Human (amphibious model): living in and on the water (originally 3 Feb, 2011)

(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.)

At the beginning of the film clip, Bajau fisherman Sulbin sits on the side of a boat on the coast of Borneo, gulping air, handling his speargun.  And then, he drops into the water.  The footage suddenly changes and becomes arresting: silent, dreamy, slow, and so blue.  Sulbin strokes deliberately and descends until he strides along the bottom of the ocean, holding his breath, and hunts for fish through handmade goggles. [I’ve had to get a new version of the video clip, 2019.]

Finally, after a couple of minutes, he spears a fish and heads for the surface.  The narrator tells us that Sulbin could stay down twice as long and dive deeper if necessary.  Most viewers, unfamiliar with free diving, exceptional if they can hold their breath longer than thirty seconds, are quite likely to be shaking their heads by the end of the clip, wondering at the ability of the human body to adapt to life in water.  Life as an amphibious human can appear so alien that it’s stranger than science fiction, but painfully beautiful to watch.

I stumbled across the video clip in part because of my academic interest in free diving. Earlier this month, I was supposed to attend a free diving workshop in New Zealand with one of the sport’s world record holder, Will Trubridge (or see the story on the Times Online).  The workshop fell through at almost the same time I was diagnosed with multiple hernias, so my first free diving experience likely wouldn’t have worked out – I’m still hoping to do it as part of my ethnographic research on extraordinary human performance in the near future.

But the clip of Sulbin on the BBC series, Human Planet episode, Oceans, has inspired me to write a little bit about Homo aquaticus (kidding), adaptation, culture, and what this sort of remarkable human adaptation might imply for the idea of ‘human nature.’

Sulbin’s ability is remarkable, but like so many exceptional human skills, it relies not on innate difference from other individuals, but on the steady cultivation of peculiar changes in the body and in how it is experienced.  What I hope to suggest is that amphibious humans point to the most basic fact of human nature: that we seem particularly adept at finding ways to adapt ourselves – biologically, psychologically, behaviourally, technologically – to a host of niches that then rebound back upon us and shape how we develop.  We are a peculiar self-made species.

This piece is probably best seen as one in a series I’ve been crafting on how human adaptation to situations that we place ourselves in map out the envelope of our bodies’ malleability.  Human skills and adaptation show us how our brains and nervous systems can be trained to do amazing things.  Frequent readers will know that I think much of the discussion of ‘human nature,’ carried out by — to put it nicely — exceptionally sedentary theorists, severely underestimates what our bodies are capable of doing.

Too often, in discussions of human adaptation, we allow a flabby distinction between three basic types of adaptation: genetic, phenotypic (or physiological), and cultural (or technology).  What I’ve been playing with, and will return to at the end of this piece, is the inseparability of these, especially the last two: physiology and culture.  The Bajau fisherman Sulbin shows us how biology and culture are inseparable because what he does ends up shaping his body, but only because he grew up around people who knew how to manage becoming human in this distinctive amphibious way and because his adaptations play upon how his nervous system works, including some intriguing quirks.

If you’re mad keen to learn more about human adaptation and my ongoing obsession, you might check out samples of my work on human quadrupedalism (part two), barefoot runningbarefoot climbing, and even overhand throwing (the piece is specifically on ‘throwing like a girl’).  I’ll be posting more in the months to come, so if you’re interested in what the human body can be made to do, pay us a return visit periodically.

‘Sea gypsies’ in Southeast Asia

Sulbin is a member of a number of groups who live wholly or partially as oceanic nomads or sea foragers in South-East Asia.  As the BBC website explains:

Few peoples have a deeper connection with the sea than the Bajau Laut of South-East Asia. Sometimes known as “sea gypsies”, they live in house boats or stilt houses built on top of coral reefs and when they do spend the occasional night on solid ground they often report feeling ‘landsick’.

Malaysia’s best Bajau free-divers can dive to depths of over 20 metres and stay there for several minutes on a single breath as they go in search of fish. And as if that weren’t enough, studies on some “sea gypsy” children from Thailand and Burma show that they have unusually good underwater-vision because their eyes have adapted to the liquid environment.

The Bajau Laut’s livelihood is traditionally totally dependent on the resources of the sea so spear-fishing is vitally important to them, but different cultures have very different ways of catching fish.  (BBC website).

I won’t go into the ethnographic material on the Bajau and other groups called ‘sea gypsies’ (such as the Moken, who live along the coasts of Thailand, Burma and increasingly into Malaysia).  If you’re interested, I’ve placed some links to more material on the Moken and other groups at the end of this article.  Some of the groups experienced a recent spike in interest when they apparently avoided serious casualties in the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 because they ‘saw signs in the waves’ of the trouble to come.

This post is really about adapting to diving, and that happens a lot more broadly than just in ‘sea gypsy’ populations.  Although SCUBA and other techniques are replacing breath-hold diving, traditional divers cultivated incredible abilities in the production of sponges in Greece, and pearls in places like Polynesia and the Persian Gulf.  The practice is still widespread among recreational divers, competitive divers, and even in some industries, such as among seafood harvesters in Japan and Korea, where an estimated 20,000 professional divers still worked with minimal equipment as late as the 1990s (see Park et al. 1990, cited in Ferretti 2001).

Learning to ‘hold’ your breath

Freediving: Ewens Ponds

Human ‘adaptation’ to water is both conscious and unconscious, as so many things about human behaviour.  Even the most basic adaptive reflexes have to be shaped and elaborated, although they can often be learned in implicit, indirect ways or found in basic form very early.  For example, one of the most reliable reactions to a startling new sensation is to gasp, a potentially deadly maladaptive approach to dealing with being dunked in the water.  Fortunately, when water hits the pharynx or larynx, glottal spasms clamp the throat shut with a glottal spasm in part of what is referred to as the ‘diving reflex’.

If we’re going to enjoy the whole underwater swimming experience, however, we’ve got to be taught to stop the airway voluntarily and close the glottis muscularly, or to exhale. It’s more pleasant than just plunging into the water and trusting that the ‘diving reflex’ will save you from winding up with a couple of lungs full of the stuff by triggering a glottal spasm.  In other words, the reflex has to be cultivated into a skill.

The online web resource eHow suggests, in How to Teach a Baby to Hold Breath Underwater, that you first condition an infant by essentially an associative learning process where dipping a washcloth in water is followed shortly by dripping water over his or her face.  The writer advocates following this up at a pool with a learned association between ‘1… 2… 3…’ and subsequently being splashed in the face, later substituted by short immersion.  The diving reflex can cue the early learning, but the goal is to build a more robust voluntary behaviour and to do it in a way that doesn’t so traumatize the kid that he or she never wants to go back to swimming lessons.

When I taught swimming lessons last century (it seems like that long ago), this sort of learned association was also the way that we taught infants, but we also, if we had a particularly difficult case of a gulper, tried to teach the infant to hold its breath by blowing into its face.  Either way, though, the early stages of teaching breath holding, at least in my experience, almost always involve a few rough first attempts, with coughing and crying almost inevitable.  With the slightly older kids, you could teach them to exhale as they went under (‘blow bubbles’), but some coughing and inhaled water, again, was likely inevitable at some point.

My point is that holding your breath is not something that humans do naturally, although breath control is actually really important for speaking and other human abilities.  Breath holding in water may be an easy reaction to instill, but it relies upon someone teaching you or some sort of training, building on top of a more primitive, widely held reflex. Since my father is a non-swimmer, I know firsthand that there’s nothing ‘natural’ about being able to survive in water.

In fact, the Alliance for Safe Children (an Asian NGO) points out that, in some parts of the world, drowning is one of the leading causes of child mortality, contributing approximately fifty deaths each dayin Bangladesh (in contrast, that’s Australia’s typical annual total).  According to the WHO, drowning is the third most common cause of unintentional injury death worldwide (WHO ‘Drowning,’ fact sheet #347).

The ‘breakpoint’: involuntary breathing

Your body wants you to breathe as the oxygen you took in with your last breath gradually converts to carbon dioxide.  A powerful involuntary mechanism overrides most intentional attempts by humans to hold their breath, as M. J. Parkes (2006) outlines, long before you are actually in any distress. Try to hold your breath until you pass out, and most people will simply not be able to manage it (I’m not actually recommending this experiment).

As we hold our breath, above or below the water, the body slowly converts the oxygen our bodies store in our lungs and blood into carbon dioxide.  Levels of oxygen decrease (to hypoxia), and carbon dioxide increases (to hypercapnia).  Left long enough, the lack of oxygen will eventually cause brain death from cerebral hypoxia and heart attack, but most of us get nowhere close to dangerous levels when we hold our breath. As Parkes writes (2006: 2-3):

although the simplest clue to the breakpoint mechanism should emerge from identifying any manoeuvre enabling breath-holding to unconsciousness, scientific reports of breath-holding to unconsciousness are rare and inconsistent, despite popular mythology. Schneider (1930) stated that ‘it is practically impossible for a man at sea level to voluntarily hold his breath until he becomes unconscious’, and subsequent scientific literature supports this in adults. [Anecdotal descriptions of losing consciousness describe subjects breath-holding at low barometric pressures, with low oxygen mixtures or with severe voluntary hyperventilation…]

In fact, Fitz-Clarke (ibid: 57) reports that ‘almost all extreme breath-hold divers have experienced loss of consciousness upon emersion in their career’ likely as a result of the carbon dioxide build-up, especially with depressurization on the ascent from deep free dives.  In addition, partial, temporary loss of motor control (called ‘sambas’ by the divers) were relatively common in the competition Fitz-Clarke observed.

