Neuroanthropology

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Archive for the ‘Embodiment’ Category

Thinking to change your brain: Sharon Begley in the WSJ

Posted by gregdowney on March 15, 2009

In January, The Wall Street Journal carried a short excerpt from science writer
Sharon Begley’s excellent, but unfortunately titled book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. The article, How Thinking Can Change the Brain, is excellent, as is the book, which I’d highly recommend, but both engage in a couple of pervasive rhetorics for talking about brain function that I believe make it harder to really theorize about issues like neuroplasticity.

That is, although I like Begley’s work, some of the ways that she writes about the brain puts her readers, if they’re not already neuroscience savvy, two steps backwards before moving toward greater understanding. It’s sad because I think her book is one of the best works for a general readership on recent research, and the brain imaging projects with Tibetan monks which forms the central narrative of the book are fascinating on so many levels. Begley has a brilliant eye for turning research into story-telling and with the meditation research, she’s picked an ideal subject on which to exercise her skills.

If only she would stop carrying on about ‘Mind’ and ‘Brain’ like they were the two primary characters…

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Posted in Brain imaging, Embodiment, general, Neural plasticity | 11 Comments »

Throwing like a girl(‘s brain)

Posted by gregdowney on February 1, 2009

We’ve all read some of the discussions about differences in men’s and women’s brains, but the case of throwing overhand offers a cautionary tale about thinking we’ve found something inherent in being male or female. The danger is that we accept too quickly observed differences without digging a bit deeper into their variation and potential causes. In the United States, most of our readers will have run across the idea that women throw like, well, … girls.

Jennie Finch can strike you out.

Jennie Finch can strike you out.

In fact, the empirical gulf between average throwing ability in men and women is huge (just as it is symbolically important), dwarfing virtually any other measurable difference between the sexes, even things like aggression, frequency of masturbation, attitudes towards casual sex, and spatial abilities on paper-and-pencil tests.

Janet Shibley Hyde, one of the leading proponents of the ‘gender similarity hypothesis,’ concedes that there are some marked differences between men and women, singling out throwing ability as the most pronounced among them (2007: 260; see also 2005).

Thomas and French (1985: 266 & 276), in a meta-analysis reviewing all available research on sex differences in throwing, found that the gap stood at 1.5 standard deviations at three years of age, and increased over time, widening to between three and five standard deviations by puberty. By contrast, the much discussed ‘math gap’ between boys and girls, in Hyde’s meta-analysis of 48 studies, was a +0.08 on problem solving and +0.16 on national math tests (Hyde 2005; 2007: 260). In other words, if you’re impressed by the gap in math scores (I’m not), you should be awestruck at the gap in throwing ability.

I just finished writing the draft of a potential book chapter on throwing ability for a volume Prof. Robert Sands is putting together on biocultural approaches to sports. The chapter steps off from my observations that most of my colleagues in Brazil, men included, ‘threw like girls’ even though they were incredibly talented athletes, some of the most astounding capoeira practitioners I have ever seen. The book chapter is linked to some other work I’ve been doing, so I’ve got notes enough for several chapters – I thought I might put some up on Neuroanthropology.net because they were especially related to some of the things we focus on here.

This is probably going to wind up being at least two or three posts, so in this one, I’m only going to discuss the neurological issues surrounding throwing and the likely mechanical or technical issues that make (some) women (and Brazilian men and others) ‘throw like girls.’ At least one more post is going to deal with physiological plasticity beyond the nervous system, such as the way throwing remodels the shoulder, to explore anatomical plasticity more broadly, but you’re going to have to come back later for that one…

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Posted in Embodiment, Gender, Human variation, Learning, Skill acquisition, Sport | Tagged: , , | 25 Comments »

Donald Tuzin and the Breath of a Ghost

Posted by dlende on December 19, 2008

Donald Tuzin

Donald Tuzin

In the Scientific American piece Ghost Stories: Visits from the Deceased, Vaughan Bell describes how the dead stay with us. An embodied sense of them, present yet gone, comes strongly through our memories and our perceptions: “for many people [loved ones] linger in our senses—as sights, sounds, smells, touches or presences.”

Bell issues a call for more research on grief and embodied remembrances, and then notes, “There are hints that the type of grief hallucinations might also differ across cultures. Anthropologists have told us a great deal about how the ceremonies, beliefs and the social rituals of death differ greatly across the world, but we have few clues about how these different approaches affect how people experience the dead after they have gone.”

