Posted by gregdowney on August 20, 2010
Daniel and I exchanged emails about the recent piece in The New York Times, ‘Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain,’ by Matt Richtel. We both responded strongly to the article; although we liked the discussion of technology’s effects on cognition and the positive benefits of being in nature (and away from digital technology), getting down to thinking through the various points left us both feeling pretty cranky (maybe not enough time in nature, eh?). Daniel’s already taken on some of the issues that could be raised with the piece, but I just wanted to pick up a few other threads.
The article discusses a river trip including five neuroscientists who took time away from their typical routine of digital interaction, dwelling in built environments, and conducting research to float down a river valley in Utah and spend some quality time with bats and cliffs as well as each other. To be honest, this sounds pretty idyllic to me, and I think far more conferences should be held outdoors in tents rather than in rented hotel meeting rooms with PowerPoint slides, 15-minute papers and cellophane-wrapped muffins. A whole new industry of Adventure Academic Meetings could allow physicists to discuss new breakthroughs while spelunking or philosophers to reflect on Continental theory while snowshoeing. Sign me up for the Anthropologists Hike the Appalachian Trail conference, but count me out of International Neuroanthro-Bungee 2012!
The participants in the white-watering brain sciences tête-à-tête seem to share my enthusiasm for a change in conference formats:
“There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you,” Mr. Braver says. He echoes the others in noting that the trip is in many ways more effective than work retreats set in hotels, often involving hundreds of people who shuffle through quick meetings, wielding BlackBerrys. “It’s why I got into science, to talk about ideas.”
One of the first things that irritated me in the NYTimes piece, however, was the conflation of living the ‘life uninterrupted’ — having a small, intimate retreat with a handful of people — and being ‘in Nature,’ as if the two were inherently inextricable. Of course, one wouldn’t have to invite hundreds of people to the hotel for a conference, and the conversations would likely be a lot more intimate and less distracted, even if your small group was at a spa or dude ranch. Likewise, you can go to Nature at an outdoor music festival and feel completely over-stimulated, even though you have no access to electricity or indoor plumbing.
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Posted in Neural plasticity, Perception and the senses | 4 Comments »
Posted by dlende on August 17, 2010
Ah, rafting the San Juan River in southern Utah, camping and hiking for a week – for most people, a vacation. But for a select group of brain researchers, and some accompanying journalists, it was “serious work.”
It was a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.
The whole technology vs. nature theme is a hit, as the NY Times article, Your Brain on Computers: Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain, is the most popular article there right now. But that dichotomy of technology as bad and nature as good is a false one. Worse, the prism of the brain proves to be dangerous rapids rather than a river of explanation.
I’ll start with the money quote for me:
Back in the car, Mr. Kramer says he checked his phone because he was waiting for important news: whether his lab has received a $25 million grant from the military to apply neuroscience to the study of ergonomics. He has instructed his staff to send a text message to an emergency satellite phone the group will carry with them.
Mr. Atchley says he doesn’t understand why Mr. Kramer would bother. “The grant will still be there when you get back,” he says.
“Of course you’d want to know about a $25 million grant,” Mr. Kramer responds. Pressed by Mr. Atchley on the significance of knowing immediately, he adds: “They would expect me to get right back to them.”
It is a debate that has become increasingly common as technology has redefined the notion of what is “urgent.” How soon do people need to get information and respond to it? The believers in the group say the drumbeat of incoming data has created a false sense of urgency that can affect people’s ability to focus.
The anthropologists among you should already know where I am going – the conflation of a social expectation, a social reality, with a technological cause. The money quote really is just this, “They would expect me to get right back to them.” But rather than dwelling on that, the piece then asserts that “technology has redefined the notion of what is ‘urgent’.” Sorry, but it was actually people who did that, people and their social expectations. Technology doesn’t come to us unmediated by culture. Rather, technology is culture.
Unfortunately a good ethnographic moment, which says one thing about human life, is turned into a reductive, brain-oriented explanation in the next paragraph – the expectation to get back to someone becomes the drumbeat of incoming data. Yet they are two very different things.
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Posted in Neural plasticity, Technology | 5 Comments »
Posted by ashwinbudden on March 1, 2010
Back in February, the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University in Copenhagen hosted a fantastic looking conference, “Great Expectations: The Plasticity of the Brain and Neurosciences at the Threshold: Nature and Nurture – And Beyond…” The conference was organized by GNOSIS Research Centre – Mind and Thinking Initiative.