(The practice of diving, especially the pursuit of records, is still dangerous, so much so that in 1991, the World Conference of Underwater Activities stopped recognizing absolute records for depth and started to more tightly restrict competitive free diving.  The drive to go deeper and deeper, using more and more elaborated assistance, was putting lives at risk.  In contrast, in the competition Fitz-Clarke observed, safety standards were very high, as they are in sanctioned free-diving events, with assistance divers in the water with competitors and all participants carefully observed.)

The ‘breakpoint’ mechanism, when you feel an almost overwhelming impulse to breath, turns out to be a convergence of a number of reflexes that are quite difficult to study. One key component, however, is chemoreceptors that detect the levels of gas in the blood, especially carbon dioxide surplus.  We know chemoreceptors play a role because boosting oxygen levels and decreasing absorbed carbon dioxide in the bloodstream — for example, by gulping air as Sulbin appears to be doing — can extend the amount of time that you hold your breath, although many physicians will caution against it.

But research into breath holding has found that there’s no fixed threshold, either of oxygen or carbon dioxide, that will lead to involuntary breathing, so researchers like Parkes (2006) have argued that chemorecption alone cannot explain the break point.  Neurological research has shown that the central nervous system begins to try to restart respiration, including through the diaphragm, before the impetus to breathe becomes almost irresistible to an untrained individual.

Parkes argues that the central respiratory rhythm, an autonomic rhythm like the cardiac rhythm, persists during a breath hold, even though voluntary breath holding suppresses it active expression.  This means that breath-holders are not so much stopping their breathing voluntarily as they are holding their chests open and resisting the respiratory rhythm. Parkes (2006: 8-9) points to a range of evidence which suggests that the respiratory rhythm intensifies during the breath hold, even causing more widespread respiratory-anticipating reactions like ‘trachial tugging’ in the lead up to the break point.

Similarly, in a competitive static apnea event, in which divers hold their breaths in stationary positions, Fitz-Clarke (2006: 59) found that most divers experienced involuntary contractions of the diaphragm several minutes into the event. Successful competitors were able to continue to hold their breath even though the nervous system sought to reinitiate breathing.

In other words, as the voice-over says with the video of Sulbin, exceptionally long breath holding requires that a person learn to resist powerful involuntary reflexes, especially spasms in the diaphragm as it attempts to contract in order to re-initiate breathing.  When you breath hold, you are not so much ‘running out of air’ as you are fighting powerful impulses to breath when you don’t really need the oxygen yet. Breath holding like Sulbin is doing is the active over-coming of automatic processes by conscious suppression; it’s ignoring pain and involuntary muscle actions because you know you don’t need to do what they’re screaming at you to do.

Without these impulses, how long could you hold your breath?  Many people may have heard that three to five minutes without oxygen will cause irreparable brain damage, so they might assume that about four to five minutes would be the maximum that a person could hold his or her breath.  They would be wrong.

Breath holding is less dangerous to the brain then cardiac arrest, because during a breath hold, the brain is still connected to oxygen stores in the lungs and the body quickly starts making adjustments to stretch this oxygen store last as long as possible (Fitz-Clarke 2006: 60).  In fact, in static apnea (stationary breath holding) competitive breath holders can last five to nine minutes as the body puts into place a range of survival responses and competitors learn to make the most of the oxygen they’ve got.

Making your last breath last

So how can you make your breath last as long as possible if you’re going to have to fight your body to do it.  Not all people have the same ‘breakpoint,’ of course, and even the same subjects can demonstrate a wide range of breath-hold times, increased by distraction and by repeated trials (Parkes 2006: 2).  But a range of techniques can stretch out your oxygen supply.

First, if you know what to do before entering the water, you can start out ahead. Although physicians warn not to hyperventilate or gulp air prior to diving, Fitz-Clarke (2006: 56-57) found in a study of a competitive free diving event that

almost all athletes employed “lung packing” in the water prior to submersion. This is an inspiratory technique for hyperinflating the lungs using the pharyngeal and glottic muscles in a repetitive manoeuvre resembling gulping or swallowing

‘Lung packing’ or hyper-inflating the lungs to some degree (not to dizziness) before diving is discouraged for a number of reasons, but it can put more air into the lungs to start with, boost the blood oxygen level in the blood slightly, and – most importantly and dangerously – suppress the level of carbon dioxide in the body.  With less carbon dioxide, you’re breathing reflex is going to be delayed, but this may also be the reason that free diving participants pass out with some frequency; they run low on oxygen before carbon dioxide levels get high enough to prompt breathing.

The simplest way to make your breath last is to do as little as possible and to stay calm. The record for stationary breath-holding is much longer than the record for any dynamic activity.  In addition, the calmer you can stay, the more you will suppress your heart rate, decreasing the speed at which your body runs through its oxygen supply.

If you’ve got to move, move slowly and as efficiently as possible, like Sulbin as he lazily swims toward the bottom.  The more you thrash and the harder you work, the faster you’ll convert your oxygen to carbon dioxide.  Free divers seek to improve their performance by finding the most hydrodynamic postures and eliminating every redundant movement. As Ferretti (2001: 256) writes: ‘As a consequence, the improvement in the dive record [depth] took place without significant changes in the duration of the dives, which remained steady at around 3.5 min.’

The good news is, your body is going to help you.  Thanks to evolution, you’ve been born with a mammalian dive reflex that might keep you alive, or help you to stay under water way longer than you might expect.

Dive reflexes, human and mammalian

The remarkable human ability to adapt to free-diving arises, in part, from the body triggering specific nervous system responses, including a reaction to deprivation from oxygen that can be seen in walruses and other aquatic mammals.  Megan Lane explains on the BBC website, quoting freediving instructor Emma Farrell, the author of One Breath, A Reflection on Freediving:

The mammalian dive reflex – seen in aquatic animals such as dolphins and otters, and in humans to a lesser extent – helps, says Farrell.

“It’s a series of automatic adjustments we make when submerged in cold water. It reduces the heart rate and metabolism to slow the rate you use oxygen.”

In fact, the human dive reflex seems to be triggered especially by apnea (the abrupt stop of oxygen intake) and by cold (see Speck and Bruce 1978).  You can make use of the dive reflex, if you ever need to relax, by temporarily putting your face into cold water; your heart rate should drop, which can be a really godsend if you have to do something that’s ramping up your excitability.

The dive response is generally said to be composed of three changes:

  1. bradycardia, or a slowing of the overall heart rate;
  2. peripheral vasoconstriction, or the shutting of capillaries on the body’s extremities; and
  3. shunting of blood into the torso, especially the chest, which helps to resist increased pressure.

In most people, the drop in heart rate from the dive reflex is not as great as in other mammals; while most humans decrease by about 10-25%, some mammals can drop to as little as 10% of their normal heart rate (Speck and Bruce 1978).

The human dive reflex, however, can increase with training (Schagatay et al. 2000).  A trained diver’s heart rate can drop profoundly during a dive.  Some studies have found veteran divers with pulse rates as low as 20-24 beats per minute, especially at the deepest parts of their dives (see Ferretti 2001: 263).

Veteran breath-hold divers, such as pearl divers and marine harvesters, can even demonstrate a more profound cardiac adaptation to diving that can be found in some of the most dedicated competitive free divers, which is not found in other mammals.  Scholander and colleagues (Scholander et al. 1962: 189) found that Australian pearl divers demonstrated cardiac arrhythmias, perhaps a defense against asphyxia developed at birth they theorized. As these divers went deep, the interval between heartbeats sometimes became irregular; in one case, a diver at 30 m depth had one interval of 7.2 seconds.  Extrapolated, this would be the equivalent of a pulse of eight beats per minute!

Scholander and colleagues argue that this arrhythmia is phylogenetically ancient; fish taken from water exhibit similar cardiac responses. The dysrhythmic response, however, together with an increase in blood pressure, make the human dive reflex a bit dissimilar from the mammalian dive reflex found in species like seals and otters.

Vasoconstrition on the periphery of the body and the centralization of blood flow likely increases the efficiency of the body for the duration of the dive (see Ferretti 2001: 262-263).  The less the blood is carrying oxygen out to the peripheral muscles and skin, the more energy (and oxygen) is available to the central organs.

The peripheral body parts end up relying more on anaerobic energy production, leading to a build up of lactic acid.  So even if you’re swimming along dreamily looking to spear a fish, the muscles in your hands and outer extremities will start switching over to the metabolic process you would use during anaerobic exercise, leading to the possibility of cramps and the same kinds of pains you would feel with lactic acid buildup.

Accommodating the pressure

One of the dangers of diving is, of course, the increased pressure.  Every 10 m of depth raises the pressure on the body by one atmosphere, compressing gas to half its previous volume within the body while the body’s tissue largely remains the same volume.

Boyles’ Law holds that gas expands and contracts depending on the pressure, so the descent into high-pressure depths can compress gasses that might later expand dangerously if the body decompresses too quickly.  Since every 10 m halves the volume of a gas, a 30 m dive (to four atmospheres of pressure) would temporarily compress eight liters of air (a ballpark figure for good lung capacity) down to a single liter of volume.

The earliest research on breath-hold diving assumed that the maximum depth of any diving was determined by the residual volume of the lungs. Theorists assumed that, once the pressure crushed the volume of the air in the lungs below the minimum size of the lungs, the lungs would implode.  But as dive records grew deeper and deeper, especially past Bob Croft’s 73m record in 1968, researchers began to suspect that the body was alleviating the danger of the pressure to the thorax through some sort of adaptation.

As Ferretti (2001: 256) reviews, theorists realized that one way the body might respond to the pressure of the dive was to ‘blood shift’ or to shunt blood from the extremeties into the abdomen.  Imagine the arms and legs are like toothpaste tubes and, under pressure, the blood squeezes into the thorax, which helps to keep the chest from collapsing even though the remaining air in the lungs shrinks and shrinks following Doyle’s law.

