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.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

3 thoughts on “Proceedings from ASCS 09 Conference online

  1. This is a little off-topic, but what do the Neuroanthropology folks think of work like Alva Noe’s “Out of Our Minds”?

  2. Hi Rex! Off topic, perhaps, but interesting nonetheless.

    I don’t know Alva Noë’s Out of Our Heads well enough to give you a real review, but I’ve read his Perception in Action and sections of Out of Our Heads. I’ll specifically speak to that book as a way of talking about ‘works like’ it (which would include a whole host of recent books by philosophers and neuroscientists alike).

    Noë’s argument, from my admittedly incomplete reading, is interesting, and I have no fundamental problem with his critiques of the authors and theoretical movements that he targets, although they hardly represent the whole of cognitive science as I think he sometimes suggests. For example, he specifically critiques those cognitive scientists who think the ‘mind’ is in the brain, arguing that the ‘mind’ is bigger than this, extending to the body and the material world. He’s hardly the first person to argue that the brain, in isolation, is not the proper unit of study to understand consciousness; his thought is continuous with earlier phenomenologists and with the current of embodied cognition in cognitive science.

    Some reviewers of Noë’s book have argued that he’s stronger on critique than on offering constructive alternatives; it’s probably a fair critique, but there’s also a lot of cobwebs to clear out of this area of cognitive science, so I feel like we should be generous with this. When Noë does put forward constructive alternatives, they can be pretty damn bold, but they also sometimes seem over-extended. For example, I’m thinking of his his work with O’Regan on perception (which appears in BBS). I found the theory extremely interesting, but arguing that it explained all of perception seemed a pretty extreme stretch.

    Noë has a good philosopher’s gifts: he digests enormous amounts of information, draws clear contrasts and highlights fundamental points of disagreement. Perception in Action helped me to grasp a whole field of cognitive science, like a great review article on steroids, but there were some elements of over-extended theory, sometimes deceptively woven into more sober discussions.

    But my biggest issue with Noë is that he’s still a philosopher, firmly grounded in a Western philosophical framing of the key questions for this field. He brings these incredible resources to bear on the same questions: What is consciousness? How can we experience the world? What is ‘mind’s’ relation to brain? I’m especially frustrated by the ‘mind’ question for both phenomenological and anthropological reasons; I wish he were addressing less philosophical questions. For example, instead of ‘what is mind?’, why not, ‘Why are these crazy Westerners so persuaded that we have *a* mind?’ After all, if the ‘mind’ is such an obdurate philosophical problem, maybe it’s because it’s a Ptolemaic category?

    The bottom line is that I think Noë’s enactive theory of perception is a bit more exotic, harder-to-justify variant of theories of embodied and ecological perception. He’s clearly onto something really interesting, and his books offer the advantage of a good, bold philosopher’s take on the implications of neuroscience findings. Except for the fact that they tend to focus on philosophical questions (I know, it’s a pretty petty thing to say, like when I complain that ‘cognitive science’ is too cognitive), I find that up-to-date-on-their-neuroscience philosophers of mind (Andy Clark, John Sutton, Alva Noë, Shaun Gallagher, Thomas Metzinger) are usually one of the best ways to let someone else do the heavy intellectual lifting. And with the philosophers, at least they tend to make their intellectual commitments pretty clear. I just wish we could get them more interested in anthropology…

    So, yes, Rex, off topic, but spot on. Metzinger was at the ASCS meeting, and I’ve really got a lot from his stuff as well. Noë’s great value.

  3. After a quick first read of your paper it would seem to me that a lot of what you are talking about seems to fall under the umbrella of what the Boasians would have called ‘motor habits.’ Would you agree or disagree?

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