Darman’s eyes

This is Pak Darman:Pak DarmanPak Darman







Although pictured playing the Kecapi (a traditional Sundanese string instrument), Pak Darman can also play the suling (a type of bamboo flute) and the tarompet (a double reed woodwind instrument). At home he works as a masseur but a large part of his income (which is not that large) comes from being hired for local performances. A regular gig for Pak Darman is accompanying Pencak Silat performances with the Tarompet.

In my last blog, I mentioned that Sundanese Pencak Silat musicians probably spend more time closely watching the movement of a performance than the audience or even the movement artists themselves. This puts Pak Darman in an interesting position. He can’t see the performances. Pak Darman is blind.

There is no question though that Pak Darman is a skilled Tarompet player and a respected Pencak Silat accompanist. During Pencak Silat Performances, Pak Darman has to respond immediately to changes in rhythm, speed and excitement. He has to match the intensity of a performance with his choice of melody, the loudness of his playing and the roughness of its delivery. In fact, his skill and knowledge of his craft is so deep that simply by listening to the improvisations played on the Kendang Anak, Pak Darman can quite often tell you who is performing Pencak Silat movements.

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Oseng’s brain

I want to know what is going on inside this guy’s brain.

I am sure that we have all wanted to sneak peak into the brain of someone we know; a lover, a parent, or a colleague. In my case, I want to study the brain of my Kendang Pencak teacher, Pak Oseng. He has a highly trained skill that demands attention, musical ability and well-developed motion perception. The beauty of his skill to researchers is that it is both culturally unique and experimentally testable. His skill can inform us about mirror neurons, action and perception as well as enculturation, skill acquisition and the neuro-cultural nexus. For me, it could be a key to understanding one aspect of the relationship between music and movement in the human brain.

Oseng plays drums (Kendang Pencak) to accompany Sundanese martial arts (Pencak Silat) and he is one of the best around. He matches the moves of performing martial artists with corresponding rhythm, dynamics and intensity. His mimetic skill at bringing a musical component to punches, kicks, grapples and holds while sustaining an entertaining rhythm would be beyond the skill of most percussionists, but to Pak Oseng it has become second nature. He can sustain performances from 5 minutes long to a couple of hours without breaking a sweat (and that says a lot for someone who lives in the tropical climate of Indonesia). He can even do it while chain-smoking!

There are two sets of drums that are used to accompany Sundanese Pencak Silat performances. The Kendang Ibu (mother drum) sustains a steady tempo while the Kendang Anak (child drum) improvises freely in fitting with the moves of the martial artists performing. This free improvisation requires the close attention of the drummer to pre-empt moves such as punches that require to be accompanied by a loud hit of the drum. But it’s not always a 1:1 relationship between the sound and the movement. Drummers like Pak Oseng have to know how to build tension and how to read the body of the performer so that he can successfully accompany powerful moves while adding beauty to the flower of the movement (known as bunga).

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Chicks dig jerks?: Evolutionary psych on sex #1

In our continuing exploration of facile examples of ‘evolutionary’ explanations for human behavior (usually described instead as ‘human nature’), I have another couple of exhibits: Do Jerks Get Laid More?, a great attack on recent research by Jill Filopovic at Feministe (h/t: Alternet); and Science Daily‘s story, Women Have Not Adapted To Casual Sex, Research Shows (which I’ll discuss in the next posts). Daniel already discussed some of the recent research on homosexuality in The Gay Brain: On Love and Science, but this piece, the first of two, is dedicated to recent ‘evolutionary’ work on male-female relations, especially arguments about what is ‘natural’ in sexuality including that all-important question, ‘What do women want?’

Some of the problems that beset these articles are pretty general objections a person could have to evolutionary psychology, so I feel like I want to go over them a little bit (but I’ll try to keep it short).