Subsequent research has found that, in addition to increased blood volume in the chest cavity, the body also responds with an arching of the diaphragmatic dome upwards (so that the abdomen compresses more than the chest), an engorgement of pulmonary blood vessels (those in the lungs), and an increase in the diameter of the heart (Ferretti 2001: 256-257).  In some ways, all of these are not so much ‘adaptations’ as they are simply how the body responds mechanically and hydraulically to the increasing pressure. Fortunately for free divers, their lungs are not in the fingertips or toes, or the increasing pressure would be a much greater problem for anyone trying to dive.

Most people who watch Hollywood thriller also know vaguely about the dangers of ‘the bends,’ when depressurizing overly quick from very deep dives leads compressed gas to bubble up in the joints, causing severe pain.  ‘The bends’ are not so specifically a danger brought about by compression, but rather by the decompression as one ascends from a dive.

In fact, the complications are even more numerous, as decompression can lead to pulmonary barotrauma (burst lung) or tears in the lung tissue that can result in emphysema and air emboli, which can block arteries.  Overly rapid decompression can lead to air bubbles forming within the brain or spinal cord (causing paralysis or sensory impairment) and in other bodily systems.

Some Bajau and other ‘sea gypsies’ do die of decompression side effects; repeated dives to 10 to 20 m depths actually carry a high risk of decompression sickness, according to the Human Planet website. The danger is increased by rudimentary ‘diving equipment’ that allows divers to stay down longer at slightly deeper depths.  For example, compression divers in the Philippines encountered by the Human Planet team were using garden hoses hooked to air compressors to pump down air and extend their time to work underwater.

But even at shallow depths, the pressurization-depressurization of the body can be dangerous.  Already at 10 to 20 m, the compression of the air in the sinuses and then re-expansion can cause damage, especially if the diver can’t successfully equalize the pressure between sinus cavities and ears, for example.  It’s hard to even imagine how the body can withstand the compression and then depressurization on competitive free dives; the world record for a sled-assisted plunge is more than 200 m.

21 atmospheres of pressure on the air in the lungs and sinuses, and then all released on the way back up!

Physical change from pressure: adaptation?

The situation of how human bodies can ‘adapt’ to the pressure of free diving is a more complicated and ambivalent case of human adaptation then just the dive response, however.  ‘Adapting’ to depths can include multiple ways to deal with pressure change; for SCUBA divers, the solution is to develop guidelines for safe diving, use equipment that accurately measures one’s depth, and protocols for decompression, including charts that show safe ascension rates.

Photo by Robert Berman/HA’a

For people who forage underwater like Sulbin, ‘adapting’ can instead involve biological and health trade-offs, as Johnny Langenheim reports in The Guardian:

Since diving is an everyday activity, the Bajau deliberately rupture their eardrums at an early age. “You bleed from your ears and nose, and you have to spend a week lying down because of the dizziness,” says Imran Lahassan, of the community of Torosiaje in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. “After that you can dive without pain.” Unsurprisingly, most older Bajau are hard of hearing. When diving, they wear hand-carved wooden goggles with glass lenses, hunting with spear guns fashioned from boat timber, tyre rubber and scrap metal.

In his review of the literature on breath-hold diving, Ferretti (2001: 255) tells a story of a similar adaptation in a European diver:

A remarkable performance was accomplished in 1913 by a Greek fisherman ashore the island of Skarpanthos, in the Aegean Sea: this man was able to rescue the anchor of an Italian ship, which was grounded at a depth of 70 m, by means of three consecutive breath-hold dives with a 15-kg counterweight on his belt. The ship physician reported that this diver suffered of emphysema and had no eardrums (please refer to the medical report in Appendix 1). The fisherman understated his achievement and claimed that he was used diving to 110 m…  [I’ve put the whole medical report below if you’re as fascinated by this as me.]

I keep putting ‘adaptation’ in scare quotes because carrying around ruptured eardrums may not seem like some folks’ idea of ‘adaptation,’ which may imply a less ambivalent form of biological compensation.

The case of ruptured eardrums from diving also highlights the interlacing of phenotypic and cultural adaptation.  The Bajau undergo a phenotypic change (an ‘adaptation’) because they train themselves to go to these depths; without the social support and knowledge, they probably wouldn’t be diving so deep in the first place. Then, when the pain and scary symptoms set in, fellow Bajau like Imran Lahassan tell them how to deal with the damage; lie down, wait, you’ll be fine,… well, a bit hard of hearing.

Of course, ruptured eardrums are damage to the body, like emphysema, but they are also an adaptation, in the sense that they make the body better suited for diving.  From the outside, we may look at the trade-off and say, ‘that’s crazy,’ but we face our own health-related trade-offs as our bodies adapt to the artificial environments we create for ourselves.  A Greek fisherman capable of recovering an anchor 70 m below the surface might look at the trade-offs of sedentary life and say, ‘that’s crazy!  Look at the price their bodies pay for what they do!’

I’ve written about similar adaptations in a book chapter that’s forthcoming for next year, when capoeira practitioners encourage each other to forge on in training through pain until the body adapts, in the case I discuss in the chapter, to putting your head on the ground.  These sorts of biological changes highlight the inseparability of culture and biology, that our bodies are shaped by collective knowledge just as so much of the shared wisdom in practical communities is precisely about how the body functions, its limits, and what sort of adaptive trade-offs are even possible (as well as support structures to encourage and facilitate these changes).

Building a better diver’s body

Over time and repeated dives, the divers’ bodies adapt to diving.  Bavis and colleagues (2007), drawing on research on human adaptation to hypoxia (low oxygen levels, especially at altitude) and on animal models, suggest that the human respiratory system may have ‘plasticity’ at a number of different levels, from autonomic behavioural adaptations (breathing differently), to structural changes that affect lung volume, and even to biochemical shifts, such as changes to red blood cells.  As they put it, adaptation can occur through ‘modifications to the gas exchanger, respiratory pigments, respiratory muscles, and the neural control systems responsible for ventilating the gas exchanger’ (ibid.: 532).

For one thing, in veteran divers, the dive reflex becomes exaggerated: bradycardia increases so that heart rates become abnormally low, and the divers’ responses to hypercapnia (high carbon dioxide levels) become blunted.  Ferretti (2001: 259) reviews findings that trained free divers are able to absorb almost twice as much carbon dioxide into the blood before needing to breathe. According to Ferretti and Costa (2003: 208-209), similar ventilatory responses have been found in synchronized swimmers, underwater hockey players, submarine escape tower trainers, and Royal Navy divers.  Since the increase in carbon dioxide levels is the primary stimulant to breathe, the ability to tolerate higher levels of CO2 in the blood (hypercapnia) would allow divers to avoid gasping in conditions that would be hard to resist for normal individuals:

the condition of hypercapnia that was maintained during most of the dive, which could even lead to a reversal of pulmonary carbon dioxide transfer, would compel the diver to resist the drive to breathe elicited by the stimulation of central and peripheral chemoreceptors. This opposition would be facilitated by the observed blunted ventilatory response to carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide sensitivity could be a primary determinant of the breath-hold duration, at least in professional divers. It is noteworthy that also diving mammals, which are frequently exposed to high arterial PO2 and PCO2 values…, are characterised by blunted ventilatory responses to carbon dioxide compared with non-diving mammals of similar size. (Ferretti 2001: 260)

To my knowledge, no studies have been done on the ‘sea gypsies’ of cardio-vascular adaptations or ventilatory response to hypercapnia.  All research on human hypoxia adaptation of which I’m aware focuses on high altitude populations, where the pressure to adapt would be constant and thus — possibly — more pronounced than in breath-hold diving populations, who only dive when they are foraging or working.

But — and this is the caveat  — the actual accomplishments of breath-hold divers like Sulbin, Greek fishermen, pearl diving Polynesians, and the Ama of Korea are pretty startling, with the ability to stay under water and remain active for long periods of time, so the phenotypic adaptations involved may be quite dramatic.

Sometimes intermittent adaptive pressure, especially severe and gradually increasing pressure, can have greater effect than constant but less severe environmental effects. Remember, I’m talking about phenotypic adaptation, not genetic selection over multiple generations.

The BBC website, for example, mentions the possibility of the spleen contracting to squeeze out more haemoglobin, an effect seen in some research on the Ama:

During breath-holding, oxygen stores reduce and the body starts diverting blood from hands and feet to the vital organs.

Our bodies have a way to compensate. Underwater pressure constricts the spleen, squeezing out extra haemoglobin, the protein in red corpuscles that carry oxygen around the body.

“Not enough research has been done to know if it wears off when you’re not diving,” says Farrell. “But I know people who do a lot of deep training – as Sulbin does – whose blood is like that of people living at high altitude.”   In high altitudes, there is less oxygen and so the amount of haemoglobin in blood increases.

This increasing efficiency and trainability (Schagatay et al. 2000) is what makes me a little uncomfortable with referring to the changes as part of a ‘dive reflex,’ in part because I’m not entirely sure that the term ‘reflex’ is universally parsed in the same way.  Clearly, bradycardia and peripheral vasoconstriction are common responses; heck, you can even argue that vasoconstriction is not so much an adaptation as a direct consequence of the mechanical and hydraulic ways that pressure affects the body (in other words, it might be hard to call vasoconstriction an ‘adaptation’ given some definitions of the word – you could call it a ‘consequence’).

