Nice to be noticed

Our little youngster, Neuroanthropology, just got a mention at Savage Minds. It’s not entirely unexpected as I posted an announcement on Culture Matters, the applied anthropology blog sponsored by Macquarie University’s Department of Anthropology. It was a bit of PR and may have been premature, but I think that Daniel Lende has taken to posting such high quality stuff that I didn’t want to wait any longer.

Many thanks to Christopher Kelty for the notice and the encouragement for the type of intellectual project it represents. Kelty offers encouragement, but he also gently points out some of the challenges of the vertigiousness inter-divisional collaboration that something like ‘neuroanthropology’ demands. He writes:

There is room for a new kind of medical and bio-cultural anthropology for people willing to connect—- though it does depend on finding the brain scientists willing to meet the cultural scientists halfway, which is no mean feat.

To which I would merely add that finding the anthropologists amenable to this collaboration is also no mean feat, especially judging from the savaging I just received for a submission on the topic to a major anthropology journal. Admittedly, the article needed a bit of work, but I don’t think it was EIGHT REVIEWS worth of bad.

Having Savage Minds notice you, however, if you’re an anthropology blog, is a bit like getting a cool older kid’s attention at school, so I’m pretty happy about that. More soon, too, on my recent presentation on equilibrium as a culturally variable dynamic neuro-behavioural system.

Again, I’d encourage those who are interested in participating to contact me directly. greg.downey@scmp.mq.edu.au

Everyday Design Continued

John Tierney, whose New York Times article I commented on in the post Neuroanthropology and Everyday Day Design, wrote me a kind email (Thanks, John!) to say: 

Thanks… for writing about Donald Norman so perceptively. I enjoyed your advice to neuroanthropologists, and the cautionary words from the commenter [who was actually me] who bought one of those digital frames anyway. BTW, Don Norman was looking at design and other factors in our shopping excursion — one of the frames he liked better was partly due to the esthetics (it was a natural wood instead of black). As he and your commenter realize, people often buy something without testing it out and so the buttons really don’t matter from a marketing standpoint. Although with Amazon comments and other feedback, maybe usability will become more of a factor.

 Tierney continued discussing Donald Norman’s work in this article “Smart Elevators, Dumb People.”  The new smart elevators work without buttons inside the elevator; rather, you push a button in the lobby and are directed to the elevator that will take you (and others) to that specific floor.  In other words, instead of each elevator making all stops, the new smart elevators attempt to group people going to the same floor into the same elevator.  Faster service, energy saved… 

Norman again points to two important aspects that concern anthropology—“years and years of experience” and a “clash of cultures.”  For the experiential side, Tierney points to people reaching for buttons that are not there and using the door opening and the floor shown as the signal to get off.  On the one hand, people had to learn that the button pushing happened outside the elevators; on the other, the engineers had to adapt their technology so that the floor being displayed and the floor where the doors opened actually matched.  This point about experience, signals, and old habits highlights a realm that cultural anthropology does not explore much because its main causal explanations are things like “inequality” or “culture” or “discourse/ideology.”  A lot of life is simply about years and years of experience, and in many ways, the things that interest anthropologists empirically build on these everyday things.  Cognitive neuroscience—Donald Norman is a cognitive scientist—offers us a wealth of ways to think about and examine these sorts of habits and cues and behaviors in ways that will ultimately enrich out understanding of what “culture” means and does. 

For the clash of cultures, Norman indicates the conflict in our everyday spaces (like elevators) between people used to one way of doing things with the engineers trying to foist another way of doing things on us everyday mortals.  Something that culture does well is to make things less confusing—culture imposes an order on the world that is quite different from what all other animals do (even if there are shared roots to culture way back in primate evolution).  But we humans are still animals, and we often diligently follow the dictates of our cultural environment.  Sometimes less confusion doesn’t mean more enlightenment, it just means more efficiency and better execution.  From an evolutionary point of view, that will often be enough.

‘How Your Mood Affects Your Health’

One of my preferred news compilation websites, Alternet.org, just published a piece, originally from the UK Independent (I believe), on the relation of emotions, personal interactions, and similar ‘moods’ on health. Anastasia Stephens, in the article, ‘How Your Mood Affects Your Health,’ runs through in very cursory fashion a whole host of research on the effects of things like laughing, stress, arguments, and crying on the human immune systems, healing, and the like.

The article has a lot of fun little research summaries, unfortunately, without links to the actual research reports or anything deeper about the studies. But there’s warnings about how arguing affects healing:

A half-hour argument with your lover can also slow your body’s ability to heal by at least a day. In couples who regularly argue, that healing time is doubled again. Researchers at Ohio State University discovered this by testing married couples with a suction device that created tiny blisters on their arm. When couples were then asked to talk about an area of disagreement that provoked strong emotions, the wounds took around 40 per cent longer to heal. This response, say researchers, was caused by a surge in cytokines — immune-molecules that trigger inflammation. Chronic high levels of these are linked to arthritis, diabetes, heart-disease and cancer.

Or another personal favorite:

Scientists at the University of California have discovered that laughter relaxes tense muscles, reduces production of stress-causing hormones, lowers blood pressure, and helps increase oxygen absorption in the blood. Cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center found laughing can actually reduce the risk of heart attack by curbing unwanted stress, which can destroy the protective lining of blood vessels. A good giggle also burns calories since it’s possible to move 400 muscles of the body when laughing. Some researchers estimate that laughing 100 times offers an aerobic workout equivalent to 10 minutes on a rowing machine or 15 minutes on an exercise bike.

