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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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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Measuring Process Not Belief: Shane Battier and Stress

The Wrong Box Score

The Wrong Box Score

Besides being a great read about Shane Battier and success in professional basketball, The No-Stats All-Star article by Michael Lewis in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine carries a larger lesson about how our understanding of the world is shifting. One of its main points is that we are becoming increasingly statistics driven, with sports at the leading edge of this transformation. We can spend lots of money on stars, like the New York Yankees, or we look more closely at what actually leads to success and how we can achieve that with less money. Shane Battier epitomizes this change because his individual stats are rather mediocre, his physical skills rather normal for an NBA player. But he makes his team win.

The key question becomes, how does he do this? That is where Michael Lewis mixes qualitative research (interviews) and ethnographic insight (coming from Battier’s own experience) with an examination of new ways of measuring everything that might count about a basketball game. It’s a powerful mix.

For me it illustrates two important points about how we can develop better measures, ones that are closer to what actually determine outcomes and that don’t fall into so easily into measuring our own beliefs about the world. And yes, by “our own” I mean the researchers who come up with the measures. Here’s a relevant section describing Daryl Morey, the man behind the Houston Rockets new approach to figuring out what works:

What [Morey] will say, however, is that the big challenge on any basketball court is to measure the right things. The five players on any basketball team are far more than the sum of their parts; the Rockets devote a lot of energy to untangling subtle interactions among the team’s elements. To get at this they need something that basketball hasn’t historically supplied: meaningful statistics. For most of its history basketball has measured not so much what is important as what is easy to measure — points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots — and these measurements have warped perceptions of the game. (“Someone created the box score,” Morey says, “and he should be shot.”) How many points a player scores, for example, is no true indication of how much he has helped his team.

Here is how it makes a difference. Battier doesn’t get great traditional stats – points scored, shots blocked, and so forth. But he does things that, on aggregate, make a bigger difference.

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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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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.

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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