Conference: Human Nature and Early Experience

A pioneering symposium Human Nature and Early Experience: Addressing the “Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness” is coming October 10th through 12th at the University of Notre Dame.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the ways we are rearing our children today are not the ways humans are designed to thrive. The ill effects of these missing ancestral practices are becoming evident as children’s well being in the USA is worse than 50 years ago (Heckman, 2008) and is among the worst in the industrialized world (20th in family and peer relationships and 21st in health and safety; UNICEF, 2007). We have epidemics of ADHD, anxiety and depression among the young, indeed all age groups (USDHHS, 1999). Too many children are arriving at school with poor social skills, poor emotion regulation, and habits that do not promote prosocial behaviors…

Now is the time to reexamine the influence of early experience on child outcomes for two main reasons. First, the emergence of the cognitive, affective and social neurosciences (Cacioppo & Bernsten, 2004; Panksepp, 1998) has provided a greater focus on intrinsic aspects of social functioning. These disciplines have helped identify the types of brain functions that are typically found in mammalian brains, but they have not specified how these functions are normally expressed in humans, or how they are developed and expressed in response to cultural practices

Second, in recent years a host of public, personal and social health problems have been skyrocketing in the USA, and increasingly around the world, for which science does not have consistent or reliable answers… Animal, human psychological, neurobiological and anthropological research provides converging evidence for the importance of early life conditions for optimal brain and body system development. At the same time, epigenomic studies are beginning to better demonstrate the influence of caregiver behavior on offspring.

An impressive group of speakers will present, beginning withJaak Panksepp from Washington State University.  Panksepp is responsible for coining the term ‘affective neuroscience,’ and is renowned for his research in neural mechanisms of emotion.

James Prescott will speak on origins of violent behavior; Alan Schore, UCLA, will also speak, with his integrative neuroscience approach to affect regulation and development.

Also presenting: Michael Meaney from the Douglas Institute specializing in maternal care, stress, and gene expression and Wenda Trevathan of NMSU whose concentrations include evolutionary and biocultural factors underlying human reproduction, specifically childbirth and maternal behavior.

The full schedule is available for viewing accompanied by a detailed list of speakers and their biographies.

Darcia Narvaez, associate professor of psychology at Notre Dame, is the lead organizer for the conference.  Narvaez was previously featured in the post Triune Ethics: On Neurobiology and Multiple Moralities.  You can find out more about her views on the issues at the core of the conference over at her blog Moral Landspaces in the post, written with Jaak Panksepp and Allan Schore, The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense.

Mother and child photo is the featured photo for the Human Nature and Early Experience conference.

Brain image from Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Link to the website for the conference Human Nature and Early Experience: Addressing the “Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness”

Proceedings from ASCS 09 Conference online

The Proceedings of the 9th Conference of the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science, held in Sydney last year, are now online for anyone to access. Thanks to the editors, Wayne Christensen, Elizabeth Schier, and John Sutton, for pulling the whole collection together!

I didn’t get to stay for the whole conference because I was running around doing preparation things for the Australian Anthropological Society Conference that we held in December. Nevertheless, I saw some really good papers, and some of the others are especially interesting for those of us interested in neuroanthropology. Please peruse the whole list, but for a discussion of cultural variation in cognition, of special interest might be: Nian Liu’s Tuesday, Threesday, Foursday: Chinese names for the days of the week facilitate Chinese children’s temporal reasoning, Zhengdao Ye’s Eating and drinking in Mandarin and Shanghainese: A lexical-conceptual analysis, Collaborative remembering: When can remembering with others be beneficial? by Celia B. Harris, Paul G. Keil, John Sutton and Amanda J. Barnier, and Expanding expertise: Investigating a musician’s experience of music performance by Andrew Geeves, Doris McIlwain, and John Sutton.

I also like the look of Evaluation of a model of expert decision making in air traffic control, by Stefan Lehmann and colleagues, but I haven’t had the time to really read it (and won’t get time for a few days). Ben Jeffares’ paper was excellent in presentation, but I haven’t yet checked out the written version yet: The evolution of technical competence: strategic and economic thinking.

