I just came across this amazing video of a parkour athlete which illustrates the visual skill needed for free running. There’s also timing, balance, flexibility, and more involved, but by using a camera linked to the person’s eye gaze, this particular video demonstrates how much vision matters in doing this sort of running and jumping. It’s an acquired skill, done in the context of this particular sport.
Greg has written a lot about this type of perceptual skill, and how understanding skills matters to neuroscience and to anthropology. Here are three excerpts from his 2009 paper (pdf), Cultural variation in elite athletes: does elite cognitive-perceptual skill always converge?
This paper explores how a ‘skills-based’ model of enculturation, inspired by the theoretical work of anthropologist Tim Ingold (2001), might lead us to better conceptualize the nature and origins of cultural differences in cognition. Ingold (ibid.: 416) advocates treating enculturation as ‘enskilment,’ noting that different individuals within the same culture will achieve unequal proficiency and develop idiosyncratic techniques to accomplish the same ends (see Downey, 2005; Grasseni, 2007). Focusing on the acquisition of skills and, by analogy, enculturation shifts our perspective from a concentration on the end-point, the mature expert or culture-bearing individual, to the developmental processes that produce distinctive perceptual abilities, cognitive patterns, physiological capacities and conceptual resources.
Elite athletes from different cultural groups can serve as test case because experts make evident in exaggerated form the divergent expertise produced by distinctive developmental environments. High performing outlier populations like musicians (Kelly & Garavan, 2005; Münte et al. 2002), taxicab drivers (Maguire et al. 2000), and jugglers (Draganski et al. 2004) all demonstrate distinctive patterns of neurological development. Skill acquisition typically entails neurological remodeling, but in sports, increased proficiency often leads to more widespread physiological change in skeletal muscle, the cardio-vascular system, and even bone composition (see Ericsson & Lehmann 1996).
Cultural difference in sports will likely be most profound in the most complex skills, those demanding an integrated onstellation of perceptual, motor, and cognitive refinement as well as physiological adaptation. In contrast, the athletic skills that have been studied most closely in neuropsychology are tightly constrained and limited—hitting a fast pitch, blocking a penalty kick, making a putt, returning a serve in tennis. The task constraints of basic skills may limit possible solutions strategies more than in open-ended skills like captaining a cricket side in the field while also catching and studying opposing batsmen… In these complex situations, a player can essentially redefine ‘the problem’ by subtly shifting the unfolding dynamics or focusing upon realizing different opportunities.
Hat-tip on the video to Kotaku, This Is Mirror’s Edge In Real Life. It Is Terrifying
Update: I just came across a new paper which seems relevant to the sort of skill demonstrated here by the parkour participants. It’s Learning without Training by Christian Beste and Hubert Dinse (2013).
Achieving high-level skills is generally considered to require intense training, which is thought to optimally engage neuronal plasticity mechanisms. Recent work, however, suggests that intensive training may not be necessary for skill learning. Skills can be effectively acquired by a complementary approach in which the learning occurs in response to mere exposure to repetitive sensory stimulation. Such training-independent sensory learning induces lasting changes in perception and goal-directed behaviour in humans, without any explicit task training.
We suggest that the effectiveness of this form of learning in different sensory domains stems from the fact that the stimulation protocols used are optimized to alter synaptic transmission and efficacy. While this approach directly links behavioural research in humans with studies on cellular plasticity, other approaches show that learning can occur even in the absence of an actual stimulus. These include learning through imagery or feedback-induced cortical activation, resulting in learning without task training. All these approaches challenge our understanding of the mechanisms that mediate learning. Apparently, humans can learn under conditions thought to be impossible a few years ago. Although the underlying mechanisms are far from being understood, training-independent sensory learning opens novel possibilities for applications aimed at augmenting human cognition.