Maps, Figurative Symbols, and Songlines

When I think of symbols, I default to a rather literal sense of them. In my Introduction to Anthropology class, I put up the symbol for radiation, say there is nothing inherent in that symbol to tell us what it is, rather we put meaning on it – the symbol then tells us, beware of radiation. And thinking about early symbolism is often presented in a similar way. Pigments from Bombos caves, those must have been used to indicate group and individual identity. Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functional jokes meets Geertz’s system of symbols…

But when I write, I am often trying to feel my way, to find a way to express and configure and connect. Not always – good science writing requires trying to express complicated ideas in a literal way, but that is often helped along by metaphors and comparisons. And when I take a photo, it is not the meaning of the photo that captures me, but the composition and trying to catch a moment that works within larger constellations of happenings in my life and the lives of others.

A graduate student of mine sent me this article, Thinking in maps: from the Lascaux caves to modern knowledge graphs by Anne-Laure Le Cunff over at Ness Labs. It opens:

“What do hieroglyphs, flowcharts, road signs, and knowledge graphs have in common? They’re all thinking maps. Humans have been thinking in maps since the very first symbolic communication systems.

While thinking in maps may first bring to mind the idea of cartography, a map does not need to be geographic—it can be any symbolic depiction of the relationship between elements of some physical or mental space, such as themes, objects, or areas.

In the December 2007 edition of Philosophy of Mind, Professor Elisabeth Camp, whose research has focused on forms of thoughts that do not fit standard models, wrote: “Thinking in maps is substantively different from thinking in sentences.””

And immediately I am struck by how my approach to symbols is one based in “thinking in sentences” – symbols tell me things. Figurative renderings, not so much. But any symbolic relationship between elements could count… That opens a much wider field for how to think about symbols and cognition in the past and the present.

The songlines of indigenous Australians operate more in this figurative realm, as stories and maps and music all together. Nganyinytja, a Pitjantjatjara woman, tells us:

“We have no books, our history was not written by people with pen and paper. It is in the land, the footprints of our Creation Ancestors are on the rocks. The hills and creek beds they created as they dwelled in this land surround us. We learned from our grandmothers and grandfathers as they showed us these sacred sites, told us the stories, sang and danced with us the Tjukurpa (the Dreaming Law). We remember it all; in our minds, our bodies and feet as we dance the stories. We continually recreate the Tjukurpa … ”

These ways of knowing help inform novel ways of thinking about how education can and should work, cultivating this long-existing and robust civilization, and even game design.

This figurative relationship is illustrated so well in this video with Elwyn Henaway demonstrating how the patterning works.

Now back to the original article:
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Neuronal Systems as Networks

I want to cover two different open-access papers here, both of which represent advances in how we can study and understand how the brain achieves complex outcomes using different levels of interaction, from neurotransmitter systems, to connections among brain areas, to how networks work as systems. The first is a neuroscience-heavy paper, the second more on philosophy of science and complexity. So a good pairing!

Dynamic coupling of whole-brain neuronal and neurotransmitter systems by Morten L. Kringelbach et al.
Abstract:

Remarkable progress has come from whole-brain models linking anatomy and function. Paradoxically, it is not clear how a neuronal dynamical system running in the fixed human anatomical connectome can give rise to the rich changes in the functional repertoire associated with human brain function, which is impossible to explain through long-term plasticity. Neuromodulation evolved to allow for such flexibility by dynamically updating the effectivity of the fixed anatomical connectivity. Here, we introduce a theoretical framework modeling the dynamical mutual coupling between the neuronal and neurotransmitter systems. We demonstrate that this framework is crucial to advance our understanding of whole-brain dynamics by bidirectional coupling of the two systems through combining multimodal neuroimaging data (diffusion magnetic resonance imaging [dMRI], functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI], and positron electron tomography [PET]) to explain the functional effects of specific serotoninergic receptor (5-HT2AR) stimulation with psilocybin in healthy humans. This advance provides an understanding of why psilocybin is showing considerable promise as a therapeutic intervention for neuropsychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, and addiction. Overall, these insights demonstrate that the whole-brain mutual coupling between the neuronal and the neurotransmission systems is essential for understanding the remarkable flexibility of human brain function despite having to rely on fixed anatomical connectivity.

