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Archive for the ‘Skill acquisition’ Category

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

David Brooks, Part One: The Cognitive Age

Posted by dlende on May 3, 2008

For those of you who believe the mind the center of all things, David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, has two editorials this week that point to wider transformations that are shaping the world in which we live. And thus our very minds.

In this post I’ll cover yesterday’s editorial The Cognitive Age, which starts with taking the over-hyping of globalization to task. “Globalization is real and important. It’s just not the central force driving economic change.” After all, globalization is an old process, kicked into high gear by the European nations in the 1500s, as Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz have convincingly shown with their books, Europe and the People Without History and Sweetness and Power.

Brooks wants to make a different point about today’s global economy: “Global competition has accounted for a small share of job creation and destruction over the past few decades. Capital does indeed flow around the world. But as Pankaj Ghemawat of the Harvard Business School has observed, 90 percent of fixed investment around the world is domestic. Companies open plants overseas, but that’s mainly so their production facilities can be close to local markets.”

In other words, Brooks wants to side-step the pro vs. con debate about globalization and free markets, with Thomas Friedman and his The World Is Flat on the more-or-less optimist side and Joseph Stiglitz and his Globalizations and Its Discontents on the more-or-less pessimist side. (And for a critical take on all the pundits, see the collection edited by Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson, Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back.)

Brooks points to local change as a critical feature in our changing world, something that anthropologists have often discussed but in a much different fashion. For example, Carla Freeman in High Tech and High Heels in the Global Economy: Women, Work and Pink-Collar Identities in the Caribbean shows how the arrival of global jobs in Barbados, in this case high-tech informatics jobs, reworked local gender relations and feminine identities. In a more drastic sense, Beatriz Manz shows with her book Paradise in Ashes how global politics and local elites mixed in terrible fashion to drive the harrowing destruction of the highland Maya in Guatemala. Global processes always work through local structures, whether we’re taking about globalization or about the brain.

Brooks’ piece comes down to two forces, technological change and skills, with an obvious auxiliary: the need for education. “The chief force reshaping manufacturing is technological change (hastened by competition with other companies in Canada, Germany or down the street). Thanks to innovation, manufacturing productivity has doubled over two decades. Employers now require fewer but more highly skilled workers. Technological change affects China just as it does the America… The central process driving this is not globalization. It’s the skills revolution.”

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Posted in Psychological anthropology, Skill acquisition | 4 Comments »

I’m Not Really Running: Flow, Dissociation, and Expertise

Posted by dlende on March 16, 2008

The British long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe won last year’s New York City Marathon.  In a later interview, discussing the struggles and pains of running a marathon, Radcliffe said, “When I count to 100 three times, it’s a mile.  It helps me focus on the moment and not think about how many miles I have to go. I concentrate on breathing and striding, and I go within myself.” 

Gina Kolata used that quote in her article, I’m Not Really Running, I’m Not Really Running, which talked about dissociation strategies and peak performances: “The moral of the story? No matter how high you jump, how fast you run or swim, how powerfully you row, you can do better. But sometimes your mind gets in the way.  ‘All maximum performances are actually pseudo-maximum performances,’ Dr. [Bill] Morgan said. ‘You are always capable of doing more than you are doing’.”

Kolata recounts how this applies even to the everyday struggles of training: “Without realizing what I was doing, I dissociated a few months ago, in the middle of a long, fast bike ride. I’d become so tired that I could not hold the pace going up hills. Then I hit upon a method — I focused only on the seat of the rider in front of me and did not look at the hill or what was to come. And I concentrated on my cadence, counting pedal strokes, thinking of nothing else. It worked. Now I know why.  Dr. Morgan, who has worked with hundreds of subelite marathon runners, said every one had a dissociation strategy.”

Besides covering her own experience and having a brief mention of Tibetan monks, Kolata writes about how the brain can affect training and performance: “ ‘Imagine you are out running on a wet, windy, cold Sunday morning,’ said Dr. Timothy Noakes, an exercise physiologist at the University of Cape Town. ‘The conscious brain says, “You know that coffee shop on the corner. That’s where you really should be”.’ And suddenly, you feel tired, it’s time to stop.  ‘There is some fatigue in muscle, I’m not suggesting muscles don’t get fatigued,’ Dr. Noakes said. ‘I’m suggesting that the brain can make the muscles work harder if it wanted to’.” 

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Posted in Learning, Skill acquisition, Sport | 6 Comments »

Brainy muscles

Posted by gregdowney on February 28, 2008

A recent story in The New York Times by Gina Kolata, one of my favorite science writers, highlights one reason why I think neuroanthropology has to be broader than ‘cognitive anthropology’ was in the 1980s and 1990s (and why ‘cognitive science’ itself has really expanded with the more recent wave of thinking about embodied cognition). In an article on whether or not weight training is really good for athletes, titled Does Weight Lifting Make a Better Athlete?, I think Kolata does a much better job presenting the case for the efficacy of weight training than the arguments against it. Even several of the physiologists and trainers who Kolata suggests are less than rapt with weight training make comments that are more specifically about weight training done badly than against the practice as a whole; they criticize poor form, badly designed programs, and even not working hard enough, hardly criticisms of the overall efficacy of weight training.