A fully blown human ‘dive reflex,’ with profound bradycardia, vasoconstriction, cardiac dysrhythmia, (possibly) splenic contraction, even eardrum rupture, because the complex really requires priming from multiple dives, is rather a phenotypic adaptation, with all the messy complexity that I have suggested is implied in the term.  That is, the dive adaptation builds upon innate reflexes, but it also requires cultural niche construction and social support and results in physiological change.

In other words, my problem with ‘reflex’ as a description of what happens to the body during an oxygen-depriving is not merely semantic.  I think it misrepresents the role of consciousness and experience in the physiological response to a very basic sensation: if you’re not ready and accustomed to hypoxia and pressure, immersion is not going to produce the fully blown ‘reflex,’ in part because your interpretation of the event (‘crap, I need to breathe’) may not allow you to grapple with your body’s involuntary reflexes (such as spasms in the diaphragm).  I daresay it’s quite possible that some conscious interpretations of what is happening (‘crap, I am DROWNING!’) may even completely unravel even the basic ‘dive reflex,’ for example causing the heart rate to spike in spite of the tendency toward bradycardia.

The commentator on the video clip says that Sulbin’s heart rate can drop to 30 beats per minute, and competitive free-divers can achieve even lower rates.  But they do so, in part, by seizing willful control of the autonomic system through proxy variables, specifically emotional states. They don’t just benefit from the ‘dive reflex’; they drive a consciousness-to-emotion-down-to-autonomic chain to get more out of the dive reflex than just the 10-25% reduction in heart rate that most of us would get (if we don’t panic, in which case we might not even get that).

Will Trubridge, for example, like many competitive free divers, uses meditative and mind-body techniques borrowed from yoga.  Sulbin uses his pre-dive routine, including a smoke to ‘relax his chest’ and air gulping.  That is, the ‘reflex’ can be elaborated into a well-schooled top-down technique for self-management that ends up exerting control over autonomic systems like the cardio-pulmonary system.

Loose notes

As I write this, I realize that I’ve got a couple more things to add about this video that I can’t really fit into my central argument, so I’m just going to put them here. Although I’m fascinated by diving and could go on, I just want to quickly highlight a couple of the ways that life and water can lead to human adaptation to a more amphibious existence:

1.  Buoyancy

One of the strangest things about the footage of Sulbin is his apparent negative buoyancy: he walks along the bottom and doesn’t just bob up to the surface.  When most people hold their breath, they are positively buoyant; the air inside the torso offsets the slightly greater-than-water density of bodily tissue so that most people will bob to the surface when they hole their breath.

As you hold your breath, the total air in the lungs does gradually decrease, so you become slightly less buoyant near the end of a breath-hold.  But for most people, the only way to really sink is to exhale a bit to get to negative buoyancy.

Being extremely lean can make the body sufficiently dense that a person is negatively buoyant, even when holding a full breath.  Being lean also helps you to stay under water longer because, if your lung volume remains constant, decreasing your overall weight means more oxygen for every kilo of oxygen-burning bodyweight.  So if you want to hold your breath a long time, it helps to diet.

2. Body temperature

Spending a lot of time in water can play havoc with the human body’s ability to maintain a constant temperature.  The thermal conductivity of water is twenty-five times greater than air (Reilly and Waterhouse 2005: 74), so being dipped in water below body temperature can quickly lead to hypothermia. Without insulated gear, however, Korean divers can spend hours in the water at 10 degrees Celsius in January, conditions under which hypothermia should have been likely.  Hong and Rahn (1967) found, however, that divers did not have thicker layers of subcutaneous fat.  In fact, during the coldest seasons, an elevation in their basal metabolic level—an incredibly rare seasonal variation in human metabolism—left them unable to eat enough to keep from slowly losing weight.  They turned up the internal furnace.

In addition, the divers’ vascular systems appeared to adapt, restricting heat loss from blood vessels near the skin by constricting them (ironically, to below the level of obese individuals).  Their skin became cool to the touch; if the furnace was up, they were also closing off less important rooms in the house.  In addition, the shiver response was suppressed because it speeds up the body’s radiation of heat.  Ferretti and Costa (2003: 208) note that adaptation to cold has also been found in Australian aborigines who sleep nearly naked in the cold; in trained Arctic scuba divers, even when they wore wetsuits (it’s still bloody cold); and in Canadian fishermen who repeatedly immerse their hands in water at 9-10 degrees.  The adoption of wetsuits by the Ama, however, has led to a decrease in their bodily adaptation to cold-water resistance.

3. Underwater vision

In research that’s far too interesting for me to just discuss in passing, Anna Gislén and collaborators (2003) found that children among the Moken, one of the indigenous groups called ‘sea gypsies,’ developed the ability to see nearly twice as well as European children under water.   Because water has a higher density than air, light passing from water into the eye does not refract as much, so our pupils do not redirect it sufficiently to focus the image on the retina (instead, the light converges beyond the back of the eye, where the accurate image cannot be perceived).  Moreover, since our pupils respond to the decreasing light that strikes the eye as we dive deeper by dilating, the lens flattens and exacerbates the distortion still further.

Gislén found that Moken children’s pupils responded in the opposite way when diving, constricting (which the eye would normally do in bright light) so that the lens caused the image to converge on the retina.  Gislén and a team was able to train European kids to do the same thing upon her return (Gislén et al. 2006).  Again, an ‘automatic’ system or reflex could be re-directed through training, whether or not the individuals involved were explicitly aware of what their nervous system was learning to do.

Like I said, way too interesting for a little note, but this will have to suffice for now…



Photo, ‘Freediving: Ewens Ponds’ by Saspotato (no real name given) on, Creative Commons license.

Saspotato also tells us, ‘This photo was taken on March 20, 2010 in Mount Gambier, South Australia, AU, using a Sony DSC-P93A.’

Photo of multiple divers, Robert Berman/HA’a, from Remember the Water


Ferretti (2001: 267-268) provides an English translation of the medical report done on the Greek fisherman who successfully dove 70 m for the lost anchor, and I feel I must reproduce it in its entirety:

Haggi Statti Giorgios, born in Simi, sponge diver, 35-year-old, married, four children, all alive and healthy. He is 1.70 m tall and weighs 65 kg. His resting thoracic perimeter is 0.92 m, being 0.98 m after a maximal inspiration, and 0.90 m after a maximal expiration. Dark-skinned, slim, he has an ordinary muscle mass. Although an examination of the thorax reveals a remarkable lung emphysema, the upper part of the thorax has not yet reached a large size, even if it is somewhat convex and rigid. The heart tones are far, but regular. The pulse rate is 80-90, and the respiratory rate is 20-22. Nothing abnormal in the nervous system, nor in the eyes. He has impaired auditory function because of the complete lack of the eardrum in one ear, and only the remnants of one in the other. He sfufered from no illness, except for a trachoma, healed after surgery. He reports only pain in his back, which he tolerates resignedly. When asked to hold his breath in the ordinary ambient, he first refused, claiming that the test had no value because he could resist much more under water. Then he accepted, and it resulted that his capacity under these conditions is only 40 s. Yet in the rescue operations he dived to depths varying from 40 to 60 m, and even to 80 m, staying under water for 1.30-3.35 min. He claims that he has reached 110 m, and that he can stay at 30 m for up to 7 min. Statti emerged from all dives in good shape and vigour, as demonstrated by the way he jumped into the boat and released the water that had entered his nose and ears. When questioned on the phenomena he feels during the dives, he says he perceives none. Probably accustomed since childhood, he does not perceive them. He only says he feels all pressure on his shoulders. Nothing on his eyes. He also claims that at 80 m, despite the weakening of light, one can see enough to work, if the water is clear.

On a similar note, one of the accounts of Sulbin on the BBC website reports that his abilities do not come from his clean living.  According to their website: “Anyone who thinks this is an example of what a non-smoker’s lungs can do will be disappointed,” says Hugh-Jones. “Sulbin smokes like a chimney. He says it relaxes his chest.”

Like I said: ‘adaptation’ is a pretty neutral word for what can be a far more complicated reality.


Bavis, R., Powell, F., Bradford, A., Hsia, C., Peltonen, J., Soliz, J., Zeis, B., Fergusson, E., Fu, Z., Gassmann, M., Kim, C., Maurer, J., McGuire, M., Miller, B., O’Halloran, K., Paul, R., Reid, S., Rusko, H., Tikkanen, H., & Wilkinson, K. (2007). Respiratory plasticity in response to changes in oxygen supply and demand Integrative and Comparative Biology, 47 (4), 532-551 DOI: 10.1093/icb/icm070

Ferretti, G. (2001). Extreme human breath-hold diving European Journal of Applied Physiology, 84 (4), 254-271 DOI: 10.1007/s004210000377

Fitz-Clarke JR (2006). Adverse events in competitive breath-hold diving. Undersea & hyperbaric medicine : journal of the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society, Inc, 33 (1), 55-62 PMID: 16602257

Ferretti G, & Costa M (2003). Diversity in and adaptation to breath-hold diving in humans. Comparative biochemistry and physiology. Part A, Molecular & integrative physiology, 136 (1), 205-13 PMID: 14527641

Gislén A, Dacke M, Kröger RH, Abrahamsson M, Nilsson DE, & Warrant EJ (2003). Superior underwater vision in a human population of sea gypsies. Current biology : CB, 13 (10), 833-6 PMID: 12747831

Gislén A, Warrant EJ, Dacke M, & Kröger RH (2006). Visual training improves underwater vision in children. Vision research, 46 (20), 3443-50 PMID: 16806388

Hong, Suk Ki, and Hermann Rahn.  1967.  “The Diving Women of Korea and Japan.”  Scientific American 216 (5): 34-43.

Park YS, Shiraki K, Hong SK (1990) Energetics of breath-hold diving in Korean and Japanese professional divers. In: Lin YC, Shida KK eds.  Man in the sea.  Best, San Pedro, Calif., pp 75-87.

