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.

‘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”

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”

Keeping Brains Agile

This article from The New York Times, Mental Reserves Keep Brains Agile, illustrates a central point that Greg Downey and I want to make with neuroanthropology.  First, what you do with your brain, how that doing plays out in an environment, and how that playing out feeds back into the workings of your brain are a central part of what makes us human—and thus is a central part of how anthropology should approach the study of ourselves. 

What You Do: Having an active brain over your life course means that less neurons are likely to be lost and more connections actively generated and maintained.  The brain, like your muscles, is use-it-or-lose-it—we have the most neurons that we’ll ever have when we are children, and as children, we go through a lot of “selective pruning”.  That said, research has also shown the we keep producing new neurons throughout our lives, overturning a long-standing idea that we only get one set of neurons for life. 

Doing in Environment: As the article notes, “there is no ‘quick fix’ for the aging brain, and little evidence that any one supplement or program or piece of equipment can protect or enhance brain function — advertisements for products like ginkgo biloba to the contrary.”  Despite our wishes to the contrary, we need to do plenty of stuff in a challenging environment to maintain our cognitive reserves. 

Playing Back into the Brain: Both social relationships and physical activity make a difference to your brain.  Greg likes the physical side, so I will just highlight one quote here: “Long-term studies in other countries, including Sweden and China, have also found that continued social interactions helped protect against dementia. The more extensive an older person’s social network, the better the brain is likely to work, the research suggests.” 

That said, we can also draw two other lessons from the article.  First, as I pointed out briefly in my Introduction, we should avoid over-localizing function and pathology in any one area.  Brains are not as hard-wired as computers; people’s physiology is variable (including their brains).  We are soft wired, or “wet wired” to draw on the metaphor of a 1995 book.  As the article states, “up to two-thirds of people with autopsy findings of Alzheimer’s disease were cognitively intact when they died.” The second point, and a crucial one for neuroanthropology, is the implicit framing of the article.  The title reads “Mental Reserves Keep Brains Agile,” re-using a very old mind/body metaphor.  While Jane Brody speaks of social and physical activity, the main causal concepts are cognitive and physical: the cognitive reserve, the number of neurons present.  Subsequently, Brody has our social, physical and symbolic worlds revolve around the mind/body dichotomy.  Neuroanthropology needs to develop the research, the language, and the popular models to show what this article actually tells us: people’s social lives, from walking in malls to playing bridge, make a difference in the blood flow and neuronal connections of the brain.  Our lives play back into our brains.

Introductions: Greg Downey

As a way to introduce myself, I’ll just briefly discuss why I got interested in the relationship between brain science and culture in the first place. When I was doing fieldwork on the Afro-Brazilian martial art-dance, capoeira, my informants kept talking about how their participation in the art affected them. They would claim that they could see things in their peripheral vision better, that they were calmer in conflicts, that they walked different, that they could balance better, and a host of other collateral effects, outside of practice. Like most good cultural anthropologists, I approached their claims with a kind of shallow credulity: ‘The natives say that ghosts steal their socks’ or ‘The natives so that magical charms make their bodies immune to bullets.’ I just wrote these claims down without ever really questioning them or thinking much about them.

And then, it struck me: were these stories plausible? Could capoeira really change them? And what kind of anthropology would I be doing if I asked those questions? I looked into sports psychology studies of elite athletes’ perceptions, but I also thought about my own experience as an apprentice who had felt first-hand the changes worked by devoted practice. The more I read and thought about it, the more I became convinced that maybe I should move beyond just copying down what the ‘natives’ said about capoeira; I should consider instead what sorts of claims were plausible, and what mechanisms might be creating the effects that they described.

So I wound up outside of anthropology, taking a year off of teaching at Notre Dame to go to Brown University on a post-doc where I got a chance to attend weekly seminars put on by Anne Fausto-Sterling. I came across discussions of neuroplasticity, the work of Tim Ingold, dynamic systems theorists like Esther Thelen and Susan Oyama (who I just got to meet at the AAAs), and became convined that, if anthropology was ever going to deliver on the promises of the ’embodiment’ literature, we were going to have to actually learn a hell of a lot more about how the body and the brain worked.

And so here I am, proposing a new project to work on elite junior rugby training that I hope will lead both to traditional ethnographic fieldwork and very non-traditional (for anthropologists) interest in brain imaging, visual tracking, measurements of body morphology change, physical testing, and a host of other techniques. In addition, I’m trying to finish a book right now on the ways in which elite athletes, including people doing physically demanding tasks that we might not necessarily think of as ‘sports,’ such as circus performers, pearl divers, yogis, and the like, show us the malleability of the human body and mind, given the human propensity to do things like obsessively train in activities that are not — strictly speaking — ‘necessary’ for survival. That book, currently titled ‘The Athletic Animal: Sports and Human Potential,’ will be my own obsession for the next few months, but I hope to see a lot of postings from other folks on this weblog once it’s up and running.

If you’d like to get in touch, I can be reached at If you’d like to join our virtual community, don’t hesitate to send me an email, and we’ll talk.