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!

References:

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

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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.

robot-monkey2

“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).

images

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

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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.

References

Chivers, Tom
2014 Use your illusion: why human vision is a mathematical impossibility. The Telegraph. April 27: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk.

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 | 4 Comments

Graduate Students Doing Neuroanthropology

Moose in PoolOver the coming days I will put up posts from my Spring 2014 Neuroanthropology course. All my graduate students did a great job!

Topics to be covered:

-Craft Beer
-Neuroarchaeology
-Sensory Anthropology
-The Adolescent Brain
-Embodiment and Yoga
-Adult Learning Cross-Culturally
-Vision and Visual Anthropology
-Cultural Evolution

The students put a lot of time and effort into developing these posts. The way I approached this assignment built on my previous work with students posts: (1) come up with a topic (for both a post and a final paper), (2) write an initial draft, focusing on developing an argument and covering research, (3) after feedback from me, produce an improved draft that also incorporates links, media, and the like, and (4) get the post online and make final improvements.

The students then wrote a longer research-based final paper on the same topic as their blogpost. Many of them commented on how doing the post made their final papers better – they had a better idea of what they wanted to write about, had time to process some initial ideas, and were familiar with the research already. Similar to what has happened with some guest posts on Somatosphere becoming published peer-reviewed papers, I expect several of these posts to go another step as students submit their work to relevant journals for publication.

Look for these posts from these emerging scholars over the coming days!

-Daniel

Image Credit: The Sun Is Out, From Aunt Bea Tumblr. For whatever reason, I wanted a moose picture today. And then I found the whole subgenre of “moose in pools“…

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Magic for Dogs, and What That Says about Vision and Consciousness

I just saw this cute video of a professional magician playing tricks with dogs.

It is striking to me just how much the dogs expect the treat to be there, to have fallen to the floor, and also check back with the man to see if he really is going to give them something.

This video reminded me of an article we just read in my Neuroanthropology grad class, A Sensorimotor Account of Vision and Visual Consciousness by Kevin O’Regan and Alva Noe (2001).

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. The advantage of this approach is that it provides a natural and principled way of accounting for visual consciousness, and for the differences in the perceived quality of sensory experience in the different sensory modalities.

I particular think how the discussion of how knowledge and action integrate into seeing is relevant to this magic trick.

When you not only visually track an environmental feature by exercising your knowledge of the relevant sensorimotor contingencies, but in addition integrate this exercise of mastery of sensorimotor contingencies with capacities for thought and action-guidance, then you are visually aware of the relevant feature. Then, we say, you see it (944).

The dog is seeing the treat that must be there because it expects to eat it, and that is why it is disconcerting that the treat has disappeared. So the dog searches for the treat, trying to see it again, and then looks again to see whether the magician might have it or offer another one.

Visual illusions in animals were also subject to a 2013 review paper, Animal visual illusion and confusion: the importance of a perceptual perspective. The authors also offer a popular write-up of their review in Animals could help reveal why humans fall for illusions.

We still know very little about how non-human animals process visual information so the perceptual effects of many illusions remains untested. There is variation among species in terms of how illusions are perceived, highlighting that every species occupies its own unique perceptual world with different sets of rules and constraints. But the 19th Century physiologist Johannes Purkinje was onto something when he said:

Deceptions of the senses are the truths of perception.

In the past 50 years, scientists have become aware that the sensory abilities of animals can be radically different from our own. Visual illusions (and those in the non-visual senses) are a crucial tool for determining what perceptual assumptions animals make about the world around them.

Category: Brain, Evolution, Fun, Perception | 1 Comment

The man with 1000 children: the limit of male fertility

By Greg Downey; (long read: 5500 words)

Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif succeeded to the sultanate of Morocco after his brother fell from a horse and died in 1672. Twenty-six when he became the Sharifian Emperor, Moulay Ismael “the Bloodthirsty” — as he was called — went on to expand his holding in a remarkable reign. His armies conquered neighboring territories and fought off the Ottomans (eventually forcing them to recognize Moroccan independence), and the emperor went on a building spree to make Meknes a rival to Versailles, with French engineers to help.

Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, anonymous engraver 1719 (public domain)

Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, anonymous engraver 1719 (public domain)

Moulay Ismael also had a prodigious capacity for cruelty. He legendarily ordered that the walls of Meknes be decorated with the heads of 10,000 enemy soldiers. He also sponsored the Barbary pirates, who engaged the states of Europe in a protracted and costly low-grade war, drove the American colonies to form the first navy in North America, and pushed the English and Spanish from Moroccan territory.

But Moulay Ismael is probably best known to history because of his prodigious capacity to reproduce. The emperor had a thing for children,… well, for having sons, that is.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Moulay Ismael, with four wives and at least 500 concubines, sired an estimated 1042 children (they recently raised their estimate from 888). That feat is even more incredible when one notes that Moulay Ismael, demonstrating just how deep his cruelty went, ordered that all the female infants of his concubines be smothered when they were born by their midwives.

A recent paper by Elisabeth Oberzaucher and Karl Grammer (2014) in PLOS One set out to test whether the number of children attributed to Moulay Ismael was even plausible. They used a number of computer simulations, taking into account a range of estimates of human fertility, to see if one man could in fact sire so many children.

More specifically, the two researchers from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Vienna tested the claims of French diplomat Dominique Busnot, who on a visit to Morocco in 1704, when Moulay Ismael was 57 years-old, reported that the emperor had six hundred sons. Was it plausible for the emperor to have had six hundred sons — as well as all the daughters who would have been killed at birth — during a period of thirty-two years (from taking the throne at age 25 until Busnot’s arrival)?

The question is important, not merely to establish how much sex would have been necessary to achieve this extraordinary level of reproduction — once a day? twice a day? — but also because it suggests a theoretical limit to male fertility.