Parkes, M. (2005). Breath-holding and its breakpoint Experimental Physiology, 91 (1), 1-15 DOI: 10.1113/expphysiol.2005.031625

Reilly, Thomas, and Jim Waterhouse.  2005.  Sport, Exercise and Environmental Physiology. Edinburgh: Elsevier.

Schagatay E, van Kampen M, Emanuelsson S, & Holm B (2000). Effects of physical and apnea training on apneic time and the diving response in humans. European journal of applied physiology, 82 (3), 161-9 PMID: 10929209

SCHOLANDER PF, HAMMEL HT, LEMESSURIER H, HEMMINGSEN E, & GAREY W (1962). Circulatory adjustment in pearl divers. Journal of applied physiology, 17, 184-90 PMID: 13909130

Speck, D. F. and D. S. Bruce.  (1978) Effects of varying thermal and apneic conditions on the human dive reflex.  Undersea Biomedical Research 5(1): 9-14.

David Graeber: anthropologist, anarchist, financial analyst* (originally 2011)

This post was originally published in 2011 on PLOS Neuroanthropology at: (link is to an archived version. PLOS has recently purged their legacy weblogs from PLOS Blogs; we repost here to try to preserve this content. 

Wall Street is in the grips of an ‘occupation,’ and activist and anthropologist, David Graeber, now at Goldsmiths, University of London, is in the centre of the action.  Graeber has been doing a few television and radio interviews of late (check here for his interview on ABC Radio National, Australia), talking about the organization of the Wall Street occupation as well as his new book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House).

The juxtaposition of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s recent comments about anthropology and the fact that Graeber is offering what may be among the most penetrating and accessible analyses of an important dimension of the current global debt crisis is striking. Of course, maybe clear-eyed analysis of our current economic situation, and the ability to point out that other societies do perfectly well with other sorts of economic and political systems, is precisely the sort of academic work that Gov. Rick Scott thinks universities should give up.  After all, no one needs to understand why US firms are shedding jobs, or take a sober look at the current financial regime in the light of the 5,000-year history of debt.  Students should just put their heads down and do the sorts of degrees that will give them technical jobs.  Pay no attention to The Man behind the curtain!

Graeber is doing exactly what many of us want university-based social and cultural anthropologists to do more of: not just doing outstanding, useful applied work (which is bloody brilliant, of course), but also showing how our distinctive intellectual perspectives – comparative, evolutionary, cross-cultural, critical, even deconstructive (and ‘post-modern’) – provide academic analyses with important, ‘real world’ implications. After all, part of the current problem in the global economy is not just that we have bad applications of economic theory—we have blinkered economic theory in ascendance, including a profound limit on our understanding of debt, as Graeber points out.

More importantly, Graeber underlines that Reaganite-Thatcherist triumphalism — ‘There Is No Alternative!’ (to our own peculiar form of capitalism) — is a lie that denies human creativity, and freedom.  The creative inspiration of anthropology, the potential for cross-cultural, historical and evolutionary research to show us constantly that other ways of being human are possible, is central in my own teaching and research, so I especially appreciate that Graeber is so strong and clear on this point in public.  But I’ll stop introducing it and post one of Graeber’s many interviews available online:

David Graeber on Democracy Now!

* I’m well aware that Graeber has resisted these sorts of labels in the past (for example, in an interview with Stir Magazine).  However, it’s our blog, and I get to write my own headlines.

A brief note on Graeber’s academic career

The Occupy Wall Street protest was triggered by a call from Adbusters.  In an interview with Ezra Klein, Graeber specifically discusses how the protest came together, including problems with the original idea (like, who cares if you shut down Wall Street on a Saturday?).  Graeber’s a great spokesman for OWS and for anthropology, even if we all don’t agree with his political perspectives (I think non-activist anthropologists should be less stressed out by activists for reasons I explained here).

In spite of the fact that he’s sometimes controversial as a theorist—he was notoriously denied tenure at Yale University in circumstances that led to widespread outrage and student protest (Wikipedia covers that particular chapter in David’s life as does an interview with David on ZNet)—Graeber is widely recognized among young(ish) anthropologists.  Maurice Bloch, of the LSE and College de France, has written that he considers Graeber ‘the best anthropological theorist of his generation from anywhere in the world.’

What’s even better is that much of Graeber’s work in economic anthropology is surprisingly accessible.  Although he’s copped some flack online for writing like an academic, I think his work is surprisingly accessible given how original, intriguing and sophisticated he is.  And Graeber hasn’t been afraid to give interviews, write accessible summaries of his academic pubications (see the list below), and generally do some sophisticated forms of public anthropology, including vigorously defending his ideas online.

I have to admit a bit of bias: I knew David when he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago.  He was a few years ahead of me. We only did one seminar at the same time (on ‘professionalization’ or how to get a job in a tough academic job market), and his work was already really impressive.  His early publications on his field research in Madagascar were getting published in high visibility anthropology journals—well, ‘high visibility’ for anthropology.  But he’s hardly a close friend.  Most of my admiration for Graeber has come as a result of reading his publications.

One reason that he has been so controversial is Graeber’s active involvement in the ‘alter-‘ or ‘anti-globalization’ movement, his presence at protests and his participation in their organization.  But Graeber is also likely controversial for what he says about other academics’ ‘radical’ scholarship.

A few years back, for example, he argued that many academic responses to violence during anti-WTO and –IMF protests revealed that the authors like to talk the talk, but were likely to criticize anyone walking the walk (or running the run, for that matter). Or, as David put it, scholars who have for years written articles that ‘sound like position papers for vast social movements that do not in fact exist seem seized with confusion or worse, dismissive contempt, now that real ones are everywhere emerging’ (From ‘The New Anarchists,’ 2002).

He offered some advice for tenured ‘radicals’ faced with the existence of movements like the Black Bloc and more confrontational forms of protest, including from their own students:

As an anthropologist and active participant—particularly in the more radical, direct-action end of the movement—I may be able to clear up some common points of misunderstanding; but the news may not be gratefully received [by academics]. Much of the hesitation, I suspect, lies in the reluctance of those who have long fancied themselves radicals of some sort to come to terms with the fact that they are really liberals: interested in expanding individual freedoms and pursuing social justice, but not in ways that would seriously challenge the existence of reigning institutions like capital or state. And even many of those who would like to see revolutionary change might not feel entirely happy about having to accept that most of the creative energy for radical politics is now coming from anarchism—a tradition that they have hitherto mostly dismissed—and that taking this movement seriously will necessarily also mean a respectful engagement with it.  (From ‘The New Anarchists,’ 2002)

Yeah, that’s probably not going to win you a lot of new friends in academe (‘Who you callin’ a “librul”?!’).  Graeber was never given an official reason why he was denied tenure, but he has suggested in interviews that problems arose when he began to present his anarchist scholarship and activism.

(Before anyone ill informed gets all wound up, thinking that by ‘anarchism’ I mean the celebration of rock throwing or balaclava-wearing or punk rock, please take the time to acquaint yourself with the political movement, if you don’t know what anarchism actually is.  Go ahead.  Look it up on Wikipedia if you want. Go ahead.  We’ll wait.  Or check out Graeber’s pamphlet, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology; it’s a free download which is simultaneously kind of anarchist and just plain generous at the same time.)

Anarchism from induction

In an interview, I’ve heard Graeber explain his anarchism as, at least in part, informed by what he saw in Madagascar.  In villages where the state had retreated and pulled out its resources almost completely, communities were basically left to govern and provide for themselves. It was anarchism by state neglect.  They did surprisingly well.

I saw something very similar in camps of the Movimento Sem Terra (the MST or ‘Landless Movement’) in Brazil (if you’re interested, the English-language website for the Friends of the MST is here).  Roadside shanty camps attracted former sharecroppers, poor farmers whose small plots were drowned out by hydroelectric projects, and other refugees from severe restructuring in agriculture toward large-scale corporate farming.  Activists and religious leaders were helping these communities to set up their own governments, make collective decisions, and eventually occupy sprawling ranches that had been defrauded with generations of state collusion.  The MST leveraged the land occupations to demand that the Brazilian government adhere to the country’s constitution, which called for agrarian reform, especially of large holdings that were the fruits of fraud.

I found these Brazilian communities is situations similar to those in Madagascar that Graeber observed: community-based groups, even cooperatives formes by people with very little education, developed greater and greater ability to run their own lives when the state was not around.  They elected their own officials, held marathon community meetings in which every member voted (even children), and, when they eventually gained land, often became thriving, tight-knit communities, especially when the shared struggle had steeled their solidarity.

I won’t go into the whole story, because it is a much longer post, but I talked for a long time in rural São Paulo state about the movement with a veteran agitator. He had been dispatched to a camp under extreme pressure from a local rancher; the rancher’s hired gunmen routinely held target practice near the camp, rifle shots echoing through the 400 corrugated steel sheds.  A veteran from union struggles, anti-dictatorial resistance, and a host of other movements, this particular activist was placed in the camp so that someone there was armed; organizers hoped to give the gunmen cause to pause in their bare-faced intimidation.

Over a meal of camp-butchered beef, the activist told me that the MST was like nothing he had seen before.  The only movement he could think to compare it to were the Italian anarchists that his immigrant grandfather had told him about, the reason his family originally fled to Brazil.

In other words, anthropological research like Graeber’s can offer a kind of evidence-based idealism, a utopianism that’s hard headed and founded firmly in observations of diverse communities, not contrived in a sheltered cloister or from untested principles. When apologists for our own current situation offer excuses or tell us that we shouldn’t seek greater justice, equity or governance, because ‘It can’t be any other way but the way it is,’ anthropological research can show that this is not the case.  Perhaps few other areas of contemporary life beg for this reality-based imagination more than economic activity.

