Nicholas Wade and His Determinist Genes

TroublesomeThe subtitle of Nicholas Wade’s new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, is transparent. In combining genes, race, and human history, Wade makes a simplistic argument: genes determine race, and race determines human history. Wade is wrong in each piece of that sub-title.

Critics have called out Wade’s understanding of genetics, from mistakes in his portrayal of recent human evolution to his speculative fantasies about how genes shape behavior and culture. His understanding of human variation, which Wade aims to explain through asserting a small number of biologically distinct races, is worse than his use of genetics. As for history, Wade would rather tell a simple story – Western civilization is best, both biologically and culturally – than actually look at how history shapes our present lives. At the end of this post, I provide an array of online sources that illustrate each one of these problems in genetics, human variation, and history.

But what I want to focus on is our need for an alternative to Wade’s simplism. Two authors – anthropologist Greg Laden and sociologist Philip Cohen – look at this problem: How can we do better than Wade in understanding how human variation works and its impact on differences in behavior and culture across groups? In each case the alternative they suggest sounds a lot like neuroanthropology.

Linking Biology, Behavior, and Culture

Philip Cohen, in his review Don’t Trouble Yourself, entitles his critical section “A Better Theory of Social Change.”

Wade possesses a rigidly mechanical view of genetic influence on behavior. For instance, he concludes that genes must be the source of widespread taboos against incest, and our genes tell us, “If you grew up under the same roof with this person, they are not a suitable marriage partner.” But is there any basis for believing that genes really dictate rules of behavior to this level of specificity? Do genetic dictates include the word “marriage”?

Much as Wade would like to convince us otherwise, there is little reason to believe that natural selection is a major source of social change, that “the rise of the West was the direct result of the evolution of European populations as they adapted to the geographic and military conditions of their particular ecological habitat.” When he talks about the tendency toward such traits as cooperation and trusting authority, he just guesses that “probably all these social behaviors, to one degree or another, have a genetic basis.”

It is equally plausible, though, that adaptive traits emerge from more generic capacities of human intelligence and adaptation and are reinforced through cultural evolution and learning. For example, the ability to comprehend what others are thinking—and what they think of us—could lead to cooperative behavior as an instrumental adaptation even if there is no specific genetic driver for cooperative behavior. Similarly, clever humans in many societies could develop stone tools, or invent simple bridges, without genetic instructions for doing so.

Wade is awed by breakthroughs in genetics, but he seems uninterested in the blossoming research on brain development. This is one way that culture adapts and reproduces: children’s brains adapt to their environment and experiences. For example, children in the United States today are exposed to a pink-is-for-girls culture. Even though this is a very recent phenomenon, the ubiquity of girls in pink appears so universal as to seem genetic. The tendency to see such preferences as natural is reinforced if brain plasticity declines with age. By the time today’s children are ten, they can’t imagine a society where pink is not for girls.

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Category: Critique, Culture, Evolution, Inequality, Society, Variation | 6 Comments

Student Blogging and Effective Teaching: Neuroanthropology in Action

Play and the PostNeuroanthropology and the Power of Student Blogging
by Daniel H. Lende

This spring, in my graduate class on Neuroanthropology, the students crafted excellent posts that brought together their own interests with the interdisciplinary approach at the heart of this new discipline. Now all eight posts are up. Here’s a taste of each one!

I also include my own section on “Blogging and Teaching” at the end. Blogging adds a tremendous amount to how students learn and to the mastery of important skills in today’s academic and work environments.

Student Posts

Alexis Winter, Sensory Anthropology Meets Neuroanthropology

Neuroscience and ethnography both provide evidence that the senses, however defined, form an integrated sensory system… This interconnectedness is what makes Geurts’ “sensorium” and Gibson’s “sensory system,” such useful conceptual tools in the study of perception. They provide us the vocabulary to talk about sensory experience without imposing a Western five-sense taxonomy on societies where that taxonomy may not apply.

Trevor Duke, Developing a Neuroanthropology of Social Space: Implications for North American Archaeology

I propose that we view the human experience of past human spatial organization as an exploratory activity; one that is based on a constant interaction between bodily experience with the ambient environment, sensory perception and how our brains map these things internally, all of which inform and intricately define one another. In doing so, we can avoid resorting to purely social or ecological explanations to define the human experience of sedentary life in the past and can provide frameworks that are formed in the type of holistic reasoning that still serves as one of the unwavering strengths of anthropological research.

Ariane Tulloch, Adult Learning across Cultures

In Western society, adult learning often appears to be individualistic and egalitarian. However, do these characteristics of adult learning hold up cross culturally? If not, what characterizes adult learning in other parts of the world? What techniques do teachers of adults employ so that their students learn? What insights can neuroscience offer us about the way that adults learn cross culturally? Do different pathways light up in certain societies as opposed to others? How will this change or influence the way that adult educators teach?

Sarah Fishleder, Learning Determines Choice OR What I Did During My Spring Vacation

The term for how a culture retains its past and effectively passes it to future generations is called the ratchet effect. This, Tomasello (1999) bravely typed, is also the primordium of culture, as it is the means by which populations begin and maintain traditions. Through niche construction, this ratchet effect can lead to new abilities for humans to do neuro-cultivation.

Russell Edwards, Carefully Crafting Consumption: Understanding the Craft Beer Revolution

Round three [of the experiment], which used an entirely new set of beers and vessels, allowed participants to use a provided beer flavor wheel while making their tasting notes.

The terms used in this round were more reflective of those found on the flavor wheel than the first round, suggesting that participants were agreeable to having more terms at their disposal to describe what they were experiencing. Interestingly enough, Abdi claims that the overwhelming majority of professional tasters and critics of beer and wine don’t actually have a more refined perception of flavor, but that they are simply able to draw on a more expansive vocabulary surrounding flavor than the average individual.

Tess Standfast, Connecting Mind and Body through Yoga and Embodied Cognition

Movements and sensations by way of practiced postures and breath control in yoga are a means of embodied experience. I will first describe the philosophy and physical practice of yoga in this post as a way to understand how the body can cultivate the mind. Then I will turn to embodied cognition and its attention to perception-action systems of the body, and develop the argument that sensorimotor experience in yoga creates and alters cognition.

Karen Castagna, Facts or Fictions about the Teenage Brain: Is it all gasoline, no brakes?

What is not known is just how much of the synaptic proliferation and elimination is contextually dependent, and if so then we should expect to see brain differences linked to differences in experience. We do know the quality of each individual’s social environment can have profound influences on the development and activity of neural systems, with repercussions on a variety of behavioral and physiological responses (Curley et al. 2011). Given this research, changes in brain plasticity in adolescents living in dysfunctional environments are likely to be distinct from the changes of those in protective and supportive ones.

Farah Britto, Vision and Culture: A Neuroanthropological Approach

Action sequences are characterized by fast-paced movements and a quick succession of shots during the scene. Both of the videos above reflect this. However, the amount of shot changes is greater and the pace is much faster in the American film. The American film also uses more close-up shots, while the Ghanaian counterpart utilizes wider angles. The contingencies that the filmmakers exploit are different, leading to different viewing experiences.

What do these differences mean? Are they a result of the real differences in the way Ghanaians and Americans experience vision? This question hints at the notion that different cultural experiences can alter visual experience, and this concept deserves further attention.

Blogging and Teaching

Blogging proved an effective tool for teaching during this graduate seminar on neuroanthropology. It made students focus on writing well, develop a set of integrative ideas, and deal with the demands of a broad audience. Several years after I wrote The Power of the Post, I can once again declare, Student blogging works!

The basic structure of the assignment went (1) an initial draft, (2) a draft post on-site, and (3) the final post. I provided feedback on both drafts. Students also led a class session on their topic, and at the end of the semester, produced a final paper based on their teaching and blogging. This approach, particularly the blogging, produced multiple benefits.

The series of drafts developed writing skills. They learned to say things succinctly and to develop their overall argument. Students also learned how to integrate links, images and often video into their posts. Writing and social media skills will help them, whatever career path they take.

The posts, with their shorter format, helped students focus on a core set of ideas. Typical graduate student papers often have long literature reviews and a meandering style, a process of “figuring it over” and “demonstrating knowledge” that is quite useful in proper context. This process is also quite effective at filling 15 to 20 pages quickly. But it doesn’t make for a compact and engaging blog post. Students learned that they had to focus on the most important things they wanted to say and then say them well.

This process helped them discover connections between different ideas. Combining ideas from neuroscience and anthropology is not easy, and doesn’t get easier when topical interests are thrown in – adult learning, yoga, cultural evolution, and the like. By focusing on what they found most important, students had a better sandbox in which they could try out different combinations and see what worked. Blogging helps interdisciplinary development.

Another reason that blogging works well is because it opens up the potential audience for student work. The student posts are closing in on 10,000 total views in a little over a month. Even the least-read post has reached 400 people. In contrast, their final papers got one reader – me. Sure, I can provide expert feedback. But I already did that as part of developing the post itself. Blogging became a win-win: feedback on their ideas and a wide audience for their work.

A final benefit is that their final papers were among the best I have received. They knew what they wanted to say. They meandered less and focused on covering additional research and theory. They worked more at integrating key approaches that we had learned during the semester. In other words, they were not as caught up in producing a final paper in a mad rush of writing. They already had half of it basically written before they even started.

I now expect several students to develop their posts into peer-reviewed paper submissions. I know that this has happened on other sites, for example, at Somatosphere. Greg and I have done it here. No reason students can’t too. Posts become papers. Just as with their final paper, they are already well on their way to doing that.

Image Credit: Early 19th Century Colored Engraving Elaborate Carved Wooden Frame, Joy’s Antique Dolls: “Wonderful early colored engraving of children playing on a fence gate… The print is signed C. Cousen, Engraver. and W. Collins, R.A. Painter.”

While the children are quite a bit younger than my students, I love how they are climbing and leaping over a closed gate. Plus there is a prominent “post” in the engraving itself, just the thing that sustains their play.

Category: Announcements, Learning | 2 Comments

Sensory Anthropology Meets Neuroanthropology

By Alexis Winter


“Rub them only when the movie flashes the respective number.” A scratch-and-sniff card from the German theatrical release of John Waters’ 1981 film Polyester. Source: Wikimedia.

Greg Downey, in his recent post on language and smell, opened a carton of expiring milk and poured himself into an exploration of cross-cultural variation in sensory experience.

While humans have evolved into primarily visual beings, he explained, we still have an impressive capacity for detecting (if not identifying) other sensory stimuli, and around the world other senses may take on more dominant roles than they do in sanitized “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) societies. Relative attention to tastes, smells, sounds, and more is shaped by the descriptive toolkit our native language offers us, as well as other cultural and environmental factors in our socialization.

In similar work, Kathryn Linn Geurts writes of the sensory order or “sensorium” of a given culture, which she defines as “a pattern of relative importance and differential elaboration of the various senses, through which children learn to perceive and to experience the world and in which pattern they develop their abilities” (2002: 5). Interestingly, this actually sounds a bit like language, a key tool we use in navigating and making sense of our surroundings. We know that language shapes experience, including sensory experience, but it does not entirely determine how we understand the world around us. It seems that the way our sensorium mediates the world is fairly significant too.

Of course, what is considered a “sense” is not so cut and dry–there does not seem to be a universal set of human senses. Geurts explains that the Western understanding of the five senses is not scientific fact, but rather a folk taxonomy handed down from Aristotle to Descartes and other influential thinkers in the Western intellectual tradition. Among the Anlo-Ewe people of West Africa, she explains, balance is a sense–this is similar to Greg Downey’s exploration of the neuroanthropology of balance as an elaborated sensory process. Other anthropologists also go beyond the “five senses” in their work in different cultures around the world.

In the Western approach, some philosophers and scientists have disagreed with the five-senses approach along the way. Some sensory scientists in the twentieth century (such as Lowenstein 1966 and Barlow and Mollen 1982, cited in Geurts 2002) have used a nine-sense taxonomy that includes balance and divides the realm of “touch” into three categories.

Meanwhile, neuroscience and ethnography both provide evidence that the senses, however defined, form an integrated sensory system; one “sense” rarely acts alone. (Think of the relationship between taste and smell, or between balance and vision.) This interconnectedness is what makes Geurts’ “sensorium” and Gibson’s “sensory system,” such useful conceptual tools in the study of perception. They provide us the vocabulary to talk about sensory experience without imposing a Western five-sense taxonomy on societies where that taxonomy may not apply.

Sensory anthropology and the brain

What are the implications of all this for anthropology? Constance Classen and David Howes of the Centre for Sensory Studies have led the development of perhaps the most prominent strand of “sensory anthropology,” in which the researcher’s task is to understand how people “‘make sense’ of the world, or translate sensory perceptions and concepts into a particular ‘worldview’” (Classen 1997: 402). Sensory anthropologists may also study how worldview and environment shape sensory perception: for example, are people in environments that are less visually diverse (e.g., Antarctica) more attuned to sound than city dwellers?

So in sensory anthropology there is the possibility of cultural anthropologists taking up neuroscience (on what’s possible in sensory experience) in a way that helps them find and understand additional sites of worldview- and world-making. In Glenn H. Shepard Jr.’s comparative study of two Amazonian groups, the Yora and Matsigenka, he drew on psychophysical science to help him classify an overwhelming array of indigenous botanical medicines by taste, odor, detection of irritation, and visual/tactile properties, noting that “scientific and indigenous descriptions of sensation illuminate one another in interesting ways” (2004: 258). Equipped with a classificatory framework, he discovered sites of comparison that pointed to the differing “sensory ecologies” of the two groups, and to differing attitudes toward medicine and healing (roughly, allopathic vs. homeopathic).

