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 firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to join our virtual community, don’t hesitate to send me an email, and we’ll talk.