Graeber on banks, money, crashes and imagination

According to Graeber, the crisis of 2008—the crash of financial markets and the bailout by the US and UK governments of major banks—revealed two key principles about the current economic system were myths: 1) that markets can take care of themselves, and 2) that debts are inviolable and have to be paid. Not only did deregulated markets get themselves in serious trouble, but, when push came to shove, the state stepped in to save key institutions by absolving them of their debts.  In reality, the bailouts simply transferred the debts from private institutions to the state itself, in essence, nationalizing debt, a kind of reverse, negative form of socialism, where the populace owns, not the assets of the banks, but only their debts.

The problem is that, because our leaders cannot conceive any other way to organize our economic system, we are artificially trapped by self-imposed limits. From Graeber’s piece in The Guardian:

But the ultimate failure here is of imagination. What we are witnessing can also be seen as a demand to finally have a conversation we were all supposed to have back in 2008. There was a moment, after the near-collapse of the world’s financial architecture, when anything seemed possible.

Everything we’d been told for the last decade turned out to be a lie. Markets did not run themselves; creators of financial instruments were not infallible geniuses; and debts did not really need to be repaid – in fact, money itself was revealed to be a political instrument, trillions of dollars of which could be whisked in or out of existence overnight if governments or central banks required it. Even the Economist was running headlines like “Capitalism: Was it a Good Idea?”

Graeber’s piece harkens back to the discussion of money that runs through several of his publications and in his interviews.  Although anthropologists commonly argue that money is a social convention, as much a product of trust and social convention as any inherent value, Graeber has provided a remarkable excavation of the history of money in Debt: The First 5,000 Years that builds this basic insight into a critique of economic common sense that is much more far-reaching.

Money as social convention

In his historical research, Graeber ran up against the fact that the documented history of money did not match the hypothetical history posited by economists. By itself, this gap is hardly a fatal flaw.  Virtually every neo-classical theorist and Marx and Engels’ account of the emergence of economic activity from ‘primitive communism’ were also based upon evolutionary accounts of civilization that are no longer tenable given what we know about the past 10,000 years.

Specifically, Graeber shows that the typical developmental sequence posited by economists—barter leads to money leads to credit—is not only more variable, but is sometimes precisely reversed.  The first ‘money’ of which we have definitive proof is credit-based money in Mesopotamia; currency shows up much later, and many of the most successful trading states throughout history were deeply suspicious of bullion as a means of exchange.  Credit precedes money historically.  It’s a fascinating argument, but you’re going to have to go check out David’s book or any one of the versions I link to below if you want more than this thumbnail sketch.

The problem isn’t just a flawed origin myth, however, or an empirical difficulty, but the ways in which this flawed origin myth bolstered economists’ insistence that alternative economic arrangements were simply not possible, based upon their understanding of ‘human nature.’ The economists’ origin myths assume that a very specific form of human actor—an actor deeply conditioned by life in market capitalism with debt-based money—exists in all societies and situations.  For example, in what he calls the ‘myth of barter,’ economists assume that economic calculation and market-like transactions could have preceded both the existence of markets and money. As Graeber writes on the website Naked Capitalism:

Economists always ask us to ‘imagine’ how things must have worked before the advent of money. What such examples bring home more than anything else is just how limited their imaginations really are. When one is dealing with a world unfamiliar with money and markets, even on those rare occasions when strangers did meet explicitly in order to exchange goods, they are rarely thinking exclusively about the value of the goods. This not only demonstrates that the Homo Oeconomicus which lies at the basis of all the theorems and equations that purports to render economics a science, is not only an almost impossibly boring person—basically, a monomaniacal sociopath who can wander through an orgy thinking only about marginal rates of return—but that what economists are basically doing in telling the myth of barter, is taking a kind of behavior that is only really possible after the invention of money and markets and then projecting it backwards as the purported reason for the invention of money and markets themselves. Logically, this makes about as much sense as saying that the game of chess was invented to allow people to fulfill a pre-existing desire to checkmate their opponent’s king.  (from On the invention of money)

Moreover, as Graeber points out, in fact, we don’t have to imagine what life would be like without money; we have a large number of ethnographic examples from around the world that offer concrete, empirical evidence that the human situation might be far stranger than we can imagine.

When Graeber has talked publicly about his research into the history of money and debt, however, he has sometimes encountered stiff resistance from some economists, even from economists who concede his historical work is impeccable.  For example, since September, Graeber has had a kind of running online argument with a number of individuals from a particular stream of economic thought that they call ‘the Austrians.’  (If you really want to follow the argument, I’ve linked to a number of their posts below.)

Suffice to say that some of the arguments are not mutually exclusive (the origin story is not necessary for the economic theory, really).  But Graeber explores why some economists feel compelled to defend an origin story for money in barter—the Myth of Barter—that they know is not supported by the evidence.  Graeber argues that ultimately the compulsion to defend these myths comes from insecurity in the face of the constructedness of culture, a need to deny that both the object of study and the means of study are intertwined (a criticism that anthropologists have leveled against themselves, sometimes excessively, so at least it’s a familiar discomfort):

At this point, it’s easier to understand why economists feel so defensive about challenges to the Myth of Barter, and why they keep telling the same old story even though most of them know it isn’t true. If what they are really describing is not how we ‘naturally’ behave but rather how we are taught to behave by the market—well who, nowadays, is doing most of the actual teaching? Primarily, economists. The question of barter cuts to the heart of not only what an economy is—most economists still insist that an economy is essentially a vast barter system, with money a mere tool (a position all the more peculiar now that the majority of economic transactions in the world have come to consist of playing around with money in one form or another)…—but also, the very status of economics: is it a science that describes of how humans actually behave, or prescriptive, a way of informing them how they should? (Remember, sciences generate hypothesis about the world that can be tested against the evidence and changed or abandoned if they don’t prove to predict what’s empirically there.)

Or is economics instead a technique of operating within a world that economists themselves have largely created? Or is it, as it appears for so many of the Austrians, a kind of faith, a revealed Truth embodied in the words of great prophets (such as Von Mises) who must, by definition be correct, and whose theories must be defended whatever empirical reality throws at them—even to the extent of generating imaginary unknown periods of history where something like what was originally described ‘must have’ taken place? (from On the invention of money)

Again, I’m only grazing the tip of the iceberg here, but what I mean to suggest is that the critique that Graeber’s leveling against certain forms of economic thought is hardly unusual; anthropologists do it to ourselves all the time.  I just don’t think economists are used to it being done quite so well to them, especially not by someone who has taken the time to do the empirical work that makes the construction of economic reality over five millennia so clear.

The recent history of debt

Perhaps the most important area currently where culture and economics are fused in the Western imagination is the concept of ‘debt.’  As Graeber makes clear, ‘debt’ is a social promise perverted into an institution by power, mathematics and violence. Repeatedly in interviews, Graeber has highlighted how our current understanding of debt treats it as an unbreakable promise —the onlyunbreakable promise—such that individuals and states must sacrifice every other social contract, goal and obligation, to their people and to posterity, in order to honour their promises to bankers.

Reverse engineered mortgage for the Edstrom family, by Dan Edstrom

This situation is not new historically, but this cultural understanding of debt leads to peculiar contemporary forms of cruelty and rigid thinking.  As David told Alex Bradshaw in an interview:

I was involved in “drop the debt” campaigns of various sorts since at least 2000. What got me interested in some of the philosophical issues I ended up exploring in the book was the peculiar moral power of the notion of debts. So many otherwise sympathetic people, even when told of the terrible, almost unimaginably inhuman suffering inflicted on people in the global South because of the depredations of the IMF, would still respond, “well, that’s terrible that so many children died slow and painful deaths, but still—surely one has to pay one’s debts! They borrowed the money! You couldn’t possibly be suggesting they not pay it…” How is it that the morality of debt can trump any other recognizable form of morality, and make things that no one would ever, possibly agree with in any other context seem suddenly acceptable?

As Graeber clarified with Jamie Stern-Weiner in an interview posted on ZNet:

But there is an irony in thinking of a promise made by a state to pay a debt as something absolutely sacred. After all, a debt is just a promise, and politicians make all sorts of different promises. They break most of them. So why are these promises the only ones that they can’t break? It is considered completely normal for someone like Nick Clegg [in the UK] to say, ‘well of course we promised not to raise school fees. But that’s unrealistic.’ ‘Unrealistic’ here means ‘obviously there’s no possibility of breaking my promises to bankers, even those linked to banks we bailed out and in some cases effectively own’. It’s striking that no-one ever points that out. Why is a promise made by a politician to the people who elected him considered made to be broken – it isn’t “sacred” in any way – whereas a promise the same politician makes to a financier is considered the “honour of our nation”? Why isn’t the “honour of our nation” in any way entailed in keeping our promises to people to provide healthcare and education? And why does everyone just seem to accept that, that this is just “reality”?

Graeber suggests that the ‘language of debt’ is a ‘moral’ one, not just an economic one. I would also add that we are told that debt default is an apocalyptic scenario, more dangerous than gutting social programs, disinvesting in infrastructure, making health care inaccessible, and bringing about all the slow moving catastrophes that often accompany austerity programs designed to increase states’ ability to pay their debts.