Likewise, there is the possibility of ethnography of sensory experience offering clues to how neuroscientists might approach the topic of sensory perception in the brain and body. This is where the neuroanthropological approach–taking our informants’ descriptions of their experiences seriously and searching for explanations both in culture and the brain–is especially helpful. We see this approach in Greg Downey’s work on capoeira, mentioned above, and it would be fascinating to apply it in case studies where researchers have identified important connections between cultural values and certain senses.


Materials for a Santería sacrifice. Photo by Michiel van Nimwegen.

Take Elizabeth Perez’s sensory ethnography of food and religious ritual among Lucumí/Santería practitioners (2011). When Perez says that “food transmits knowledge,” is this just a metaphor? Are we speaking merely of people sharing information while simultaneously sharing food? Or are there neurological processes at work connecting olfactory and gustatory perception to other memories and information in the brain? Are these connections strengthened over time through Santería practice? There is great potential for continued development in sensory anthropology, especially if these researchers start engaging with neuroscience to take a more biocultural approach.

In order for sensory anthropology to grow, anthropologists must think and talk about how, exactly, to do it. Doctoral students in anthropology are required to learn the language of the people they wish to study, for many reasons, not least of which is the notion that language offers a window into cultural worldview. But how do we learn another culture’s sensorium?

Such investigations present a range of challenges, from the practical/methodological to the more theoretical/philosophical. Shepard Jr.’s study of the Yora and Matsigenka reveals some of the difficulties involved in ethnographic research on the senses. For one, we bring our own, deeply engrained sensory associations with us to the field.

In an excerpt from his field notes, Shepard describes botanical fragrances he encountered in his fieldwork: “A bit nauseating, sort of like fruitcake, candied melon…. Later, I was to realize what it smelled like: maraschino cherries. I hate maraschino cherries!!! Why do so many things smell like maraschino cherries?!” (Shepard 2004: 257-58).

We also may find it difficult to interview people about unconscious patterns of sensory perception, or about sensory knowledge of dangerous or threatening things:

Some responded to my insistent questions about sensory properties with exasperation, ‘No one tastes it! No one smells it! It’s just a medicine!’ (Yora herbalist Inima, field notes, February 23, 1996). Later I understood this hesitancy to taste, smell, and handle medicinal plants as a reflection of the concept of ‘rao’: Because illness-causing spirits inhabit them, it is best to keep a safe distance. [Shepard 2004: 258]

Embodied research

In Sensuous Scholarship (1997), Paul Stoller proposes a route to sensory anthropology through more “embodied” research. His goal is to “reawaken profoundly the scholar’s body by demonstrating how the fusion of the intelligible and the sensible can be applied to scholarly practices and representations” (xv). In other words, the anthropologist learns not merely by watching (with the eyes) and asking (with words) but also by doing and experiencing with their body and all of its senses.

So to understand sorcery among the Songhay in Mali and Niger, Stoller apprenticed and became one, participating in rituals including an initiation in which he “ate power” in the form of the kusu or magic cake. Through this research he came to understand, beyond the level of language and metaphor, how social relations among the Songhay are understood in terms of eating. Stoller’s approach challenges scholars’ traditional preoccupations with vision and text and the “conceit of control in which mind and body, self and other are considered separate” (xvii).

If becoming a sorcerer sounds a bit daunting, other researchers offer ideas for “embodied research” that are perhaps more approachable and practical for shorter-term research (Stoller has a 20-plus-year relationship with the Songhay communities he’s studied). Simply walking or eating meals with informants have helped social researchers understand sensory relationships embedded in particular communities and places.

Taking memory to be a lived process rather than a stored archive somewhere deep in the brain, psychologist Andrew Stevenson (2014) conducted a “sensuous ethnography” in which his research collaborators led him on tours of various sites in Manchester that evoked memories through sensory stimulation. The food served in one café provoked a discussion with one of Stevenson’s collaborators of her memories of cuisine in Tunis, where she was raised. Conversation while walking from one site to the next was also key, as Stevenson found that “perceptions of place were constructed between places, rather than merely (confined) in them” (2014: 14). Visual anthropologist Sarah Pink employed a similar method–walking, eating, photographing with her collaborators–to understand towns involved in the “Slow City” movement in Britain (2008).

If all of this is starting to sound a bit more like dating your informants than engaging in scientific inquiry, rest assured that researchers have anticipated this criticism. Anthropologists frequently find themselves explaining to other scientists that participant observation is more than just “hanging out.” Likewise, in her work on “the go-along method” in ethnography, sociologist Margarethe Kusenbach explores how we might engage in research that is both embodied and systematic:

Go-alongs require that ethnographers take a more active stance [than is taken in ‘hanging out’] towards capturing their informants’ actions and interpretations. Researchers who utilize this method seek to establish a coherent set of data by spending a particular yet comparable slice of ordinary time with all of their subjects – thus winning in breadth and variety of their collected materials what might get lost in density and intensity. [2003: 463]

Sensory ethnography: Smell-O-Vision 2.0?
Another important question that embodied research of sensory experience raises is how we go about sharing our findings. If we undertake research with a journal article or book in mind, do we limit ourselves from the very beginning? How embodied can our research be if all roads lead to text?

Within visual anthropology, the emerging subfield of “sensory ethnography” has been the site of some fascinating attempts to answer such a challenge. Following in the footsteps of ethnographic filmmakers David MacDougall, Jean Rouch, and Robert Gardner, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and his students at the Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) have produced works of sound and film that eschew narration in favor of immersion in place or event. The most widely distributed of these works are the documentary films Sweetgrass (2009) and Leviathan (2012). A.O. Scott described the latter as “90 minutes of wind, water, grinding machinery and piscine agony” that’s “often unnerving and sometimes nauseating” (2013)–see for yourself in the clip below.

Clip from the film Leviathan (2012) by Lucien Castaing-Taylor

In interpreting such works, anthropologists Sarah Pink (2009), David Howes (2006), and Karen Nakamura (2013) have invoked the neurological idea of synesthesia (literally, “union of the senses”) as a metaphor. Writes Nakamura:

Synesthesia is a part of all of our existence: smells can trigger the sense of touch, sights can trigger sounds, and sounds can trigger senses of touch. Many filmmakers, both theatric and documentary, have taken advantage of this. Films do not need to pipe in smells, waft breezes across the audience, or chill the room to have the audience members feel those various sensations. Our brain’s natural synesthesia will do it automatically when we are totally immersed in the filmic world, our mirror neurons firing in sympathy with what we see and hear. [134-35]

Oskar Fischinger plays with the notion of synesthesia in “An Optical Poem” (1938).

Multi-sensory art and storytelling
We are, of course, taking a risk when we assume all minds “fill in the blanks” in the same way, and we should be careful with how we use the increasingly popular term synesthesia, as Downey has noted. Still, connections between ethnography and the growing field of multi-sensory art merit continued exploration (Pink 2009).

Here at USF in the spring 2014 Neuroanthropology seminar, the class got a chance to experience an interesting example of multi-sensory storytelling in Chicago artist Fereshteh Toosi’s “book-in-a-box” called “Shoebox Lunch.” The book-in-a-box, which is part of a larger project related to food, gardening, migration, black culture, and health, contains an audio CD, text and braille instructions, and objects to touch, smell, and taste while listening to recordings of real people telling food stories.

Toosi’s audio instructions begin:

“The package you have before you is a time capsule of memories, and I’m here to guide you. The people you’ll hear from share personal stories demonstrating the intersections between black culture, migration, health, and wellness. If you happen to have vision, and you haven’t put on your eye mask yet, please do so now.”

Toosi excluded vision from the experience because many of the people she worked with throughout the story collecting process had significantly impaired or no vision. In class, we didn’t have eye masks, so we dimmed the lights, closed our eyes, and took in the evocative smells and tastes. (Forgive me–describing the contents of the box would be like giving plot spoilers, so I’ll have to leave you a little bit “in the dark” on that…) The overall effect was a feeling of immediacy and intimacy with each story (and a welcome break for our strained grad student eyes).

If the recent “Ethnographic Terminalia” installations at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association are any indication, anthropological interest in multi-sensory art and other non-textual forms of communication is continuing to grow. This is promising, and not just because these projects are fun and accessible to non-anthropologists, but because they may help us communicate what we learn in ways that more accurately reflect how our informants see–sorry, sense–the world.


Classen, Constance
1997   Foundations for an anthropology of the senses. International Social Science Journal 49(153):401-412.

Geurts, Kathryn Linn
2002   Is There a Sixth Sense? In Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Howes, David
2006   Scent, Sound and Synaesthesia: Intersensorality and Material Culture Theory. In Handbook of Material Culture. C. Tilley, Webb Keane, Susanne Küchler, Michael Rowlands, Patricia Spyer, ed.

Kusenbach, Margarethe
2003   Street phenomenology: The go-along as ethnographic research tool. Ethnography 4(3):455–485.

Nakamura, Karen
2013   Making Sense of Sensory Ethnography: The Sensual and the Multisensory [Review Essay]. American Anthropologist 115(1):132-144.

Pérez, Elizabeth
2011   Cooking for the gods: sensuous ethnography, sensory knowledge, and the kitchen in Lucumí tradition. Religion 41(4):665–683.

Pink, Sarah
2008   An urban tour: The sensory sociality of ethnographic place-making. Ethnography 9(175).

2009   Doing Sensory Ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Scott, A.O.
2013  Or Would You Rather Be a Fish? ‘Leviathan’ From Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel [Movie Review]. New York Times, February 28, 2013.

Shepard, Glenn H., Jr.
2004   A Sensory Ecology of Medicinal Plant Therapy in Two Amazonian Societies. American Anthropologist 106(2):252-266.

Stevenson, Andrew
2014   We Came Here to Remember: Using Participatory Sensory Ethnography to Explore Memory as Emplaced, Embodied Practice. Qualitative Research in Psychology.

Stoller, Paul
1997   Sensuous Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Category: Body, Culture, Mind, Perception, Plasticity, Variation | 6 Comments

Developing a Neuroanthropology of Social Space: Implications for North American Archaeology

By Trevor Duke


Ybor City

A few days ago I was walking around Ybor City, a place near downtown Tampa known for its eclectic feel and mix of restaurants, alternative shops, and party spots. While Ybor is often associated with divergence from more typical forms of social life in the area, the spatial layout of the built environment was entirely familiar to me. Most buildings were squarely shaped and streets were laid out in a fashion similar to that of any other city I’d been in.

This experience was in direct contrast to what I felt on a recent visit to archaeological sites in Peru. As a native Floridian, I found the experience of visiting Chavin de Huantar to be both incredible and disorienting. Sure, the altitude sickness may have accounted for some of the disorientation, but both the physical layout of the site and environment threw me slightly off. The location of the site between two extremely tall mountain ranges provided a visual depth of vertical structure that I wasn’t used to and the spatial layout of the many features of the site, including some of the narrow, underground tunnels that it is known for, left me feeling slightly out of sorts.


My initial encounter with Chavin

I encountered a similar experience at the coastal site of Chan Chan, where the winding, maze-like orientation of walkways and buildings threw me for a bit of a loop.

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Chan Chan, Peru

Mostly, the spaces that we move through daily are very similar and recognizable to us. That is, we can walk around in a city or neighborhood and not be alarmed by ambient spatial configuration, even if it is an area we did not grow up in. There are often similarities in the ways the spaces are built, and in how we understand, interpret and experience these familiar environments.

However, if we are suddenly placed in an area where space becomes unfamiliar, where shapes and distances are manipulated in a seemingly new or odd fashion, our actual thought processes may become affected. Evidence from a wide array of researchers surrounding the concept of spatial cognition have shown that the orientation of human space cannot be adequately explained using universal models, which try to explain how all humans do things.

Instead, the way we move and think through space may be strongly related to individual experience and exploration with the environment, whether built or otherwise. Such ideas have received neural support, suggesting that different neuronal firing occurs in areas that are intelligible to the individual versus those that are not.

Why Anthropology and Neurobiology?

Research on “space syntax” and cognition by Alan Penn shows that the combination of recurring features of the built environment (spatial affordances) and the decision making, sensory processing, and patterns of movement of individuals account for a large portion of the human-space relationship. Penn’s findings are important because they open a unique space for anthropological and neurobiological intersection. How we map previous experiences with the environment in our minds, informs how we think and move through space in future contexts.

In light of this research, and similar work on the plasticity of spatial cognition, it seems that future studies on the subject could gain immensely from detailed documentation of how things work out of the lab and in the real world. This is precisely what anthropologists do, such as work by Ed Hutchins on “cognition in the wild” and how the materiality of our lives can anchor our cognition. This type of approach offers a unique opportunity for anthropology to show how many findings in the brain sciences don’t work without anthropological perspectives. After all, we live in the era of Rick Scott and the like, whom are constantly reassuring us that our perspectives are not needed.

This interdisciplinary approach also provides new perspectives that may help anthropologists better understand the holism of how things actually work. Anthropologists have theorized for decades about how things supposedly play out in cultural settings, but our interpretations of life in the past and present can become more acute by understanding how brain and culture operate alongside one another.

Alleviating the Perils of Problematic Approaches

When it comes to how people move through and modify space, attention to certain “types” of human groups has been central to a variety of arguments across disciplines. These arguments have often focused on reference points and orientation of certain objects in space and how such things are conceptualized differently between people of allocentric and egocentric worldviews.

Allocentrism has typically been reserved for human groups that use frames of spatial reference that are grounded in the relation to some sort of group or absolute geographic variable or landmark. In contrast, egocentrism is often applied to people that conceptualize things in space in reference to oneself and is generally considered to be a more object-centered approach to spatial reasoning. Most who have used this approach to understanding human spatial reasoning have suggested that egocentrism is predominate among Western human groups and allocentrism should be reserved for everyone else.