My paper from the conference, Cultural variation in elite athletes: Does elite cognitive-perceptual skill always converge?, is available as a pdf. I have to admit, it’s a shallower paper than I usually like to present, but I had to cover a LOT of turf, and it’s primarily a proposal for a research program, reviewing the neurological and behavioural places where I expect we might find the clearest evidence of cultural difference in neural dynamics. I’ll take the liberty of reposting the abstract:

Anthropologists have not participated extensively in the cognitive science synthesis for a host of reasons, including internal conflicts in the discipline and profound reservations about the ways that cultural differences have been modeled in psychology, neuroscience, and other contributors to cognitive science. This paper proposes a skills-based model for culture that overcomes some of the problems inherent in the treatment of culture as shared information. Athletes offer excellent cases studies for how skill acquisition, like enculturation, affects the human nervous system. In addition, cultural differences in playing styles of the same sport, such as distinctive ways of playing rugby, demonstrate how varying solution strategies to similar athletic problems produce distinctive skill profiles.

I’d love to hear any responses to the piece. I don’t usually present in cognitive science, as I’m more comfortable in my home discipline of anthropology, working from a pretty solid base of anthropology into the border of brain-culture research, so I’d be interested to learn what scholars situated more confidently in cognitive science think of the piece.

Great Expectations: Plasticity of the Brain Conference

Back in February, the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University in Copenhagen hosted a fantastic looking conference, “Great Expectations: The Plasticity of the Brain and Neurosciences at the Threshold: Nature and Nurture – And Beyond…” The conference was organized by GNOSIS Research Centre – Mind and Thinking Initiative.

It had a great line-up: Steven Rose, Douglas Hofstader, Maxine Sheet-Johnson, Timothy Ingold, and a host of Danish scholars whose work we can now all expore. The three days of the conference each addressed a different theme: Brain Plasticity, Awareness and Intentionality, and Beyond Dualisms.

You can read the Introductory Statement on the conference. Here’s one paragraph from the end:

Neuroscience seems to have learned from its critics. Reductive and neurocentric positions have to give way to the ideas that the plastic brain is capable of learning for life, and that both bodily movement as well as social activity leaves clearly formed traces in the development of the brain. Whenever we pray, learn to ride a bicycle, or read a book, the brain changes. The brain is not destiny. Are there no limits, human and neurobiological, to how much we can learn and to the extent that upbringing might effect changes in the brain?

The best thing is that you can get the videos from all the talks. So here is Steven Rose on The Future of the Brain – Promises and Perils of the Neurosciences (preceed by an intro to the conference), Jesper Morgensen on Any Limits to Neuroplasticity?, and Tim Ingold on The Social Brain.

You can access the entire program and all the videos at the Great Expectations conference website.

AAA Session on Impulsivity: Call for Submissions

Hal Odden and I are putting together a session on impulsivity at this year’s American Anthropological Association meeting being held in New Orleans. If you are interested in being a participant, please email me at and Hal at as soon as possible. Please indicate your potential topic and/or paper title when you email us.

We want to examine impulsivity broadly, so we are looking for people working on a range of issues related to impulsivity, risk taking behaviors and sensation seeking. Hal plans to look at impulsive suicide in Samoa, and I will look at impulsivity and substance use among adolescents.

We encourage submissions from people working on risk-taking in different sociocultural contexts; maladaptive behaviors associated with impulsivity, including binge eating and bulimia, violence, and unsafe sexual practices; and broader theoretical issues that could be informed by a reconsideration of impulsivity, including embodiment, motivation, and agency.

The session will be broadly oriented by neuroanthropology, using ideas drawn from both psychological anthropology (examining individual-environment interactions) and biocultural anthropology (mixing theory and methods between two disciplines). This session will bring a theoretical and ethnographic sensibility to the role of impulsivity in people’s lives today. This person-centered approach, bridging biology and culture, encourages the circulation of ideas from critical and evolutionary perspectives.

Proposed papers could potentially look at:

-How the neurobiological processes underlying impulsivity develop within specific social and cultural contexts
-How impulsive behaviors are informed by local conceptions of personhood, motivation, and agency
-How ideas on sensation seeking and risk taking in psychology and public health can be fruitfully adopted in psychological and medical anthropology
-How we can build more experience-near and culturally sophisticated accounts of human desire, temptation, and compulsion
-How ideas about impulsivity can inform practice theory, embodiment and other related areas of sociocultural theory.

Please email us your proposed topic and/or title as soon as possible at and Depending on how many people respond, we might have to limit participation – we’d rather not, of course, but just a warning up front. A single session can have a maximum of seven people.

