‘Exercise’ is mindset as well as activity

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAn article last year in Psychological Science by Alia J. Crum and Ellen J. Langer, Mind-Set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect, laid out an extremely interesting example of ‘top-down’ culturo-psycho-physiological dynamics in the body from my favorite area of research: exercise and sports.  Crum and Langer looked at a group of 84 hotel room keepers.  From the abstract:

Those in the informed condition were told that the work they do (cleaning hotel rooms) is good exercise and satisfies the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle. Examples of how their work was exercise were provided. Subjects in the control group were not given this information. Although actual behavior did not change, 4 weeks after the intervention, the informed group perceived themselves to be getting significantly more exercise than before. 

If this were the only finding, there wouldn’t be too much news here.  But the change in understanding of what they were doing also had physical effects on the room attendants, including, in addition to changed impressions, an average weight loss of 2 pounds, decrease in systolic blood pressure of 10 points, and positive effects on body mass and heart rates — in only 4 weeks with NO change in the actual activity level.  Becoming convinced that they were getting enough exercise or engaged in adequate activity to promote health helped their background activity to affect their physiology.  Exercise was not just a physical activity, it was also a state of mind (more accurately, without the ‘state of mind’ activity didn’t have the effects of ‘exercise’).  (This research is also discussed in an article in The New York Times.) 

Continue reading “‘Exercise’ is mindset as well as activity”

Big Theory and Our Biocultural World

Recent books with widespread public acclaim show that the biological and cultural approaches claimed as proper to anthropology are now part of the common social science agenda.  My question is, where does this leave anthropology?  

Certainly the rather ham-handed combination of biology and culture in these books leaves anthropologists with the familiar refrain of criticism and particularity.  But do we have a genuine alternative?  Do we have a big theory to offer? And if not, are we on track to get one?   

The books in question are Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World and Lee Harris’ The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the Enlightenment.  They are both provocative books, with forceful theses and grand-standings authors, a tried-and-tested recipe for popular books in the intellectual vein.  I am not particularly concerned with each of their theses today, but here they are anyways. 

For Clark, it is that the Industrial Revolution was driven by the successful over-reproduction and downward social mobility of the upper classes, complete with their literacy, discipline, and delay of gratification.  For Harris, it is that the West, by being too wed to reason, fails to understand the radical threat represented by how Islam has spread through the world.  I am sure that many anthropologists will use these books as their favorite new targets. 

Rather, what interests me is the style of argument that they use to buttress their main point.  Continue reading “Big Theory and Our Biocultural World”

Avatars and Cultural Creole

Can video games change the way we think about culture?  Yes!  In the previous posts I’ve explored how the interaction and embodied perception that both designers and players use outlines an area of research for neuroanthropology.  And I’ve dropped plenty of hints that gaming can help us re-think culture.  Today I’ll continue to develop those ideas some more. 

Let’s start with a rather conventional statement on “culture” in relation to this new world of Internet, gaming, and all the rest.  Arturo Escobar, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (and better, a Colombian!), has a chapter, “Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture,” which appears in the book The Cybercultures Reader.    Continue reading “Avatars and Cultural Creole”

MMORPG Anthropology: Video Games and Morphing Our Discipline

By Daniel Lende

World of Warcraft is a MMORPG.  And what is that, you ask?  A  massively multiplayer online role-playing game, in this case the most successful one in existence.  It is run by Blizzard Entertainment, based on fantasy role-playing (i.e., swords and sorcery), and has more than 9 million subscribers worldwide.  These subscribers pay a monthly fee (currently $14.99 if you pay month-to-month) and for that, Blizzard says, “thousands of players adventure together in an enormous, persistent game world, forming friendships, slaying monsters, and engaging in epic quests that can span days or weeks” in the realm of Azeroth. 

Blizzard has built a game that appeals to both causal and persistent players, though most of its monthly income is derived from people who put in lots of hours (Ducheneaut et al. 2006; http://gac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/1/4/281).  It relies in part on an underground economy, including Chinese “gold farmers” (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/17/magazine/17lootfarmers-t.html) to help create some of the in-game wealth that rich players can then utilize in achieving higher and higher levels and better and better items and spells.  Besides the joys of “leveling up” and coordinating massive attacks on either mythical monsters that no one hero can slay alone or on other “guilds” of human players in Azeroth, research has shown that “in keeping with current Internet research findings, players were found to use the game to extend real-life relationships, meet new people, form relationships of varying strength, and also use others merely as a backdrop (Williams et al. 2006; http://gac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/1/4/338 ).” 