I wrote previously on Bell’s article and how writers have explored this terrain in Grief, Ghosts and Gone. Still, the anthropologist in me took Vaughan’s point as a challenge. Ethnographic work is not as widely known in the larger scientific literatures, but it is both broad and deep. My search was rewarded!

Donald Tuzin has a striking 1975 article, “The Breath of a Ghost: Dreams and the Fear of the Dead.” In this piece (scribd full text) he describes his research with the Ilahita Arapesh of northeastern Papua New Guinea and the confluence of their beliefs and practices surrounding the dead with everyday experience.

Tuzin pays particular attention to “the functional implications of (1) the different ghost types encountered by the Arapesh dreamer as distinguished by degrees of familiarity in life, and (2) the strikingly different beliefs held about ghosts as against the more temporally remote ancestors (556).”

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Posted in Cultural theory, Embodiment, Emotion, Psychological anthropology | 2 Comments »

Balance between cultures: equilibrium training

Posted by gregdowney on November 30, 2008

Way back in January, I posted ‘Equilibrium, modularity, and training the brain-body.‘ At the American Anthropology Association annual meeting, I presented my current version of this research, significantly updating it with ethnographic material from Brazil, a comparative discussion of different techniques for training balance, and a series of graphics that I hope help to make my points. The title of that paper was ‘Balancing Between Cultures: A Comparative Neuroanthropology of Equilibrium in Sports and Dance.’

I’ve decided to post a version of this paper here, with the caveat that it’s still a work-in-progress. I’d be delighted to read any feedback people are willing to offer.

Introduction

Boca d' Rio does a bananeira

Boca d' Rio does a bananeira

As a cultural anthropologist interested in the effects of physical training and perceptual learning, I see ‘neuroanthropology’ as a continuation of the cognitive anthropology advocated by Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn (1997).

The new label, however, reflects engagement with a new generation of brain research, what Andy Clark (1997) refers to as ‘third wave’ cognitive science, or work on embodied cognition.1 Much of the ‘third wave’ does not focus strictly on what we normally refer to as ‘cognition,’ that is, consciousness, memory, or symbolic reasoning. Rather embodied cognition often highlights other brain activities, such as motor, perceptual and regulatory functions, and the influence of embodiment on thought itself; this is the reason I’m thrilled to have endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky as part of this panel, as his work is part of the expanded engagement of neuroanthropology with organic embodiment.2.

My own entry into neuroanthropology results from three influences: a phenomenological interest in cultural variation in human perception, anthropological study of embodiment, and apprenticeship-based ethnographic methods. This method posed an odd question during my field research on the Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance, capoeira. Simply put, as a devoted apprentice-observer, I failed to maintain hermeneutical agnosticism and started to ask, ‘Is what my teachers and peers report — and I too seem to be experiencing — plausible?’

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Posted in Neural plasticity, Perception and the senses, Skill acquisition, Learning, general, Embodiment, Human variation, Sport, Brain Mechanisms, Ethnography | Tagged: , , , | 16 Comments »

Andy Clark & Michael Wheeler: Embodied cognition and cultural evolution

Posted by gregdowney on November 23, 2008

The Cognition and Culture website has posted a link to the new edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B on ‘cultural transmission and evolution of human behaviour.’ I wanted to comment on just one piece on embodied cognition and cultural evolution, by philosophers Michael Wheeler and Andy Clark (unfortunately, Philosophical Transactions B is behind a subscription wall, although there’s a one-page ‘free preview’ [ouch] here). The Cognition and Culture website has the table of contents posted here. I was vaguely familiar with Michael Wheeler’s work before this piece, but Andy Clark (it’s not much of a profile) has written some of the work that’s most influenced my thinking about the effects of varied skill acquisition on cognition, especially his remarkable book, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again (Amazon listing).

A ream of Clark’s papers can be found here. A review of Michael Wheeler’s book, Reconstructing the cognitive world: The next step, written by Leslie Marsh can be downloaded here. We’ll come back to Andy Clark’s work again in later posts.

I must admit a certain morbid fascination with how one of my favorite streams of thought — embodied cognition — would fare combined with cultural evolution — an area of scholarship that, well, to put it nicely, is uneven (before you get all defensive, let me just stop you with one word: mimetics). It’s sort of like watching one of your good friends get hit on by a sleazy guy at a bar. She looks happy, but you’re sort of cringing at the chance that she might actually take him home. In spite of this instinctual cringe, this special edition of Philosophical Transactions has some really interesting work on cultural evolution, especially because many of the pieces focus tightly on the enormously problematic issue of cultural transmission.

