Your Brain on Nature: Outdoors and Out of Reach 2

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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Great Expectations: Conference on Brain Plasticity

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.

Talent: A difference that makes a difference

A young Andre Agassi

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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Catching fly balls: taking a step forward

Nolan Catholic High Lady Vikings catcher Martha Thomas zeroes the apparent acceleration of a pop-up

Nolan Catholic High Lady Vikings catcher Martha Thomas zeroes the apparent acceleration of a pop-up

Dan Peterson, probably my favourite blogger on sports science, has a recent piece in Science Daily on How Baseball Players Catch Fly Balls. He usually posts on his excellent blog, Sports Are 80 Percent Mental. His post, as usual, is excellent, but I wanted to take issue with the slightest of details (because that’s just how I am): why do novice outfielders often take a step forward when the crack of a bat and the launch of a ball indicates that a fly ball has just been hit in their direction?

As a former and largely inept outfielder for the Ascension Catholic Church ‘Steamrollers,’ 2nd grade and under team (I was more of a junior soccer player), I well remember our coach, Dr. Wickersham, telling us repeatedly, and to little effect, ‘don’t start running forward until you know the pop-up is going to fall in front of you.’ I also clearly remember the sinking feeling when, after failing to heed his advice, a fly ball flew over my head as I charged toward it, ultimately landing almost precisely where I had been standing the instant that ball was hit.

Peterson discusses a recent paper in the journal, Human Movement Science, ‘Catching fly balls: A simulation study of the Chapman strategy,’ by Dimant Kistemakera and colleagues. Kistemakera and his team set out to test the slight variations between the trajectories fielders took when running to intercept a fly ball, and the trajectories predicted by Seville Chapman’s ‘strategy’ of using the acceleration of the ball in one’s vertical field to control whether one was too close or too far from home plate to make the catch.

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Body Swapping

Do psychotherapists now have a new trick? Or is it all smoke and mirrors? The New York Times reports today on Standing in Someone Else’s Shoes, Almost for Real, where neuroscientists have shown that “the brain, when tricked by optical and sensory illusions, can quickly adopt any other human form, no matter how different, as its own.”

The article “If I Were You: Perceptual Illusion of Body Swapping” by the Swedish researchers Henrik Ehrsson and Valeria Petkova appears this week in PLoS ONE, and is ably summarized over at Neurophilosophy. You can also read Ehrsson’s previous article on the virtual arm illusion and his Science piece on the experimental induction of out-of-body experiences.
The approach in all of this research is rather simple. You can see the out-of-body experiment design pictured to the right. Body swapping adds another person with goggles.

A subject stands or sits opposite the scientist, as if engaged in an interview.. Both are wearing headsets, with special goggles, the scientist’s containing small film cameras. The goggles are rigged so the subject sees what the scientist sees: to the right and left are the scientist’s arms, and below is the scientist’s body. To add a physical element, the researchers have each person squeeze the other’s hand, as if in a handshake. Now the subject can see and “feel” the new body. In a matter of seconds, the illusion is complete.

This “switching” happens because the brain is literally embodied – after growing up with this particular body, it’s a fair assumption to assume that one’s eyes and one’s hand are getting feedback about the same interactive phenomenon. For a first-person view of this, see Karl Ritter’s AP article today on the body-swap illusion, which includes this photo of the two-goggle set-up.

Ehrsson is excited about being able to trick the brain in this way: “You can see the possibilities, putting a male in a female body, young in old, white in black and vice versa.” The NY Times article pushes the uses body swapping can have in therapy.

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Balance between cultures: equilibrium training

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

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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Christof Koch and the Neural Correlates of Consciousness

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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