They also piss each other off.  One of the main draws of Wow is PvP, person versus person play.  Just as with first person shooters, there is plenty of fun in the single-player game, the mastering of a particular level or killing a “boss” (a hard monster or enemy), but a lot of the persistent fun is in making those rag dolls fly—in winning “the game” when playing against others.  A new art form has developing in filming these encounters: “the proliferation of players, clans, Web sites, and community forums for creating, consuming, and commenting on WoW movies is remarkable” (Lowood 2006; http://gac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/1/4/362 ).  The one I will talk about today has been seen over two million times on YouTube. 
Continue reading “MMORPG Anthropology: Video Games and Morphing Our Discipline”

Video Games and Cultural Perception

First, a shout out to all the faithful readers in cyberspace on the Eve of Christmas.  (Yes, yes, I know, my first post went up a week ago.)  Have a great Holiday! 

Now let me get on with gaming and culture.  Today I want to talk about how gaming illustrates the need to rethink what we mean by the concept “culture.”  The traditional concept of culture is generally seen as something all around us, shaping our every move—Geertz’s system of symbols, where humans are caught up in webs of cultural meaning.  Even in the wake of 1980s and 1990s post-modern critique, we are still left with rather homogeneous and causal views—for example, Bourdieu’s habitus, derived from class and used an explanation for the differing tastes and behaviors of different groups of people; or the emphasis on discourses or ideologies that people cannot escape, so that discourses on gender and race seemingly define who we are and, in making that definition, provide others with power over us. 

Greg has already started the critique.  Here’s what he writes in his post Mirror Effects in Neurons Learned?: 

“The evidence from the brain sciences does not support the assumption that all implicit learning has ideational foundations or backing, but most models of culture really do not allow for motor learning to exist on its own as a relevant category of culture. I know, some will try to call me out on this and argue that late Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus is really a motor learning theory, but the fact that he has to assume that there is either a sociological structure (class) or cultural structure (a kind of crypto-structuralist cognitive set of categories) behind all action suggests that it is, ultimately, either a sociological- or cognitive-determinist model, not one that allows motor realms any autonomy.”


So, how about some gaming autonomy?  Let me turn once again to my trusty Game Informer in its January 2008 edition.  In yesterday’s post, I talked about how games offer us an immersive and interactive experience.  I want to expand on that post by focusing specifically on how designers utilize something close to the concept of “culture” as one part of how to make games immersive and involving.  In the feature article on the first person shooter Tiberium, which builds off the real-time strategy franchise Command & Conquer, the article goes: 
Continue reading “Video Games and Cultural Perception”

On Stress-Part Two-Blakey

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchBy Daniel Lende 

The other night, my two year old daughter complained with a sleepy vehemence, then turned to my wife for comfort (yes, we are co-sleepers!).  She had been sick, unable to sleep well, and she sought out her mother for comfort and soothing.  It wasn’t that my daughter was physically stressed, but that her little mind seemed to get ahead of herself.  The terrible things bothering her?  Suddenly they are all right because of Mamá. 

What does this have to do with the fight-or-flight reaction?  Very little.  But anyone who’s tried to deal with a screaming baby knows that such a thing is very stressful for everyone involved.  And that’s the point.  Stress does not sit so easily into the category we imagine for it.  When my daughter screams, I feel my blood pressure rise and a lack of control if I am unable to soothe her.  Alternatively, calming her calms me.  These sorts of experiences do not fit easily into the stressor/stress reaction dichotomy covered in yesterday’s post on Robert Sapolsky.  But I had not really thought about it that way until I recently read the work of Michael Blakey, professor of anthropology at William & Mary. 

In his chapter “Beyond European Enlightenment,” Blakey opens with a discussion of how naturalism leads into ecological and evolutionary “explanations” that lie explicitly outside the social realm as well as to sexual, racial and genetic determinism (“natural” causes or differences, hence we just have to accept the present state of affairs).  Blakey is not against the documenting of human variation that good ecological or human biology research can highlight, say between a certain type of environment and a certain body type.  However, he is against this approach becoming the core focus of a discipline (say, biological anthropology) and quite aware of the dangers that the projection of biological explanations into the social realm plays in the communications and politics of a public anthropology. 

As he writes, “Naturalism as it informs empirical methods shows the human element in data analysis as contaminating, deviating from ultimate truth.  Culture, therefore, becomes a thing to be purged (or denied) in apprehension of legitimate truth (382).”  He sees the logical extension of such a view as: “The proper order of human life according to this view is to be found outside human society.  Whether the method is belief in gospel or systematic evidence, religion and natural science obtain an allure of being able to reveal knowledge from beyond human agency (382).”  

Continue reading “On Stress-Part Two-Blakey”