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.


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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The Encultured Brain – Part One on the San Francisco AAA Conference

Our double session on the Encultured Brain: Neuroanthropology and Interdisciplinary Engagement was quite a success. The room was full, the papers well delivered, the discussants provided both constructive criticism and encouragement. Greg and I even got congratulations from people who heard about the session through meeting buzz. Never had that happen before!

So all that was great. But it’s not what I plan to dicuss here. The session, and ensuing conversations, pushed my own thinking, and I want to provide my general take on the session.

The place to begin is with the end, I think. In his comments Robert Sapolsky highlighted two important points. First he emphasized our changing view of the brain, with the main emphases in neuroscience now being the twin concepts of plasticity and connectivity. Genetic programming and innate modules are relics of past thinking. How neurons connect up and how neural function is shaped by other parts of the brain and by the environment now play a central role in understanding what our brains do. Not including these two basic concepts – with clear links to development, activity, experience, and culture – means missing the boat on where neuroscience is at and the potential lessons it carries for other fields.

Sapolsky’s second point was to not get caught up by the technical brilliance (or mirage, depending on your perspective) of neuroscience. Its technical prowess also carries large constraints, such as being limited to animal models or neuroimaging, extreme cost, and being confined to the laboratory. These technical aspects are largely problems of neuroscience, and should not carry over to anthropology (neuroanthropology or otherwise). Our focus on behavior, our work with people and primates in natural settings, our ability to focus on how people actually live – these are our strengths. We can flesh out what plasticity and connectivity – the interactive brain – mean for people and primates.

In her comments on the session, Naomi Quinn pointed out that we as anthropologists still have some way to go in this new endeavor. She highlighted the eclectic nature of the panel as one demonstration of that (who us, all over the board?). But the more serious point she had was our lack of a common language. Without a common set of ideas and a core set of references, we risk continuing to be all over the board rather than building the innovative research program that appears in our rose-colored dreams. Part of adding flesh to brain research means developing some shared meaning among ourselves about the different parts in play. Quinn’s challenge is an important one.

So that’s part one of my reflections. I’ll link to other parts here as I build on specific talks to discuss how to think more specifically about plasticity, connectivity, and common language. As a whole, the talks themselves present some powerful synergies – if we can just see our way to that.

Wednesday Round Up #39

This week we have online wonders, mental health, anthropology, and the brain, along with the top picks.

Top of the List

Scicurious, Holiday Getting You Down? Pass the Turkey
Just in time for Thanksgiving: The low-down on tryptophan in the latest research from Neuropsychopharmacology

The Onion, New Pain-Inducing Advil Created For People Who Just Want To Feel Something, Anything
Ah, searing, life-affirming agony in a pill

Lisa Belkin, Time for (Parent) Sex
A range of the latest on parenting and sex, including Tyra Banks, adolescents, and parents with newborns

NeuroNarrative, The Psychology of Grifting
Trust, oxytocin, and professional con artists. Includes a great video, where a guy is conned into giving away his wallet! Watching it, you can see relationships, context, and language too… So trust is not just chemical.

Online Wonders (Or Not)

John Markoff, Microsoft Examines Causes of ‘Cyberchondria’
New study on self-diagnosis through the Internet – worst-case scenarios confirmed…

Virginia Heffernan, In This Week’s Magazine: Internet Man of Mystery
Profile of Virgil Griffith, founder of WikiScanner

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Three Carnivals

The latest Encephalon rounds up the best mind and brain blogging over at Ionian Enchantment. Plenty of good material this time, including paranormal beliefs, songbirds, Huntington’s disease, and physical fitness and the brain. Where else can you get all that?!

Grand Rounds 5.9 came out last week over at Dr. Deb. If you’re looking for blogging on medicine and health, Dr. Deb gives us an artful and informative round up. There’s a medical playlist, a mental health playlist, a patient playlist, and even for your aural and literary pleasure.

Moneduloides hosted the latest Four Stone Hearth of anthropology. There you’ll find soils, girating hips, Danes, and figurines… Where else can you get all that?!