It had a great line-up: Steven Rose, Douglas Hofstader, Maxine Sheet-Johnson, Timothy Ingold, and a host of Danish scholars whose work we can now all expore. The three days of the conference each addressed a different theme: Brain Plasticity, Awareness and Intentionality, and Beyond Dualisms.
You can read the Introductory Statement on the conference. Here’s one paragraph from the end:
Neuroscience seems to have learned from its critics. Reductive and neurocentric positions have to give way to the ideas that the plastic brain is capable of learning for life, and that both bodily movement as well as social activity leaves clearly formed traces in the development of the brain. Whenever we pray, learn to ride a bicycle, or read a book, the brain changes. The brain is not destiny. Are there no limits, human and neurobiological, to how much we can learn and to the extent that upbringing might effect changes in the brain?
The best thing is that you can get the videos from all the talks. So here is Steven Rose on The Future of the Brain – Promises and Perils of the Neurosciences (preceed by an intro to the conference), Jesper Morgensen on Any Limits to Neuroplasticity?, and Tim Ingold on The Social Brain.
You can access the entire program and all the videos at the Great Expectations conference website.
Posted in Brain Mechanisms, Embodiment, Language, Learning, Neural plasticity, Perception and the senses, Philosophy, Technology, Video | Leave a Comment »
Posted by dlende on February 7, 2010
The Mind and Its Potential Conference was hosted in Sydney, Australia back in November.
Mind & Its Potential is your opportunity to hear the world’s top scientists, psychologists and philosophers explain how to apply the new science of the brain in education, medicine, business and your life.
After we previewed it, Paul wrote up a nice review of the conference. Now SlowTV is featuring the videos of several of the talks.
Michael Valenzuela, Neuroplasticity and the ‘Use it or Lose it’ Brain
“Dr Michael Valenzuela describes the concept of neuroplasticity in the brain. He cites the tangible benefits that mental and physical activity have on the development and ongoing functioning of the brain to demonstrate how our neural pathways work on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis.”
Dr Daniel Siegel MD on We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Neuroscience of Social Emotion.
Here Siegel speaks about “Interpersonal Neurobiology…an interdisciplinary view of life experience that draws on over a dozen branches of science to create a framework for understanding of our subjective and interpersonal lives.”
Baroness Susan Greenfield, The Brain, the Mind and Life in the 21st Century.
“A lively presentation” on “mind function and dysfunction in the modern world,” i.e., technology is killing your brain, but within the broader context of how the brain helps you be you (snarky, I know, but actually it’s a good presentation on relating plasticity with individuality and experience up until 14:50 or so).
And a group discussion featuring Susan Greenfield, Daniel Siegel, Michael Valenzuela, and Jane Burns that is hosted by Alan Saunders, Changing the Brain: Mind over Matter?
“This expert panel addresses how recent discoveries in neuroscience have changed the way we conceive of brain function. Recent thinking proposes that the brain is an infinitely malleable organ, constantly changing and heavily influenced by its surroundings and by the functions that it is required to perform.”
As a bonus, you can also get Prof Jason Mattingley on SlowTV speaking on What Can Neuroscience Tell Us about Consciousness?
“Mattingley looks at the different understandings of consciousness and what the field of neuroscience can add to our collective understanding of how the mind works.”
Posted in Links, Neural plasticity | 3 Comments »
Posted by dlende on June 4, 2009
By Andrew Hessert, Andrew Medvecz, Jimmy Miller, Jacquelyn Richard
Barry Bonds elevated his game to the next level with “the clear” and “the cream”, shattering legendary records in the process. Are scientists, students, and other academics about to do the same?
While stars such as Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi continue to defend themselves against their alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs, a new debate over the use of a different kind of performance-enhancing drug has begun to rage in the scientific world.
Cognitive enhancers like Adderall and Ritalin have commonly been used as a treatment for behavioral disorders such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. However, these drugs are now becoming popular “performance enhancing” substances for healthy individuals trying to gain a competitive edge by boosting their overall cognitive function.
Henry Greely, a Stanford Law Professor, advocates for unrestricted availability of these drugs, claiming the enhancers will level the “cognitive playing field” and spark a new era of increased innovation. But Greely and other advocates fail to recognize the severe personal and societal consequences that such availability would generate, looking instead to a pharmaceutical solution that would, in the end, cause more problems than it would solve.
How They Work
Ritalin and Adderall have been on the market since the 1960s to treat conditions like ADD and ADHD (Center for Substance Abuse Research, 2005). While the specific mechanisms of these disorders have yet to be fully elucidated, cognitive enhancers have been successful in controlling or mitigating symptoms in patients. Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall (dextroamphetamine) both inhibit dopamine reuptake, allowing dopamine signals to remain active for longer periods of time (Jones, Joseph, Barak, Caron, & Wightman, 1999). Provigil (modafinil), an alternative to the potentially addictive dopaminergic drugs, operates in similar fashion, but instead blocks reuptake of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.