However, such arguments may achieve unnecessary and constraining polarity by using an us vs. them sort of view to studying social space. What this does for a study of the indigenous presence on the North American landscape, is group all those that came before the modern western world into the them category. For example, both the prehistoric Chumash of California and Calusa of Florida used canoes to traverse the coastal landscape, but this does not allow us to assume that they both navigated through coastal space the same way because they were both non-western.

One way to make sure we attain a more comprehensive gaze, is to avoid an evolutionary approach to understanding complexities in site layout. What I mean here is not to dismiss the wide array of evolutionary commonalities that humans share as a species, but rather to avoid socio-cultural evolutionary typologies when developing an archaeology of human space. Evolutionary typologies of human social complexity assume that humans move neatly toward complexity and some make it there and some do not. However, such attempts to generalize about human behavior (and as a consequence, the human relationship with built space) constrain our view of how people and individuals actually live, and in the case for archaeology, may have lived at a specific place in time.

Here, I will make the case that the primary means of getting around such issues is an approach that is neuroanthropological. Recent challenges to the massively modular view of the brain have emphasized neural plasticity and neural reuse. These ideas, when brought into neuroanthropology, can prove critical to developing new ways of seeing the past human experience of changing space. We are typically fed the idea through media and outdated research, that human brain function is highly localized and that these areas of the brain are only meant to do certain things and human behavior can thus, be attributed to certain areas of brain function. In contrast, new findings suggest that this may not be the case. Instead, human behavior is often a product of involvement from a variety of areas in the brain that may interact differently among individuals who operate within different cultural settings.

Certain areas of the brain, such as the posterior parietal cortex, seem to be particularly involved with our movement and organization of space. However, that is certainly not to say that other centers are not; they are, as this review of spatial cognition and the brain shows. Patterns of interactions in the brain take on their own character in different cultural settings, whether through the impact of different forms of writing to how self construals work.

This approach is in agreement with the idea that the brain is part of a larger cognitive apparatus that extends beyond our brains and bodies and is susceptible to the character of its environment. That is, culture affects brain functioning and development, and brain functioning also influences how culture plays out.

These concepts help us fight the concerns raised earlier regarding the constraint posed by egocentrism and allocentrism. Evolutionary modes of thinking about culture and modular views of the brain and human behavior oversimplify and distort our view of people of the past and present. Brain and culture do not grow separately, but grow together, each being highly dependent upon one another. However, most brain/culture research has focused on the present. Using these recent re-conceptualizations of how brain and culture operate, we can also begin to rethink the possibility of how people thought about and organized spaces in the past.

Building a framework around these ideas should allow us to better explain how these built environments may have been conceived both outside and inside human brains. I propose that we view the human experience of past human spatial organization as an exploratory activity; one that is based on a constant interaction between bodily experience with the ambient environment, sensory perception and how our brains map these things internally, all of which inform and intricately define one another. In doing so, we can avoid resorting to purely social or ecological explanations to define the human experience of sedentary life in the past and can provide frameworks that are formed in the type of holistic reasoning that still serves as one of the unwavering strengths of anthropological research.

Tailoring an Regional Approach: An Example from the Southeastern US

We know, at least on general terms, that Native Americans living in the southeastern United States prior to European contact eventually began aggregating in large, sedentary villages. This increase in sedentism was accompanied with an increase in the building of permanent structures and monumental architecture at living spaces. While it now well known that monumental architecture was present during the Archaic Period (8,000-1,000 B.C.), the erection of objects in permanent space became more geographically broad during the Woodland Period (1,000 B.C.-1,000 A.D.). However, the configuration of monument and structure at each site is often unique.

These newly-formed spatial characteristics are generally viewed to be derivative of social process, but the potential cognitive effects of transitioning into lifestyles emphasizing permanent, organized space have yet to be delineated. The majority of an archaeology dedicated to spatial arrangement at this point has focused on social and environmental issues that may structure space. Previous approaches to studying southeastern spatial arrangement and settlement pattern have largely centered on access to material resources, meaning and the symbolic landscape and how space is organized among different social groups at sites. However, by not engaging how culture and neurobiology work together to structure such things, we have left a lot to be desired.

For example, Crystal River, a Middle-to-Late Woodland Period site located on the Florida Gulf Coast, contains both a plaza area and multiple mounds that encompass some of the broader chararcteristics of Woodland Period spatial organization. However, Crystal River’s plaza area in association with adjacent monuments and mounds is considered to be oddly configured in comparison with other sites located in the Southeast . Previous research suggests that plazas may be empty spaces, but are far from being spatially meaningless. In fact, it appears that in some areas, sites may have been intentionally reconfigured to expand and rework plaza areas and thus, serve as integral to site interpretation and spatial organization at archaeological sites.


Overlooking an excavation unit and southern end of the plaza from Mound A, Crystal River, Florida

Ok, so we know that these plaza areas are important at sites in the Southeast, but an inclusion of spatial cognition may allow us to go a bit further. The neuroscience dedicated to spatial cognition suggests that shapes and distances play a profound role in how humans create and move through space. A joining of anthropology and neuroscience, in particular understanding the way shapes and distances are maintained and recreated both outside and inside of our brains, should provide us with a more detailed picture of how these things may have worked and why they are so significant.

Making it Into the Real World

Using this idea of exploratory spatial experience, we also may be able to better understand a more recent past of those who have been disenfranchised and disregarded in historical accounts. If spatial experience is indeed an exploratory one, then the way we experience space cognitively may vary widely between spatial settings. Our living spaces are configured in a wide variety of ways, and some, particularly low-income, urban neighborhoods, vary quite remarkably from those located in more affluent settings. To account for these unrepresented historical accounts of life, some archaeologists have focused their gaze on the excavation of urban neighborhoods.

Because spatial navigation and the mental representation of space is largely grounded in experience, the experience of different space among groups of individuals may have implications for the shared cognitive experience of urban environments. Therefore, inequality may not only be associated with social factors, but also with the ecological and mental experience of space. By adding a consideration of the way the brain acts alongside culture in space, the experience of inequality of historically underrepresented people can be delineated in a fashion that focuses on nuanced, site-specific experience, along with the way that the brain, experience, and culture may have structured the broader experience of human social inequality in the past.

So, let’s not allow the determinists of previous generations keep us from engaging the brain in anthropological research. As perspectives grow in both anthropology and neuroscience, we may find that one does not work well without the other, and that arguments made through essentialism, in any form, should serve as little more than cautionary tales to future research aimed at understanding the human experience of space.

Category: Brain, Culture, Inequality, Mind, Perception, Plasticity, Society | 4 Comments

Adult learning across cultures

Adult Learning in PeruBy Ariane Tulloch

Who is educated, rich, and used to make sweeping generalizations about human behavior? Any guesses?

The college aged students who make up the bulk of psychology study participants. The typical person in psychology studies tends to be part of the WEIRD demographic—Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic (Heinrich et al. 2010). Many of the behaviors and beliefs taken as normal based on studies done on these populations are actually not normal at all when one considers that people from this demographic only constitute a mere 12% of the world’s population (Heinrich et al. 2010).

Does that mean researchers have to discard the research that they have already collected? No. However, it might behoove them to expand their research pool in order to make veritable strides in their field. We can’t assume that what works in one place works everywhere. Doing that would be plain weird.

Forest Dialogue PeruOne group I find particularly interesting is non-Western adult learners. They differ from Western learners in important ways. For many non-Western adult learners, learning is not limited to the classroom. Furthermore, in more formal situations, the focus of what is taught is different. A great deal of time is devoted to talking about health, the local environment, and women’s issues.

Admittedly, it is just as much a sin to group all non-Western peoples together as it is only to use a select group of Westerners as the basis of psychological studies. There is great variety within the group classed as non-Western. However, for the sake of simplicity, I will use the term non-Western in my attempt to take a more global approach to education than many WEIRD studies.

Neuroscience and Education

Regardless of where one is from, a good breakfast is important when it comes to learning. Food helps prime brain and body, argue Sigman et al. (2014) in their Nature Neuroscience review article Neuroscience and education: prime time to build the bridge. This idea can most likely be extrapolated to having a well balanced meal before class, irrespective of the time of day. This information should be of interest to teachers who might work with students who don’t always have a chance to eat. Perhaps, they could provide snacks for their students.

Sigman et al. (2014) push readers to recognize that neuroscience points to broader lessons about learning than just an emphasis on learning in class. For example, neuroscience has taught us that sleep is important in consolidating what is learnt. How can adult educators incorporate this knowledge into their teaching?

Neuroscience has also shown us that bilingualism is associated with postponing the onset of symptoms of dementia in the elderly. Whilst we know that adults are past the critical period of learning a new language without interference from their first language, is it possible that teaching them a new language in adulthood might have similar effects in staving off the development of dementia?

Sigman et al. (2014) write:

It has been conjectured that the correlation of lifelong bilingualism with white matter integrity may be at the root of increased cognitive reserve56. Although this idea is still incipient, it presents an interesting example of how neuroscience and education need not be constrained to early development, and may instead be pertinent throughout the entire life span.

Adult Learning

Andragogy puzzleThe field of andragogy, the study of adult learning, was shaped under the guidance of Malcolm Knowles, an American adult educator. Andragogy is often distinguished from pedagogy, the science of teaching children, by the following characteristics that he attributed to adults.

*Adults are self-directed — Adults decide what it is that they want to learn and are internally motivated. No longer are teachers expected to supply external motivation in order to get their students to acquire new concepts.

*Adult learning is grounded in life experience — Whereas children are often thought to be tabulae rasae on which new knowledge is imprinted, adults generally come into a classroom with a whole host of experiences from which to draw. Adult educators then are charged with making sure that they employ their students’ experiences in their teaching.

*Adult learning needs to be applicable — The days when one learns complicated geometry theorems or English literature terminology that have no practical bearing on real life are over for most adults. Adults generally require that the knowledge they learn be of practical use, something that they can readily see how to employ in their lives.

*Adults collaborate with teachers to promote their learning. This sharply contrast with the way in which children are typically taught with teachers being seen as authoritarian figures who tower over their students in the hierarchical structure of elementary and secondary education (Knowles, 1980).

In Western society, adult learning often appears to be individualistic and egalitarian. However, do these characteristics of adult learning hold up cross culturally? If not, what characterizes adult learning in other parts of the world? What techniques do teachers of adults employ so that their students learn? What insights can neuroscience offer us about the way that adults learn cross culturally? Do different pathways light up in certain societies as opposed to others? How will this change or influence the way that adult educators teach?

Sigman et al. (2014) call for field studies and caution too about using neuroscience too bluntly:

Field studies to examine the validity of neuroscience theories in the classroom constitute a nearly unexploited research frontier that is crucial to prevent teachers, principals and decision makers (who are not experts in neuroscience) from arbitrarily picking, from the vast and heterogeneous body of empirical findings, solely concepts useful for their purposes.

Non Western Perspectives on LearningLearning across Cultures

Even given these characteristics of adult learning, adult learning is not the same in all cultures. In contrast to how Westerners view knowledge as solely for the individual, non-Westerners tend to view knowledge as communal. What is learnt is meant to be shared.

Merriam and Kim (2008) give a wonderful illustration from Islam of this principle: If a village has no doctor, then the villagers pool together their resources to send one their youth to medical school so that when he returns, the community will have a doctor.

Another characteristic of learning cross culturally is that it does not stop once the person has left a formal institution. In fact, the majority of learning happens outside of formal institutions. One can learn about nature and the cycles of life through gardening, for instance.

Farmers Potato Park PeruMerriam and Kim (2008) contrast this type of learning with learning geared towards bettering one’s vocation which is prevalent in Western culture. There is a remunerative aspect tied to learning in that the learner acquires skills to help him produce more or faster (Merriam & Kim, 2008). Additionally, in contrast to Western culture, non-Western cultures view learning as lifelong. It only ends when the person dies. Thus, learning occurs solely for the sake of learning.

Finally, learning is holistic, incorporating the whole person beyond just the mind. Downey’s (2012) article, “Balancing between cultures,” attests to this as he alludes to the fact that learning the Brazilian martial art of capoeira has influenced the way he carries his body. His sense of balance had been shaped by the many many hours of training that he spent practicing bananeira, a dynamic handstand that required the doer to ignore his natural inclination to look down to maintain his balance, instead demanding that he keep his eyes on his adversary at all times.

The art of yoga is yet another example of how learning goes beyond the mind-body dichotomy that we have established in Western society. Yoga seeks to balance the mind, body, and spirit in an effort to move the whole person towards enlightenment (Merriam & Kim, 2008).

What it means to be educated even varies across cultures. In one longitudinal study conducted on Salvadoran adult learners, being educated encompassed not just book knowledge, but rather a holistic melding of social knowledge as well (Prins 2011). Treating others with respect regardless of their station in life was considered one of the hallmarks of an educated person. Prins’ (2012) study On Becoming an Educated Person: Salvadoran Adult Learners’ Cultural Model of Educación/Education included interviews from 12 Salvadoran adults from rural El Salvador, none of whom had had more than six years of schooling.

One of the participants recounted an incident in which he went into a bank and was asked by a bank employee to put his cebolleta here. Though the term in this case referred to signature, it is considered insulting and would never have been used with someone of higher status. Thus, whist the bank employee was educated in the technical sense, he was not an educated person in the Salvadoran sense.

Other participants corroborated the importance of learning proper social etiquette as part of their education. One participant claimed that before the literacy classes, she did not have the correct vocabulary to address people. She claimed that people often looked down on the campesinos, those from the country, because of the seemingly brusque way in which they interacted with others. As neuroanthropologists, and not just neuroscientists, we should conduct more studies about how the meaning of what it is to be educated differs cross culturally.

What is Taught?

It is also important to look at what adults are taught in various cultures. In parts of the world in which AIDS rates are astronomical, high priority is placed on teaching basic health procedures. In places where literacy rates are low, much attention is paid to boosting adult literacy.