A key section explaining their basic modeling:

Specifically, the bidirectional coupling of the neuronal and neurotransmitter systems was modeled in the following way: For the placebo condition, we used a standard whole-brain model to simulate the neuronal system, i.e., modeling spontaneous brain activity at the whole-brain level (measured with blood oxygen level-dependent [BOLD] fMRI), where each node represents a brain area and the links between them are represented by white matter connections (measured with dMRI). For the psilocybin condition, we mutually coupled the whole-brain neuronal and neurotransmitter systems by including an explicit description of the neurotransmitter dynamical system and the mutual coupling with the neuronal system. This was done by modeling the dynamics of the neurotransmitter system through simulating the release-and-reuptake dynamics, where the serotonin receptor density of each brain area is measured with PET. The neurotransmitter dynamics are then in turn coupled with the neuronal activity through the firing rate activity of the raphe nucleus, source of the serotonin neurotransmitter.

And how they made that model statistically tractable:

We fitted the mutually coupled whole-brain model using our framework of describing a brain state as an ensemble or probabilistic “cloud” in a given state space (29). This cloud is of course not clustered into discrete states (30), but it has been shown that clustering can nevertheless be useful in providing so-called “metastable substates” that can significantly distinguish between brain states (31, 32). A brain state is determined by a collection of metastable substates, i.e., of time-varying pseudo-states resulting from the clustering process (33⇓–35).

And their conclusion:
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A Re-Opening: Some Reflections on the US

So I am coming back to the blog that started it all. Here are two related pieces on the US and higher education, but with a broader framing.

First in the New York Review of Books, What Kind of Country Do We Want? by Marilynne Robinson

When schools and hospitals close, the value of everything that is dependent on them falls. Austerity toward some is a tax cut for others, a privatization of social wealth. The economics of opportunism is obvious at every stage in this great shift. And yet Americans have reacted to the drove of presumptive, quasi, and faux billionaires as if preternatural wealth were a credential of some kind.

All the talk of national wealth, which is presented as the meaning and vindication of America, has been simultaneous with a coercive atmosphere of scarcity. America is the most powerful economy in history and at the same time so threatened by global competition that it must dismantle its own institutions, the educational system, the post office. The national parks are increasingly abandoned to neglect in service to fiscal restraint. We cannot maintain our infrastructure. And, of course, we cannot raise the minimum wage. The belief has been general and urgent that the mass of people and their children can look forward to a future in which they must scramble for employment, a life-engrossing struggle in which success will depend on their making themselves useful to whatever industries emerge, contingent on their being competitive in the global labor market. Polarization is the inevitable consequence of all this.

The great error of any conspiracy theory is the assumption that blame can be placed on particular persons and interests. A chord is struck, a predisposition is awakened. America as a whole has embraced, under the name of conservatism and also patriotism, a radical departure from its own history. This richest country has been overtaken with a deep and general conviction of scarcity, a conviction that has become an expectation, then a kind of discipline, even an ethic. The sense of scarcity instantiates itself. It reinforces an anxiety that makes scarcity feel real and encroaching, and generosity, even investment, an imprudent risk.

And then Bashing Administrators While the University Burns by Gabriel Paquette in The Chronicle of Higher Ed.

At my university as at many others, public and private, we are, out of necessity, in a market for students. And that market is shrinking because of demographic trends and accelerated by Covid-19. To sustain our institutions, we must adapt. Otherwise, we are doomed.

