Oseng’s brain

I want to know what is going on inside this guy’s brain.

I am sure that we have all wanted to sneak peak into the brain of someone we know; a lover, a parent, or a colleague. In my case, I want to study the brain of my Kendang Pencak teacher, Pak Oseng. He has a highly trained skill that demands attention, musical ability and well-developed motion perception. The beauty of his skill to researchers is that it is both culturally unique and experimentally testable. His skill can inform us about mirror neurons, action and perception as well as enculturation, skill acquisition and the neuro-cultural nexus. For me, it could be a key to understanding one aspect of the relationship between music and movement in the human brain.

Oseng plays drums (Kendang Pencak) to accompany Sundanese martial arts (Pencak Silat) and he is one of the best around. He matches the moves of performing martial artists with corresponding rhythm, dynamics and intensity. His mimetic skill at bringing a musical component to punches, kicks, grapples and holds while sustaining an entertaining rhythm would be beyond the skill of most percussionists, but to Pak Oseng it has become second nature. He can sustain performances from 5 minutes long to a couple of hours without breaking a sweat (and that says a lot for someone who lives in the tropical climate of Indonesia). He can even do it while chain-smoking!

There are two sets of drums that are used to accompany Sundanese Pencak Silat performances. The Kendang Ibu (mother drum) sustains a steady tempo while the Kendang Anak (child drum) improvises freely in fitting with the moves of the martial artists performing. This free improvisation requires the close attention of the drummer to pre-empt moves such as punches that require to be accompanied by a loud hit of the drum. But it’s not always a 1:1 relationship between the sound and the movement. Drummers like Pak Oseng have to know how to build tension and how to read the body of the performer so that he can successfully accompany powerful moves while adding beauty to the flower of the movement (known as bunga).

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Neuroanthropology Defined

For those who speak indonesian, this is a follow-up of Paul Mason on Neuroanthropology defined Posted by gregdowney on December 27, 2007 and  Paul Mason: Slides on Neuroanthropology Posted by gregdowney on January 12, 2008.

The article was published in Gema Seni and I have scanned a copy which can now be accessed here, (I apologise for the poor scanning, most of page 117 is indeed missing):

Mason, P.H. (2007) Alam, Otak dan Kebudayaan: Perkembangan Baru Tentang Pengetahuan Musik dan Tari. gema-seni: Jurnal Komunikasi, Informasi, dan Dokumentasi Seni, Vol 2, no. 4, pp. 108-119.


While passing through Jakarta in early May, I picked up a copy of the Sunday Jakarta Post. I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoy reading The Jakarta Post. It is full of cynical, pessimistic and diplomatic stabs at every shortcoming of the country where it is printed. The front page of the May 11th issue (2008 ) had a particularly funny, yet in reality frustrating, article about pedestrian strips (or the lack thereof) in Jakarta. The article is called, Unnatural Selection in the Concrete Jungle. It’s a very witty piece! The author, Rhiannon Zepol, even manages to take the mickey out of her host-country’s love of acronyms by referring to the ABDPPCDYB (Anak Buah Dari Pohon Pak Charles Darwin Yang Besar = Operation Charles Darwin Citizen Selection Program). 

Zepol’s piece appealed to me because it speaks of some daily frustrations that seem to have been solved in so many other cities of the world. The article alludes to a political ignorance that is reflected in Indonesian lifestyle. The best example I could give is a TV commercial created by the Health Department for people to put a cup of Dettol (a brand of anti-bacterial disinfectant) into their Mandi. A Mandi is basically a large tub/upright-bath from where people scoop water for washing and flushing the toilet (aka hole-in-the-ground). One would think that putting dettol in this water is a good idea. However, the shower-using politicians and council workers have probably neglected the fact that most Indonesians use Mandi water for cooking as well. Dettol tasting rice is not exactly what I would like on my menu.

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The Culturally Modified Brain

I was in Melbourne last week and caught up with my friend and colleague, Juan Dominguez. Our chats are always fast-paced and intense. We seem to cover 50 new topics every minute and all of them circle around a central theme: neuroanthropology.

