Not allowed to have a small heart: Tourette Syndrome

Sometimes I feel ashamed to be close with my friends.
“How come you’re so distant? Just come over here, it’s no problem, you know.”
I’m not allowed to have a small heart.

(I am republishing a lot of my ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg (dot) downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. Originally published 16 May 2012.)

Gusti Ayu Ketut Suartini, a young Balinese woman, shares how hard it is to be close to her new-found friends; they have to remind her that they are not afraid of her unusual movements, grunts, strange facial expressions and unexpected tics, the symptoms of her Tourette Syndrome. She remembers too well how the neighbours in her home village made fun of her awkward tics, calling her ‘bird dancer’ because her odd movements – so out of line with Balinese norms of placid, graceful comportment – resembled Manuk Rawa trance dancers, possessed by spirits. The neighbours even suggested she might be suffering a kind of permanent possession by the spirits who only temporarily inhabited the dancers.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

We meet Gusti, and see how her life is shaped by the way other people interpret her tics, spitting, and uncontrollable movements, in Robert Lemelson’s movie, The Bird Dancer. The Bird Dancer doesn’t show us Tourette Syndrome (TS) as a disease, or discuss its neurological underpinnings. Instead, the movie is an exploration of Tourette as ‘illness’: local, meaningful, social, demoralizing, and driving Gusti and her family to despair.

Continue reading “Not allowed to have a small heart: Tourette Syndrome”

2 legs good, 4 legs better: Uner Tan syndrome, part 2

Image by massaoud el allaoui from Pixabay

(I am republishing a lot of my ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg (dot) downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. Originally published 5 September 2010.)

Members of a Turkish family with Uner Tan Syndrome

Beginning in 2005, reports by Prof. Üner Tan of Cukurova University in Turkey alerted the world to a number of families in which some members walked quadrupedally. This is the second part of a (so far) two-part post on Uner Tan Syndrome. Although you’re welcome to read the first part, I’ll give you the one sentence summary if you just want to push on and a piece of video clip on the cases. I should warn you though, before you read the first part, that the whole thing is sort of like the straight set-up for this piece, which is a bit of a googly (kind of like a knuckleballer for all you non-cricket followers):

Üner Tan described four consanguineous Turkish families with fourteen individuals who habitually walked quadrupedally; subsequent genetic research showed that some of the families had defects in a gene known to be essential in cerebellar formation, but not all of the cases had the gene, and at least one family member with the gene walked normally, leading most researchers to argue UTS was genetically heterogeneous in origin; some theorists, including Tan, argued that quadrupedalism was either ‘reverse evolution’ or an atavism, but not everyone was buying that explanation (including me for reasons I didn’t make entirely clear in the first post).

Well, that was — technically — one sentence.

Nova preview: The Family that Walks on All Fours

But if you read that first post, I know what you’re saying: ‘Bloody loooong post, mate, laffed mi head off at the picture… but eef thas what yous blokes do at Newroant-whatevs, well, I’m not heaps intristed.’ (Apparently, you have a bogan Australian accent, at least in my head.)

Photo by Eadweard MuybridgeAu contraire – we’re just getting started! We’ve still got bipedal dogs and goats, kids who only get down on all four when in a hurry, Johnny Eck (aka the ‘Half Boy’), capoeira training in Brazil and some other surprises up our sleeve. We’ll show you how we roll at Neuroanthropology, with lots of weird SFW videos and obscure case studies!

One of the things that we try to bring to ‘neuro-’ to make it truly ‘neuroanthropology’ is a much more open consideration of human variation. This can sometimes take us to some extraordinary case studies, not simply out of a fascination with the exotic, but because a comparative look at extreme cases – like Uner Tan Syndrome – helps us to better understand human potential. So let’s go back to Prof. Tan…

Continue reading “2 legs good, 4 legs better: Uner Tan syndrome, part 2”

Asifa Majid on language and olfaction

(I am republishing a lot of ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 10 September 2014. I have also included at the end some of the most substantial comments from the comment thread.)When I first ran across Asifa Majid’s  article with Ewelina Wnuk in Cognition, about how speakers of Maniq, a language indigenous to southern Thailand, have a vocabulary for talking about smell, I was taken aback. In anthropology, especially since the work of people like David Howes, Constance Classen, and Andrew Synott, we know very well that different cultures privilege olfaction and other senses more than Westerners do. The anthropology of the sense has made it clear that the ideological privileging of vision in the West, and relative underdevelopment of sense of smell or proprioception, is not matched elsewhere.