Why women like bad boys: ev psych explains

Jill Filopovic discusses a story, Do Jerks Get Laid More? Good news for psycho-narcissists, by Jessica Wakeman, which is commentary on a story in New Scientist, Bad guys really do get the most girls (a similar piece also appeared on ABC News). In other words, this story has been ricocheting around the Internets for a while, getting reposted and commented upon all over the place (such as here, here, here and, my favourite, here, where democracy confirms ev psych stereotypes). With all sorts of people having things to say, some share a bit too much about their own personal lives and some involve cueing up familiar cliches (‘nice guys finish last,’ for example, is a favourite).

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Learning, Arts and the Brain

The Dana Foundation released Learning, Arts and the Brain: A Dana Consortium Report on Arts and Cognition back in March. Led by Michael Gazzaniga (see Mind Hacks on him recently), the report “advances our understanding of the effects of music, dance, and drama education on other types of learning” as well as addressing the question, “Are smart people drawn to the arts or does arts training make people smarter?”

The overall summary , written by Gazzaniga, discuss motivation and sustained attention, the overlap between skills in arts and math, and even mentions aesthetics, openness, and dopamine. Gazzaniga highlights research on dance as indicative of overall synergies:

Our research indicates that dance training can enable students to become highly successful observers. We found that learning to dance by watching alone can be highly successful and that the success is sustained at the neural level by a strong overlap between brain areas that are used for observing actions and also for making actual movements. These shared neural substrates are critical for organizing complex actions into sequential structure.

The report itself has a range of chapters, including ones on music skills and cognition, dance and the brain, and arts education, the brain and language.

Anthropology Round Up

John Jackson, Hustle and Show
Sudhir Venkatesh’s ethnography of Chicago gangs meets Hollywood

Luke Freeman, Anthropology Unites Mankind Rather Than Dividing It
Understanding cultural differences as key to the future

Nicholas Kristof, The Sex Speech
What would the perfect meld of Obama/Hillary have said about sexism in the US?

Shankar Vedantam, What Obama Might Learn from Emily Dickinson
Crime, poverty and vengeance mixed into one

Shankar Vedantam, See No Bias
Implicit bias trumps explicit ideology—or even the best-intentioned can have prejudices

Lisa Margonelli, Tapped Out
Review of Bottlemania, and why Americans spend $11 billion on bottled water

Maureen Flynn-Burhoe, Memory Work: Colonialism, Control, Civilization
Donna Haraway and the politics of nature

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Spore and the Obvious

Spore is a new game coming out this fall and recently a creature creator was released to show off a bit of the game. Given that this is a game more or less about evolution, with male and female creatures, it did not take long until “Sporn” hit the Internet.

I’ve pasted the “nature video” in all its glory below, so please take that into account before playing it. I found it very funny–ah, the things people put their minds to–but I wouldn’t show it to my kids. The tagline for the game goes, “Starting with single-cell organisms, players work on designing life with ever more complexity.” Or designing it right into the gutters… The hattip goes to Greg Laden.

Our own Greg adds: Warning: Video contains graphic scenes of pink-skinned animated aliens mating, including growling, circling hearts, and funky dance moves. Please don’t click if you are without a sense of humor.

Grand Central Freeze

Improv Everywhere pulled off a great social experiment, a couple hundred people freezing all at once for five minutes in the main terminal of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Here’s the video:

People’s reactions show public culture in action, backed up by the commentary on the making and enactment of the video at Improv Everywhere. I thought this was striking, of how the volunteers both took the mission on and brought their own creativity to it:

It was fun to see all the different choices people made for their frozen moment. I didn’t give any instructions in advance. I just told everyone to be doing something realistic and not jokey. One guy dropped an entire briefcase full of papers the second before he froze, leaving his papers scattered before him for five minutes. Many froze midway through eating or drinking. A few froze while taking off a jacket. One couple froze kissing.

At the Improv post, you can see lots more video on particular scenes, so plenty of great real-live data on a real-life experiment. And there are other “missions” like making a little league game the “best game ever” and The Moebius, where seven agents got stuck in a time loop at a Starbucks.