What makes Graeber’s analysis so interesting is that, because of his extensive historical research, he can actually trace how the current economic cosmology of debt arose, and point to periods when debt threatened to cause similar crises.  Specifically, he argues that the fluctuation historically back and forth between debt-backed or credit money (as we’ve essentially had since 1971) and bullion or commodity-backed money, is accompanied by larger shifts in patterns of warfare, slavery and debt bondage. Specifically, Graeber suggests that the expansion of debt is part and parcel of a virtual money system, one that has been dealt with before in human history.  The debt has not gone away, it’s just been moved around:

What we’ve learned now is that the economic crisis of the 1970s never really went away. It was fobbed off by cheap credit at home and massive plunder abroad – the latter, in the name of the “third world debt crisis”. But the global south fought back. The “alter-globalisation movement”, was in the end, successful: the IMF has been driven out of East Asia and Latin America, just as it is now being driven from the Middle East. As a result, the debt crisis has come home to Europe and North America, replete with the exact same approach: declare a financial crisis, appoint supposedly neutral technocrats to manage it, and then engage in an orgy of plunder in the name of “austerity”.

If the current situation seems demoralizing, Graeber suggests that we might look to other time periods to see how people before us have dealt with the seemingly inexorable increase in debt that accompanies the shift from commodity-backed currency to credit-backed currency.  From his interview on ZNet (Part 2):

The shift to credit tends to prompt two questions: 1) what’s to stop people just going crazy with it and creating new forms of money with reckless abandon? 2) What is to stop people from thereby falling into debt traps and becoming enslaved? The usual solution is to create some kind of control, which is why you had periodic debt cancellations in Mesopotamia; jubilees, bans on usury, and various other mechanisms that appeared in the Middle Ages; and so on. This makes sense, because if money is just a social construct, and is recognised as such, then people will be more open to changing the rules that govern it. And in fact in the Middle Ages this was completely recognised. Aristotle’s position that money is an agreement we make with each other, which was very much a minority view in antiquity, got widely adopted in Europe. If it’s an agreement, we can renegotiate it at any time, and people did. They would cry out and cry down the value of money, and shift it around all the time.

So the question becomes: why didn’t that happen this time? Why have they not, since 1971, set up these overarching institutions to protect debtors, which is what they’ve always done in the past? Why did they not create controls so that money couldn’t just be created with reckless abandon by those in power as a way of enslaving everybody else? In fact, what’s happened is exactly the opposite of that. They’ve created overarching institutions, like the IMF, to protect creditors. That essentially is what the IMF is: it is part of a huge financial global bureaucracy developed gradually over the past 30-50 years, dedicated to the principle that no-one is ever allowed to default on a loan. Which is crazy – even according to standard economic theory the profits from a loan are supposed to be a reward for taking a risk. This leads to insane speculative bubbles, a situation in which 90-95 percent of all money is actually speculative with no connection to production or trade, and people becoming effectively enserfed.

In America, for instance, pretty much everybody is in debt. The great social evil in antiquity, the thing that Sharia law and medieval canon law were trying to ensure never happened again, was the scenario in which a family gets so deep in debt that they are forced to sell themselves, or sell their children, into slavery. What do you have here today? You have a population all of whom are in debt, and who are essentially renting themselves to employers to do jobs that they almost certainly wouldn’t want to do otherwise, to be able to pay those debts. If Aristotle were magically transported to the U.S. he would conclude that most of the American population is enslaved, because for him the distinction between selling yourself and renting yourself is at best a legalism.

Of course, slavery, like money, is a social institution.  But like all social facts, it can appear to those who believe in it that it has an independent existence over and above the communities in which it shapes our interactions.  But when we stare this social fact in the face, try to wrap our heads around this immense growth in debt, it can seem like there is no escaping from the institutions that we ourselves have created.

The financialisation of capital has lead to a situation where something like 97 to 98 percent of the money in the total ‘economy’ of wealthy countries like the US or UK is debt…. ‘Abstract’ money is not an idea, it’s a promise — a promise of something concrete that will exist at some time in the future, future profits extracted from future resources, future labour of miners, artists, fruit-pickers, web designers, not yet born. At the point where the imaginary future economy is 50 to 100 times larger than the current ‘real’ one, something has got to give. But the bursting of bubbles often leaves no future to imagine at all, except of catastrophe, because the creation of bubbles is made possible by the destruction of any ability to imagine alternative futures. It’s only once one cannot imagine that we are moving towards any sort of new future society, that the world will never be fundamentally different, that there’s nothing left to imagine but more and more future money.  (Graeber 2009: 7)

I’ll admit, it’s a harrowing reality to imagine, but even realizing that another world is possible is part of the battle to get there.

Anthropology and the economic imagination

Graeber’s vision of anthropology—that the study of diversity around the globe and across evolutionary time helps us to see what is possible, especially when our social facts are so intimidating that we cannot imagine life without them, however they cause us suffering—is one that I think needs to be shared more often.  Certainly, this exploration of human potential is a hallmark of neuroanthropology, in which the variety of the human condition continually challenges our understandings of what the nervous system might be able to do.

Graeber doesn’t just offer us critique or the threat of chaos; his work shows how anarchism and alternative systems, not only can be imagined, but in fact exist around us, in distant times and places but sometimes quite close to home. This hard-headed, evidence-based idealism is a crucial resource in anthropology and an essential foil to our critical mission. Graeber and other commentators close to social movements like the Wall Street Occupation aren’t just arguing from a basis of vague principles; they are often presenting alternative models, some of which anthropologists know well through the kind of wide-ranging, first-hand field research that is a hallmark of our field.

Part of creativity and problem solving is not constantly needing to re-invent the wheel but opening our eyes to the versatility and ingenuity of many sorts of people, one thing that makes anthropologists like David Graeber pretty useful.  It’s not that anthropologists are so smart (although some of us are); it’s that we’re out there in the wild, actually paying attention to some of the crazy things people can do.

When people argue that ‘There is no alternative,’ it’s because they cannot imagine a life without scarcity, debt, and the familiar social facts that so torment us.  Maybe that’s one reason that folks like Governor Scott don’t think we need imagination, or anthropology, for that matter.  Of course the person without an imagination can’t imagine the use of having one.


The first edition of The Occupied Wall Street Journal (link and post at Naked Capitalist).

Lorenz at gives us a hyper-hyperlinked text, “Similar to the Third World debt crisis” – David Graeber on ‘Occupy Wall Street’, which has more resources than I have time to read.  If you want to know more about the situation, or about David Graeber, I suggest starting with Lorenz.

David Graeber’s piece, Occupy Wall Street rediscovers the radical imagination in The Guardian (25 September 2011).

An interview with Graeber at The Washington Post website, on columnist Ezra Klein’s blog, Wonkblog, ‘You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature.’ See also Klein’s ‘primer’ on the Occupy Wall Street protest for many more links and resources.

Interview with David Graeber at Democracy Now: David Graeber: The Debt of the American Poor Should Be Forgiven.

Jubilee Year – Cancel Our Debt, a weblog specifically dedicated to discussions of debt cancellation.

Where did money come from?, Left Outside weblog.

David Graeber on debt

David Graeber, Debt: The first five thousand years (short version) on Eurozine

bit longer version at The Anarchist Library.  Also downloadable as a pdf, ePub and in other formats.

The Anarchist Library has a number of other pieces by Graeber as well.

An illustrated version: ‘To Have Is To Owe’, in Triple Canopy.

Two part interview with Jamie Stern-Weiner on ZNet: Debt, Slavery and our Idea of Freedom (Part 1)and (Part 2).

Alex Bradshaw of No Borders, ‘An Interview With David Graeber: Debt’s History, Implications, and Critical Perspective.’

Doug Henwood (whose work is also great) interviews David on C-Span’s video library here.

Another interview by Philip Pilkington with Graeber at Naked Capitalism: What is Debt? – An Interview with Economic Anthropologist David Graeber.

And if you’re not already worn out from all the links, there’s a few more over at the Melville House website for Graeber.

Other material

‘Bursting capitalism’s bubble,’ at Adbusters, a recent piece by David Graeber.

‘On the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations: A Maussian Approach.’ Open Anthropology Cooperative Press, 2010.

A 2002 piece by Graeber in The New Left Review‘The New Anarchists.’

2004 Prickly Paradigm pamphlet, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.  (downloadable pdf available at this link)

Great exchange:

By the way, Graeber’s discussion of his research and theoretical work on the history of debt sparked a really interesting online exchange:

Robert Murphy, who runs the blog Free Advice (you know what they say about free advice) took on Graeber’s account of the origin of money on the Ludwig Van Mises Institute website: Have Anthropologists Overturned Menger?

Graeber responded in the comments to Murphy’s original post (which Murphy, to his credit, compiled into a stand-alone post): David Graeber’s Response to My Article.

Admitting he had not read Graeber’s book,  Murphy Replies to David Graeber on Menger and Money.

Finally, the last part of the exchange the I followed is Graeber’s response on Naked Capitalism, David Graeber: On the Invention of Money – Notes on Sex, Adventure, Monomaniacal Sociopathy and the True Function of Economics.

And then there’s a libertarian response here: On the Austrian Theory of Money, a Reply to David Graeber that especially takes issue with the use of ‘primitive’ economic systems, in part because the author argues that the Austrian stream of economics represented by Menger and Mises (and Murphy) applies primarily to complex economies (personally, I don’t find this distinction persuasive for a number of anthropological reasons, including the existence of large areas of non-market-based economic activity even within Western economies, but that’s a different subject).

One of the ironies is that both sides (well, there’s actually probably at least three sides to these debates, especially if you include the commentary) accuse the other of being ideological committed prior to evidence and of attacking strawmen that collapse important distinctions within the two fields (for example, pointing out diversity in economic thought or the fact that Graeber’s historical work is not the same as some other recent anthropological theory).

