The Boston Globe on embodied cognition

How often do you read a piece in the newspaper that explicitly makes reference to Maurice Merleau-Ponty? Can’t say that I ever had until I stumbled across this article, ‘Don’t Just Stand There, Think,’ on embodied cognition by science writer Drake Bennett in The Boston Globe. It’s all over the map, making brief references to a host of different research projects, some of them more obviously anti-Cartesian than others. The piece might make an excellent entry point for people wanting to introduce others to the significance of embodiment for human cognition.

In particular, the article discusses a number of examples that highlight the ways in which cognition makes use of motor capacities and perceptual abilities, rather than simply being just some disembodied form, such as logic, signification, or recall. Aside from more obvious cases where embodiment affects thought, Bennett briefly touches on some of the more counter-intuitive cases:

A few [neuroscientists, linguists, and philosophers] argue that human characteristics like empathy, or concepts like time and space, or even the deep structure of language and some of the most profound principles of mathematics, can ultimately be traced to the idiosyncrasies of the human body. If we didn’t walk upright, for example, or weren’t warm-blooded, they argue, we might understand these concepts totally differently. The experience of having a body, they argue, is intimately tied to our intelligence.

Bennett makes references to mirror neurons, research by Sian Beilock and Lauren Holt suggesting that athletes’ perceptions are shaped by their expertise, Susan Goldin-Meadow’s work on gesture and thought, and a number of other intriguing research projects. There’s no links to the original research reports or articles, but the interested reader could easily track them down.

In particular, one quote reminded me of Daniel’s earlier post on cultural differences in puzzle solving. Beilock, after doing research on hockey players’ ability to quickly understand photographs of hockey, came to the conclusion that, ‘People with different types of motor experiences think in different ways.’ This is a consequence of embodied cognition, and it may help to explain certain types of differences in reasoning, perception, or cognition.

The article hardly breaks new ground, but it is a very good quick summary of a lot of relevant research. I’d highly recommend it; and it will be a great one to share with friends and colleagues and anyone else who wonders what you’re on about when you mention embodied cognition.

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”

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?”

Neuroanthropology and Everyday Design

Today’s article by John Tierney, Why Nobody Likes a Smart Machine, from the Tierney Lab illustrates several points that neuroanthropologists should pay attention to.  It’s about the work of Donald Norman, best known for his book “The Design of Everyday Things,” and his analyses for why modern technology often frustrates people so much.  (By the way, I just bought my wife one of those picture frames mentioned in the article for Christmas—ah, a bundle of frustrating joy.)  So, in the course of the article, Tierney and Norman mention four different aspects of how we relate successfully or unsuccessfully to machines (and, from my point of view, much of the world).  They are: 

-Predictability (the pedestrian who keeps walking so the bicyclist easily avoids him)

-Being Understandable (human-sized signals like the whistle from a tea kettle; having an intuitive feel—read, culturally modeled, metaphorically presented, and visually and tactically available)

-Control (the clever solution to wrapping a wet paper towel around the electronic sensor on the bathroom faucet)

-Feeling Helpless (computerized shades that worked on their own without being able to be locally manipulated) 

These factors are tied up into three related phenomena—evolution, culture, and the brain—at the core of neuroanthropology.  In this case, they are (1) achieving behavioral success in often stochastic evolutionary environments, where acting on environmental information in goal-directed ways often led to good things (like food) (the evolutionary problem), (2) how culture built off human tendencies—our ability to apply learned, controllable, regular solutions in novel ways (but not badly designed ways—hence the problems with some technology) (the cultural side), and (3) the brain systems that handle stress, where unpredictable, uncontrollable stressors are the ones that make us react the most (the brain).  Hence, the predictable line of frustration, anger, and then simply giving up and making do the best you can with the present situation. 

Plus Norman did participant observation and interviewing as his methodological approach!  If you want to talk more, just email me at  Best, Daniel Lende

The Brains of Conductors

The BBC News carried a story recently about research done on the brains of orchestra conductors and band leaders and how they responded to a complicated listening task. The researchers played two tones for the subjects very closely together, fractions of a second apart, and the subjects were asked to tell what order they were played in.

The most interesting finding was that all subjects, untrained controls and experienced conductors alike, demonstrated a decrease in activity on fMRI scans in the ‘visual areas’ (I presume the visual cortex) when asked to do this difficult listening task. As the BBC headline reads, ‘Brain “Closes Eyes” to Hear Music.’ The more difficult the researchers made the task, the more activity in the visual regions was decreased. As the BBC article puts it:

As the task was made harder and harder, the non-musicians carried on diverting more and more activity away from the visual parts of the brain to the auditory side, as they struggled to concentrate.

However, after a certain point, the conductors did not suppress their brains, suggesting that their years of training had provided a distinct advantage in the way their brains were organised.

The implications of this in terms of brain ‘enculturation’ are several, and I want to highlight a couple.

Firstly, the testing itself suggests that brain activity is task dependent, both in positive and negative terms. That is, ask the brain to do some things and not only do particular regions associated with the task get very active, but other, possibly competing or distracting neural activities, get suppressed. I’ve been thinking about the senses a fair bit lately (more on that soon), and this would seem to be one way in which the senses are not independent. Instead, the senses are linked together, even if it is in suppressive links, the heightened attention or concentration along one channel sometimes suppressing others. For culturally influenced patterns of sensing, it could mean that what we don’t sense is as important as what we do.

Second, these sorts of links between expertise and the effectiveness of sensing are variable phenomena, not necessarily existing at all levels of task demand. I find this interesting because it might not show up in every experiment, depending on the difficulty of the experimental task. In the case of the conductors, you don’t really notice the difference in their performance on the task until the difficulty is greatly increased.

Third, the ‘enculturation’ is very much a skill-dependent brain change. That is, it’s not a blanket, shared-by-all cultural trait, but one that’s only shared by a specialist group within a ‘culture.’ This makes more sense to me in a lot of ways because I work with elite athletics, but I suspect that many ways in which the brain is ‘encultured’ are not shared throughout what anthropologists typically think of as ‘cultures.’ Moreover, because the brain likely responds to similar demands by using similar mechanism, another elite practitioner of a parallel skill (like a musical leader in capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art I’ve worked on) might have an ability that looked a bit like the conductors’. How these abilities differed then — not only in terms of their meaning, acquisition, and the like, but also in terms of the neurological dynamics — would be an interesting set of research questions.

One could write a lot more, but I’ll leave it at this for now.