Continue reading “‘How Your Mood Affects Your Health’”

On Stress-Part Two-Blakey

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchBy Daniel Lende 

The other night, my two year old daughter complained with a sleepy vehemence, then turned to my wife for comfort (yes, we are co-sleepers!).  She had been sick, unable to sleep well, and she sought out her mother for comfort and soothing.  It wasn’t that my daughter was physically stressed, but that her little mind seemed to get ahead of herself.  The terrible things bothering her?  Suddenly they are all right because of Mamá. 

What does this have to do with the fight-or-flight reaction?  Very little.  But anyone who’s tried to deal with a screaming baby knows that such a thing is very stressful for everyone involved.  And that’s the point.  Stress does not sit so easily into the category we imagine for it.  When my daughter screams, I feel my blood pressure rise and a lack of control if I am unable to soothe her.  Alternatively, calming her calms me.  These sorts of experiences do not fit easily into the stressor/stress reaction dichotomy covered in yesterday’s post on Robert Sapolsky.  But I had not really thought about it that way until I recently read the work of Michael Blakey, professor of anthropology at William & Mary. 

In his chapter “Beyond European Enlightenment,” Blakey opens with a discussion of how naturalism leads into ecological and evolutionary “explanations” that lie explicitly outside the social realm as well as to sexual, racial and genetic determinism (“natural” causes or differences, hence we just have to accept the present state of affairs).  Blakey is not against the documenting of human variation that good ecological or human biology research can highlight, say between a certain type of environment and a certain body type.  However, he is against this approach becoming the core focus of a discipline (say, biological anthropology) and quite aware of the dangers that the projection of biological explanations into the social realm plays in the communications and politics of a public anthropology. 

As he writes, “Naturalism as it informs empirical methods shows the human element in data analysis as contaminating, deviating from ultimate truth.  Culture, therefore, becomes a thing to be purged (or denied) in apprehension of legitimate truth (382).”  He sees the logical extension of such a view as: “The proper order of human life according to this view is to be found outside human society.  Whether the method is belief in gospel or systematic evidence, religion and natural science obtain an allure of being able to reveal knowledge from beyond human agency (382).”  

Continue reading “On Stress-Part Two-Blakey”

On Stress-Part One-Sapolsky

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchBy Daniel Lende 

In my research in Colombia, I dealt with teenagers across the spectrum—kids from good families with futures they could see, kids who had gone through more shit than most people will see in their lifetimes.  One kid, let’s call him Rafa, came from a small town outside of Bogotá, his family not in the best circumstances.  In my talking with Rafa, he dwelled on the horrible process of social exclusion that he went through—first the whispers and bad looks, then problems at school, the violence and rejection at home, and the final demand from a coalition of men, powerful and dangerous men, that he simply leave.  Sure, Rafa was no saint himself, but that’s not the point.  The dwelling on what other people did, that was the hard thing in his life when I met him.  He didn’t deal with that in the best way either, finding support in hate-filled ideologies and drug-using friends.  I don’t think many adults had ever just taken the time to talk with him, to get to know him.  And he still got kicked out of the school, a school that took in kids that had had problems elsewhere, during that year I knew him.  I remember that administrative meeting well.  No teacher spoke up for Rafa, and I didn’t count as the anthropologist.  So Rafa ran out of chances once again.  Except that is the wrong expression—he ran into chances that bopped him around like the ball on a roulette wheel, only to end up on zero.  It was people that did that. 

So that’s the ethnographic moment. 

Let’s turn to some other research. Robert Sapolsky’s work is widely known.  His best-selling book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, is now in its third edition, and his Perspectives piece in Science has been cited 485 times according to Google Scholar.  He is acclaimed in biological anthropology circles because of his concern with mechanism, the elegance of his naturalistic studies with baboons in Kenya, and his consideration of the heavy stress-related costs of inequality.  The back cover of the Zebras book summarizes the core argument of the book, “When we worry or experience stress, our body turns on the same physiological responses that an animal does, but we usually do not turn off the stress-response in the same way—through fighting, fleeing, or other quick actions.  Over time, this chronic activation of the stress-response can make us literally sick.” 

Michael Blakey is better known for his critical archaeology work and his leadership with the New York African Burial Ground.  The work I will discuss, Blakey’s chapter “Beyond European Enlightenment” in the edited volume Building a New Biocultural Synthesis, has been cited 5 times according to Google Scholar.  His earlier chapter “Psychophysiological Stress as an Indicator of Disorder in Industrial Society” in the book Diagnosing America: Anthropology and Public Engagement has been cited all of once.  But it is Blakey’s work that has turned my mind around in the past few days in ways that Sapolsky never quite has.  These two posts will explore why the blurb on Sapolsky’s book is wrong and why that is important to what neuroanthropology can do. 

Today I will start with Sapolsky’s recent Science review “The Influence of Social Hierarchy on Primate Health.”  The article begins with the familiar “socioeconomic gradient,” where the “stepwise descent in socioeconomic status (SES) predicts increased risks of cardiovascular, respiratory, rheumatoid, and psychiatric diseases; low birth weight; infant mortality; and mortality from all causes.”  Sapolsky then provides a traditional review of the stress response—there are physical and psychosocial stressors, and both activate an “array of endocrine and neural adaptations.”  These adaptations are generally mobilized in response to challenges to homeostasis.  In response to “an acute physical challenge,” the stress response works through mobilizing energy, increasing cardiovascular tone, and inhibiting unessential anabolism; in other words, the classic “fight-or-flight” framing of stress.  Chronic activation, particular by chronic psychosocial stressors, can increase or worsen health problems ranging from “hypertension, atherosclerosis, insulin-resistant diabetes, immune suppression, reproductive impairments, and affective disorders.” 

Continue reading “On Stress-Part One-Sapolsky”