In 1968, Brazilian adult educator, Paolo Freire published his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In this book, Freire criticized what he called the banking model of education. In that model, students were passive learners into whose heads teachers input knowledge, much in the same way that a child puts money into a piggy bank.

Instead, Freire encouraged problematization, the solving of real world problems (Elias & Merriam, 2005). When he taught his students to read, he made use of images that they would see in their everyday environment. Thus, reading became of practical use to them. In the United States and the UK, much emphasis is placed on Human Resource Development, the branch of adult education that devoted to training employees to improve their organizational skills, professional skills, and overall productivity.

In sub Saharan Africa, countries such as South Africa and Botswana devote many resources to teaching their citizens about safe sex and HIV/AIDS prevention (Merriam et al, 2006). In rural Latin America, adult education programs teach mothers how to better care for their children by showing them how to prepare nutritious meals. In Asia, which houses three quarters of the world’s illiterate population, efforts are being made to lower that statistic (Ahmed, 2009).

By getting neuroanthropology and education to work hand in hand, we might advance our ways to better understand how adults can live up to their true learning potential wherever they might live.

Photo Credits

UNESCO, The Youth and Adult Literacy and Basic Education Programme (PAEBA) – Peru

The Forests Dialogue, Field Dialogue on REDD+ Benefit Sharing in Peru

The International Institute for Environment and Development, Peru: Farmers sharing potatoes in the Potato Park


Ahmed, M. (2008). The state of development of adult learning in Asia and the Pacific: Regional synthesis report. UNESCO.

Downey, G. (2012). Balancing between cultures. In D.H. Lende & G. Downey (Eds.), The Encultured Brain:An Introduction to Neuroanthropology. (pp. 169-194). Cambridge, Massachusetts. The MIT Press.

Elias, J. L., & Merriam, S. B. (2005). Philosophical foundations of adult education (3rd ed.). Malabar, Fla.:Krieger Pub

Heinrich, J et al. (2010). The weirdest people in the world. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 61-135

Knowles, M. S (1980). What is andragogy? In The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy (40-60). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge

Merriam, S. B., Courtenay, B. C., Cervero, R. M., & McClure, G. (Eds.). (2006). Global Issues and Adult     Education: Perspectives from Latin America, Southern Africa and the United States. Jossey-Bass

Merriam, S. B. and Kim, Y.S. (2008). Non-Western perspectives on learning and knowing. New Directionsfor Adult and Continuing Education, 119(Fall), 71-79. Retrieved from DOI: 10.1002/ace.307

Prins, E. (2011). On becoming an educated person: Salvadoran adult learner’s cultural model of educación/education. Teacher College Record, 113(7), 1477-1505

Sigman, M. et al. (2014). Neuroscience and education: prime time to build the bridge. Nature Neuroscience, 17(4), 497-501

Category: Learning, Society, Variation | 6 Comments

Learning Determines Choice OR What I Did During My Spring Vacation

By Sarah Fishleder

The way we learn can determine not only our brains, but also the kinds of choices we make, from big to small.


You call THAT an elephant?
Eight graduate students sat down to play a drawing game. All of them got different colored pens. Six were part of a society, BlueLand, while two others were sent away to work in isolation.

BlueLand had a king, and his role was to lead his subjects in the act of drawing an elephant without directly telling them what to do. No description was given to the king, but instead he was told what he was to draw (i.e.: ‘draw a blue elephant). This served as a fitness advantage.

The remaining two graduate students were taken into the hallway and were told to draw the following creature. The description was that the creature had huge feet, giant toenails, wrinkly ankles, short, thick legs, horns coming out of its head with a long, giant nose that takes up half its face, enormous ears, a huge round body, and a short tail with a brush at the end of it. You can see the red and black outcomes just above.

The king drew a blue elephant himself. Then, without saying anything, he showed it to the people in his kingdom. Although the group members were confused, almost every subject ultimately decided that the king was the only one who had any idea about was going on at all. They followed their leader’s example, drawing the elephant with a blue pen.  photoYou can see that BlueLand’s drawings look—more or less—like the same elephants. This shows how ideas can be transferred, although not necessarily identically.

The members who accurately drew a blue elephant received the prize that is treasured universally by all graduate students. That’s right: ramen noodles.

I know what you are thinking: “Why make fun of grad students this way, kinda like Bart Simpson does in this clip? Who cares about their drawings, and what does this have to do with either learning or human neurological development? Someone get me a cocktail!”

BELIEVE ME, I thought the same thing. But the truth is, the way we learn — even something as simple as drawing an elephant — shapes our brains, and determines the choices we make. This blog post will use a cultural evolution approach, in conjunction with neuroanthropology, to examine the connection between the way we learn and our daily decisions and actions.

1. How we learn shapes how we make decisions
The elephant drawing game shows that ideas can be transferred, but not necessarily as identical replicas. The fact that ideas are transmitted imperfectly leads to one big question: after innumerable mistaken copies, wouldn’t any idea completely lose its original form? Thus, any functional value for survival would be lost. For example, a ramen noodle recipe copied imperfectly would end up making some kind of revolting mush after enough iterations. Not like it is when it is actually cooked right.

Of course, we know that doesn’t happen. People ARE able to successfully share ideas and learn from the group with a relative degree of accuracy. After all, the blue kingdom does have—more or less—a bunch of blue elephants.

In their foundational paper on cultural evolution, Henrich and Boyd (2002) discuss how the integrity of an idea is protected, even if the idea is not spread perfectly. One means is the concept of conformist bias, where people will behave in a similar form as those around them. Even if they learned the idea in a different way, they will choose to do what everyone else is doing. Thus, even with imperfect transmission of ideas, the end results are usually very similar within a population. This allows the idea to remain beneficial, and not get corrupted with continual mis-copies.

A similar concept, prestige biased transmission, works synergistically with conformist bias in cultural evolution theory. Individuals will adopt the habits of those with the highest rank, based on the unconscious assumption that the prestigious individual’s success has a legitimate foundation in higher fitness ability. Additionally, less-than-perfect inheritance requires stronger selective pressures to keep it in line.

In the case of graduate kingdom BlueLand, members all had imperfect, but reasonably-drawn elephants. However, those who were socially isolated ended up with strange creatures as seen through beer goggles. Cultural evolution explains this outcome by arguing that in groups, we tend to imitate higher-ranked individuals and do what the rest of our peers do.

2. Social learning is a biological neural capacity of humans
This shows that fundamentally, the consistent elephant shape required learning from others. However, in order for the people to share ideas, they have to have the neurological ability to do so (Richerson & Boyd 2005, Boyd, Richerson & Henrich 2011). Imitation is the replication of observed behaviors, and is argued by Richardson and Boyd to be the essential mechanism for social learning and development. Imitation differs from genuine learning, in that it requires fewer resources with the tradeoff of a less accurate understanding of the advantageous behavior.

There is a time and place for both types of learning. When simply copying someone gets the job done (like peeking on your neighbor during the chemistry exam), imitators have higher fitness because they did not have to spend the extra energy actually learning: they simply imitated. However, when the imitation may not cut it (like when your neighbor’s test is on art history and yours is a chemistry exam), knowing the material is the more advantageous choice. Of course, that’s just an example. I mean, it’s not like that ever actually happened to me. That’s for sure.

Boyd, Richerson & Henrich (2011) contend that these types of learning end up benefiting the entire population because it allows people to learn selectively. No, I don’t mean how I passed Driver’s Ed. I mean that people can choose to spend more energy acquiring the real skill when accuracy is necessary, and simply copy others who seem to have it figured out when slight inaccuracy is sufficient.

Ultimately, an equilibrium of these learning strategies organically forms within each environment. The authors argued that this model allows for small, cheap evolutions that decrease overall learning cost. Further, by distinguishing the most prestigious (fittest) teachers, learners have the surplus energy to recombine the best ideas into more complex ones (like FourLoko, amiright?!). This allows for a large fitness gain with little cost, if you know what I mean.

The term for how a culture retains its past and effectively passes it to future generations is called the ratchet effect. This, Tomasello (1999) bravely typed, is also the primordium of culture, as it is the means by which populations begin and maintain traditions. Through niche construction, this ratchet effect can lead to new abilities for humans to do neuro-cultivation.

Now I know what you are thinking: “Where the hell is my cocktail? And how the frak can a single force really explain so much of human development?” TRUST ME, I get it. Now take it easy.

Caldwell & Millen (2009) devised a controlled experiment with paper airplanes to test how collective knowledge was accumulated. They created “micro-populations” where each group was tasked with creating a paper airplane that could go the farthest. Participants worked in a chain of 10, one after the other. Different controls of social information were used, including the opportunity to observe making paper airplanes (imitation), opportunity to inspect completed planes that had been flown (emulation), and opportunities to be taught directly by previous flyers (teaching). Experiments giving exposure to every combination of the three kinds of information were undertaken. All types of social learning showed a cumulative result, with the last fliers consistently having better planes than the first fliers. This supports the notion that multiple forces can contribute to cumulative cultural learning.

3. Genes and culture co-evolved (AKA: Dual inheritance theory. AKA: DIT)
The concept that genes and culture co-evolved is also known as Dual Inheritance Theory (DIT). Cultural traits alter the environment, which houses genetic selection. A common example of this biosocial development is that the human ability to digest lactose evolved at the same time as cultural adoptions of dairy agriculture. That is, as the cultural knowledge of dairy farming increased, the biological ability to digest dairy was also selected for in that population. The same thing happened related to the brain: as culture adapted, genetic selection caused a development of neural capacities for the transmission of social knowledge (see point 1). This intersection of genes, brains, and culture is beginning to be explored by cultural neuroscience.

By necessity, cultural selective forces must be much stronger than biological selective forces to have an effect. Take this sign in the 2014 Olympics: @MarkLazerus via Twitter

It is common knowledge that Canada has a much stronger hockey culture than the US. And guess who still has Beiber?

Sperber (2000) contends that attractors are culturally-shaped ways of thinking that dictate choices. Henrich and Boyd (2002) argue that selective forces affect which attractors are present in a particular cultural context. Cultural selective forces determine the presence of those attractors, thereby shaping what decisions people make. Similar but not identical to genetics, culture faces certain pressures for change.

Richerson and Boyd name two kinds of forces, including decision-making and natural selection. Decision-making forces are akin to the attractors mentioned, and can be thought of as the psychological process of the actor, which influences the cultural trait. It is the thought process that goes into choosing the blue pen in the elephant drawing game, or how we all think about it and choose to hate Nickelback. These forces come from social pressures, traditions or cultural practice. Natural selection, Richerson and Boyd argue, selected for the human habit of learning from the most prestigious, and conforming to the methods of the horde.

Natural selection, however, does not fit inside the minds of the individual, but rather the population. The ultimate question of why cultural traits spread and proliferate, and why one trait is held above another is still outstanding. Boyd and Richardson’s model doesn’t exactly address this. Their model shows that natural selection enabled cultural learning and shapes how people choose (not why they choose). In other words, it is more focused on how social learning fits into the general evolutionary landscape.

It does not address the details why particular changes are wrought, which may be what is of direct value to social scientists. The real question is: what exactly is it about Nickelback that the culture rejects? Lewens (2009, 2010) argues that population thinking may fill this gap. That is, if researchers have appropriate insights into the group of minds, those researchers may gain insight into the forces that cause individuals to adopt one idea over another.

However, departing too far from traditional Darwinian models, at some point, makes the term ‘evolution’ somewhat asinine. How can it be Darwinian with only population thinking and no natural selection or actual evolution? Houkes (2012) argues that Lewen’s emphasis on population thinking crosses this line.

In another keyboard battle, Houkes argues for the necessary inclusion of natural selection of cultural items into dual-inheritance theory. Applying natural selection to cultural items in a DIT context includes a variety of genetic and cultural processes to explain a trait. It also acknowledges that maladaptive traits may be selected for, which an entirely population-based approach may be flawed in addressing (Read 2006). And we all know there’s some mal-adaption out there, in some populations in particular. (All we need to do is look outside and see how many men wear skinny jeans. Amiright??) But the bottom line is that there is a need to acknowledge there are several forces, both biological and social, that shape traits and behavior, and many of these traits are selected for over time.

4. The inevitable reality of maladaptive practicesconan-jeggings
Humans possess the power of cumulative cultural evolution, and therefore unfathomable innovation. They can and will learn cultural habits, even if they would never have thought of doing the action on their own.

However, there is a flipside to this incredible potential. This leaves the possibility that they will adopt any behavior, regardless of how much sense it makes, as long as the knowledge is transmitted in a way that conforms to the way the individual learns.

Think again about those stupid skinny jeans. Or of how my hair looked in high school (OK, stop thinking of that one now). Or how drug use can bring together group habits and individual learning in patterns of excess.

Furthermore, biases that have minute effects on the decision-making of the individual can be amplified exponentially across generations and repetitions (Beppu & Griffins 2009). Indiscriminate imitation of high-status individuals may also lead to a selection of certain maladaptive behaviors, particularly when those behaviors involve high-risk and high returns (Henrich & Broesch 2011). This means that while a single person may make a slightly maladaptive decision (enjoying that cocktail); down the line, others through amplified social learning and high-status behavior models may make a really really maladaptive decision (enjoying those twelve cocktails).

And so, that is why a dedicated graduate student — perhaps one writing about neuroanthropology and cultural evolution — might end up spending her spring break in a maladaptive way (perhaps testing the fitness of ramen against vodka in Miami). Spring break might be all about amplified social learning. And that is also why doing so is simply not her fault. It is not only in her biology. She learned complex behaviors from those around her, particularly those in leadership or teaching positions. Those prestige people. Perhaps, then, the real responsibility lies in professors at her grad school. The ones who got her into this cultural evolution thing in the first place…

So….now that you know whose fault it really is that my term paper is late, how about that extension?