Prof. Asifa Majid

However, Wnuk and Majid were attacking, with empirical observations and psychometric testing, one of the pillars of Western philosophical accounts of how human senses evolved: the idea that human evolution had tipped the balance decisively away from olfaction. The alleged weakness and imprecision of olfaction was taken for granted in perceptual psychology.

Some of these theories of sensory evolution hold that our ancestors had, in a way, paid for our distinctive cognitive and perceptual development by sacrificing olfactory acuity. Vision increased precision at the expense of olfaction.

In fact, some theorists of brain evolution go so far as to suggest that there was a kind of neurological trade-off: language use could only grow as our ancestors lost a capacity for smelling. The restraint and remove from the immediate sense-world necessary for logic and abstract thought was opposed to the kind of complete immersion and sensory triggering of behaviour that other animals had because of the way aromas dominated their perception. Were the senses in a zero-sum exchange where visual acuity and a distinctly human way of life made acute olfaction impossible?

Research conducted by Asifa Majid, together with her collaborators, suggests that language and olfaction are not at odds; the right language can actually enhance the perception of aroma, as language has also enhanced, inflected and refined our other senses. Rather than a fact of human being, the neglect of olfaction in the West is a result of our own cultural presuppositions and sensory biases: smell suffers from neglect, not an inescapable evolutionary trade-off. (Majid’s research got a mention recently from Tanya Luhrmann in an op-ed in the New York TimesCan’t Place That Smell? You Must Be American: How Culture Shapes Our Senses.)

Continue reading “Asifa Majid on language and olfaction”

Giving names to aromas in Aslian languages

The sanitary and mechanical age we are now entering makes up for the mercy it grants to our sense of smell by the ferocity with which it assails our sense of hearing. – Havelock Ellis

How do you smell?, by Harald Hoyer, 2011 (CC BY SA)
How do you smell?, by Harald Hoyer, 2011 (CC BY SA)

(I am republishing a lot of ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 9 March 2014. I have also included at the end some of the most substantial comments from the comment thread.)

My wife and I disagree about how one should judge whether milk has gone bad or is still fresh enough to drink. She consults the date on the carton. I smell it.

My aroma-based strategy is part of my well-developed theory that milk, even when it goes “off,” simply becomes a different dairy product, maybe not quite so pleasant to drink, but perfectly serviceable in other functions such as making pancakes. My father taught me this, or at least I blame him — he grew up on a farm in Iowa — but I also recall reading with great satisfaction about the Nuer and Dinka, and how a range of fermented milk products were essential to their diet. But that’s a story for a different day…

The key is that my wife and I disagree fundamentally about the value of olfaction in judging milk even though she has a quite remarkable sense of smell. She often stumps me by quizzing me about which flowering shrubs are in bloom from their aroma. She can always tell. Like many people in the US and Australia, and elsewhere in the West, we’re ambivalent about the value of the sense of smell, using it only quite narrowly for specific tasks.

Throughout Western philosophy and psychology runs a conviction that smell is an imperfect and inexact sense. Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man, for example, wrote that the sense was “of extremely slight service” to humans; philosopher Immanuel Kant that it was the “most dispensable” of our senses. As Ewelina Wnuk and Asifa Majid of the Max Plank Institute summarize, a range of Western thinkers from Condillac to Pinker argue that aroma offers humans little of value, that the sense is vestigial, rudimentary, and under-developed (see Wnuk and Majid 2014: 125).

In fact, the human sense of smell is far more acute than we might realize, and new linguistic research emerging from a cluster of groups in southeast Asia suggests that our inability to smell might be a cultural problem, not an invariant fact of human nature. Our language hampers our ability to perceive aroma.

Continue reading “Giving names to aromas in Aslian languages”

Life in the Dark

Photo of the Milky Way in the night sky.
Image by Pexels from Pixabay 

(I am republishing a lot of ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg.downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. I originally published this on 7 November 2010. I have also included at the end some of the most substantial comments from the comment thread.