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Posted in Embodiment, Evolution, general, Genetics, Human variation, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Christof Koch and the Neural Correlates of Consciousness

Posted by dlende on September 29, 2008


Scholarpedia has an entire entry on the neural correlates of consciousness, which argues for including the neural correlates for conscious precepts (that’s a dog!) as any part of understanding how we are consciously aware. In this case, the neural correlates of both basal arousal (see image below) and activity in the inferior temporal cortex are necessary for us to be consciously aware.

This Scholarpedia page is maintained by Christof Koch and Florian Mormann, both at Caltech. Mormann is a post-doc; his latest article on “Latency and selectivity of single neurons indicate hierarchical processing in the human medial temporal lobe” (pdf) appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Koch wrote the popular book The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach based on his collaborative work with Francis Crick. Here is Michael Shermer reviewing the book at Scientific American:
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Posted in Brain Mechanisms, Embodiment, Perception and the senses | 1 Comment »

Video Games, Brain and Psychology Round Up

Posted by dlende on August 23, 2008

After earlier round-ups on video games (#1 on gaming in itself, as a social form; #2 on social science and game design), I am adding this third round up covering gaming and mind/brain research.

Together all three round ups provide the background for approaching video games through neuroanthropology. Ideally this background would then serve to inform specific research on gaming, which I have addressed previously in discussing avatars, MMORPGs, and Grand Theft Auto, probably my most synthetic piece.

To place that work in context, you can also check out the popular post One Day at Kotaku: Understanding Video Games and Other Modern Obsessions. See also: video games and the neuroanthropology of interaction and gaming and cultural perception.

This round-up draws more on published research than the previous two. At times the best I could provide is a link to an abstract; where possible, I have tracked down pdfs. And if there are other good papers out there that I don’t mention, please leave a comment!

Games and Neuroscience

Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier, The Cognitive Neuroscience of Video Games
Pdf of a comprehensive chapter that appeared in the book Digital Media: Transformations in Human Communication

Klaus Mathiak & Rene Weber, Toward Brain Correlates of Natural Behavior: fMRI during Violent Video Games
“We propose that virtual environments can be used to study neuronal processes involved in semi-naturalistic behavior as determined by content analysis. Importantly, the activation pattern reflects brain-environment interactions rather than stimulus responses as observed in classical experimental designs.”

Niklas Ravaja et al., Spatial Presence and Emotions during Video Game Playing: Does It Matter with Whom You Play?
Yes it does—playing against another person is different than playing against a computer

CS Green & D. Bavelier, Action-Video-Game Experience Alters the Spatial Resolution of Vision
“Compared with nonplayers, action-video-game players could tolerate smaller target-distractor distances. Thus, the spatial resolution of visual processing is enhanced in this population. Critically, similar effects were observed in non-video-game players who were trained on an action video game; this result verifies a causative relationship between video-game play and augmented spatial resolution.” Gaming can also reduce gender differences in spatial cognition.

Fumiko Hoeft et al., Gender Differences in the Mesocorticolimbic System during Computer Game-play
“males showed greater activation and functional connectivity compared to females in the mesocorticolimbic system. These findings may be attributable to higher motivational states in males, as well as gender differences in reward prediction, learning reward values and cognitive state during computer video games”

MJ Koepp et al., Evidence for Striatal Dopamine Release during a Video Game
Pdf of well-received 1998 Nature paper on reward, dopamine and gaming. Slightly dated now with its view of reward and dopamine, but definitely a foundational piece.

Niklas Ravaja, The Psychophysiology of Video Gaming: Phasic Emotional Responses to Game Events
Ever wonder why it’s fun? Both positive and negative game events when players actively involved in playing elicited “positive emotional responses in terms of facial EMG activity” (pdf)

Games and Embodiment

James Paul Gee, Video Games and Embodiment
Recent article in Games and Culture laying out Gee’s view on gaming and human thinking as both “situated and embodied”.

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Posted in Brain Mechanisms, Embodiment, Links, Play, Technology | 5 Comments »

Fall prevention in older people — Stephen Lord at HCSNet

Posted by gregdowney on July 21, 2008

Sway meter, subject on foam

Sway meter, subject on foam

Daniel isn’t the only guy at Neuroanthropology who gets to go to good conferences; last week, while in the throes of a cold brought on by fieldwork with the 15-and-under Sydney city select rugby team, I got to go to the HCSNet Workshop on Speech, Perception and Action held at Western Sydney University.

