that even after being asked hundreds of times which simple geometrical shapes are displayed on a computer screen, human subjects continue to answer those questions by gaze rather than rote memory. A wide variety of evidence from other domains suggests that we are only beginning to understand the importance of embodiment in information processing.

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Posted in Cognitive anthropology, Cultural theory, Developmental psychology, Embodiment, Links | 7 Comments »

(insert clever French grammar title here)

Posted by gregdowney on March 7, 2008

Every once in a while, I drop some comment about language being ‘un-language-like’ when I’m talking about culture. It’s a tick, aggravated by my envy of linguistic anthropology, my wish that bodily practice was studied in anthropology as much (or had produced as much cool theory), and by my secret insecurity that I never took a course from Michael Silverstein when I was at the University of Chicago (what can I say? I was busy…). Most readers probably overlook my comments about language, chalking them up to PGSSD (post grad-school stress disorder) or some moral failing that they don’t want to know any more about. But I feel compelled to explain, especially since I found this great article on French speakers disagreeing on the gender of nouns (thanks to Dr. X’s Free Associations and grant-writing avoidance behaviour on my part).

Too often I think anthropologists use language ‘to think with’ when they are talking about ‘culture.’ Language is a kind of subliminal or suppressed metaphor guiding how they talk about this thing, culture. It leads to various problems, such as ‘code’ metaphors, reification of ‘the language/culture’ in things like meme theory, and the like. That is, people say some pretty daft things about ‘culture’ guided by the analogy with language.

The problem is, they’re not just committing sloppy thinking about human variation, they also don’t generally have a very grounded, empirically based view of language. That is, they assume things about language that linguistic anthropologists would dispute, especially those coming from a pragmatic approach (like Silverstein, from whom i took no courses and thus feel inadequate to be writing this).

Well, every once in a while, web surfing drops the perfect example right in your lap.

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Posted in Cultural theory, Developmental psychology, Language, Learning | 1 Comment »

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was right… about adults

Posted by gregdowney on March 5, 2008

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchNature recently carried a short piece, Perception coloured by language (written by Kerri Smith), on several research papers, including one by Paul Kay at the University of California, Berkeley (well, actually, Kay is also the co-author on another of the three papers, too). The original article, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US), is not openly accessible, but the abstract is here (Franklin et al. abstract). We’ve had a number of related posts on Neuroanthropology, including Daniel’s Language and Color, and my piece that the title of this one references, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is right… sort of?

The subject of language learning’s effect on the brain is an especially important one for a number of reasons to us at Neuroanthropology (other than our tendency to flog the occasional dead horse); not only is language a frequent surrogate for more amorphous concepts like ‘culture,’ but it is also one of the capacities that, due to the work of Chomsky, is frequently believed to have innate foundations in the brain. Chomsky’s discussion of a language function innate in all human brains provides one of the foundational texts for much broader, sweeping assertions about ‘massive modularity’ in the brain covering a wide variety of functions.

Work by Kay’s team focused on the brain hemisphere used to classify colours. They tested subjects by showing them coloured targets randomly in their visual fields, and then seeing how long subjects could shift attention to the targets. As Smith writes:

It is well known that in adults, perception of colour is processed predominantly by the left hemisphere, which is also where most people process language. Studies have shown that the language one speaks can have an impact on the colour one sees.

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Posted in Brain imaging, Brain Mechanisms, Developmental psychology, Language | 9 Comments »

Play and Culture

Posted by dlende on February 22, 2008

Two earlier posts on The Neurobiology of Play and Taking Play Seriously examined play as the neurobiological and behavioral levels.  Together, they present an argument for play as one primary way that animals with large brains achieve neurological integration through play’s role in skilled behavioral engagement and the building of social relationships. The last post ended by discussing the role of play in joint coordination and reciprocal fair play, and the first post by saying that play helps combine sensory information, emotional states, cognitive framing, bodily movement, and decision making. 

Today I want to argue that together, these processes help promote the production of culture.  Without the integration of basic neurological processing and social relationships into culture, culture is, in effect, an empty shell of forms and roles and symbols.  Play connects us into cultural forms, helps recreate them anew for developing individuals and even create new forms.  In other words, I see play as part of how we get cultural creole, which I discussed in an early post, Avatars and Cultural Creole, on the challenge persistent on-line communities present to anthropology’s theory of culture. 

