2 legs good, 4 legs better: Uner Tan syndrome, part 2

Image by massaoud el allaoui from Pixabay

(I am republishing a lot of my ‘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. Originally published 5 September 2010.)

Members of a Turkish family with Uner Tan Syndrome

Beginning in 2005, reports by Prof. Üner Tan of Cukurova University in Turkey alerted the world to a number of families in which some members walked quadrupedally. This is the second part of a (so far) two-part post on Uner Tan Syndrome. Although you’re welcome to read the first part, I’ll give you the one sentence summary if you just want to push on and a piece of video clip on the cases. I should warn you though, before you read the first part, that the whole thing is sort of like the straight set-up for this piece, which is a bit of a googly (kind of like a knuckleballer for all you non-cricket followers):

Üner Tan described four consanguineous Turkish families with fourteen individuals who habitually walked quadrupedally; subsequent genetic research showed that some of the families had defects in a gene known to be essential in cerebellar formation, but not all of the cases had the gene, and at least one family member with the gene walked normally, leading most researchers to argue UTS was genetically heterogeneous in origin; some theorists, including Tan, argued that quadrupedalism was either ‘reverse evolution’ or an atavism, but not everyone was buying that explanation (including me for reasons I didn’t make entirely clear in the first post).

Well, that was — technically — one sentence.

Nova preview: The Family that Walks on All Fours

But if you read that first post, I know what you’re saying: ‘Bloody loooong post, mate, laffed mi head off at the picture… but eef thas what yous blokes do at Newroant-whatevs, well, I’m not heaps intristed.’ (Apparently, you have a bogan Australian accent, at least in my head.)

Photo by Eadweard MuybridgeAu contraire – we’re just getting started! We’ve still got bipedal dogs and goats, kids who only get down on all four when in a hurry, Johnny Eck (aka the ‘Half Boy’), capoeira training in Brazil and some other surprises up our sleeve. We’ll show you how we roll at Neuroanthropology, with lots of weird SFW videos and obscure case studies!

One of the things that we try to bring to ‘neuro-’ to make it truly ‘neuroanthropology’ is a much more open consideration of human variation. This can sometimes take us to some extraordinary case studies, not simply out of a fascination with the exotic, but because a comparative look at extreme cases – like Uner Tan Syndrome – helps us to better understand human potential. So let’s go back to Prof. Tan…

Continue reading “2 legs good, 4 legs better: Uner Tan syndrome, part 2”

Asifa Majid on language and olfaction

(I 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.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. I originally published this on 10 September 2014. I have also included at the end some of the most substantial comments from the comment thread.)When I first ran across Asifa Majid’s  article with Ewelina Wnuk in Cognition, about how speakers of Maniq, a language indigenous to southern Thailand, have a vocabulary for talking about smell, I was taken aback. In anthropology, especially since the work of people like David Howes, Constance Classen, and Andrew Synott, we know very well that different cultures privilege olfaction and other senses more than Westerners do. The anthropology of the sense has made it clear that the ideological privileging of vision in the West, and relative underdevelopment of sense of smell or proprioception, is not matched elsewhere.

Prof. Asifa Majid

However, Wnuk and Majid were attacking, with empirical observations and psychometric testing, one of the pillars of Western philosophical accounts of how human senses evolved: the idea that human evolution had tipped the balance decisively away from olfaction. The alleged weakness and imprecision of olfaction was taken for granted in perceptual psychology.

Some of these theories of sensory evolution hold that our ancestors had, in a way, paid for our distinctive cognitive and perceptual development by sacrificing olfactory acuity. Vision increased precision at the expense of olfaction.

In fact, some theorists of brain evolution go so far as to suggest that there was a kind of neurological trade-off: language use could only grow as our ancestors lost a capacity for smelling. The restraint and remove from the immediate sense-world necessary for logic and abstract thought was opposed to the kind of complete immersion and sensory triggering of behaviour that other animals had because of the way aromas dominated their perception. Were the senses in a zero-sum exchange where visual acuity and a distinctly human way of life made acute olfaction impossible?

