Monkey Makes Robot Walk!

Where does this leave the evolution of human bipedalism?  Is there some mystery “bipedal instinct”?  A bipedal “organ” in the brain?  I’ll let you decide… 😉 

Here’s the article.  It’s a great piece about the importance of training, the relevance of a body (build it and the brain will come…), and the management of different tasks by different areas of the brain that work in conjunction.  For the culturally inclined, the study authors argue that for Idoya, the monkey in question, her “motor cortex, where the electrodes were implanted, had started to absorb the representation of the robot’s legs — as if they belonged to Idoya herself.”

Steven Pinker and the Moral Instinct

By Daniel Lende 

Steven Pinker is selling something.  Here’s what’s on the table: “the human moral sense turns out to be an organ of considerable complexity.”  This organ has been built into our brains by evolution, culture-free except for how its five domains (harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity) are “ranked” and “channeled” in different places around the globe.  Ready to buy? 

Let’s sweeten the deal.  Pinker is offering his “deeper look” which will help you “rethink your answers” about life and morality.  He’s providing “a more objective reckoning” to help people get over their moral “illusions.”  And he’s got the data to show it, from people in the lab, Web sites, and brain scanners.  (I can’t help asking, these are his moral examples?  People in artificial situations, people who don’t physically interact, and a series of images?)  Continue reading “Steven Pinker and the Moral Instinct”

Paul Mason: Slides on Neuroanthropology

Paul Mason has sent me PowerPoint slides on Neuroanthropology that draw upon a lot of the same resources that he cited in an earlier post I put up on his behalf. Paul’s in the field in Indonesia, and he writes in sometimes from internet cafes, but we should eventually have him as a regular contributor when he’s back with some regular Internet access. And then he can also tell us more, too, about his own research.

Paul includes a number of choice quotes, but I wanted to make sure that everyone got a chance to see his diagram of a systems-based approach to ‘fight-dancing’ in cultural, biological, and ecological context (in both Indonesia and Brazil). It’s a rich diagram, and I think that we, as neuroanthropologist, will need to do a lot of complex visualization in order to make our points to a broad audience. Paul must get all the credit for this one.Mason slideIn the meantime, i don’t yet have a complete bibliography on this material, so we’ll have to get in touch with Paul if anyone really wants to get the sources he’s using. He sent this about a month ago, and I was not clear on how to post PowerPoint slides, but I think it’s pretty straightforward. We’ll see….neuroanthropology.ppt

Equilibrium, modularity, and training the brain-body

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchRetaining one’s balance in movement is one of the more complicated sensory and motor tasks that humans routinely accomplish.  Elite athletic activities make the task of maintaining bipedal locomotion all the more difficult; no other species, I would argue, not even the kangaroo or gibbon, engages in a repertoire of bipedal activities even remotely close to as varied as that of humans.  We walk, run, skip, hop, and combinations of all three; we kick while running, jump over a range of obstacles, cross balance beams and tight ropes, ride unicycles; some of our species even juggle soccer balls, play badminton and volleyball with our feet (no kidding, in Brazil I used to see futevolei — ‘foot-volleyball’ — on the beach… amazing), balance objects on our feet and a host of other activities.  And, in the example I want to start discussing, some of us even invert our bodies and become bipedal on our hands, sometimes to extraordinary effect.

In order to accomplish these sorts of tasks, we use our ‘sense of balance.’  I hesitate to call it a sense, though, because the systems of perception, forms of analysis that we do, and reactions that we use to preserve our equilibrium are actually a complicated system, a set of shifting constellations of interio- and exterioceptions, differently weighted and compared depending upon our environment and task, and a host of active patterns of physical compensation, most of them only vaguely conscious, at best, that keep us upright.  Equilibrium is a perceptual-motor system in the sense discussed by James J. Gibson (1979), perhaps even more baroque the visual perception system (his favourite example).

Minimally, a brief ecological psychology of balance would need to include at least the following: the vestibular system; information from the visual system including the horizon line, parallax, relation of centre of field of vision to visual references, and movement in peripheral vision; sensations on the soles of the feet as well as at joints and other forms of proprioception; sense receptors at the back of the neck as well as a sense of the head’s alignment in space and in relation to the body; the gravity-resisting muscles, usually those of the lower body, and the reflexes that move them to compensate for perturbations in balance.

Continue reading “Equilibrium, modularity, and training the brain-body”

IQ, Environment & Anthropology

It might come as a surprise to some people that intelligence is not as hard-wired as some of our teachers made us think back in grade school. 

Richard Nisbett, the long-time director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan, wrote a recent editorial in the New York Times entitled, “All Brains Are the Same Color  Nisbett ably goes about dismantling the idea that the IQ differences between blacks and whites are genetic.  He notes that decades of research have not supported the assertion that one of our social races in the United States (for that’s really the only way to define them) is biologically inferior in terms of innate intelligence.  Rather, he argues, intelligence is a matter of environment (the impact of development and access to good education) and a matter of the biased standards that praise a certain type of “intelligence” (success on standardized tests) over another. 
Continue reading “IQ, Environment & Anthropology”

Mirror effects in neurons learned?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchLike many observers of the neurosciences from other fields, I have watched the debate about the function, origin, and nature of ‘mirror neurons’ with no small amount of interest. Since their discovery in the early 1990s by Giancomo Rizzolatti and his research group at the University of Parma, the ‘mirror system(s?)’ in primates and humans have been extensively explored and discussed.

For anyone living under a neurosciences rock, ‘mirror neurons’ are typically premotor or parietal neurons that are active both when a subject perceives and executes an action. In a host of research projects which I’ll probably try to discuss later (I wrote a lengthy piece on them that was recently rejected by a major anthro publication, and I’m considering posting the original in the anthropology open source archive and then doing a MAJOR revision to seek publication elsewhere). Anyway, mirror neurons have been linked to action understanding, empathy, imitation (a personal interest), language, and ‘mind reading’ (not a sixth sense, but the abiltity to understand other’s intentions and perceptions).

A new paper by Caroline Catmur, Vincent Walsh, and Cecilia Heyes (one of the really innovative scholars working on mirror neuron research) in Current Biology has some fascinating implications for neuroanthropology(abstract or pdf download). In particular, the article suggests, in the words used in the abstract:

…it is unclear how mirror neurons acquire their mirror properties—how they derive the information necessary to match observed with executed actions. We address this by showing that it is possible to manipulate the selectivity of the human mirror system, and thereby make it operate as a countermirror system, by giving participants training to perform one action while observing another. Before this training, participants showed event-related muscle-specific responses to transcranial magnetic stimulation over motor cortex during observation of little- and index-finger movements. After training, this normal mirror effect was reversed. These results indicate that the mirror properties of the mirror system are neither wholly innate nor fixed once acquired; instead they develop through sensorimotor learning. Our findings indicate that the human mirror system is, to some extent, both a product and a process of social interaction [please note I’ve removed citation numbers that appear in the abstract].

Continue reading “Mirror effects in neurons learned?”