Boyd, R., Richerson, P. J., & Henrich, J.
2011. The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States, (26), 10918. doi:10.1073/pnas.1100290108

Beppu A, Griffiths TL
2009. Iterated learning and the cultural ratchet. Proceedings of the 31st Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (Cognitive Science Society, Austin, TX).

Caldwell, C. A., & Millen, A. E.
2009. Social Learning Mechanisms and Cumulative Cultural Evolution: Is Imitation Necessary?. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 20(12), 1478-1483. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02469.x

Dominguez, J., Lewis, D., Turner, R., Egan, G.
2009. The brain in culture and culture in the brain: a review of core issues in neuroanthropology. In Progress in brain research [electronic resource] . Heekeren, H. R., Johnson, J. G., & Raab, M (eds). Volume 174, Mind and motion : the bidirectional link between thought and. Amsterdam ; Boston : Elsevier, 2009.

Henrich, J. & R. Boyd
2002. On Modeling Cognition and Culture: Why replicators are not necessary for cultural evolution. Journal of Cognition and Culture 2(2): 87-112

Henrich, J. and Broesch, J.
2011. On the Nature of Cultural Transmission Networks: Evidence from Fijian Villages for Adaptive Learning Biases. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 366: 1139–1148.

Houkes, W.
2012. Population thinking and natural selection in dual inheritance theory. Biological Philosophy. 27:401– 417

Lewens, Tim
2009. Population and innovation. In: Krohs U, Kroes P (eds) Functions in biological and artificial worlds. The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, pp 243–257
— 2010. Natural selection then and now. Biol Rev 85:829–835
— 2013. Cultural Evolution, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Richerson, P., and Boyd, R.,
2005. Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Read, D.
2006, “Tasmanian Knowledge and Skill: Maladaptive Imitation or Adequate Technology?”, American Antiquity, 71: 164–184.

Sperber, D.
2000. An Objection to the Memetic Approach to Culture, in Darwinizing Culture, R. Aunger (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 163–173.

Tomasello, M.
1999. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999

Category: Culture, Decisions, Evolution, Learning, Variation | 2 Comments

Carefully Crafting Consumption: Understanding the Craft Beer Revolution

Lots of Beer

By Russell Edwards

Drinking alcohol seems to be one of the few things humans everywhere do. Beer in particular has long been a part of human history. Many people enjoy raising a pint with friends. But how do they go about choosing what to drink and where? What senses are drawn on to decipher what flows from that stein of beer? And does it matter if that beer is delivered in glass, aluminum, or some other vessel? Rather than simply guess, I’ll explore potential answers with one of the great beer pairings: Science!

Anthropologist Donald Brown claims that every society with sufficient supplies to produce drinkable ethanol has produced it 1. While not actually being the easiest alcoholic beverage to produce (that distinction goes to wine2), beer is considered to be a staple of many past and present societies3. However, today most people no longer simply have to settle for the only beer being produced in their immediate vicinity, but instead they have a wide range of choices available. Particularly, there has been an explosion in the number of “craft beers.” That begs another simple question: What are the driving forces behind the increased popularity of craft beer?

Craft Beer in the United States

Between 2011 and 2013 the number of craft breweries operating within the US jumped from 1,970 to 2,483. The trend does not appear to be slowing, with at least 413 new breweries opening between January 1st of 2013 and March 17th of 2014. What is responsible for such a sizable increase in a rather short period of time?

Let’s explore the factors that account for this growth using the Tampa Bay area as a case study. Specifically, I will draw on on-going research that consults everyone from brewers, executives, and consumers. Part of this work has focused on how people engage with craft beer. I also provide an overview of a subsequent small-scale pilot study that further explores sensory engagement and vessel preference.

An Analytical Framework for Consumption

As most people would argue, consumption is influenced by a variety of factors. The framework that I will use to understand beer drinking comes from anthropologist Daniel Lende, who proposes the following items as useful to understanding what drives consumption: sensorial, corporal, experiential, decision engaging, social, and meaningful4. He claims that “companies and commodities that exploit more of the six interactive processes will create more consumption.” But since I’m in to the whole brevity thing, man, I’ll only explore a couple of these items.

Engaging the Senses

The first of the factors is “sensorial.” Lende describes this factor as something “provoking our tastes and catching our eye”. Craft beer undoubtedly strives to engage in a sensorial response, with considerably more ingredients, and larger quantities of them, being used in their brewing process. My own ethnographic research reveals that craft brewers and consumers alike are quick to label mainstream domestic beers as “watered down” and “flavorless,” insinuating that craft beer can elicit a greater engagement with their senses. But just what senses are engaged when someone drinks beer?

Hervé Abdi, a behavioral scientist, provides a fascinating overview of the senses involved in perceiving “flavor” (and not “taste”) and their interaction with each other in the brain. Flavor is something experienced by the convergence of three different sensory systems: olfactory, gustatory, and trigeminal5. The olfactory sense is controlled by the nose, allowing consumers to experience as many as 100,000 smells. The gustatory sense is synonymous with what most people refer to as taste, which has no more than 5 distinguishable classifications (“salty, bitter, sweet, sour, and umami”). Finally, the trigeminal sense is more complex, with it controlling a number of items including touch and temperature.

All of these inputs are thought to be processed by the orbitofrontal cortex in the brain to produce what we unconsciously recognize as flavor. Therefore, a product that can elicit more pleasurable stimulation of these individual senses is likely to be viewed as “more flavorful.” In essence, this is what craft brewers seek to accomplish, even if the flavor varies from batch to batch of a particular beer they produce (see video below).

A Pilot Study to Explore Sensory Engagement and Descriptive Critiques

My research with craft brewers showed engagement with the different processes outlined by Lende. In quasi-experimental work, I wanted to also create a bridge between Abdi’s three-sensory system approach and beer consumption. I decided to explore some of the sensory engagement with beer by rounding up eight willing participants to taste a number of beers and offer their thoughts. (I know what you are thinking; and yes, it was difficult to find people willing to drink free beer.) I concealed the identity of 12 cans of beer (through a very sophisticated process colloquially referred to as “brown bagging”), and served them in five different vessels:

*Red Solo cups – ubiquitous at any frat party
*Dixie (paper) cups – like the ones that dentists use to administer that oh so flavorful fluoride
*Traditional pint glasses – used at bars and tasting rooms
*Clear plastic cups – ubiquitous at any college bar offering a “all the cheapest beer you can drink night”
*Finally, the cans themselves (covered in a paper bag).

Participants were asked to rank the three offerings for each round, and the results offer some interesting insights. One important item to note is that the 12 cans were not 12 different types of beer, as all 12 cans were comprised of only four different beers.

Participants were not told that they were only getting four different beers, but there was also no indication given that the beers served in different cups were all different (save for the possibility that numbering each can one through 12 and requesting that this number be noted in the corresponding tasting notes might have insinuated this was the case). That said, if it is claimed that a “new” or “different” beer was offered, this simply means that the participant at least received a beer from a different numbered can, even if that can contained the same beer as the one preceding it that bore a different number.

For the first round, I asked participants to hold their noses and try not to look at the beer as they sampled it. This request was made to try and isolate the gustatory and trigeminal senses, as the olfactory sense can have a huge impact on the interpretation of flavor. The second round consisted of the same beers served in the same vessels, but participants were allowed to evaluate the brews using all of their senses. Neither round three nor four requested any intentional depriving of any senses when consuming the beer.

Three of the eight participants actually changed their rankings between the first to second rounds (with two of these three being completely different), despite knowing that the beers or vessels used didn’t change. Tasting notes for round two seem to incorporate more comments tied to odors (which is not surprising given that a rudimentary form of olfactory sensory deprivation was used in round one). Additionally, six of the eight participants claimed that the beers “tasted” different between rounds one and two.

Beer Flavor WheelRound three, which used an entirely new set of beers and vessels, allowed participants to use a provided beer flavor wheel while making their tasting notes.

The terms used in this round were more reflective of those found on the flavor wheel than the first round, suggesting that participants were agreeable to having more terms at their disposal to describe what they were experiencing. Interestingly enough, Abdi claims that the overwhelming majority of professional tasters and critics of beer and wine don’t actually have a more refined perception of flavor, but that they are simply able to draw on a more expansive vocabulary surrounding flavor than the average individual.

Finally, round four, which also varied from the other rounds as far as beer offerings and vessels, had participants try and guess what beer they were drinking by selecting from a list of seven descriptions from the beer label themselves (any heritage references were redacted, a topic discussed in such detail later on that it is going to be legen….wait for it….dary!) Not a single participant got all three of the beers correct, but two were able to correctly identify two of the three beers.

Surprisingly, one of these two participants claimed, “I don’t like beer. I only like sweet mixed drinks. I have a sweet tooth.” Contrast this with the fact that one of only two participants to claim they drink beer “frequently,” and offered comments consistent with a knowledgeable craft beer drinker, was only able to correctly identify one of three beers, and the notion that consistently drinking and critiquing beer refines the three sensory systems involved in flavor perception is again called in to question.

Last but not least, the vessel used to serve the beer did make a difference, although not as much as people claimed in their debriefing commentary or in their tasting notes. Six people claimed that the glass pints were their preferred vessel, while two said that the clear plastic cups were number one. Conversely, four people claimed that the Dixie (paper) cups were their least favorite, one considered the red solo cup to be downright awful, and three said the cans were the worst (which coincides with brewers claims that beers should be poured into a separate, specialized drinking vessel to get at the beer’s “aromatics”).

Despite these claims, the actual rankings of beer preference did not corroborate the stated opinions of participants about vessels. For instance, one participant found the paper cups to be particularly offensive. Comments from this individual concerning paper cups included, “Can’t identify the smell! Driving me crazy. Some unpleasant food smell – like a Bloody Mary? Yes, this smells like a Bloody Mary. Bleh.” And, “Bloody Mary pickle smell again! Is it the cup?” But this participant actually ranked one beer out of a paper cup better than a different beer out of a clear plastic cup in one round. These two beers were also ranked differently in a preceding round (when the former was served in glass and the latter out of a can). Admittedly, the design of the tasting was not randomized in a controlled manner that lent itself to advanced statistical analyses, but the results are nonetheless worthy of further exploration.

Yes, Corporal!

Returning to Lende’s framework, the “corporal” factor revolves around “providing commodities that are easy to manipulate and consume.” When compared to more mainstream domestic lagers, craft beer is considerably harder to produce. The knowledge needed to turn disparate ingredients into a refined product is not easy to acquire, especially considering the fact that most craft brewers produce a wide range of beers that span the style gamut. However, the craft brewers I spoke with do not view their beer brethren as “competitors.”
Beer in Hand
Instead, they consider craft beer to be a brand in and of itself, one that is in competition with the “big boys” of domestic brewing. Due to this mindset, craft brewers often collaborate with each other (sometimes as a form of (potential) conflict resolution), sharing best practices, lab equipment, and even raw materials.

While this usually goes unnoticed by the end consumer, one visible manifestation is special released bottles that are jointly produced by multiple brewers. Another is events put on by brewery collectives, with proceeds occasionally going to lobbyists that work on behalf of these brewers as they oppose legislation designed to favor larger non-craft brewers.

Meaningful Puns

Another factor with rather noticeable manifestations is “meaningful”. Craft brewers don’t just provide you with a more flavorful experience; they transport you to a special time or place! Consumers don’t necessarily pick up on these themes on their own; instead, they need guidance to make these connections.

Enter the label (or website) to offer an explanation to consumers. These can cover a wide range of topics, from clues to pick up on tasting notes (the sensorial experience already discussed) to efforts to situate a particular beer within a given community. Take for example a description of “The Gilded Age,” produced by Two Henry’s Brewing Company in Plant City, Florida.

The Gilded Age Screenshot

This description is taken from the company’s website and is indicative of what you would generally find on a beer label. A close examination reveals that nearly everything discussed above is covered.

“The Gilded Age” is supposed to take you back to a specific time and transport you to not only the place where the style was born (Bohemia), but also the place where it is produced (Florida, and yet again in a bygone era). Hints concerning the ingredients and tasting notes are also made available to help consumers interpret the flavor of the beer. Finally, this particular beer draws on the heritage topic reflected in the brewer’s name (Two Henrys, which references Florida railroad tycoons Henry Flagler and Henry Plant, with the latter being the namesake of Plant City, where the brewery is located.)


Beer has at times been considered the “working man’s drink,” something that works to inebriate. But, as illustrated above, craft brewers look to differentiate their product into something more than that. These are beers that engage consumers in a number of carefully “crafted” ways.


1 – Brown, D.E., 1991. Human Universal, McGraw-Hill: New York.

2 – McGrew, W.C., 2011. Natural Ingestion of Ethanol By Animals: Why? In Liquid Bread: Beer and Brewing in Cross-cultural Perspective. Vol. 7. Schiefenhövel, Wulf, and Helen M. Macbeth, eds. Berghahn Books: Oxford.

3 – Katz, S.H. and Mary M. Voigt, M.M., 1986. Bread and beer: the early use of cereals in the human diet. Expedition 28 (1986): 23-34.

4 – Lende, D., N.D. Compulsive Commodities: Where Culture, Cognition and Commerce Meet. Conference Presentation.

5 – Abdi, H., 2002. What can cognitive psychology and sensory evaluation learn from each other? Food Quality and Preference 13 (2002): 445-451.

Category: Consumption, Decisions, Society | 5 Comments

Connecting Mind and Body through Yoga and Embodied Cognition

By Tess Standfast

Yogic postures

Yogic postures

So, what is with all this talk about the “mind-body connection”? It pops up in arenas all over the internet, within communities such as alternative medicine, among health enthusiasts, and even amongst scholars such as psychologists and neuroscientists.