Most of the athletes and other experts seem to me to be pretty strongly in favor of weight training, and I have no doubt that there’s good reason. Most athletic training has been radically transformed with the advent of weight training, and approaches that have come out of weight training (such as targeting specific muscle groups and working different parts of the body to failure) are also applied even in non-weight training exercises, such as selective sprinting, whole body exercises, and the like. Some of my research on capoeira, no-holds-barred fighting (or MMA), and other forms of wresting training suggest that actually training with ‘weights’ — barbells, dumbbells, and the like — can be less than ideal, but most of the modifications that this research suggests are consistent with the theory and practice of weight training, even if they expand the activities involved (body weight exercises, whole body dynamic lifting, jumping, etc.).

But one of the few critics says something that I found extremely interesting, and it resonated with some of the stuff I’ve been writing in my sports-related manuscript (hopefully a book soon) about how neural plasticity affects athletic performance. Specifically, Dr. Patrick O’Connor, a University of Georgia exercise scientist, says that ‘a sport like rowing, swimming or running requires specific muscles and nerve-firing patterns that may best be developed by actually doing the sport.’ A sport like ‘rowing, swimming or running’ that ‘requires specific muscles and nerve-firing patterns…’ hmmmm? So that would be like, what, every sport?

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Posted in Embodiment, general, Neural plasticity, Skill acquisition, Sport, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

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 »

Taking Play Seriously

Posted by dlende on February 19, 2008

When I lived in Nigeria, I used to cross the city of Calabar to visit the defunct zoo, taking food for the animals—a constrictor snake, some crocodiles, a male drill monkey—still trapped in cages.  Jacob, a large juvenile chimpanzee, lived in that zoo in a cage roughly ten feet by ten feet.  As I walked onto the zoo grounds, Jacob would greet me with an exuberant pant-hoot and I would respond back (my Intro to Anthro students are endlessly amused when I demonstrate my pant-hooting skills).  Though I carried food for him, what Jacob most wanted to do was play with me. 

Jacob loved to play tag first, swinging back and forth across the front of his thickly barred cage, sticking a hand out to see if I could catch it.  We would rush back and forth together, Jacob generally favoring the role of being chased.  Then we’d settle down for some tickling.  Believe me, being tickled by a chimpanzee is, I am sure, rather what my boys feel when I get overly excited about tickling them. 

Jacob’s fingers were powerful, and his arms more so, but I made myself laugh in the chortling sound of chimpanzees.  If he got too strong, I could simply let out a sound of pain and he’d stop.  Then we’d get started again, because of course I loved to tickle him back.  I remember times, our heads together, pressed against the bars, his hand at the back of my neck, my fingers digging into his ribs.  It was such fun, yet I never could quite shake the thought in that moment that he could crush my head so easily against the bars. 
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Posted in Animals, Evolution, Learning, Play, Relationships, Skill acquisition, Stress | 1 Comment »

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 »

Mimicry and Persuasion

Posted by dlende on February 12, 2008

Greg, I had to put this up for you–mirroring others, salesmen, and the brain?  Couldn’t be a better combination, unless we also stick some no-holds-barred fighting or choke techniques in there when mimicked persuasion fails…

The NY Times has an article today, “You Remind Me of Me,” whose basic point comes to this: “subtle mimicry comes across as a form of flattery, the physical dance of charm itself.”  Subtle mimicry is not immediate and seemingly deliberate, but is a shadowing that happens a couple seconds later.  In one study, supposedly on a new sports drink “Vigor,” some study participants were subtly mimicked in the lab, legs crossed a couple seconds later, body position copied, and so forth.  The result: “None of the copied participants picked up on the mimicry. But by the end of the short interview, they were significantly more likely than the others to consume the new drink, to say they would buy it and to predict its success in the market. In a similar experiment, the psychologists found that this was especially true if the participants knew that the interviewer, the mimic, had a stake in the product’s success.”
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Posted in Learning, Psychological anthropology, Relationships, Skill acquisition | 2 Comments »

Will Power as Mental Muscle

Posted by dlende on January 24, 2008

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThere’s an interesting blog post here about “How to Boost Your Willpower,” which tells us that “researchers are finding is that willpower is essentially a mental muscle, and certain physical and mental forces can weaken or strengthen our self-control.”

 Well, how about a cultural muscle too?  After all, we’re talking about a cultural trait too!  In my research in Colombia, knowing how to manage limits and having reasons to say no help explain lower rates of illegal drug use there, despite plenty of risk factors and access to drugs. 

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Posted in Education, Evolution, Learning, Skill acquisition | 1 Comment »

Monkey Makes Robot Walk!

Posted by dlende on January 15, 2008

Where does this leave the evolution of human bipedalism?  Is there some mystery “bipedal instinct”?  A bipedal “organ” in the brain?  I’ll let you decide… ;-) 

Here’s the article.  It’s a great piece about the importance of training, the relevance of a body (build it and the brain will come…), and the management of different tasks by different areas of the brain that work in conjunction.  For the culturally inclined, the study authors argue that for Idoya, the monkey in question, her “motor cortex, where the electrodes were implanted, had started to absorb the representation of the robot’s legs — as if they belonged to Idoya herself.”

Posted in Animals, Embodiment, Learning, Neural plasticity, Skill acquisition | 3 Comments »


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