Greg Downey and the Synergy of Sport

Greg Downey is a lecturer in anthropology at Macquarie University. As part of the Encultured Brain session, he will give the presentation A Comparative Neuroanthropology of Equilibrium in Sports and Dance. His abstract goes:

Retaining one’s balance, especially given bipedalism, is a complex sensorimotor challenge. Some theorists, such as philosopher Jerry Fodor, have suggested that the extraordinary speed and facility of human equilibrium suggest it is a mental “module,” a domain specific, automatic, encapsulated neural tool. This presentation examines the claim that equilibrium is a mental module in light of comparative ethnographic and psychological data, and proposes a more complex “nodular” neural system of equilibrium that is subject to enculturation. This nodular system model is more consistent with neurological imaging and other research, including successful efforts to compensate for damaged vestibular systems using prostheses to the sense of touch.

In fact, balance is not so much “a sense” as a shifting synthesis of motor responses and multiple sensory streams — including the vestibular system, vision, and certain key proprioceptive regions. The system typically operates without conscious awareness, but training in physical disciplines such as sports can lead individuals to develop new ways of achieving equilibrium in demanding situations, such as while spinning and leaping, grappling, colliding with others, or even standing on one’s hands.

Ethnographic research on the acrobatic Afro-Brazilian martial art, capoeira, and the presenter’s practical experience as a dance instructor and athlete, suggest how variations in training can affect an individual’s “senses” of balance, practically, phenomenologically and neurologically. For example, because vision can compensate when the vestibular system is unable to function normally (for example, when spinning, inverted, or moving violently), so strategies of looking can directly impact how people successfully balance.

Greg’s book Learning Capoiera: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art discusses his long-term ethnographic work with capoiera masters in Brazil. Here is the Amazon blurb:

Learning Capoeira is an ethnographic study based on author Greg Downey’s extensive research about capoeira and more than ten years of apprenticeship. It looks at lessons from traditional capoeira teachers in Salvador, Brazil, capturing the spoken and unspoken ways in which they pass on the art to future generations. Downey explores how bodily training can affect players’ perceptions and social interactions, both within the circular roda, the “ring” where the game takes place, as well as outside it, in their daily lives. He brings together an experience-centered, phenomenological analysis of the art with recent discoveries in psychology and the neurosciences about the effects of physical education on perception. The text is enhanced by more than twenty photos of capoeira sessions, many taken by veteran teacher, Mestre Cobra Mansa.

Greg is presently writing another book tentatively titled “The Athletic Animal: Sports, Evolution, and the Human Body’s Potential.” As he writes on his website, “This book uses elite athletes to demonstrate how humans modify their own bodies, nervous systems, and senses. Far from being the “brainy geeks” of the animal kingdom, I argue, humans are among the most physically versatile because of the plasticity of our nervous system and our ability to guide the development of our own (and each other’s) bodies. Ironically, the subject has led me to a type of holistic anthropology I was not trained to do, one that brings social and cultural research and theory together with attention to psychology, the brain sciences, physiology, and ecology.”

Why do sports matter? Here is one answer from Greg. “I’m working on a new project on rugby across three different ethnographic sites, looking into how different training techniques generate different types of skills, even in the same positions and sports, in Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. I think it has profound implications for things like national differences in sporting ability, the sort of thing that people point to frequently to demonstrate that differences between ‘races’ are obvious. It’s an interesting flipside to the medical anthropology work, which studies cultural impacts on dysfunction, because I’m really looking at heightened functioning.”

Greg has published the articles Producing Pain: Techniques and Technologies in No-Holds-Barred Fighting; Educating the Eyes: Biocultural Anthropology and Physical Education; and most recently Scaffolding Imitation in Capoeira: Physical Education and Enculturation in an Afro-Brazilian Art. You can also read his piece on the neuroanthropology of balance and equilibrium here on-site.

If you would like to get in touch with Greg, his email is gdowney at

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