Walk into any local health food-store and take a look at the bulletin board of ads, and you will most undoubtedly come across ads for mind-body therapies and practitioners. Browse through some of their publications and notice this same phrase sprinkled throughout and highlighted as subject matter amongst the articles.

Living on the Gulf Coast of Florida, I’ve also noticed a growing trend of more and more yoga mats on the beach in the mornings and an influx of new studios popping up around town. On the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s (NCCAM) website, Yoga is defined as “a mind and body practice with origins in ancient Indian philosophy.”

Take a look at a yoga practitioner who can do this:

Considering the definition of yoga mentioned above, what goes on in the interplay of mind-body? And more specifically, how does the body, by way of sensations and movements practiced in yoga, contribute to the workings of the mind?

One way to talk about the workings of the mind is through a focus on cognition, defined as “the mental processes associated with attention, perception, thinking, learning and memory” by the INS Dictionary of Neuropsychology, (Koizol, Budding and Chidekel 2012, 506). Embodied cognition goes a step further, and recognizes that cognition is often based on the experiences, movements, and structures of the body.

Movements and sensations by way of practiced postures and breath control in yoga are a means of embodied experience. I will first describe the philosophy and physical practice of yoga in this post as a way to understand how the body can cultivate the mind. Then I will turn to embodied cognition and its attention to perception-action systems of the body, and develop the argument that sensorimotor experience in yoga creates and alters cognition.

Yoga cultivates the connection of body and mind

As a graduate of a 200-hour yoga teacher-training course, I can expand upon the mind and body practice of yoga. By beginning to practice yoga, I began to notice a heightened sense of my bodily awareness. In particular, I began to notice my emotions and states of mind also correlated with bodily postures. For example, when I felt bogged down by stress from work, I noticed that my shoulders and neck would become very stiff and tight. When I was sad, I would assume a position of folded arms and downcast face.

There are plenty of common associations we know of that connect mind states of emotions to bodily movements postures. Being happy, one may find a “spring in their step” or even become motivated to do a little dance. Also, being proud is sometimes associated with “standing tall”, and being anxious may lead someone to tap their foot or bite their nails. “Power posing” even leads to neuroendocrine changes in the body.

It is widely known and taught in the practice of yoga that not only can the mind influence the body as seen in the examples above, but the body may well influence the mind, as work by Felicitas Goodman on body postures and trance has shown. The postures and movements taught in yoga practice can help shape the mind and its mental processes in cognition, specifically by directing attention inward.

Teachers of physical yoga practices encourage students to pay attention to the breath, linking breath to movement, and using this focus to observe oneself and the workings of the mind, such as reactions one may have to a difficult pose. Becoming more aware of the body and mind in practice can help one become more aware of the body and mind in everyday life, which in turn influences our perceptions, experience and overall cognition. Cultivating this inner-attention in the physical practice then extends to inner-awareness in meditation, which directly influences our brain’s cognition. Research has linked breathing, meditation, and health together, showing how this impact on mind can then affect the body.

Meditative pose

Meditative pose

One of the most important texts of yoga, The Yoga Sutras, was written by Patanjali who inherited his knowledge about yoga from the Vedas, the most ancient records of Indian culture.

What is Yoga? Patanjali answers this question in sutra 1.2 with chitti vritti nirodhah, Sanskrit that commonly translates to yoga being the “cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.”

Practicing postures (asana) in yoga and breath control (pranayama) are a means of preparing oneself to sit in meditation. In meditation the focus is on the sensory awareness of the breath and when thoughts arise in the mind, they are simply “let go” by bringing the attention back to the breath. This practice further works towards the final stage of intense concentration in meditation, (samadhi) where the practitioner and the object of meditation become one, which is what yoga is all about.

The literal translation of yoga is “to yoke” which means “to join” or “to unite”.  Samadhi can also be described as total “absorption”, where the sense of the physical body is absolved into the complete attention with the object of concentration. We can then say in this state that the mind and body are united into one, and it is this connection of mind and body that has recently disseminated into health mediums and communities in the United States.

I realize that to someone who does not practice yoga, these may be foreign concepts, but I believe as an example it is a way to understand how the kinesthetic and sensorimotor aspects of a practice can work to influence and even control mind and cognitive functioning.

Embodied cognition theory: the body creating cognition

Recently, there has been a reaction to the widely held notion of dualism between the mind and body within the fields of neuroscience, psychology and anthropology to name a few. This reaction has been coined under the term “embodied cognition” which basically holds that cognition is grounded in the body. The case for embodied cognition draws on a range of research from behavioral curiosities of hand gestures during spatial reasoning, studies that show certain motions can help or hinder tasks, the navigation of robots as constituted by the engineering of their forms, (Shapiro 2011, 1-2) and the fact that abstract cognitive states are grounded in bodily states, which is explored in a book published by two of embodied cognition’s darlings, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

There are many different ways of construing embodied cognition, including six co-existing notions and constructs documented by Wilson and Golonka (2013). For an introduction to embodied cognition and its current research and figures check out this blog post by Samuel McNerney:A brief guide to embodied cognition: why you are not your brain. The Neuroanthropology blog has covered embodiment before, including this piece on embodied cognition and cultural evolution and another on distinguishing metaphorical uses of embodied cognition (it’s good to think with) from actual research on neuroscience and embodiment. And Wilson and Golonka want people interested in embodied cognition to go much further in how we understand embodiment:

Embodiment is not the weak claim that you can see small effects of the behaviour of the body in our mental representations of the world. Embodiment is the radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies, and the meaning-filled perception of the world they allow, do much of the work required to achieve our goals, and this simple fact changes utterly what our theories of ‘cognition’ will look like.

Not only is embodiment a challenge to mind-body dualism by holding that the body and mind are connected and the body’s processes can influence the mind, but it is also a reaction to standard cognitive science’s interpretation of the brain, with a mind that functions computationally in the brain as does a computer program in the hardware of a computer. Standard cognitive science holds a commitment to cognition as being abstract and functioning by “algorithmic processes across symbolic representations” (Shapiro 2011, 2) also known as mental representations and without much regard for the context of the environment or sensory input of the body.

In fact when the concept of mental representations was being developed in standard cognitive science, research on perception showed perceptual systems to be flawed, impoverished and probabilistic (Wilson and Golonka 2013, 2). Therefore, in this view, perceptual systems could not be relied on to solve higher cognitive problems, which also discounted the environment (since it is accessed by way of perceptual systems) and put sole responsibility of thought on the brain. The brain then has to optimize sensory input in combination with internal representations of knowledge in order to solve tasks. (Wilson and Golonka 2013, 2).

Advanced work on perceptual systems, particularly by J.J. Gibson and his theory of vision, has shown in fact the opposite of this notion, in that perceptual systems are not critically flawed but are highly functioning to give us direct access to the world (Wilson and Golonka 2013, 2). Gibson uses the analogy of a perceptual system to that of a radio, in which the brain doesn’t need to further process information from perceptual systems, but needs only to “resonate” with it, such as a radio tunes into radio-waves, the perceiver “self-tunes” (Shapiro 2011, 36).

So if our perception then is accurate, the need for internal concepts and mental representations then goes away and is replaced by perception-action systems associated with sensorimotor action within the environment (see our previous post on vision as sensorimotor, or something we do). This is now known as the replacement hypothesis within embodied cognition, and as Andrew D. Wilson and Sabrina Golonka put it in their 2013 article: “Our bodies and their perceptually guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing the need for complex internal mental representations…Embodied cognition (in any form) is about acknowledging the role perception, action and the environment can now play” (1-2).

Embodied cognition in anthropology

This view of embodied cognition certainly resonates with anthropology, since our field has long considered the role of bodies in the context of their environment and the interaction between them. Inquiries into how people shape, modify, adapt, symbolize and identify with their environment across space and time are central questions to anthropology (Wilk and Haenn 2006, 3).

Realizing “that bodies cannot be divorced from their lived experiences (Mascia-Lee 2011, 1), much work on embodiment in anthropology has already been undertaken, stemming from questions of power and oppression in the social sciences to consider constructs such as sex, gender and racial differences, paid close attention to by medical anthropologists (Mascia-Lees 2011, 1) as well as the “variable social meanings and political uses of the body, self, anatomy, and physiology” (Shepard 2004, 253).

In addition, a new approach within anthropology called sensory anthropology, calls for the attention to how cultures experience the world through the senses, the cross-cultural variation in sensory experience that exists and the interplay between culture, cognition and sensory physiology (Shepard 2004, 252-253). Considering Wilson and Golonka’s previous statement mentioned above and the role of perception, action and environment in cognition, perhaps an engagement of sensory anthropology can enhance the work on perceptual-motor systems as embodied cognition in neuroanthropology.

In neuroanthropology, we recognize that even into adulthood the brain retains a certain degree of malleability, or what is called ‘neuroplasticity’, being that the processes in the brain can change throughout life and are not immutable after a point in development. Culture is viewed as an inseparable part of brain development, shaping the underlying neurological and biological processes, so that our brains are ‘encultured’. Culture can be a guiding factor for those who engage in physical training practices that engage sensorimotor perceptual systems, and in turn alter the physiological functioning of them.

Returning to Gibson’s work on perceptual systems, he attributed vision not only to the eyes that serve it, but also as an entire perceptual system that is active and dependent upon the mobility of the body (Downey, 2007, 227). A turn of the head can bring about changes in the visual field as well as can an auditory sound from the ear can serve as a guide for the eyes focus. Considering vision as a an entire perceptual system, the Brazilian martial art Capoeira can serve as an example of embodied learning and how culture can determine the biology and physiological functioning of the visuomotor perceptual system.

In Capoeira, special emphasis is placed on the ‘sideways glance’ or peripheral vision in order to defend against adversaries. This tactic involves much “distinctive scanning patterns of rapid saccades, or eye movements” (Downey, 2007, 229) and actually is a restructuring of visual processes by suppression of the visual reflex of the eye to “intercept a visual transient with the fovea” (Downey, 2007, 229).

Properly developed perceptions such as the sideways glance in capoeira allow a capoeirista an extended field of vision with the sense of being able to see everything at once (Downey, 2007, 225). “Learning how to move ones eyes or shifting one’s habitual scanning pattern can profoundly affect how one sees” (Downey, 2007, 229). This idea is reflected in studies on athletes who differ in their visual search routines based on skill level (Downey, 2007, 229-230). In a related post, check out how varying trance postures as well as meditative states can lead to distinct cognitive experiences and neurophysiological outcomes.

We can see through this example how culture has the possibility to shape our perceptual systems, such as vision, and given the attention to sensorimotor, perceptual-action systems and environments in embodied cognition, has the possibility to affect our cognition and minds!

We can then say that our perceptual systems are ‘encultured’, with culture determining and shaping the biological processes central to their functioning.  Furthermore, neuroanthropology should investigate if training programs such as yoga and capoeira undertaken by adults can be understood as ‘biologically embedded’ in neural processes as certain social conditions and experiences do early in life, getting under the skin, and altering developmental and biological processes and states (Hertzman, 2012, 330).

Yoga and embodied cognition

So, returning to our investigation into yoga as a mind-body therapy, which uses postures and breath exercises to influence the mind, we can see how this may be possible under the view of embodied cognition, particularly within the replacement hypothesis, giving affordance to bodies perceptual and sensorimotor systems to produce the mental processes in the brain, and by extension create our experiences. Practicing postures and breath exercises, and paying attention to the breath within the poses in yoga, are sensorimotor experiences based on perception-action systems aimed at creating awareness of mind and body and union between the two. And mind and body, we now know by way of embodied cognition, are already intricately linked.

In yoga, one perceives the sensations of physical actions of the body in postures and breath control:

In order to increase self-awareness, we might think of that process as interoception, or attention directed inwards, remembering attention as being one of the mental processes associated with cognition. A heightened self-awareness creates focus in meditation, which works to join the body and mind with the object of its meditation.

Under the analogy of Gibson as the perceiver who “self-tunes”, yoga as sensorimotor experience of interaction with the external (through bodily postures) and internal (through breath control) environment creates self-awareness, which heightens attention to perceptions and actions in order to further refine this “self-tuning” process affecting cognition.

Yoga through embodied cognition is a practice that works towards a goal of mind and body union based upon the perception-action system of the body from which cognition arises. Perception and action are used as the means to its meditational and mind-cultivating end. There are added benefits as well: Many studies have already shown how yoga affects the mind by way of mood enhancement and stress reduction, and can act as an effective treatment of anxiety and depression (Impett, Daubenmier and Hirschman 2006, 40).

So don’t take my word for it. Pay attention to the cognitive science (and there is much, much more of it.). And give yoga a try, for the betterment of both body and mind!


Downey, G. (2007). Seeing with a ‘sideways glance’: Visuomotor ‘knowing’ and the plasticity of perception. In M. Harris (Ed.), Ways of knowing: Anthropological approaches to crafting experience and knowledge. New York: Berghan Books.

Hertzman, C. & Boyce, T. (2010). How experience gets under the skin to create gradients in developmental health. Annual Review of Public Health, 55, 329-347. doi: 10.1146/annurev.publhealth.012809.103538

Impett, E. A., Daubenmier, J. J., & Hirschman, A. L. (2006). Minding the body: Yoga, embodiment, and well-being. Sexuality Research & Social Policy: A Journal Of The NSRC, 3(4), 39-48. doi:10.1525/srsp.2006.3.4.39

Koziol, L., Budding, D., & Chidekel, D. (2012). From movement to thought: Executive function, embodied cognition, and the cerebellum. Cerebellum, 11(2), 505. doi:10.1007/s12311-011-0321-y

Newman, J. L., Mueller, U., & Overton, W. F. (2008). Developmental perspectives on embodiment and consciousness. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Mascia-Lees, F. E. (2011). Introduction. In Frances E. Mascia-Lees, A companion to the anthropology of the body and embodiment [electronic resource] (1-2). Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ; Malden, MA : Wiley-Blackwell, 2011

Shapiro, L. A. (2011). Embodied cognition [electronic resource]. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Shepard, G. (2004). A sensory ecology of medicinal plant therapy in two Amazonian societies. American Anthropologist, 106(2), 252-266.