The AAA meeting will be held from November 17th to 21st, 2010, in New Orleans, and has the meeting theme of “Circulation.” More information can be found at the AAA conference website. We are planning to submit this volunteered session for consideration by the Society for Psychological Anthropology.

Graduate Student Pecha Kucha Session @ New Orleans

Denice Szafran, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Buffalo, is putting together a Pecha Kucha session for the annual American Anthropological Association meeting in New Orleans. Pecha Kucha is a new visual format for giving a talk, which features 20 slides shown for 20 seconds each. Here’s her call for submissions over at the Anthropology Cooperative:

I am putting together a session proposal for the 2010 AAA meeting in New Orleans, and would like to call for submissions of abstracts.

The session will focus on graduate student works-in-progress, and will be Pecha Kucha – 20 slides, 20 seconds each. Often the only people who are aware of graduate student work are our advisors and committees, and this will be a chance to show the discipline what we are up to and where we are researching, and get feedback from the audience. This format is an exciting way to do that. With this method we will be able to accept 12 presenters for the session, and all research areas are welcome.

If you are interested, or think you might be, please submit an abstract to me at by February 24 so that I can assemble the invited session proposal by the March 1 deadline. You will be notified by February 27 whether your abstract will be included with our submission (just in case we get more than we can handle).

As Denice notes, Lorenz over at Antropologi kicked up interest in Pecha Kucha with his post in January, Pecha Kucha: The Future of Presenting? It bears some similarity to our speed presentation format that we used successfully last October at the Encultured Brain conference. Lorenz included a bunch of links to learn how and explore more. You can also go directly to

Here’s a video about this new format:

Another example, this one from Wired and introducing Pecha Kucha and then discussing the social uses of signs:

Thoughts on conference organizing

There have been a couple of interesting posts I’ve run across in my attempts to find out what happened at the 2009 AAA conference (see especially Lorenz’s run-down at These discussions of conferences in general have encouraged me to write something about my own experiences organizing and attending conferences over the past year (see also, Lorenz’s What’s the point of anthropology conferences?, Kerim’s What’s Your Favorite Anthropology Conference? and Strong’s How to attend a conference in a couple hours). I thought I’d add a different perspective; that of the amateur, I’ll-never-do-it-again (dis-)organizer.

I will cross-post this at both and Culture Matters, something I do not usually do, because I think that it’s worth putting up at both places, and both sites are intimately tied to the content of the post. Apologies if you run across this twice; I won’t make it a habit.

Although I’ve probably been to a few score academic conferences since my first in 1992 (the Society for Ethnomusicology), I’ve never really organized anything substantial until this year, when Daniel and I organized our first Neuroanthropology conference, ‘The Encultured Brain,’ and I agreed to chair the annual meeting of the Australian Anthropological Society (the AAS). I also was on the ‘program committee’ for the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science annual meeting, but they realized I was up to my neck in other planning so didn’t ask too much of me. It was probably a monumental act of stupidity to agree to do this, but at least I get this blog post out of it! (Yes, that’s bitter irony you read…)

Before I get into the good bits though, I have to admit that I do enjoy conferences, although less and less, primarily because traveling always seems to leave me worn out, and my travel distances have gotten egregious now that I’ve moved to Australia. I had a hoot changing into my presentation suit in a cab on the way to the AAAs in DC about a decade ago, arriving half-way through my panel but in time to give my paper after United stranded me overnight in Pittsburgh or somewhere like that (it was snowing around the Great Lakes so, of course, United was taken completely off-guard by this freakish, never-before-seen weather). I once did a single panel at the Guadalajara meeting of LASA, spending the rest of the time sight-seeing, eating really well, and searching unsuccessfully for a second-hand accordion. And I met my wife at a Council on International Educational Exchange conference in Santa Fe, our ice breaker consisting of a slightly off-colour joke during the panel set-up that ONLY an Australian woman would find endearing.

So don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of the good conference, but I’ve also been traumatized at academic conferences, especially during the FOUR YEARS when I tried to nail down a permanent position. They can be very lonely, especially for the jobless, and I’ve wandered around the AAAs trying to find someone, anyone, to talk to when everyone else looked like they were having stimulating (or at least drunken) conversations. One of the low points was in the cattle pens for an interview with an institution in NY that had a 5-4 teaching load:

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