Online Survey on Globalization and Grassroots Organizing

Ben Junge, a friend of mine and a professor of anthropology at SUNY – New Paltz, needs your help! Along with a student, Ben is doing research on “how grassroots groups in the US and Canada make use of the Internet and how (and if) they understand their own struggles in relation to globalization.” Here is the blurb from him about this online survey:

To anyone who represents an organization, project, or network that works on social justice issues (broadly defined, as we are casting the net wide!), I would be very much obliged if you could fill out our survey. The survey is anonymous and short (15-20 min). You can get a bit more info about the project at our New Paltz site on this research. .

Also, we’ve had a couple of sporadic problems with the website, so pls. also feel free to use the following site, which skips the intro and goes right to the survey.

Thanks much for any help and all the best from New Paltz,
Ben Junge

Here is the longer description from Ben about the work. If you want to forward this link to anyone, please do so!

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Andy Clark & Michael Wheeler: Embodied cognition and cultural evolution

The Cognition and Culture website has posted a link to the new edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B on ‘cultural transmission and evolution of human behaviour.’ I wanted to comment on just one piece on embodied cognition and cultural evolution, by philosophers Michael Wheeler and Andy Clark (unfortunately, Philosophical Transactions B is behind a subscription wall, although there’s a one-page ‘free preview’ [ouch] here). The Cognition and Culture website has the table of contents posted here. I was vaguely familiar with Michael Wheeler’s work before this piece, but Andy Clark (it’s not much of a profile) has written some of the work that’s most influenced my thinking about the effects of varied skill acquisition on cognition, especially his remarkable book, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again (Amazon listing).

A ream of Clark’s papers can be found here. A review of Michael Wheeler’s book, Reconstructing the cognitive world: The next step, written by Leslie Marsh can be downloaded here. We’ll come back to Andy Clark’s work again in later posts.

I must admit a certain morbid fascination with how one of my favorite streams of thought — embodied cognition — would fare combined with cultural evolution — an area of scholarship that, well, to put it nicely, is uneven (before you get all defensive, let me just stop you with one word: mimetics). It’s sort of like watching one of your good friends get hit on by a sleazy guy at a bar. She looks happy, but you’re sort of cringing at the chance that she might actually take him home. In spite of this instinctual cringe, this special edition of Philosophical Transactions has some really interesting work on cultural evolution, especially because many of the pieces focus tightly on the enormously problematic issue of cultural transmission.

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Neuroanthropology best anthro blog not ending in ‘Matters’

Like Daniel, I’m at the San Francisco meetings of the American Anthropology Association, where we’ve been busy plotting the future of this site and other projects (more on these soon). But I wanted to stop to thank you all for your support in the voting for the First Annual Anthropology On-line Awards (or whatever the title officially was). Last night, in an awards ceremony that can only be described as soulful and heartfelt, in a hotel lobby surrounded by people who were unaware what was going on, the very good folks from Savage Minds, the ‘papa bear’ of anthropology blogs, gave out their first annual awards. The winners were:

Most Excellent Blog
Runner up:
Winner: Culture Matters

Most Excellent OA Journal
Runner Up: Cultural Analysis
Winner: Anthopology Matters

Most Excellent Blog or Journal that does not end in “Matters” (The Category formerly known as Most Excellent Unclassifiable Digital Thingamajob)
Runner Up: Digital Anthropology
Winner: Neuroanthropology

I can’t tell you how proud Daniel and I are (mostly because I don’t really know how proud Daniel is), but my heart swelled to receive the Spinning Pen and to feel the love, especially knowing that we had single-handedly moved the category name itself by our failure to use the word ‘Matters’ in our title (We are considering fixing that and going head to head with the ‘-Matters’ crowd…).

Thanks to you all, our readers, for stuffing ballot boxes, hacking Diebold voting machines, intimidating supporters of our rival blogs, and everything else that you did in our support. I think it’s fair to say that the surge in late voting that came about when Paul posted a brief note about the voting impressed (or ‘mortified’ might be more accurate) the international election observers sent in to make sure that the process was fair.

In all seriousness, I’m really glad that Savage Minds is doing this. They’re taking a really crucial role in promoting on-line anthropology, open access publishing, and a host of other efforts. A lot of our readers wander over from psychology, brain sciences, and other fields, and we welcome you all, but we’re also really pleased to get noticed by other anthropologists. Thanks to Savage Minds for their contribution to the future health of our field and to helping us get more widely noticed within it.