I’m also trying something totally new…)

This post is available as a podcast at

My ex-wife, along with her many other jobs – paid and unpaid – is the local director of a campus exchange program that brings US students to Wollongong, New South Wales.  Because of her background in outdoor education and adventure therapy, she does a great job taking visiting Yanks on weekend activities that get the students to see a side of life in Australia that they might not otherwise see.  From Mystery Bay on the South Coast, to Mount Guluga with an Aboriginal guide, to abseiling (rapeling) in the Blue Mountains, to surf lessons at Seven Mile Beach, I think she does a great job, and I frequently tag along to help and enjoy being reminded of the distinctiveness of my adopted home.

Abdulai Abubakari holds his infant child, Fakia. (Peter DiCampo/VII Agency)

Invariably, either at the beach or in the Blue Mountains, at night, students will confront a clear, dark Australian sky, staggered at just how many stars fill the darkness from horizon to horizon. I’ve seen the US students – well, not all of them get into it – just stand, necks craned backwards, and stare.  What they thought was darkness was actually full of innumerable points of light.

I’m sympathetic because I had a similar experience one clear night in the Chapada Diamantina (the Diamond Plateau) in Brazil, when I couldn’t believe how, given real darkness, desert-like humidity, and clear, pollution-free air, the sky was crowded with sources of light, just smeared with stars.  For the first time, I felt like I understood the name, the ‘Milky Way,’ because I could see the uninterrupted blur toward the centre of our galaxy.

I was reminded of my experience with seeing stars, as if for the first time, and the reactions of the American students when I stumbled across the photos of Peter DiCampo (click here for Peter’s website), an American freelance photographer and former members of the Peace Corps who volunteered in the village of Voggu in rural Ghana.  His photo essay, Full Frame: Life without lights, is up at Global Post, an online American newspaper launched at the start of 2009.  His beautiful photos of life by flashlight, candle and gaslight, capture the atmosphere in this part of Ghana without electricity, and got me to thinking about artificial light and the way the sensory environment affects human development (additional photos at Peter’s personal website, including photos from darkness in Kurdistan).

Continue reading “Life in the Dark”

Wednesday Round Up #61

-I’m taking at least two weeks of break, so this is the last round up for awhile.

Translating cognitive science in the public square

We are at a tipping point. For cognitive science to support broader societal change, a paradigm shift in the way that we think about research and communities is required. This paradigm shift requires acknowledging that even though a wealth of research has shown that neighborhood, family, and cultural contexts all play a critical role in supporting healthy brain development [1], much of the work has been laboratory based rather than being centered on children’s and families’ lived experiences. While laboratory research is indeed necessary, children do not interact with caregivers and peers in highly controlled environments; instead, cultural traditions and local knowledge influence behavior, learning, and development. When cognitive science moves from including community members in field studies to codesigning with community members, scientific knowledge and interventions will be more culturally sensitive, equitable, and representative.

Research outside of psychology and the other social sciences offers some roadmaps for this kind of inquiry. For instance, adding green spaces to an environment can reduce aggressive behavior [2], and putting exercise equipment in public parks increases activity levels [3]. Rather than taking an intensive approach with a small group, these projects target a large swath of the population with a small dose of enrichment [4]. Perhaps public spaces can be designed with a light touch that enables a kind of ‘mental’ exercise for caregivers and children. By creating codesigned installations that ‘bake in’ the science of learning, physical spaces might empower people to behave in ways that support the kinds of caregiver–child interactions known to foster language, mathematics, and spatial learning [5]. Here, we outline how centering communities and using evidence-based principles to transform public spaces offer a new direction for cognitive science in situ.

Six pillars for designing public spaces for change

Creating public spaces that offer cognitive enrichment requires several deviations from the typical research process. First, scientists need to work in collaborative teams of community members, architects, politicians, and urban planners. Second, rather than highlighting what is not known in the research, scientists must look at the accumulated evidence over time to offer evidence-based frameworks that can guide designs, such as by relying on six principles of learning for which there is consensus in the literature. Designs should inspire active (rather than passive), engaged (not distracted), meaningful (connects to what is known and what holds personal meaning), socially interactive, iterative (rather than repetitive), and joyful experiences [6,7], which are known to predict learning outcomes. Third, designs must be informed by community input with respect to their placement, form, and uses. For example, consider a design building on the converging evidence that playing with puzzles helps children build science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) knowledge [8]. Community design input would allow members of the neighborhood to suggest what could be in a puzzle, where it might be placed, and even the design of the puzzle, be it on a wall, near a bench, or on the ground in front of a bus shelter.