Research conducted by Asifa Majid, together with her collaborators, suggests that language and olfaction are not at odds; the right language can actually enhance the perception of aroma, as language has also enhanced, inflected and refined our other senses. Rather than a fact of human being, the neglect of olfaction in the West is a result of our own cultural presuppositions and sensory biases: smell suffers from neglect, not an inescapable evolutionary trade-off. (Majid’s research got a mention recently from Tanya Luhrmann in an op-ed in the New York TimesCan’t Place That Smell? You Must Be American: How Culture Shapes Our Senses.)

Continue reading “Asifa Majid on language and olfaction”

Giving names to aromas in Aslian languages

The sanitary and mechanical age we are now entering makes up for the mercy it grants to our sense of smell by the ferocity with which it assails our sense of hearing. – Havelock Ellis

How do you smell?, by Harald Hoyer, 2011 (CC BY SA)
How do you smell?, by Harald Hoyer, 2011 (CC BY SA)

(I 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.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. I originally published this on 9 March 2014. I have also included at the end some of the most substantial comments from the comment thread.)

My wife and I disagree about how one should judge whether milk has gone bad or is still fresh enough to drink. She consults the date on the carton. I smell it.

My aroma-based strategy is part of my well-developed theory that milk, even when it goes “off,” simply becomes a different dairy product, maybe not quite so pleasant to drink, but perfectly serviceable in other functions such as making pancakes. My father taught me this, or at least I blame him — he grew up on a farm in Iowa — but I also recall reading with great satisfaction about the Nuer and Dinka, and how a range of fermented milk products were essential to their diet. But that’s a story for a different day…

The key is that my wife and I disagree fundamentally about the value of olfaction in judging milk even though she has a quite remarkable sense of smell. She often stumps me by quizzing me about which flowering shrubs are in bloom from their aroma. She can always tell. Like many people in the US and Australia, and elsewhere in the West, we’re ambivalent about the value of the sense of smell, using it only quite narrowly for specific tasks.

Throughout Western philosophy and psychology runs a conviction that smell is an imperfect and inexact sense. Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man, for example, wrote that the sense was “of extremely slight service” to humans; philosopher Immanuel Kant that it was the “most dispensable” of our senses. As Ewelina Wnuk and Asifa Majid of the Max Plank Institute summarize, a range of Western thinkers from Condillac to Pinker argue that aroma offers humans little of value, that the sense is vestigial, rudimentary, and under-developed (see Wnuk and Majid 2014: 125).

In fact, the human sense of smell is far more acute than we might realize, and new linguistic research emerging from a cluster of groups in southeast Asia suggests that our inability to smell might be a cultural problem, not an invariant fact of human nature. Our language hampers our ability to perceive aroma.

Continue reading “Giving names to aromas in Aslian languages”

Life in the Dark

Photo of the Milky Way in the night sky.
Image by Pexels from Pixabay 

(I 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.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. I originally published this on 7 November 2010. I have also included at the end some of the most substantial comments from the comment thread.

I’m also trying something totally new…)

This post is available as a podcast at Anchor.fm.

My ex-wife, along with her many other jobs – paid and unpaid – is the local director of a campus exchange program that brings US students to Wollongong, New South Wales.  Because of her background in outdoor education and adventure therapy, she does a great job taking visiting Yanks on weekend activities that get the students to see a side of life in Australia that they might not otherwise see.  From Mystery Bay on the South Coast, to Mount Guluga with an Aboriginal guide, to abseiling (rapeling) in the Blue Mountains, to surf lessons at Seven Mile Beach, I think she does a great job, and I frequently tag along to help and enjoy being reminded of the distinctiveness of my adopted home.

Abdulai Abubakari holds his infant child, Fakia. (Peter DiCampo/VII Agency)

Invariably, either at the beach or in the Blue Mountains, at night, students will confront a clear, dark Australian sky, staggered at just how many stars fill the darkness from horizon to horizon. I’ve seen the US students – well, not all of them get into it – just stand, necks craned backwards, and stare.  What they thought was darkness was actually full of innumerable points of light.