Wilk, R. R., & Haenn, N. (2006). The Environment in Anthropology : A Reader in Ecology, Culture, and Sustainable Living. New York: New York University Press.

Wilson, A. & Golonka, S. (2013). Embodied cognition is not what you think it is. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1-13. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00058

Category: Announcements | 13 Comments

Facts or Fictions about the Teenage Brain: Is it all gasoline, no brakes?

By Karen CastagnaPedal to the Metal tricycle

Teenagers are known to act in famously reckless ways. They put the pedal to the metal and floor the gas, experiment with drugs and play with guns. Some, like these teenagers in Riyadh driving a Bentley all the way to 300kph, go too fast.

The jump from training wheels to high speed can be drastic. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, more than 16,000 young people die each year in the U.S. from unintentional injuries.

The most commonly quoted explanation for teens’ carelessness is that their brains just aren’t developed enough to know better. But new research suggests that in the case of some teens, the culprit is just the opposite: the brain matures not too slowly but, perhaps, too quickly.

In a paper published in PLoS ONE a team led by psychiatrist Gregory Berns of Emory University in Atlanta showed that adolescents who engage in more dangerous activities have white-matter pathways that appear more mature than those of risk-averse youths.

Their research found the direction of correlation suggests that rather than having immature cortices, adolescents who engage in dangerous activities have frontal white matter tracts that are more adult in form than their more conservative peers. White matter, essentially the brain’s wiring, forms the neural strands that connect the various gray-matter regions. Maturation of white matter is important because it increases the brain’s processing speed; nerve impulses travel faster in mature white matter (Berns, Moore & Capra 2009).

What to make of this? Certainly these variable patterns of maturation have consequences.

B.J. Casey, neuroscientist at Sackler Institute, writes about the paradox of preventable deaths for human adolescents (Casey & Caudle 2013). At a time when a person is stronger, has higher reasoning capacity, is faster and more resistant to disease (cancer or heart disease), there is such an increase of accidental fatalities-automobile accidents, suicides and homicide. Casey presents evidence that underscores the importance of considering brain regions as part of a developing circuitry that is fine-tuned with experience during this time.

Preventable forms of death (accidental fatalities, suicide, and homicide) [are] associated with adolescents putting themselves in harm’s way, in part because of diminished self-control—the ability to suppress inappropriate emotions, desires, and actions. This article highlights how self-control varies as a function of age, context, and the individual and delineates its neurobiological basis.

What were they thinking…..or not?

As I began my research on families, adolescence and the juvenile system, I came across an episode where ten senior boys (the majority with pending college scholarships) trespassed on to school property at 3 am and toilet papered the entire school. Taking into account the zero tolerance school discipline policy, the boys’ scholarships would have been taken away, just like that…

But the prank was deemed innocuous, something that most school kids do at some point in their immature adolescent years. It was reported the boys acted on a whim after studying together for a final exam, and wanted to do something so their class would remember them. The school considered these boys to be “good kids,” and they were able to work off their punishment through the in-school suspension program.

Other kids I work with, often young minority men coming from tougher backgrounds, don’t get that same “benefit of the doubt,” particularly if they have had run-ins with authority figures before. What might also be whims for them can be taken as something more serious, an indication that they are on the road to being bad kids and that they need to be punished to keep them from “making the same mistake twice.”

What is The Big Picture? Let’s take selfies at adolescents’ brains to find out!

In the last 15 years, new imaging technology called Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional MRI (fMRI) without the use of ionizing radiation, has facilitated a rapid expansion of a new field, developmental cognitive neuroscience. MRI and fMRI provide snapshots and records brain activity to investigate maturational changes in the brain. Also during this time, there are other changes in the brain, in other regions including the parietal and temporal cortices as well as the cerebellum (Steinberg 2011).

From this expansion of studies, it is well established that brain maturation occurs through adolescence, with some of the most significant changes are in the prefrontal areas, otherwise known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC). In the PFC, during adolescence there is a decline in grey matter (made up of the cell bodies of neurons, the nerve fibers that project from them and support cells) and an increase in white matter. The basic notion is that both these things are happening at the same time during adolescence.

The density of prefrontal gray matter follows a bell shaped curve with a peak around age 11 for girls and later for boys. There is massive brain reorganization between 12-25 yrs old, and shows up as dramatic changes in adolescent brain development. Particularly in the fiber tracts that link different brain regions and structures (Steinberg 2011). The increase in structural connectivity is not surprisingly paralleled by an increase in functional connectivity, which has significant implications in adolescent behavior especially with regard to cognitive control.


“You really need a haircut”

Synaptic pruning takes place in adolescent brains-heavily used synapses grow stronger and little used ones wither away. This pruning of neural pathways and synapses is linked to changes in behavior, environment and neural processes, (Pascual-Leone, et al 2011). For example, in mice models, synaptic pruning is experience-dependent and pruning in human adolescents has been linked to better performance on cognitive tests (Yu, Xinzhu, et al. 2013).

What is not known is just how much of the synaptic proliferation and elimination is contextually dependent, and if so then we should expect to see brain differences linked to differences in experience. We do know the quality of each individual’s social environment can have profound influences on the development and activity of neural systems, with repercussions on a variety of behavioral and physiological responses (Curley et al. 2011). Given this research, changes in brain plasticity in adolescents living in dysfunctional environments are likely to be distinct from the changes of those in protective and supportive ones (Pascual-Leone, et al 2011).

“I hate those jeans Mom got for me”

There are studies that contradict each other in the areas of structural and functional connectivity that link the development of resistance to peer influence to improvements in the coordination of emotion and cognition. One study suggests individuals with highly organized white matter are less likely to be drawn to immediate rewards (Olson, et al 2008). Yet another report indicates structural maturity of white matter are associated with more risk-taking, not less (Berns, et al 2009). It is too early to render an explanation for the inconsistency (Steinberg 2011).

Part of the problem is that brain researchers only see the brain as what is changing during adolescence. But much more than that changes as children mature. Research suggests that in many cultures from a global perspective, development does not correspond exactly with adolescence as a separate and distinct category of the ages 10 to 19 years of age. For example, in Bangladesh, childhood is different for those children attending school without economic responsibilities, while children who enter the workforce are no longer considered children when they begin to work. Among the Hmong people, there is no middle transitional stage between childhood and adulthood at ages 11 or 12. If there is a transitional period of the life cycle, analogous to adolescence, it is not normative across cultures (Choudhury 2010).

Adolescence and Juvenile Justice-To toilet paper the school or not to toilet paper, what would the adolescent mind do?

After a decade of declining juvenile crime rates, the moral panic that fueled the “get-tough” reforms of the 1990s and early 2000s—reforms that eroded the boundaries between juvenile and criminal court and exposed juvenile offenders to increasingly harsh punishments —has waned. In a 2008 Princeton-Brookings report on the future of children, in the section on Juvenile Justice, state legislatures across the country have reconsidered punitive statutes that were enacted not so many years ago. What appears to be happening now is a pendulum that has reached its apex and is slowly beginning to swing back toward more moderate policies, as some politicians and the public have become disillusioned with the high economic costs and ineffectiveness of the punitive reforms and the harshness of the sanctions (Rouse, Brooks-Gunn & McLanahan 2008).

The adolescent phase involves a lot of experimentation, which for many adolescents means engaging in the risky activities we have described, including involvement in crime. Self-report studies have found that 80–90 percent of teenage boys admit to committing crimes for which they could be incarcerated (Moffitt 1993). But the typical teenage delinquent does not grow up to be an adult criminal. The statistics consistently show that seventeen-year-olds commit more crimes than any other age group—thereafter, the crime rate declines steeply (Scott & Steinberg 2008).

Several developments have converged to change the direction of the nation’s youth crime policy. Among the most important was the steady decline in juvenile crime beginning in 1994. In response to these changes, Scott and Steinberg argue that it is appropriate to reexamine juvenile justice policy and to devise a new model for the twenty-first century. Substantial new scientific evidence about adolescence and criminal activity by adolescents provides the building blocks for a new legal regime superior to today’s policy. The argument is to place adolescent offenders into an intermediate legal category—neither children, as they were seen in the early juvenile court era, nor adults, as they often are seen today. This approach is not only more compatible than the current regime with basic principles of fairness at the heart of the criminal law, but also more likely to promote social welfare by reducing the social cost of juvenile crime (Scott & Steinberg 2008).

teens at concert with dayglow paint

“You’re Just Jealous”-Youth Envy

Taking risks give adolescents heightened feelings and for some boys taking part in a mock “fight club” is the best, for other teens, covering your body with dayglow paint and dancing at a concert is a thrill. During adolescence, teens are the quickest they will ever be, crushes will never be better and the thrills won’t ever be quite the same (Casey & Caudle 2013). Evidence is growing concerning significant changes in subcortical processes during adolescence (this is where the hippocampus, amygdale, striatum are; also called the limbic system where emotion and memory reside; the middle brain that coordinates body movement and inhibits a person’s behavior in a complex social situation). Especially important are increases in dopaminergic activity during adolescence linking limbic, striatal and prefrontal areas. Dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter and plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior (Dahl & Forbes 2011).


Some people write of adolescents as all gasoline–is that right?

No. That mischaracterizes the brain research. There are more subtle changes happenings: 1) the ratio of gray to white matter in prefrontal areas; 2) the increase in structural connectivity and increases in functional connectivity has significant implications with regard to cognitive control; 3) and the increase in dopaminergic activity in the pathways between the prefrontal-striatal-limbic regions. Together these provide a framework for a theory linking brain maturation in adolescence to greater susceptibility to risky behavior (Steinberg 2010).

Let your teen build their own brain but remain close

In my experience as a parent of teenagers and also someone who does research on adolescence, I do want to say your teen needs you, and deep down wants to be with you and values your opinions. Stress, fatigue or challenges can cause a misfire. Parents and other adults can be great sideline leaders-as conductors, coaches, and cheerleaders. Neuroscientist, B.J. Casey says you just have to know when to pull back and let the teen do the work. Until then, parents need to know that the science shows they really can influence their children’s brain development.

“From imaging studies,” Jay Giedd writes in his review article, “one thing that seems especially intriguing is this notion of modeling . . . that the brain is pretty adept at learning by example. As parents, we teach a lot when we don’t even know we’re teaching, just by showing how we treat our spouses, how we treat other people, what we talk about in the car on the way home. . . . Things that a parent says in the car can stick with them for years. They’re listening,” he said, “even though it may appear they’re not.” So, what can we do to change our kids? “Well, start with yourself in terms of what you show by example,” Giedd advised.

Taking care of our brains is important at any age, so while our teens are watching our behavior and the things we do, learning a new skill together that has some thrill seeking element would be a good thing and a bonding experience too. I’m thinking of asking my teenager of doing an Autocross with me, an extra benefit would be learning how to handle a car at high speed. My job is to let my teen develop his own brain, but I’m going to be there waiting for the moment when he says to me-“Mom, I’ve been thinking about …., what do you think?” I’ll be there with my mom hat on!

Suggested videos

Explaining what is happening in the teen brain in a humorous way, including clips of James McEnroe shouting at the umpire and throwing down his tennis racket

Explaining the teenage brain, suitable for a classroom, by Pandas Smith

Dr. Barbara Strauch (medical, science and health editor for the New York Times) pitching her book, “The Primal Teen,” explains the latest research, October 26, 2010.

When does a person really become a ‘grown up?’ Surely age can’t be the only determining factor. Laci Green looks at how the brain matures and what it means- from a scientific perspective- to be an adult in a news show format, Published on Dec 8, 2013

References cited:

Berns, Gregory S., Sara Moore, and C. Monica Capra
2009 Adolescent Engagement in Dangerous Behaviors is Associated with Increased White Matter Maturity of Frontal Cortex. PloS One 4(8):e6773.

Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne
2012 Imaging Brain Development: The Adolescent Brain. Neuroimage 61(2):397-406.

Casey, BJ, and Kristina Caudle
2013 The Teenage Brain Self Control. Current Directions in Psychological Science 22(2):82-87.

Casey, B. J., Sarah Getz, and Adriana Galvan
2008 The Adolescent Brain. Developmental Review 28(1):62-77.

Choudhury, S.
2010 Culturing the Adolescent Brain: What can Neuroscience Learn from Anthropology? Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 5(2-3):159-167.

Choudhury, Suparna, Kelly A. McKinney, and Moritz Merten
2012 Rebelling Against the Brain: Public Engagement with the ‘neurological Adolescent’. Social Science & Medicine 74(4):565-573.

Curley JP, Jensen CL, Mashoodh R, Champagne FA
(2011) Social influences on neurobiology and behavior: epigenetic effects during development. Psychoneuroendocrinology 36(3):352–371

Dayan, Jacques, Alix Bernard, Bertrand Olliac, Anne-Sophie Mailhes, and Solenn Kermarrec
2010 Adolescent Brain Development, Risk-Taking and Vulnerability to Addiction. Journal of Physiology-Paris 104(5):279-286.

Giedd, Jay N.
2008 The Teen Brain: Insights from Neuroimaging. Journal of Adolescent Health 42(4):335-343.

Moffitt Terrie
1993 “Adolescence-Limited and Life-Course-Persistent Antisocial Behavior: A Developmental Taxonomy,” Psychological Review 100 (1993): 674–701.