There’s plenty of examples of people with ideological commitments accusing other people of having ideological commitments (as if it were truly possible to be any other way), but I have to admit that I laughed out loud in my overly-long, procrastinating web search on the topic when I found one of the participants in the discussion outed as the person behind a ‘Jesus-woulda-hated-taxes’ website (to which I won’t link).

h/t to Decline of the Logos for the last one.

Credits for graphics:

Diagram of reverse engineered mortgage for the Ekstrom family from Zero Hedge, by Dan Edstrom (Just When You Thought You Knew Something About Mortgage Securitizations h/t: Reposted on Huffington Post).

David Graeber’s photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Anth 207: new open education space – update!

If you follow Neuroanthropology, either here or on Facebook, you may have noticed something new. We’ve had a bit of a facelift to this site and added a page: Anth 207 Neuroanth 101. This new venture is an effort to generate open educational resources for people interested in psychological anthropology: students, teachers, researchers, the curious…

The first video for Anth 207  Neuroanth 101 is already posted: WEIRD psychology.

We’ll be adding more videos slowly, as well as suggested readings, other related resources, reflection questions, and notes. The goal is to start building an open resource for those who want to start learning about neuroanthropology.

Check back, or join the Neuroanthropology Interest Group on Facebook to keep up with new developments.

UPDATE: After a quick consultation with partner-in-online Daniel Lende, we’ve decided to go whole hog with the new look, new feel, and all-neuroanthropology message. I’ve done a quick rename to ‘Neuroanthropology 101’ with the goal of making it clear what we’re doing, and hopefully making a space to which other neuroanthropologists will want to contribute.

The new linguistic relativism: Guy Deutscher in the NYTimes
How does language affect thought and perception? It’s a question we’ve looked at here at on a number of occasions, but Prof. Guy Deutscher, offers a nice general survey of the current state of play in the research over at The New York Times in ‘Does Your Language Shape How You Think?’ Posts on language tend to attract a lot of traffic, so I’d encourage you to take a look.

Prof. Guy Deutscher
Prof. Deutscher is an accomplished linguist, who has written a number of general works as well as specialist works, including research on Akkadian, the language of ancient Babylon and Assyria. Deutscher is honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester, and the article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, to be published by Metropolitan Books.

Deutscher lays out a number of different areas of research that suggest language affects thought, especially in the areas of gender, spatial perception, time, and colour perception, and suggests some areas where profound linguistic differences offer tantalizing possibilities for studying the subtle ways that linguistic practice can influence cognition.

Although I feel Deutscher is unreasonably harsh on Whorf, in part because some contemporary understandings of Benjamin Whorf paint him as a more radical linguistic determinist than I find him to be, the research Deutscher discusses is well worth considering, and it’s a nifty piece to share with our regular readers.

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Death metal, religion and the socialization of emotion

Photo by George E. Norkus

Over at The Immanent Frame, a website on religion, secularism and society supported by the Social Science Research Council (USA), Jim Robertson reflects on the presence of religion in Death Metal after a trip to Wacken Open Air (in Germany), the world’s largest music festival and ‘loud as hell’ according to its website.

Robertson’s piece, Death metal: A “pipeline to God”?, is well worth the read, if for no other reason that it will be an eye-opener for the non-metalhead to what these guys are screaming through the din. (One personal disclosure: Although I went through a phase of fascination with Canadian power trios with front-man shriekers that sounded like modern castrati — Rush, Triumph — and developed a now-mildly-embarrassing love of Supertramp, Aerosmith, and the Who, I was never really a native metalhead, so I can’t talk about these genres from any deep affection.)

I won’t rehearse all of Robertson’s arguments, but he basically asks why Death Metal and related genres are so obsessed with religion, from Satanic album covers to song lyrics that drip with Apocalyptic motifs to echoes of everything from neo-paganism to blatant anti-Christianism. It’s a great question because not every popular music genre, even iconoclastic subcultural genres, features religious imagery so heavily. One would probably have to move to something like gospel or 1970s reggae to find genres that were more saturated with spiritual symbolism (I have no statistics on this, only my own fleeting engagement with these genres).

Robertson explains:

What is fascinating here is the consistency with which black metal has pursued religious forms. Satanism is replaced, not by a basic materialist atheism but with almost anything else: Occultism, Nietzsche, paganism, mystical nazism. Such religious pluralism begs the question as to whether these are just new and interesting attempts at youth rebellion, or whether something more is playing itself out.

Robertson finds several reasons for the dominance of religious themes in Death Metal:

1) ‘Metal’s rebellious streak’ led to a backlash against attempts to censor or criticize these musical genres, most prominently efforts by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the mid-1980s. According to Robertson, the criticism actually hardened the resolves of many musicians to criticize mainstream religion, sparking very explicit anti-religious themes.

2) Extreme lifestyles among the musicians, a character of many Western popular artist communities, but featuring some extraordinary acts of violence, self-destruction and nihilism, especially among proponents of Scandinavian ‘Black Metal’ in the 1990s, Robertson discusses. In this sense, ‘Metal’s obsession with religion is part of its obsession with living at the limit.’ Robertson goes on to explain: ‘This concern with limit experiences explains metal’s obsession with religion. In its aspirations, metal parallels a kind of religious mysticism.’

3) Competition with mainstream religion to provide similar experiences, such as community belonging, emotional transcendence, and mystical experience, what one participant refers to as a ‘pipeline to God.’

4) Shifting philosophical and religious commitments within the community of Metal musicians, including a move away from Satanism toward various forms of paganism, ecological mysticism, and Nietzschean nihilism, reflect a groping to find a language to talk about these profound emotional-mystical experiences: ‘The constant grasping for new ideologies amongst the black metal scene, then, is an attempt to give this transcendental path discursive form.’

Robertson’s discussion is both colourful and insightful, but there are several dimensions I might add just to bring it into the Neuroanthropological fold. Borrowing some ideas from Simon Frith’s piece, ‘Towards an Aesthetics of Popular Music,’ I want to argue that Metal, like many musical genres, has a special role in educating emotion and moods among young people when they are trying to understand social interaction and their own emotions.

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The dog-human connection in evolution

ResearchBlogging.orgEvolutionary theorists have long recognized that the domestication of animals represented a major change in human life, providing not just a close-at-hand food source, but also non-human muscle power and a host of other advantages. Penn State anthropologist Prof. Pat Shipman argues that animal domestication is one manifestation of a larger distinctive trait of our species, the ‘animal connection,’ which unites and underwrites a number of the most important evolutionary advances of our hominin ancestors.


Shipman’s proposal is discussed in a recent forum paper in Current Anthropology and is the subject of her forthcoming book, The Animal Connection. The paper is interesting to us here at because Shipman indirectly poses fascinating questions about the evolutionary significance of human-animal relationships, including the cognitive abilities of both and how they interact.

As Shipman puts it in the Penn State press release about the research, if we only think about what domesticated animals do for us as a species, we miss the truly curious thing about our relationship to them:

No other mammal routinely adopts other species in the wild — no gazelles take in baby cheetahs, no mountain lions raise baby deer…. Every mouthful you feed to another species is one that your own children do not eat. On the face of it, caring for another species is maladaptive, so why do we humans do this?

Although researchers working on symbiotic inter-species relationships might highlight that the support of other species hardly requires adopting their young and feeding them canned kitten food (a critique Travis Pickering levels in his comments), Shipman’s statement highlights nicely that human-animal inter-species relationships seem to extend beyond merely treating them as tameable prey or means to a human end. But then again, this super-instrumentality could be ascribed to a large number of human traits.

The domestication of animals wasn’t merely about capturing a buffet-on-the-hoof, from Shipman’s perspective, but the continuation of a long-term evolutionary project by our species to study animals, first when we were prey for them, and later as predators ourselves.

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Your Brain on Nature: Outdoors and Out of Reach 2

Daniel and I exchanged emails about the recent piece in The New York Times, ‘Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain,’ by Matt Richtel. We both responded strongly to the article; although we liked the discussion of technology’s effects on cognition and the positive benefits of being in nature (and away from digital technology), getting down to thinking through the various points left us both feeling pretty cranky (maybe not enough time in nature, eh?). Daniel’s already taken on some of the issues that could be raised with the piece, but I just wanted to pick up a few other threads.

The article discusses a river trip including five neuroscientists who took time away from their typical routine of digital interaction, dwelling in built environments, and conducting research to float down a river valley in Utah and spend some quality time with bats and cliffs as well as each other. To be honest, this sounds pretty idyllic to me, and I think far more conferences should be held outdoors in tents rather than in rented hotel meeting rooms with PowerPoint slides, 15-minute papers and cellophane-wrapped muffins. A whole new industry of Adventure Academic Meetings could allow physicists to discuss new breakthroughs while spelunking or philosophers to reflect on Continental theory while snowshoeing. Sign me up for the Anthropologists Hike the Appalachian Trail conference, but count me out of International Neuroanthro-Bungee 2012!

The participants in the white-watering brain sciences tête-à-tête seem to share my enthusiasm for a change in conference formats:

“There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you,” Mr. Braver says. He echoes the others in noting that the trip is in many ways more effective than work retreats set in hotels, often involving hundreds of people who shuffle through quick meetings, wielding BlackBerrys. “It’s why I got into science, to talk about ideas.”

One of the first things that irritated me in the NYTimes piece, however, was the conflation of living the ‘life uninterrupted’ — having a small, intimate retreat with a handful of people — and being ‘in Nature,’ as if the two were inherently inextricable. Of course, one wouldn’t have to invite hundreds of people to the hotel for a conference, and the conversations would likely be a lot more intimate and less distracted, even if your small group was at a spa or dude ranch. Likewise, you can go to Nature at an outdoor music festival and feel completely over-stimulated, even though you have no access to electricity or indoor plumbing.

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