Denunciation, recrimination, and grandstanding are pit stops on the road to oblivion. This is not to say that faculty criticisms of university leadership are unfounded or invalid. But they are a dead end unless accompanied by the constructive aim of collective betterment. The allure of mounting the barricades is almost irresistible, but what’s the point if we all end up guillotined? What use is rehearsing old grievances if students balk at further indebtedness, and our revenue models collapse?

I anticipate one of two scenarios in the coming years. In the first, the familiar feuds persist, and the university edifice crumbles, with old enmities slight consolation for those who remain amid the ruins. In the second, instinctive self-preservation and mutual interest incite faculty-administrative cooperation, institutional moribundity is reversed, and a new university is erected on the foundations of the old.

Florida Governor: Anthropology Not Needed Here (originally 11 October, 2011)

(We are republishing ‘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. Daniel originally published this on 11 October, 2011. Comments have been pasted in at the end of the post from the original.) 

Anthropologists have been singled out by Florida Governor Rick Scott as not being needed. On the Marc Benier show, Gov. Scott said:

We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.

The American Anthropological Association issued a swift response to Gov. Scott, and the news that he thinks anthropology majors are not needed.

As an association, we are a group of over 11,000 scholars, scientists, and professionals who are dedicated to studying humankind in all its aspects, including through archaeological, biological, cultural, medical, and linguistic research… Perhaps you are unaware that anthropologists are leaders in our nation’s top science fields, making groundbreaking discoveries in areas as varied as public health, human genetics, legal history, bilingualism, the African American heritage, and infant learning.

As reported by the Orlando Sentinel, anthropology has become Gov. Scott’s primary example of an area where he believes public spending should be cut.

Tax revenues are expected to be lower than expected, forcing the state to prioritize where it spends dollars. Along those lines, Scott repeated a statement earlier this week by saying the state should spend less on education programs that aren’t related to current workforce demands, singling out anthropology.

“We’re spending a lot of money on education, and when you look at the results, it’s not great,” the governor told a luncheon crowd of the Northwest Business Association in Tallahassee. “Do you want to use your tax money to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”

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Newtown and Violence – No Easy Answers

(I [Greg] 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 (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. Daniel originally published 7 December 2012.)

I just dropped my two young children at elementary school. They were bright and smiling, one off to practice handbells for a Christmas concert, another to chat with friends before the first bell.

Neither noticed the police car newly parked beside the school. Neither had a penny for my thoughts, of what it must have been like for those parents in Newtown, dropping off beloved children and then not having them only a few minutes later.

Now at my computer, I think of the Connecticut State Police Spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance, the man who has guided us through much of this tragedy. I remember his assurance on Friday that the police were doing everything to find out not only what happened, but why.

But why.

No Easy Answers Continue reading

Almost Here! The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology

It started on this blog. In 2007, Greg and I co-founded Neuroanthropology. Five years later our book is out! “The Encultured Brain” will be published by MIT Press this Friday, August 24th, 2012. You can already order itat Amazon!

The brain and the nervous system are our most cultural organs. Our nervous system is especially immature at birth, our brain disproportionately small in relation to its adult size and open to cultural sculpting at multiple levels. Recognizing this, the new field of neuroanthropology places the brain at the center of discussions about human nature and culture.

Anthropology offers brain science more robust accounts of enculturation to explain observable difference in brain function; neuroscience offers anthropology evidence of neuroplasticity’s role in social and cultural dynamics. This book provides a foundational text for neuroanthropology, offering basic concepts and case studies at the intersection of brain and culture.

“The Encultured Brain” is really two books in one – the approach Greg and I have built to neuroanthropology, and other researchers using neuroanthropology in their own work. So at under $40 on Amazon, it’s a great deal!

#1: Our comprehensive take on neuroanthropology – an introduction to the field and the book, an in-depth statement on what neuroanthropology is, the evolutionary background to this approach, an outline for future research, and our own expert examples on balance and addiction.

#2: Nine case studies by other researchers, covering memory, PTSD, primates, skill acquisition, humor, autism, male vitality, smoking, and depression. These additional chapters really push “The Encultured Brain” into a new space, for they show how scholars are already using neuroanthropology to address an array of research problems.