Gabor Maté’s Bizarre Ideas on Connections Between Stress and Disease

Casually attaching such labels to phenomena his audiences do not understand scores points with them. It allows Maté to dismiss the knowledge and tools we need to prevent new cases of asthma among these women and reduce the toll of asthma among those women who have already developed this chronic, recurring condition.

Maté paints a cartoonish caricature of medicine locked in silos. He confuses the maps that specialist researchers and clinicians use with the territory they cover.

The Brain Maps Out Ideas and Memories Like Spaces

“Our language is riddled with spatial metaphors for reasoning, and for memory in general,” said Kim Stachenfeld, a neuroscientist at the British artificial intelligence company DeepMind.

In the past few decades, research has shown that for at least two of our faculties, memory and navigation, those metaphors may have a physical basis in the brain. A small seahorse-shaped structure, the hippocampus, is essential to both those functions, and evidence has started to suggest that the same coding scheme — a grid-based form of representation — may underlie them. Recent insights have prompted some researchers to propose that this same coding scheme can help us navigate other kinds of information, including sights, sounds and abstract concepts. The most ambitious suggestions even venture that these grid codes could be the key to understanding how the brain processes all details of general knowledge, perception and memory.

Toni Morrison on the Power of Language

Speculation on what (other than its own frail body) that bird-in-the-hand might signify has always been attractive to me, but especially so now thinking, as I have been, about the work I do that has brought me to this company. So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency — as an act with consequences. So the question the children put to her: “Is it living or dead?” is not unreal because she thinks of language as susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will.

Naomi Quinn: “The Cultural Basis of Metaphor” (1991)

Quinn’s contributions to Beyond Metaphor (1991) argues against the claim that metaphor “constitute understanding,” and instead proposes that metaphors “are ordinarily selected to fit a preexisting and culturally shared model” (p. 60).

Thought (Mostly) Structures Metaphor

Here are some more elaborate versions of the quotes in which she presents her ideas:

I will be arguing that metaphors, far from constituting understanding, are ordinarily selected to fit a preexisting and culturally shared model. And I will conclude that metaphors do not typically give rise to new, previously unrecognized entailments, although they may well help the reasoner to follow out entailments of the preexisting cultural model and thereby arrive at complex inferences. I do not want to suggest that metaphors never reorganize thinking, supply new entailments, and permit new inferences; but my analysis will argue that such cases are exceptional rather than ordinary. (p. 60)

Metaphors are usually cherry-picked on the basis of prior understanding:

I want to argue further, and I think quite contrary to what Johnson and Lakoff seem to be saying, that metaphorical systems or productive metaphors typically do not structure understandings de novo. Rather, perticular metaphors are selected by speakers, just because they provide satisfying mappings onto already existing cultural understandings—that is, because elements and relations between elements in the source domain make a good match with elements and relations among them in the cultural model. Selection of a particular metaphor for use in ordinary speech seems to depend upon its aptness for the conceptual task at hand—sometimes, as we shall see, a reasoning task. (p. 65)

The Day the Good Internet Died

For a small slice of time, being online was a thrilling mix of discovery, collaboration, creativity, and chaotic potential.

The internet lasts forever, the internet never forgets. And yet it is also a place in which I feel confronted with an almost unbearable volume of daily reminders of its decay: broken links, abandoned blogs, apps gone by, deleted tweets (miss you always, ah-well-nevertheless!), too-cutesy 404 messages, vanished Vines, videos whose copyright holders have requested removal, lost material that the Wayback Machine never crawled, things I know I’ve read somewhere and want to quote in my work but just can’t seem to resurface the same way I used to be able to.

Some of these losses are silly and tiny, but others over the years have felt more monumental and telling. And when Google Reader disappeared in 2013, it wasn’t just a tale of dwindling user numbers or of what one engineer later described as a rotted codebase. It was a sign of the crumbling of the very foundation upon which it had been built: the era of the Good Internet.

Interview with Agustín Fuentes: This Species Moment

I love the way, someplace, you described that what you got excited about about anthropology is that it was a space that linked the bones and muscles and gut and DNA — human DNA, and behavior, and didn’t detach that from culture and history and power.

Exactly. The whole idea that, for us, to really understand the human, you have to understand how muscles and bones and genetics and the circulatory system work, but you have to also understand how the neurobiologies interface with the perceptions, the histories, the social experiences, the languages, and the daily lives of people. And it’s that conflux of events, that ongoing dynamic, that really draws me. And it’s messy. It’s messy to be human, but it’s really fascinating.