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Posted in Brain Mechanisms, Education, Medical anthropology, Neural plasticity, Skill acquisition | 16 Comments »
Posted by gregdowney on May 20, 2009
A young Andre Agassi
Studying sports training and skill acquisition, I often run headlong into the concept of ‘talent.’ When I suggest that athletic achievement demonstrates the extraordinary malleability of the human nervous system, the ability of our muscles to remodel, the refinement of athletes’ perceptual acuity, and even how our skeletons can be reconfigured by training, audience members often respond, ‘Yeah, but what about innate talent?’
Or, confronted by the yawning gap between elite athletes’ performances and the ability of the average person, sceptics still want to focus on the slight differences among elites athletes (for example, Jon Entine’s book Taboo), suggesting that this tiny fraction of difference is the ‘innate’ part, the ‘talent.’ I can describe the years of arduous labour that go into producing elite-level achievement, the countless hours of training and sophisticated coaching, and someone will inevitably say, ‘Okay, but some people are just inherently good at sports, aren’t they?’
But as psychologist K. Anders Ericsson said in an interview in Fast Company (cited here by Dan Peterson), ‘The traditional assumption is that people come into a professional domain, have similar experiences, and the only thing that’s different is their innate abilities. There’s little evidence to support this. With the exception of some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body constrains an individual from reaching an expert level.’
Obviously, certain dimensions of the body can affect one’s ability to participate in a sport like basketball or sumo at an elite level, or a genetic abnormality may create an unusual wrinkle in a metabolic or even a neural process, but research like Ericsson’s suggests that these sorts of traits are likely the exception rather than the rule. That is, even if there is a genetic trait that helps some Kenyan runners to excel, or gives an individual with photographic memory, or helps a free diver to endure oxygen deprivation, these cases do not confirm the folk idea that talent is innate (and thus likely genetic).
In this post, I want consider the difference that makes a difference. That is, how the concept of talent itself actually affects the unfolding and compounding of developmental variation, helping extreme ability to emerge (and de-motivating those who don’t demonstrate early ‘promise’). Whether or not ‘talent’ exists—and I’m profoundly skeptical—believing that it does is a good foundation for exaggerating variation in skilled ability.
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Posted in Embodiment, Human variation, Neural plasticity, Perception and the senses, Skill acquisition, Sport | Tagged: expert performance, K. Anders Ericsson, rugby research, scouting, sports, talent, talent identification | 16 Comments »
Posted by gregdowney on April 17, 2009
Intellectual labels are always a tricky business, necessary for talking about ideas and suggesting that a theorist is in a particular ideological neighborhood. Yet, they can drag along so much baggage that they become self-defeating, evoking instant resistance or inevitable misinterpretation if poorly used. In the best of cases, they can help to create a clear identity for innovative work in an academic field, speeding the effort to carve out a space for ideas in a cluttered terrain of thought. Deployed well, they can help to clarify and orient us; applied clumsily, they become intellectual invective, prematurely close off discussion or debate, and substitute labeling for thinking.
Today, I want to write briefly about ‘neuroanthropology’ as a badge, but spend more time on ‘neuroconstructivism,’ as it’s a term that sometimes gets associated with the sort of research and thinking that we are advocating here at Neuroanthropology.net. In a sense, this piece is written for non-anthropologists, to help them understand why they might get a really strange reaction from an anthropologist colleague if they start talking excitedly about new ‘neuroconstructivist’ perspectives.
We’ve obviously decided that ‘neuroanthropology’ is one of the labels that we find helpful. We stand by the neologism, even though some of our readers have described our choice of terms ‘deplorable,’ and we’ve sometimes had to struggle against the term’s use elsewhere. For example, Oliver Sachs, the wonderful chronicler of the lived worlds of people with severe brain lesions, often calls himself a ‘neuroanthropologist,’ as Jovan Maud at Culture Matters pointed out to me and Daniel highlights in a recent, more thorough post on the relation of what we’re doing to what Sachs has done (see also Neuroanthropology).
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Posted in Cognitive anthropology, Developmental psychology, general, Neural plasticity | 5 Comments »
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 »
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.
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 Brain Mechanisms, Embodiment, Ethnography, general, Human variation, Learning, Neural plasticity, Perception and the senses, Skill acquisition, Sport | Tagged: equilibrium, physical education, training, vestibular sense | 18 Comments »