Great Expectations: Conference on Brain Plasticity


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.

The Anthropology Song

Cristina Crespo, a former student of mine, just sent me the link to that song. It’s also popping up among my friends over at Facebook. So enjoy.

Here’s the specific YouTube link to The Anthropology Song: A Little Bit Anthropologist.

And the YouTube channel is Daionisio, budding singer/anthropologist. After graduating from UBC, Dai Cooper is now doing a masters in anthro at the University of Toronto.

Gotta love the chorus:

The World seems to increasingly need, Anthropology
Now we’re exploring, asking Who Why and How we be People
The difference between us, is not so much
Tell me your story, your piece of what is Humanity.

Sidney Mintz and Reflections on Sweetness and Power

Sweetness and Power
The Racliffe Institute for Advanced Study hosts a conference series on Women, Men and Food. Video from the six conferences is available online, ranging from the introductory Food for Thought to Studying Gender, Studying Food.

The one I want to highlight is Sweetness, Gender and Power: Rethinking Sidney Mintz’s Classic Work. That classic work is Sweetness and Power: The Place fo Sugar in Modern History, which links the production of sugar in slave plantations in the Caribbean with the rise of sugar consumption in England – economic history explained through anthropology. Given my interests in consumption, here’s what he writes early in the book:

What turned an exotic, foreign and costly substance into the daily fare of even the poorest and humblest people? How could it have become so important so swiftly? … The answers may seem self-evident; sugar is sweet, and human beings like sweetness. But when unfamiliar substances are taken up by new users, they enter into pre-existing social and psychological contexts and acquire – or are given – contextual meanings by those who use them… Uses imply meanings; to learn the anthropology of sugar, we need to explore the meaning of its uses, to discover the early and more limited uses of sugar, and to learn where and for what purposes sugar was produced (6).

The Radcliffe conference features four prominent academics – Amy Bentley, Vincent Brown, Judith Carney, and Sucheta Mazumdar – who place their work in light of Mintz’s ground-breaking book. The topics cover the academic study of food, enslaved women, gender and capitalism, and China and sweet potatoes. Mintz himself wraps up the conference with his own retrospective on his work, including an early line from his friend Eric Wolf, “Well, Mintz is a peculiar anthropologist.”

Link to the Sweetness, Gender, and Power: Rethinking Sidney Mintz’s Classic Work conference videos.

Antonio Damasio: Art and Emotions

Antonio Damasio, the author of Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, opens this hour-long video featuring three substantive talks. Damasio is the head of the recently founded USC Brain and Creativity Institute.

Anthropologist Helen Fisher gives her talk, Art, Emotion, and Romantic Love, at exactly twenty minutes in. Isabelle Peretz, with The Emotional Power of Music, is at 39:00 minutes.

These talks were part of a symposium, Evolutionary Origins of Arts and Aesthetics, held last March at the Salk Institute. You can download videos of all the talks at the conference website, or simply catch them at the YouTube playlist, Evolutionary Origins of Arts and Aesthetics.

Come on, don’t you want to see, Art in Neanderthal and Paleolitic Cultures? Actually, this video starts by introducing the symposium, and if you stop at 5 minutes in, you can see Jean Pierre Changeux speaking broadly about the conference. Jean-Jacques Hublin’s presentation on Neanderthal art kicks in at 7:50, and Randall White follows with Paleolithic Art at 30 minutes. White’s talk is the most anthropological – and crucial to thinking about what art is and what art means and how we are to understand it.

The conference was put on by CARTA: Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny, with the tagline “to explore and explain the origin of human phenomena”.

CARTA is a virtual organization formed in order to promote transdisciplinary research into human origins, drawing on methods from a number of traditional disciplines spanning the humanities, social, biomedical, biological, computational & engineering and physical & chemical sciences.

CARTA is hosting another great symposium on October 2nd, 2009: Human and Non-Human Cultures.

Paul Farmer: This I Believe

Paul Farmer is a doctor and an anthropologist, and spoke as part of NPR’s series This I Believe. Farmer co-founded Partners in Health, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving health care for the poor around the world. He helped develop DOTS (directly observed therapy), a way to provide care for HIV/AIDS that works in resource-poor settings, as well as community-based approaches to treating multi-drug resistant TB in developing countries.

As an anthropologist he has emphasized the importance of structural violence, the negative impact that systems of power can have on people through racism, gender inequality and political violence, with significant articles in both Current Anthropology and PLoS Medicine.

His most recent book is Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. You can also read about his lifework in Tracy Kidder’s biography, Mountains beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World.

Hat-tip (and thanks) to Ryan Anderson over at Ethnografix and his anthropological list of inspiring people and work.