But first a mini-ethnographic moment.  I went sledding with my kids the other day.  My eldest son’s best friend joined us, along with his older sister.  At first I was sledding with my little daughter as the boys zipped and at times tumbled down the hill on their own.  They started to create a game out of it, imagining they were space ships in battle.  Arguments began to break out over who beat whom and what type of ship each one could be.  A new game quickly evolved as I started to race down on my sled after them—suddenly I became the enemy, trying to torpedo them, hands outstretched as they tried to squirm away.  (To note, the combined rough-and-tumble/Space Wars held no interest for the older sister and was a bit too dangerous for my daughter, so they started hanging out and doing things together.  Play and gender…)  Then the game evolved more, as I went up the other side of the run-off pond where we sled.  First I was a dangerous battleship attacking them.  Tiring more quickly than they did, I finally simply lay there on the flat bottom of the pond and became a battlestar which they could ram with fierce joy. 
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Posted in Cultural theory, Developmental psychology, Learning, Play, Psychological anthropology, Skill acquisition | 1 Comment »

Poverty Poisons the Brain

Posted by dlende on February 18, 2008

Paul Krugman writes today that “Poverty Is Poison,” building off an article from the Financial Times that discussed last Friday’s session, “Poverty and Brain Development” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Krugman writes: 

As the article explained, neuroscientists have found that “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.” The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life. So now we have another, even more compelling reason to be ashamed about America’s record of failing to fight poverty.

The Financial Times article, “Poverty mars formation of infant brains,” provides some more detail about the impact of poverty through stress, inadequate nutrition and exposure to environmental toxins: “Studies by several US universities have revealed the pervasive harm done to the brain, particularly between the ages of six months and three years, from low socio-economic status.  Martha Farah, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s centre for cognitive neuroscience, said: ‘The biggest effects are on language and memory. The finding about memory impairment – the ability to encounter a pattern and remember it – really surprised us’.” 
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Posted in Developmental psychology, Embodiment, Human variation, Inequality, Neural plasticity, Stress | 10 Comments »

The Neurobiology of Play

Posted by dlende on February 17, 2008

Taking Play Seriously, by Robin Marantz Henig, appears today in the New York Times Magazine.  Henig draws on ethology, neuroscience, and developmental psychology to highlight advances in research on play.  Play strikes many of us as deeply essential, but what the heck is it for?  It’s not precisely clear. 

Today I’ll cover some of the interesting developments about the neurobiology of play mentioned in Taking Play Seriously.  So John Byers first.  Byers is a zoologist at the University of Idaho who noticed that the developmental trajectory of play looks like an inverted U across many species, increasing during the juvenile period and dropping off during puberty.  This pattern corresponded quite well with the growth curve of the cerebellum.  The article summarizes the implications: 

The synchrony suggested a few things to Byers: that play might be related to growth of the cerebellum, since they both peak at about the same time; that there is a sensitive period in brain growth, during which time it’s important for an animal to get the brain-growth stimulation of play; and that the cerebellum needs the whole-body movements of play to achieve its ultimate configuration.

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Posted in Brain Mechanisms, Developmental psychology, Embodiment, Learning, Perception and the senses, Play, Skill acquisition | 2 Comments »

The Family Dinner Deconstructed

Posted by dlende on February 8, 2008

National Public Radio had a radio broadcast yesterday morning on “The Family Dinner Deconstructed.”  Here’s the blurb: “The ritual of a family dinner has been praised as an antidote to bad grades and bad habits in kids. But as researchers look closer at the family dinner, they raise the question: Is it the mere act of eating together that counts, or is it that strong families are already more likely to have a family dinner?” 

The reporter does a wonderful job talking with a variety of researcher to focus in on the proximate features of the family dinner—conversations, relationships, rituals, emotions—and how they can impact physical and mental health.  For example, the quality of conversations at mealtime was a better predictor of reading development than parents actually reading to their children.  But what mattered was the content on dinner conservation, that it was complex and “rich with explanation, story telling, and more.”  Similarly, for physical and mental development (for example, eating disorders), specific behaviors at dinner proved important: roles assigned (setting the table, beginning and end to dinner); a genuine concern about daily activities; and a sense of empathy and concern for each other. 

While the radio cast pushes a double-blind study to “determine” the specific effects of a good-quality family dinner versus dinner-as-usual, the announcer rightly acknowledges that doing such research is a daunting prospect.  I would add that an ethnographic approach that builds on this educational and psychological research and that teases out the relationships between dinner, family interaction, and development as a joint physical-mental phenomenon could also add some great insights.

Posted in Developmental psychology, Education, Food & Eating, Human variation, Learning, Relationships | 1 Comment »


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