HCSNet is funded by the Australian Research Council to promote research on human communication. I only got to go to the second day of the two-day conference (because I was cooking meals for 20 hungry rugby hopefuls the first day), but I saw a number of great presentations, including talks by Catherine Best, MARCS Auditory Laboratories, UWS, Beatriz Calvo-Merino, University College London, and Stephen Lord, Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute. I’ll blog soon on Dr. Calvo-Merino, one of the high points of the day, but today I want to make some notes on Prof. Lord’s fascinating research and talk.

Prof. Lord heads the Falls and Balance Research Group. Visit the group’s website for publications and some great information about risk factors for falling. At the conference, Lord discussed the group’s extensive applied research examining different factors that contribute to older people falling and experimental interventions to decrease the contribution of any single factor. The project has created a screening procedure for use by general practitioners to evaluate an older person’s likelihood of falling.

As regular readers know, I’m particularly interested in the way humans maintain equilibrium (see earlier posts, Kids falling down and Equilibrium, modularity, and training the brain-body, and Daniel’s post of some great parkour video, Free Running and Extreme Balance). In the longer of these posts (Equilbrium, modularity…), I specifically discussed how the ‘sense of balance’ is actually a much more complex synthesis of multiple sensory inputs, both exteroception (perception of the world) and interoception (perception of the self).

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Posted in Embodiment, general, Medical anthropology, Perception and the senses | Tagged: , , , | 9 Comments »

Anthropology and Social Design Round Up

Posted by dlende on July 1, 2008

John Sherry is an anthropologist who is also chair of the Department of Marketing at Notre Dame’s Mendoza School of Business. I had coffee the other day with John, and was struck by how similar some of our approaches are. What unites us is an interest in behavior, for me behavioral health and for John consumer behavior, and a belief that anthropology can help unite interdisciplinary understandings of behavior and experience.

John has several online papers that focus on experience, embodiment and context. First up is Speaking of Art as Embodied Imagination: A Multi-Sensory Approach to Understanding Sensory Experience (it’s a large pdf, give it a moment).

Another good one is Fruit Flies Like A Banana (Or, When Ripeness Is All): Meditation on Markets and Timescapes. And here’s a short piece on Sporting Sensation. For more, check out his online cv with pdf links.

I’ve also come across a new blog uiGarden, which is about “Weaving Usability and Cultures”. (I covered similar blogs on “anthropology, design, business” back in April). Several posts there at uiGarden caught my attention:

A View of the Future: Trends Research, Ethnography and Design
Why Do People Become Attached to Their Products
Story Telling
Design for Emotion: Ready for the Next Decade?

And now for a more traditional round-up:

Irene Guijt, An “Aha” Moment in the Development Sector
Stories and practical examples, not grand narratives, as making the difference

Jason Palmer, Interview: The Cellphone Anthropology
Interview with Jan Chipchase, bringing anthropology to cellphones everywhere (for more on Chipchase, see our own Cellphones Save the World.)

Dori Tunstall, Design Anthropology: What Can It Add to Your Design Practice?
“Anthropology is engaged with issues of the global flows of people and goods, human rights and social justice, global feminism, technology adoption, the social effects of the environmental degradation, and local sustainability practices—all issues that have become important to designers.”

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Posted in Applied Anthropology, Embodiment, Links | Leave a Comment »

Monkeys and robots teaming up — worried?

Posted by gregdowney on May 29, 2008

As Daniel discussed in January in Monkey Makes Robot Walk!, a number of researchers are working on brain-machine interfaces by attaching prostheses to monkeys. Science Daily carries a new story, Mind Over Matter: Monkey Feeds Itself Using Its Brain, about a University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine experiment in which a monkey successfully used a human-like prosthetic limb to feed itself. As the Science Daily story reports:

Using this technology, monkeys in the Schwartz lab are able to move a robotic arm to feed themselves marshmallows and chunks of fruit while their own arms are restrained. Computer software interprets signals picked up by probes the width of a human hair. The probes are inserted into neuronal pathways in the monkey’s motor cortex, a brain region where voluntary movement originates as electrical impulses. The neurons’ collective activity is then evaluated using software programmed with a mathematic algorithm and then sent to the arm, which carries out the actions the monkey intended to perform with its own limb. Movements are fluid and natural, and evidence shows that the monkeys come to regard the robotic device as part of their own bodies.

According to the team, this is the ‘first’ example of the ‘use of cortical signals to control a multi-jointed prosthetic device for direct real-time interaction with the physical environment (‘embodiment’)’ (from the abstract to the Nature article) (I’m always dubious about such ‘firsts,’ especially as this team has been announcing work on this project since at least 2004; but the research is still fascinating even if not a ‘first’).

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Posted in Animals, Embodiment, Neural plasticity, Skill acquisition | Leave a Comment »

 
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