Repressed Memory

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIn the January-February issue of Harvard Magazine, there is a short piece on “Repressed Memory: A Cultural Symptom?  The basic point: some “neurological” symptoms are cultural.  Harrison Pope, co-director of the Biological Psychiatry Lab at McLean Hospital, posted a $1000 bet that no one could identify a “case of dissociative amnesia in any work of fiction or nonfiction prior to 1800.”  The exception was found—a 1786 opera—and the $1000 dolled out.  But that only helped prove the researchers’ premise: unlike some other neurological phenomena, repressed memory appears to be a culture-bound syndrome.  (What’s also impressive is that these are hard-core neuroscientists arguing for this…)

 For example, accounts of hallucinations and depression appear in the world’s literature for hundreds of years.  But the development of amnesia after a serious traumatic event, such as being raped or witnessing the death of a friend, appears to be a phenomena developed initially in modern Western culture and then imposed on the brain.    Continue reading “Repressed Memory”

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”

Made to Stick

Yesterday’s New York Times had this article, “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike,” which quickly became the #1 emailed article on the site.  While a little light, it raises several points that bear reflection. 

First, in discussing the “curse of knowledge,” the difficulty in remembering what the world looked like before you became an expert, I am struck by this as one apt metaphor for culture.  It is so hard to escape from our own ways of thinking, which is why living in another culture, literally becoming a non-expert once again through participant observation, is such a core part of becoming a good cultural anthropologist.  After that experience, or the similar experience of indoctrination into evolutionary theory, anthropologists in general struggle to create knowledge that is useful to people beyond anthropology, to both market it and make it relevant. 
Continue reading “Made to Stick”

Marian Radke-Yarrow

I think some of you might appreciate this short piece, The Anthropological Psychologist, on Marian Radke-Yarrow, who pioneered the studies of parenting and depression.  What I find striking is her longitudinal work and her use of observation and description to reach her conclusions.  She passed away this past year.

neuroanthropology and race- getting it straight

This is a response to the post by Doublehelix re: races and human biology emerging out of Daniel Lende’s post on IQ and environment..  The issue of human biological units and intelligence/cognition is very old and seems to keep appearing despite serious problems in the way the positions are most commonly framed.  This is a core factor in discussing neuroanthropology.  It is extremely important to realize that if you are going to use race as a biological unit then you must define it!  I would like to ask Doublehelix to present a definition of human groups that are consistently identifiable by a set of biological characteristics that separates them from other such groups.  There is no argument that human populations, both regional and meta-populations, vary in a number of biological characteristics.  However, are these evolutionary units or of evolutionary relevance?  Are there functional differences across human groups (once you are able to define what you mean by group).

Discovering shared frequencies of alleles in regional and meta-populations is expected via standard models of gene flow.  However, globally humans break the standard models of gene flow by their very low inter-population variation relative to species wide variation (not to discount the reality of a lot of variation across the geographical distribution of our species and huge inter-individual variation)…Doublehelix uses the Risch and other  articles to refute this, but ignores all of the work by many, many others (see below for a sample) that discuss and explain why one might see clustering of some allelic variation as associated with geography, and what that might or might not mean in an evolutionary sense. We are well beyond Lewontin 1972…  Allele frequency clusters are not races or even biological units…the association of function with specific distributions of frequency patterns of various alleles can and should be done, but has to be done with extreme care and we must play by the biological rule book.  If you are comparing biological units they must be biologically, not socially, defined.

The statement “As for the notion that race is not supported by biology, I ask: Why do races differ so profoundly in so many different characteristics, such as IQ, lactose tolerance, the resistance to malaria, skin and hair color, the effectiveness of certain drugs?” is rooted in a severe simplification…for example, lactase production is widespread across 100s of human populations with peaks in Northern European, east African and even middle eastern populations…so what does it say about race?  Malaria resistance via one of the 5 sickle cell mutations occurs with high frequencies in West Africa, but also South West Asia and the Middle East?  What race is that?   Hair color ands type are widely distributed…but not markers of unity…for example if having tight curly black hair unified groups then populations in Papua New Guinea and Nigeria would be linked…they are not.  As for drug differences, this is a very important and complex area of investigation where we actually see some amazing integration of social, physiological and contextual patterns (see recent BiDil research) but not clear patterning of socially defined races as showing any specific identifiable bio-based markers.


Continue reading “neuroanthropology and race- getting it straight”

New features on Neuroanthropology

Just a quick note because I still have relatives staying with me (so I can’t get to a more serious post on Bruce Wexler’s book, Brain and Culture, to the collective memory conference I attended, or to the piece I’m working on about the equilibrium system and diverse physical training regimens). They go home tomorrow, so I should be able to present something substantive in the near future.

The first announcement is that we’ve added a Bibliography page that will try to keep a running list of the academic resources referenced in the postings.  Although I’m likely to fall behind from time to time up-dating it, my goal is to create a kind of ‘annotated bibliography’ with links back to postings or notes that discuss the readings.

In addition, Daniel Lende has generously put together a page of ‘web resources’ with links to things like news in the neurosciences and tutorials on brain architecture and function.  Especially for those of us in anthropology who are trying to better engage with the brain sciences, I think it will be an invaluable resource.

Finally, I’ve decided that we’re going to start using the icon from for blogs about peer-reviewed research.  You’ll see a small icon along articles that really discuss peer-reviewed research (rather than some of the ones we do about news or academic conferences or the like).  I’ll be happy to take care of providing the code, which I’ll just insert in appropriate posts.  It’s one more way that we can signal to our readers the nature of what we’re doing, and to let people in other fields know how research is being received and discussed among anthropologists.

Sorry I’m making you wait on other posts, but I promise more soon.