Greg and I both hope you go order The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology

Neuroanthropology Now on Facebook

Neuroanthropology now comes in two forms on Facebook!

The Blog – With Extra Content

If you want to follow everything that we’re doing on the Neuroanthropology PLOS blog, and you also want short, fun posts that Greg and I have specifically written for Facebook, then head over to the Neuroanthropology Blog Facebook Page. I just stuck the great photo featured here up on Facebook – just a sample!

Neuroanthropology Interest Group

An active interest group – with lots of shared links and discussion – is growing quickly on Facebook. Here you can share and discover news stories and journal articles, and engage with like-minded people who want to explore the intersection of neuroscience and anthropology.

So two choices for more Neuroanthropology:

Link to Neuroanthropology Blog on Facebook

Link to Facebook Interest Group

Neuroanthropology on PLoS – Best of 2011

The last year was a great one for us over at Neuroanthropology’s new home on the Public Library of Science – our first full year as part of PLoS Blogs, a lot of great writing, and a vivid sense that anthropology online is developing into a robust arena.

Here is a quick run-down of the most read 2011 posts by Greg and by Daniel, as well as a selection of other notable posts.

Greg – Top Five

‘The last free people on the planet’
*Greg’s comprehensive take on media hype over “uncontacted” Indian tribes, and how these groups truly challenge those of us living in the West

Human (amphibious model): Living in and on the water
*How humans really do adapt to life in, on, and under the sea

David Graeber: Anthropologist, anarchist, financial analyst
*Graeber is one of the main intellectual inspirations between the Occupy movement, and an important critic of Western economic models

Slipping into psychosis: Living in the prodrome
*What it is like to live with schizophrenia, and what that tells us about ourselves

Getting around by sound: Human echolocation
*Being blind and learning to echolocate, including how the visual cortices come to handle the processing of auditory-become-visuospatial information

Daniel – Top Five

Florida Governor: Anthropology Not Needed Here
*FL Gov. Rick Scott singled out anthropology as a major that supposedly didn’t have job prospects, and that didn’t deserve state funding. Here is coverage of the vociferous reaction that shows how wrong Scott was

John Shea, Human Evolution, and Behavioral Variability – Not Behavioral Modernity
*Get your favorite – and mistaken – graph of human evolution, as well as a discussion of how a view that emphasizes variation over progress is a better fit for understanding our evolutionary history

Jared Lee Loughner – Is Mental Illness the Explanation for What He Did?
*Loughner’s vicious attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and how we explain, often mistakenly, such senseless violence

Francis Fukuyama – The Origins of Political Order
*Fukyama’s new tome, where he engages culture, history, and politics and aims to create the complement to his provocative The End of History

Jared Loughner Has a Violence Problem, Not a Mental Health Problem
*An alternative account of what the real problem is behind Loughner’s terrible attack

Notable Posts

Why We Protest
*Evolution, human nature, and why we protest inequality

Blogging for promotion: An immodest proposal
*Getting academic credit for this new form of scholarship

Brand anthropology: New and improved, with extra diversity!
*How to best promote anthropology

A Vision of Anthropology Today – and Tomorrow
*After the controversy over science in anthropology, a proposal for how the field goes towards the future

Digital Anthropology: Projects and Platforms
*Discover some incredible initiatives in digital anthropology

Beyond the Drug War: Drug Policy, Social Interventions, and the Future
*Why the Drug War has failed, and more importantly, what we can do differently

Neuroanthropology.net at 1,000,000

Neuroanthropology.net just broke through the 1,000,000 visits mark! We’ve done that in three years. Our very post came in December 2007.