Against Persuasion: Knowing takes radical collaboration: an openness to being persuaded as much as an eagerness to persuade.

Over and over again, Socrates approaches people who are remarkable for their lack of humility—which is to say, for the fact that they feel confident in their own knowledge of what is just, or pious, or brave, or moderate. You might have supposed that Socrates, whose claim to fame is his awareness of his own ignorance, would treat these self-proclaimed “wise men” (Sophists) with contempt, hostility, or indifference. But he doesn’t.

The most remarkable feature of Socrates’s approach is his punctilious politeness and sincere enthusiasm. The conversation usually begins with Socrates asking his interlocutor: Since you think you know, can you tell me, what is courage (or wisdom, or piety, or justice . . .)? Over and over again, it turns out that they think they can answer, but they can’t. Socrates’s hope springs eternal: even as he walks toward the courtroom to be tried—and eventually put to death—for his philosophical activity, he is delighted to encounter the self-important priest Euthyphro, who will, surely, be able to say what piety is. (Spoiler: he’s not.)…

One of Socrates’s interlocutors, Meno, doubts whether it’s possible to come to know anything if you know so little to begin with. If someone doesn’t know where she’s going, it doesn’t seem as though she can even take a first step in the right direction. Can you map in total darkness?

Socrates’s answer was no. Or at least: you can’t do it alone. The right response to noticing one’s own ignorance is to try to escape it by acquiring someone else’s knowledge. But the only way to do that is to explain to them why you aren’t yet able to accept this or that claim of theirs as knowledge—and that is what mapping one’s ignorance amounts to. Socrates stages an exhibition of this method for Meno by demonstrating how much geometrical progress he can make with a young slave boy by doing nothing but asking questions that expose the boy’s false assumptions.

It is when he refutes others’ claims to knowledge that Socrates’s own ignorance takes shape, for him, as something he can know. What appears as a sea of darkness when approached introspectively turns out to be navigable when brought into contact with the knowledge claims of another.

Social memory and niche construction in a hypervariable environment

Communities in southwest Madagascar have co-evolved with a hypervariable environment and climate. The paleoclimate record reflects major fluctuations in climatic conditions over the course of Holocene human settlement. Archeological evidence indicates short-term occupations of sites, suggesting that frequent residential mobility and flexible subsistence strategies have been central features of life on the southwest coast for millennia. Today, despite rapid changes linked to globalization and increasing market integration, mobility and subsistence flexibility remain key to the lives of communities of the region.

In this article, we advocate closer consideration of the social dimensions of the human niche, and their inextricable links to the biophysical world. Specifically, we explore the theoretical implications of applying a Niche Construction Theory framework to understanding the role of social memory in constructing the human niche of SW Madagascar. We look at how social memory facilitates mobility, resource use, and the creation and maintenance of social identities and ties among communities of foragers, farmers, herders, and fishers living under hypervariable climatic conditions.

The Biology of Racism

The conversation this essay is based on took place during the “Raising Our Voices” AAA online conference, in November 2020. We were fortunate, and honored, to have Professor Leith Mullings as a partner in the discussion. Her passing in December 2020 left a hole in our hearts. All of us on the panel were influenced, shaped, and/or mentored at some stage by Leith, and her powerful words, actions, and legacy continue to inspire and push us to make anthropology matter. Professor Mullings framed this discission, and the challenge before us, when she stated, “I think most of us here would agree with the often-quoted ‘race is not biological but has biological consequences.’ But the question is: How do we understand racism? What are the biological consequences? And most important, how do we address them?”

Tender Rhythms: An Interactive Art Installation Created Out Of The Connections Between People

Stephanie Koziej is an installation artist and scholar who explores, perhaps, the most fundamental concept in our lives — the connections between people. Her new experimental installation Tender Rhythms is an “interactive brain-computer interface installation” that creates music and visual art when two people connect deeply with one another. Koziej joined “City Lights” Senior Producer Kim Drobes via Zoom to talk about the science behind feelings of deep interpersonal connection, and to share how participants will be able to see, hear and feel the unique energies of their own relationships.

“I was writing my dissertation at Emory on the connections between people. I was very interested in intimacy and the invisible relationship between humans,” Koziej said. “I just noticed that in philosophy and in our society, we focus a lot on the individual; the autonomous, the singular individual. But I was always interested in the connection between us, and I wanted to let it talk.”