Juan and I hadn’t seen eachother for maybe a year and he was dying to show me a new book that he found in a local bookstore. The book is called, “The Brain that Changes itself” by Norman Doidge. Upon finding the book in the second bookstore we visited (the book had sold out in the first), Juan immediately flipped to Appendix 1, The Culturally Modified Brain: Not only does the Brain Shape Culture, Culture shapes the brain, (page 287). The appendix covers areas such as neuroplasticity; the relationship between the brain and culture; how cultural activities can change brain structure; as well as some of the false claims of evolutionary psychologists. Concerning the over-enthusiastic claims of evolutionary psychologists, I particularly appreciate the drawbacks that Doidge points out about modularitarity. Doidge knows when and how to use clinical and experimental examples to backup his arguments. I won’t say more, because I want to encourage readers of this blog to pick up a copy of the book and have a read of this appendix for themselves. To provide a precis of a precis would seem fruitless, especially when Doidge’s writing style is very engaging and his content, for geeks like me, is fascinating.

The central theme of the entire book is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, for some, is heralded as “the most important breakthrough in neuroscience in four centuries” (see www.normandoidge.com). I would like to go on a tangent for a second and talk about the hype about neuroplasticity.

Researching neuroplasticity is incredible. I have been privileged to see first hand the effects of seasonal neuroplasticity on hamster and rodent brains. I have also worked with stroke patients and seen how their motor-recovery can be mapped with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. But there is something about the wider social understanding of this research that intrigues me. Personal experience makes me believe that people have thought for a very long time that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” However, I won’t be surprising any anthropologists to suggest that the important breakthrough of neuroplasticity is probably a culture-specific breakthrough. The ability of humans to adapt to new environments, new cultures and new physical conditions has been observed for donkey’s years. It almost seems to me a shame that sometimes we need a scientific proof to give weight to empirical observations. At the same time, I find myself quickly subscribing to the epidemic of requesting scientific proof when someone tells me of an empirical observation. However, we don’t need to understand neuroplasticity to know that Stroke patients can recover but the discovery of neuroplasticity has encouraged us to find the best ways to rehabilitate stroke patients and accident victims. Neuroplasticity in some circles has become more than a part of biological textbooks and has become a source of hope for the sufferers of brain damage and their carers. Although trained in neuroscience, I have become aware and increasingly convinced of the input anthropology can have to the brain sciences. A certain kind of socio-cultural neuroethology can inform us greatly about the capacities of the brain. Neuroscience does not have a monopoly over an understanding of the brain and I look forward to seeing how anthropologists can inform and guide neuroscientific discovery.

Meanwhile, I believe that we all need to equip ourselves with the latest information, and if it is made digestible and more interesting through popular science books such as “The Brain that Changes itself” then all the better for us. It will be fantastic to see more such books hitting the shelves of bookstores. Thanks Juan for the heads-up on this book!

p.s. Doidge’s book also brought my attention to a book by Bruce E. Wexler (2006) that I look forward to reading, Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, ideology and social Change (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press). Oh, and In googling for that book, I found this funky little link: Mind, Brain, Law and Culture 

The Buzz about Epigenetics: Genes, Behaviour and the Environment

Our contemporaries in Behavioural genomics and Neurobiology are suggesting that epigenetics may be the key to understanding how the environment interacts with genes to produce obesity, longevity, sterility, mental illness, and maybe even cancer. But what is epigenetics? And, why is it important to Neuroanthropology?

Epigenetic processes provide a way for environmental factors to affect gene activity. These processes involve the chemical modification of the genome resulting in an alteration of gene expression. While the underlying DNA sequence remains unchanged, the activity of particular genes can be turned on or off. Nutrition, exposure to toxins and other exogenetic mechanisms can all be potentially involved in epigenetic activity. These environmental influences can act upon RNA transcripts, cellular structures, DNA methylation/chromatin remodeling, and even prions. For example, smoking can effect your epigenome which is believed to result in some forms of cancer.

Human research into epigenetics can be fraught with ethical dilemmas, and can take a number of generations before sufficient data is produced. But, this is where anthropologists come in. Behavioural and environmental data coupled with social statistics from communities across the world can provide scientists with useful data for analyzing long-term mental and physical health in relation to the environment and corresponding socio-cultural behaviours. Such data is particularly useful when collected from communities exposed to biological disasters or specific nutritional limitations.

To study epigenetics inside the very cells of our body, where most anthropologists are not able to venture, there is another option. Now, for the first time in an insect species, epigenetic modification has been identified and functionally implicated. The recent sequencing of the honey bee genome in 2006 has allowed scientists to discover genes that mediate epigenetic effects.

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