Even though Greg and I have moved over to Neuroanthropology PLoS, this site has continued to generate impressive traffic since September 1st. Here are some of the posts that got us over the top:

We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough?
-Greg dissects the excellent study by Henrich et al. that took psychologists to task for basing claims about universal psychology using samples of college students

Inside the Mind of a Pedophile
-Absolutely incredible comments on this post, as readers continue to debate pedophilia, the people who have done it, and the children and families who have suffered from it

Forever at War: Veterans’ Everyday Battles with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
-Veterans suffering from PTSD share what it’s like to have PTSD, and what they want other vets and the broader public to know about PTSD

Life without language
-Author Susan Schaller’s work with a profoundly deaf immigrant who grew up without sign language, and an exploration of what it is like to live without language

The new linguistic relativism: Guy Deutscher in the NYTimes
-Does language shape how you think? A re-examination of language and thought

Edge: Getting at the Neuroanthropology of Morality
-The new scientists of morality are actually doing neuroanthropology, and not evolutionary psychology

The dog-human connection in evolution
-Dogs made us more human

It’s hard to believe that we’ve had 1,000,000 onsite visits in three years, plus all the other people who’ve read this site through Google reader or other rss feeds. When we started, we never expected to have such success with this site. So thank you!

And now we’re doing the same great stuff over on Neuroanthropology on PLoS. Here are five of our top posts since September 1st:

Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding
-The American Anthropological Association dropped the word “science” from the mission statement included in the association’s long-term plan, and the media and blogosphere erupted. Here’s the post that kicked off Neuroanthropology’s extensive coverage of the controversy

An Interview with Mark Changizi: Culture Harnessing the Brain
-Cognitive scientist Mark Changizi gives us his inside view of how culture and brain evolved together, with an inside glimpse into his forthcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man

Food for thought: Cooking in human evolution
-Did cooking make us human, giving us the necessary energy to have super brains?

Anthropology, Science, and the AAA Long-Range Plan: What Really Happened
-The New York Times portrayed anthropologists as split into warring tribes over the word “science.” Here’s what actually happened with the AAA controversy

The Culture of Poverty Debate
-The controversial Culture of Poverty idea has made a comeback. Here’s coverage of the good and bad about the media reports and research on the renewed look at the links between culture and poverty

Great New Stuff over at PLoS Neuroanthropology

I hope our regular readers have moved over to PLoS Neuroanthropology. But just in case you haven’t, I’ve posted some of our recent posts from over there below. And for those of you new to neuroanthropology, welcome! Here’s a taste of what we do.

But one thing first. If you like getting your internet through a feed, please update the rss subscription for PLoS Neuroanthropology> Here’s the actual address in case you need it: http://feeds.plos.org/plos/blogs/neuroanthropology

Popular Posts

An Interview with Mark Changizi: Culture Harnassing the Brain
*Our most popular post has been an interview with cognitive scientist Mark Changizi, who has some provocative ideas about how culture evolved by adapting itself to our brains.

Food for Thought: Cooking in Human Evolution
*Richard Wrangham, Heribert Watzke, Marlene Zuk and the trade-offs between big brains and big teeth and guts, and how humans overcome that trade-off through cooking, a diversified diet, and more – all that in another very popular post.

Life in the Dark
*Another post that people have enjoyed covers how much we’ve changed our nighttime environment through human lighting, and the effects this can have on sleep, vision, and behavior. It also presents the work of photographer Peter DiCampo and his work on dark photos as activism

Culture of Poverty Series

The Culture of Poverty Debate

The Culture of Poverty Debate Continued

Culture of Poverty: From Analysis to Policy

*The controversial concept of a “Culture of Poverty” appeared in a front-page NY Times article, as well as in a prominent collection from sociologists this summer on Reconsidering the Culture of Poverty. That kicked off a series of posts on the Culture of Poverty. The first covered the debate and critiquing the NYT article for how it represented culture and poverty. The second presented a range of critical reactions to the re-emergence of this old idea, before advancing an idea about “cultural inequality” to go along with notions of structural inequality. The third focused on mistaken notions of culture, and what we might actually do in terms of ideas and policy in relation to culture, poverty, and behavior.