Link to full text of Paul Farmer’s This I Believe NPR recording.

Monday Morning Artist: Robbie Cooper

Immersion Gaming by Robbie Cooper
Robbie Cooper is a photographer and videographer who mixes his artistic work with an ethnographic eye and a neuroanthrological sensibility. After all, this is someone who goes from Gilles Deleuze to Paul Ekman as he describes his work!

As a photographer Robbie has recently focused on capturing our digital representation of our selves – the avatars we create in online worlds like Everquest and World of Warcraft. Previously he had done photojournalism in Africa. As a video artist, he shoots stunning and provocative video, capturing people in some of their most intimate, involved moments with a clear and human-centered approach.

Avatar by Robbie CooperHe published his avatar photographs in the glossy book The Alter Ego, featuring portraits and bios of gamers from the United States, Europe, China, and Japan. You can read more about the book in reviews by Colin Pantall and Escapist Magazine, as well as read this interview with Robbie and his co-author and listen to some good coverage of Alter Ego on NPR.

On his homepage you can access a good slice of these pictures, complete with a text overview you can all up. This is the Alter Ego series in the Immersion side of his work. For just the photos you can go directly to this slideshow from the NY Times.

The NY Times also featured his Immersion video, which captured young gamers as they played. The portrayal of their involvement is intimate and intense, and I recommend either the Times video for the quality (you can also get even better video on Robbie’s homepage through the Immersion – but it’s a few more clicks).

The Immersion video is also up on YouTube so I’ve embedded it below. Alongside the video, you can see the Immersion photo series on Robbie’s website – it’s there in the Immersion link after you click on Simulations.

His latest work builds on the Immersion approach. This time it’s Immersion – Porn (yes, you can get the video on that link). In this video informants introduce themselves and then we get to see their own immersion into themselves, top-up only. It was produced exclusively for Wallpaper.

I’ve also been enjoying his Immersion blog. Of late he’s had a humorous take on Ekman’s emotional faces, an intense video of close combat in Iraq, and babies as challenging both science and philosophy.

Link to Robbie Cooper’s homepage and art.
Link to Robbie Cooper’s Immersion blog.

Community-Based Work and the Importance of Being Integrative – The Ganey Award and Video

In April I had the honor of receiving the Rodney F. Ganey, Ph.D., Faculty Community-Based Research Award. Given by the Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame, the Ganey Award goes to a Notre Dame faculty who has done collaborative work in the local community. For those interested in the details of that work, here is the press release – Daniel Lende Wins 2009 Ganey Award.

Neuroanthropology.net has played a central role in the community-based research I have done with my students. These include posts on using humor in recovery from breast cancer, a support group for women with HIV/AIDS, research to help redesign a local hospital waiting room, and the stories that US war veterans wanted to share about their everyday battles with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Two peer-reviewed articles have come out of the community-based research with my students: Embodiment and Breast Cancer among African American Women, and Community Approaches to Preventing Mother-to-Child HIV Transmission: Perspectives from Rural Lesotho. A great community guide, Underneath It All: Humor in Breast Cancer, was put together by the students, community members and myself, and is now used in a local hospital.

One of the best things about the award was that the Center for Social Concerns made this wonderful video with my community partners and my students. Here’s the YouTube link, but I also present it below as it captures why I do this sort of work.

I also want to share a written version of what I said at the CSC award dinner. No, no, not all the thank yous (there were plenty and all richly deserved), but a reflection on my own approach to my work.

I want to close by speaking to why the work I have done has meshed so well with the Center for Social Concerns.

At its core my work is integrative. Notre Dame had encouraged that integrative spirit. These five factors make that spirit a reality.

First is listening, listening to the person across the table. That is the start to doing community-based work and the start to understanding other ideas.

Second is the synthesis of intellectual and social problems. These are human problems, where compassion and involvement can matter as much as intellectual analysis or abstract policy.

Third is a push to make our research international and interdisciplinary, and not just local and field specific. Integration only happens by crossing boundaries.

Fourth is the combination of traditional publishing with other forms of scholarship, such as a community guidebook and electronic publishing. These forms of scholarship can reach many, many more people than a typical peer-reviewed article.

Fifth, being community-oriented, with an insistence that what we do is relevant to more than just the university. Some of the most challenging questions and even our best answers and outcomes can come from those people across the table, the people with whom we are lucky enough to work.

These five factors – listening to others, the synthesis of intellectual and social problems, making our work interdisciplinary, combining traditional publishing with other forms of scholarship, and having a community orientation – all matter. Together they make a tremendous difference in our lives as academics, students, and community partners.