Proceedings from ASCS 09 Conference online

The Proceedings of the 9th Conference of the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science, held in Sydney last year, are now online for anyone to access. Thanks to the editors, Wayne Christensen, Elizabeth Schier, and John Sutton, for pulling the whole collection together!

I didn’t get to stay for the whole conference because I was running around doing preparation things for the Australian Anthropological Society Conference that we held in December. Nevertheless, I saw some really good papers, and some of the others are especially interesting for those of us interested in neuroanthropology. Please peruse the whole list, but for a discussion of cultural variation in cognition, of special interest might be: Nian Liu’s Tuesday, Threesday, Foursday: Chinese names for the days of the week facilitate Chinese children’s temporal reasoning, Zhengdao Ye’s Eating and drinking in Mandarin and Shanghainese: A lexical-conceptual analysis, Collaborative remembering: When can remembering with others be beneficial? by Celia B. Harris, Paul G. Keil, John Sutton and Amanda J. Barnier, and Expanding expertise: Investigating a musician’s experience of music performance by Andrew Geeves, Doris McIlwain, and John Sutton.

I also like the look of Evaluation of a model of expert decision making in air traffic control, by Stefan Lehmann and colleagues, but I haven’t had the time to really read it (and won’t get time for a few days). Ben Jeffares’ paper was excellent in presentation, but I haven’t yet checked out the written version yet: The evolution of technical competence: strategic and economic thinking.

My paper from the conference, Cultural variation in elite athletes: Does elite cognitive-perceptual skill always converge?, is available as a pdf. I have to admit, it’s a shallower paper than I usually like to present, but I had to cover a LOT of turf, and it’s primarily a proposal for a research program, reviewing the neurological and behavioural places where I expect we might find the clearest evidence of cultural difference in neural dynamics. I’ll take the liberty of reposting the abstract:

Anthropologists have not participated extensively in the cognitive science synthesis for a host of reasons, including internal conflicts in the discipline and profound reservations about the ways that cultural differences have been modeled in psychology, neuroscience, and other contributors to cognitive science. This paper proposes a skills-based model for culture that overcomes some of the problems inherent in the treatment of culture as shared information. Athletes offer excellent cases studies for how skill acquisition, like enculturation, affects the human nervous system. In addition, cultural differences in playing styles of the same sport, such as distinctive ways of playing rugby, demonstrate how varying solution strategies to similar athletic problems produce distinctive skill profiles.

I’d love to hear any responses to the piece. I don’t usually present in cognitive science, as I’m more comfortable in my home discipline of anthropology, working from a pretty solid base of anthropology into the border of brain-culture research, so I’d be interested to learn what scholars situated more confidently in cognitive science think of the piece.

Lose your shoes: Is barefoot better?

1984 Women's 3000 meter

1984 Women's 3000 meter


In 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics, the women’s 3000-meter final was marred by controversy when American Mary Decker fell after making contact with Zola Budd, a runner from South Africa who represented Britain (due to the boycott of South African sport).

Although Budd had been setting the pace, she faded to seventh in the end and was booed by the partisan LA audience (Decker would later say that she was inexperienced at running in a pack and, as the trailing runner, was responsible for their contact). Maricica Puica of Romania won the event, and Britain’s Wendy Sly took the silver in a final that was seared into my memory by the televised replays of a stricken Mary Decker, hip injured from her fall, shattered and crying on the infield.

In all of the drama, one of the things that left the greatest impression on me as a high school student and sometime athlete was the simple fact that Zola Budd ran without shoes, an almost unimaginable idea to me at the time. Budd was one of a handful of famous barefoot runners, including Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian marathoner who won his first Olympic gold in 1960 without shoes, Tegla Loroupe, the Kenyan women’s running legend and multiple world record holder, and Ken Bob Saxton, aka ‘Barefoot Ken Bob,’ a marathoner and guru to the shoeless.

I’ve been thinking about barefoot running for a while, oddly enough since I started writing about bare-knuckle punching in no-holds-barred fighting (or ‘mixed martial arts’ like the Ultimate Fighting Championship in its early days). Barefoot running, even more than bare-knuckle boxing, reveals the ways that very simple technologies, if used consistently enough, become part of the developmental niche of the human body, shaping the way that our bones, muscles, tissues, and nervous system develop.

Although this post is not strictly neuroanthropology, I thought I might share some of what I’m working on, in part because I’m interested to hear any feedback people have. In particular, this will focus on how hard it is to sort out what’s ‘natural’ when activity patterns, incredibly variable, are necessary ingredients in the development of biological systems. But also, as it will become clearer in the post, the ways that our nervous system adapt to different situations, such as having heavily padded feet or being barefoot when we run, illustrates well how even unconscious training is a form of phenotypic, non-genetic, adaptation.

Before I go any further, though, if you have anything to say in response to this, I would love to read it. This is my first attempt to put down some thoughts that will be in a chapter of an upcoming book…
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The New Performance Enhancing Drugs

Enhanced Brain
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.
Barry Bonds Pumped Up
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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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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Throwing like a girl(‘s brain)

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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Charles Whitehead: Social Mirrors

In the depths of the Bad Semester (how I now refer to the last four months), Dr. Charles Whitehead contacted me to share notes on neuroanthropology. I’m trying to catch up with the immense backlog of material I need to work through, but I thought I would post a short note and a link to his website, Social Mirrors. It’s a pretty interesting spread of thinking, and Dr. Whitehead has provided numerous links to his papers and other material.

Dr. Charles Whitehead

Dr. Charles Whitehead

I especially like his piece with Prof. Robert Turner, downloadable here, on the effects of collective representations on the brain. In particular, the Turner and Whitehead article argues that the idea that certain areas of the brain are networked into a ‘social brain’ — implying that the rest of the brain is ‘not social’ — is hard to support. I’ll admit that I don’t necessarily use the same language or conceive of how the brain works in the ways described by Turner and Whitehead, but it is well worth the read to check it out, if for no other reason that it provides a corrective to some emerging ways of theorizing brain enculturation.

Turner and Whitehead take the multiple senses of the word, ‘representation,’ especially the conflicting use by anthropologists and social scientists, on the one hand, and brain sciences, as a point of departure. Normally, I just find the overlap annoying and have argued that it is one reason that anthropologists don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to neurosciences (for example, in Beyond Bourdieu’s ‘body’ — giving too much credit?). But Turner and Whitehead have something more constructive to say about the unstable term (from their conclusion):

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