I’m sympathetic because I had a similar experience one clear night in the Chapada Diamantina (the Diamond Plateau) in Brazil, when I couldn’t believe how, given real darkness, desert-like humidity, and clear, pollution-free air, the sky was crowded with sources of light, just smeared with stars.  For the first time, I felt like I understood the name, the ‘Milky Way,’ because I could see the uninterrupted blur toward the centre of our galaxy.

I was reminded of my experience with seeing stars, as if for the first time, and the reactions of the American students when I stumbled across the photos of Peter DiCampo (click here for Peter’s website), an American freelance photographer and former members of the Peace Corps who volunteered in the village of Voggu in rural Ghana.  His photo essay, Full Frame: Life without lights, is up at Global Post, an online American newspaper launched at the start of 2009.  His beautiful photos of life by flashlight, candle and gaslight, capture the atmosphere in this part of Ghana without electricity, and got me to thinking about artificial light and the way the sensory environment affects human development (additional photos at Peter’s personal website, including photos from darkness in Kurdistan).

Continue reading “Life in the Dark”

Manipulating student evaluations: the Downey Sales School method

Student evaluations are biased? Yes, yes, they are. Research has repeatedly shown that students’ evaluations of teaching quality show a range of biases. For example, Anne BoringKellie Ottoboni and Philip B. Stark argue on the LSE’s Impact blog that:

Student evaluations of teaching (SET) are strongly associated with the gender of the instructor. Female instructors receive lower scores than male instructors. SET are also significantly correlated with students’ grade expectations: students who expect to get higher grades give higher SET, on average. But SET are not strongly associated with learning outcomes.

Even given their limitations and outright unfairness, universities are not likely to give up student evaluations soon.

So I offer you another alternative: How I manipulate student evaluation scores. Using techniques I first learned while a door-to-door salesman as an undergraduate, here are tried and tested techniques for improving your evaluations, from the keyboard of a 25+ year university veteran. Buckle up — this may sound cynical — but I hope to persuade you that my goals and methods are not only ethical, but actually might improve your teaching. 

Photo by Aldiyar Seitkassymov on Pexels.com
Continue reading “Manipulating student evaluations: the Downey Sales School method”

Getting around by sound: Human echolocation (first published, 14 June 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. I originally published this on 14 Junne, 2011. Comments have been pasted in at the end of the post from the original. A podcast version of this post is available here.)

Daredevil_65As any fan of the adventures of Daredevil knows, being blind in comic books can give you superpowers.  Matt Murdoch was blinded by a radioactive accident that he befell because he tried to save a blind pedestrian from the truck carrying the waste (ah, the irony…). Murdoch developed a kind of ‘radar’ sense that allowed him to prowl Hell’s Kitchen, rooting out the miscreants and lowlifes who, like the blind Man Without Fear, preferred to lurk in the dark.

Although his personal life proved that nice guys often finish, if not last, certainly with a heavy burden of angst and personal tragedy, Daredevil built upon the observation that deprivation of one sense can lead to heightened ability in others.

Although the Man without Fear may seem implausible, in fact, researchers have examined a number of blind individuals who seem to develop extraordinarily acute echolocation, a kind of active sonar that they use by clicking to produce echoes from their surroundings.  In a recent edition of PLoS ONELore Thaler from the University of Western Ontario, with Stephen Arnott and Melvyn Goodalereport on brain imaging research that tries to sort out how individuals who can echolocate – who have what one blind activist calls ‘flash sonar’ – accomplish this perception neurologically. Do they use an especially acute sense of hearing, or do they develop another kind of sense, able to transform echoes into spatial perception?

What the researchers found, in short, is that blind individuals who could echolocate did not really have better ‘hearing’; on normal tests of hearing acuity, they scored the same as two sighted subjects who could not echolocate.  However, when a recording had echoes, parts of the brain associated with visual perception in sighted individuals became extremely active, as the echolocators were able to extract information from the echoes that was seemingly not accessible to the control subjects who were sighted.

Continue reading “Getting around by sound: Human echolocation (first published, 14 June 2011)”