Pascual-Leone, A., Freitas, C., Oberman, L., Horvath, J. C., Halko, M., Eldaief, M. et al.(2011). Characterizing brain cortical plasticity and network dynamics across the age-span in health and disease with TMS-EEG and TMS-fMRI. Brain Topography, 24, 302-315. doi 10.1007/s10548-011-0196-8

Rouse, Cecilia Elena, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, and Sara McLanahan
2005 Introducing the Issue. The Future of Children 15(1):5-14.

Scott, Elizabeth S., and Laurence Steinberg
2008 Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime. The Future of Children 18(2):15-33.

Steinberg, L.
2010 A Behavioral Scientist Looks at the Science of Adolescent Brain Development. Brain and Cognition 72(1):160-164.

Yu, Xinzhu, Gordon Wang, Anthony Gilmore, Ada Xin Yee, Xiang Li, Tonghui Xu, Stephen J. Smith, Lu Chen, and Yi Zuo
2013 Accelerated Experience-Dependent Pruning of Cortical Synapses in< i> Ephrin-A2 Knockout Mice. Neuron 80(1):64-71.

Yurgelun-Todd, Deborah
2007 Emotional and Cognitive Changes during Adolescence. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 17(2):251-257.

Category: Announcements | 6 Comments

Vision and Culture: A Neuroanthropological Approach

By Farah Britto

Eye image
What do you see when you watch TV? A movie? Do you perceive staring into a screen that when not lit up is simply a dark, flat abyss? Or, when deeply absorbed in a film you are watching, do you believe that you are a part of the story- there with the characters on their adventure?

When you take a step back from the act of watching television or films, the materiality of it becomes clear. When dark, the television is a fixture in the home. When it turns on, it becomes a cultural narrative that changes depending on the household in which it lives. The unique thing about watching television in an American home or films in an American theater is that even with many other people in the room, it is still a personal experience- between you, your eyes, and your brain.

The Current Debate

Scholars studying vision focus on two kinds of experiences: visual awareness (O’Regan and Noë 2001) and the neurological mechanisms and processes that make vision possible (Marr 1982). The latter approach focuses primarily on the neural, wherein, “the central aim of all research was a functional analysis of the structure of the central nervous system” (Marr 1982:14). The former perspective puts less of an emphasis on what is happening in the brain, as it does not provide any meaningful information relating to lived experience, since “the experience of seeing itself cannot be equated with the simultaneous occurrence of any neural activity” (O’Regan and Noë 2001:968).

Will knowing the mechanisms of vision change the way you see or experience the world? Probably not. Although understanding the biology of the brain and the idiosyncrasies of firing neurons are interesting, what kind of knowledge can it provide? How can it help answer questions about humans’ experiences with vision and what vision can do for us culturally?

Moving Beyond the Body and the Brain

I ask these questions because I’m interested in a very particular kind of visual experience. Watching films and television programming is unique in that the visual awareness that occurs during this activity does not result in any particular action by a person, and yet the practice of watching a film is not merely passive, either. Take a look at the following video clip. While you’re watching, think closely about what you are doing while the video is playing. Are you sitting still? Standing, moving? Wearing headphones?

Now, after watching the video, can you recall, in detailed terms, what you saw? Did you understand what you were seeing?

This example shows that although you were not physically involved in an action, you were engaged in an action happening onscreen. You were conscious of what was happening and can now recall with detail what you’ve just witnessed. To understand how visual understanding is perceived cross-culturally, the next step in this example could be to ask several individuals, of different backgrounds from different parts of the world, what they can recall in the clip. Would their explanations be the same? What kind of prior knowledge is required to provide an explanation? Do these hypothetical individuals see the same thing?

According to Dr. Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist of vision, nothing that we see is real. There is no true or correct explanation to our visual experience, he explains to Tom Chivers in a recent news article on vision. I argue, however, that by taking a biocultural approach and using visual anthropological methods of studying film, we can begin to understand how our visual experience is made real through culture.

Culture in Vision

O’Regan and Noë (2001:970) write that “visual consciousness is not a special kind of brain state… it is something we do.” Thus, vision and visual consciousness deals with the interaction of how we see and the environment (O’Regan and Noë 2001; pdf here).

We propose that seeing is a way of acting. It is a particular way of exploring the environment. Activity in internal representations does not generate the experience of seeing. The outside world serves as its own, external, representation. The experience of seeing occurs when the organism masters what we call the governing laws of sensorimotor contingency… [which accounts] for the differences in the perceived quality of sensory experience

What happens when the environment we hone in on is a screen? In the remainder of this post, I will explore just what we may be doing when watching films, and how the neuroscientific literature has thus far left out an important component of understanding the interplay of vision and the environment: culture. Here I will show how a neuroanthropological as well as biocultural focus can bring to light how visual experience may reflect cultural nuances and how culturally specific activities, such as watching films, leave much to be explored in the study of vision and the brain.

As a professional television producer for PBS, I notice the shot composition and artistic liberties that television programs and films take, thus altering the visual experience of the story being told. For example, my research of Ghanaian video films has shown that the composed shots that Ghanaians use to tell stories visually are vastly different from American-made films.

This can be seen in the wider angles and less drastic shot changes within scenes. In the example below, I have chosen action sequences produced by Ghanaians and Americans, respectively. These videos show the contrast in shot composition, and especially in the number of shot changes of American film compared with its Ghanaian counterpart.

Action sequences are characterized by fast-paced movements and a quick succession of shots during the scene. Both of the videos above reflect this. However, the amount of shot changes is greater and the pace is much faster in the American film. The American film also uses more close-up shots, while the Ghanaian counterpart utilizes wider angles. The contingencies that the filmmakers exploit are different, leading to different viewing experiences.

What do these differences mean? Are they a result of the real differences in the way Ghanaians and Americans experience vision? This question hints at the notion that different cultural experiences can alter visual experience, and this concept deserves further attention.

Clarence Gravlee (2008) describes how a cultural concept such as race can become biological. Although race does not exist genetically, the social stigma and economic hardships that befall individuals with certain skin colors result in very real biological outcomes, such as low birth weight, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure (Kuzawa and Sweet 2009; Dressler and Bindon 2000).

What does this have to do with vision, you may wonder? Well, only the underlying argument that social factors contribute to biological reality. According to this logic, it seems possible, and even probable, that vision could be conceived differently cross-culturally. This concept is echoed in the book Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Here, authors Peter J. Richardson and Robert Boyd argue that “neither human behavior nor human evolution can be understood without taking culture into account” (Hourdequin). Given the examples provided here and the myriad other ways in which anthropological research has shown how culture shapes human experience, it seems rather cavalier for neuroscience to exclude culture entirely from visual experience.

An example from O’Regan and Noë (2001) shows how culture is intimately tied to visual awareness, or lack thereof: when driving a car in America, one sees a red light and slows to a stop. But, let’s say that person is talking on the phone; that red light still signals the person to stop, but they aren’t really “seeing” the red light; they are conscious of their own phone conversation. Thus, it isn’t the sight of the red light in itself that inspires action. The symbol of the red light that means stop in American culture makes the driver stop the car.

Although the basic mechanism here is the sight of the red light, other cultural knowledge is used to inspire action as well- regardless of how visually aware the driver may be in this context. Although the use of symbols is used to describe the variations in visual awareness, culture is not explicitly tied to O’Regan and Noë’s (2001) visual framework.

The theory that O’Regan and Noë (2001) present thus needs to include another facet in exploring visual consciousness: culture. Errol Morris, speaking of his approach to documentary film making, drives this concept home when he writes, “the brain is not a Reality-Recorder,” and that the brain will “usually modify or reinterpret what we see rather than the other way around” (Morris 2008). This reinterpretation and modification is the product of our unique cultural background and experiences.

How Does Culture Shape Vision?

Now the question becomes, to what extent does culture shape our vision? Existing frameworks have attempted to answer this question. There is the Sapir- Whorf approach, which generally suggests that language influences ones cultural worldview, which in extension results in “non-linguistic cognitive differences” (Kay and Kempton 1984:66). From this perspective, there are necessarily differences in biology between groups with different languages.

With the cultural psychology approach, research attempts to show differences in perception between Western and Eastern vision, where “Westerners attend more to focal objects [and] East Asians attend more to contextual information” (Chua et al. 2005:12629). With the cultural neuroscience approach, researchers attempt to unite the “mutual constitution of culture, brain, and genes” (Han et al. 2013:336). In other words, this framework attempts to show how culture might become imbedded in the genes, which laterally effects brain activity and cognition (Han et al. 2013:340).

These approaches do not take the necessary step further to connect cultural-visual perception to lived experience, which includes the physical environment, cultural knowledge and experience, and visual awareness. If the brain does operate differently according to cultural context, how is this displayed in the act of watching films? How does this change the way films are produced?

Hunger Games


Ghana Image

It is clear, according to O’Regan and Noë (2001), that vision involves an intimate interaction with the environment. Does the physicality of that environment matter? An environment that occurs on a theater screen, for example, opens new doors for exploring this interaction.

Lately it has occurred to me that the nuanced differences that I see as a trained television professional might not matter to the layperson engaged with a film. A recent viewing of a short Ghanaian video film clip to a group of American grad students has revealed that the unique Ghanaian shot composition is not noticeable. Thus, what constitutes visual awareness when watching a film? Perhaps it is the thing that has driven the art world for centuries: a good story.

My experiences in the television industry and with my research have revealed some interesting nuances regarding the viewing experience. Audiences engage with the stories of films. In America, audiences prefer to sit silently side by side in a dark room, intimately engaged with the screen. It is not until after the film ends that audience members discuss the film.

In Ghana, audiences watch video films (most often) with family and friends, and engage with the story by standing, jumping, yelling, laughing, and talking with one another about the story unfolding onscreen. The very act of watching these similar visual stimuli result in quite different cultural experiences. It remains to be seen, however, if the context of these different cultural products amounts to the same visual experience. Are Ghanaian audiences and American audiences seeing the same thing when they look into this filmic environment?

Research involving the interaction of vision and environment suggests that we do not see the same thing cross-culturally when looking at an image (Istomin et al. 2014). A study involving what Western Caucasian and East Asian subjects see when they view an image, like the one described above, reiterates this point (Lao et al. 2013). There is no reason to believe that the same concept would not be true for moving pictures.

Moving Forward

This exploration into the visual experience of film has left us with more questions than answers. However, one thing remains true: culture cannot be divorced from vision. The physical environment described by O’Regan and Noe (2001) cannot be the only conduit for visual consciousness. The need for the inclusion of cultural knowledge that is necessary for interacting with that environment cannot be overstated.

The next step of this research should be how people of different cultures perceive and experience vision- and if this kind of interaction looks different in the brain. A look at Sci-Fi and fantasy films might be a good introductory study into this line of thought. These kinds of films do not reflect lived experience, but introduce the imagination, another tool of the brain, into visual awareness. An interesting research question that can inform the information presented here is if there is more brain activity when watching fantasy/Sci-Fi films, for which the brain has little prior experience or cultural knowledge to pull from.

If that were the case, would watching foreign films have the same effect? This line of research can begin to explore the extent to which visual experience is informed by culture, by attempting to explore uncharted territory of cultural familiarity in the brain. We can then see how the act of watching films translates into a biological and cultural experience. These questions are uniquely suited for anthropological methods, and thus show how neuroanthropology can contribute to the conversation of visual consciousness.

As Lotto explains, “if we change our framework of what we think the brain is really there to do, which is to resolve uncertainty in a way which is useful, then we might be able to understand stuff” (Chivers 2014). Further, if we look at humans as cultural beings, using cultural knowledge accumulated from birth to provide an understanding about the world, it is reasonable to believe that the brain also uses learned knowledge to resolve this uncertainty. Changing the framework to include culture is how we can understand more about vision and the brain.


Chivers, Tom
2014 Use your illusion: why human vision is a mathematical impossibility. The Telegraph. April 27:

Chua, Hannah Faye, Julie E. Boland, and Richard E. Nisbett
2005 Cultural Variation in Eye Movements during Scene Perception. PNAS 102(35):12629-12633.

Dressler, William and James R. Bindon
2000 The Health Consequences of Cultural Consonance: Cultural Dimensions of Lifestyle, Social Support, and Arterial Blood Pressure in an African American Community. American Anthropologist 102(2):244-260.

Gravlee, Clarence C.
2009 Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality. Am. J. of Physical Anthropology 138(1):47-57.

Han, Shihui, Georg Northoff, Kai Vogeley, Bruce E. Wexler, Shinobu Kitayama, and Michael E.W. Varnum
2013 A Cultural Neuroscience Approach to the Biosocial Nature of the Human Brain. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 64:335–59.

Hourdequin, Marion
Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd, Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2005). Book Review.

Istomin, Kirill V., Jaroslava Panakova, Patrick Heady
2013 Culture, Perception, and Artistic Visualization: A Comparative Study of Children’s Drawings in Three Siberian Cultural Groups. Cognitive Science 38(2014):76-100.

Kay, Paul and Willett Kempton
1984 What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis? American Anthropologist 86:65-79.

Kuzawa, C. and E. Sweet
2009 Epigenetics and the Embodiment of Race: Developmental Origins of US Racial Disparities in Cardiovascular Health. Am. J. of Human Biology 21(1):2-15.

Lao, Junpeng, Luca Vizioli1 and Roberto Caldara
2013 Culture Modulates the Temporal Dynamics of Global/Local Processing. Culture and the Brain.

Marr, David
1982 Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Morris, Errol
2008 Play It Again, Sam (Re-enactments, Part One). The New York Times. April 3: The Opinion Pages: Opinionator.

O’Regan, Kevin J. and Alva Noe
2001 A Sensorimotor Account of Vision and Visual Consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24:939-973. (pdf available here)

Category: Brain, Culture, Perception, Plasticity, Society, Variation | 5 Comments