The case of Moulay Ismael’s harem, as Oberzaucher and Grammer note, is widely cited in ‘textbooks on evolutionary psychology and biology’ (2014: 1; for an online version, see Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution Is True). The alleged number of Moulay Ismael’s progeny is important for our understanding of human reproduction and sexuality, especially from an evolutionary perspective.


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Category: Evolution, Gender | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Eyeborg: Hearing Colors and Our Cyborg Future

Over on the Neuroanthropology Facebook Interest Group, a member posted this fascinating video about Neil Harbisson and the Cyborg Foundation. Harbisson was born seeing in black-and-white. Working with inventor Adam Montadon, he implanted the “eyeborg” into his skull and brain, a device that allowed Harbisson to hear colors as sound. I’ll let him explain the rest.

TED, being TED, has a list of six talks by “real-life cyborgs,” including Harbisson. In the near-future Harbisson looks set to experience the world of sight, including ultraviolet and infrared, much like some animals already do, as this nice Nautilus piece How Animals See the World shows us.

This image represents how Harbisson hears the colors that most people see. It comes from a TED blogpost called The Sound of Colors.
Harbisson The Sound of Colors TED

You can also read about Harbisson’s experience with the prosthesis here on BBC, as well as get a representation of the initial mapping scheme of color to sound (seven basic colors, seven sounds). He describes adapting to the input device:

At the beginning I had some strong headaches because of the constant input of sound, but after five weeks my brain adapted to it, and I started to relate music and real sound to colour… It has changed the way I perceive art. Now I have created a completely new world where colour and sound are exactly the same thing. I like doing sound portraits – I get close to someone’s face, I take down the sound of the hair, the sounds of the skin, eyes and lips, and then I create a specific chord that relates to the face.

Sensory extension looks to have a fascinating future, and doesn’t have to happen just through technology. Greg’s work focuses on how we culturally extend and shape our senses, whether that is human echolocation, Daredevil abilities for the blind, or the cunning balance developed by capoeira practitioners.

With the expansion of smart phones, software apps, wearable technology, and brain interfaces, the future envisioned by Harbisson is likely coming in one form or another. One of his main complaints about his set-up, that it is so visible, is one that is likely already solveable. Deep-brain implants for severe psychiatric disorders are often implanted under the skin, so they are not visible. And here’s another eyeborg, this one to replace a lost eye, so Rob Spence, a filmmaker, got himself a robotic eye.

Category: Body, Brain, Skill, Society, Technology, Variation | 3 Comments

Neuroanthropology Public Talk 3/24 in NYC

Artistic BrainI speak next Monday evening in New York City as part of the Anthropology of the Brain panel. Rayna Rapp, professor of anthropology at NYU, will be the other panelist.

We’ll both give 25 minute presentations, followed by a long period of discussion. We’re looking forward to getting a good conversation going with the audience. The panel starts at 7pm on March 24th.

Prof. Rapp will speak on “Big Data, Small Kids” about “how she began tracking one set of scientists in a pediatric neuroscience lab looking at Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Learning Disability (LD), and ended up watching the scientists construct international Big Data coalitions as part of a massive undertaking in brain mapping now ongoing across several continents.”

I will speak about “Hooked on the Brain? On Using Neuroscience in Anthropology”, where “Using the case study of addiction, this talk will examine both the promise and peril of such an approach, and demonstrate how effective use of neuroscience requires both synthesis and critique.”

I’m particularly excited about this talk, as I’ll examine the nature/nurture problem and how anthropology helps resolve that problem. I’ll do that through showing how neuroanthropology helps us move through increasingly sophisticated analyses of basic questions. In my case, that is: “What is addiction?”

The panel, which is officially called Culture and the Brain, is presented by the Anthropology Section of the New York Academy of Sciences. It will be held at The Wenner-Gren Foundation, which is located at 470 Park Avenue South, between 31st and 32nd Streets.

The Wenner-Gren is located on the 8th floor of the building; you check in at the building’s reception on the ground floor and then head on up. It’s completely free, but you do need to register for the event with the New York Academy of Sciences.

The talks kick off at 7pm; there’s also a reception at 6pm before the panel. That costs $20 and comes complete with a buffet and drinks. The reception is free for students.

Link to Wenner-Gren Culture and the Brain panel description.
Link to registration for the event with the NYAS.

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Giving names to aromas in Aslian languages

The sanitary and mechanical age we are now entering makes up for the mercy it grants to our sense of smell by the ferocity with which it assails our sense of hearing. – Havelock Ellis

How do you smell?, by Harald Hoyer, 2011 (CC BY SA)

How do you smell?, by Harald Hoyer, 2011 (CC BY SA)

My wife and I disagree about how one should judge whether milk has gone bad or is still fresh enough to drink. She consults the date on the carton. I smell it.

My aroma-based strategy is part of my well-developed theory that milk, even when it goes “off,” simply becomes a different dairy product, maybe not quite so pleasant to drink, but perfectly serviceable in other functions such as making pancakes. My father taught me this, or at least I blame him — he grew up on a farm in Iowa — but I also recall reading with great satisfaction about the Nuer and Dinka, and how a range of fermented milk products were essential to their diet. But that’s a story for a different day…

The key is that my wife and I disagree fundamentally about the value of olfaction in judging milk even though she has a quite remarkable sense of smell. She often stumps me by quizzing me about which flowering shrubs are in bloom from their aroma. She can always tell. Like many people in the US and Australia, and elsewhere in the West, we’re ambivalent about the value of the sense of smell, using it only quite narrowly for specific tasks.

Throughout Western philosophy and psychology runs a conviction that smell is an imperfect and inexact sense. Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man, for example, wrote that the sense was “of extremely slight service” to humans; philosopher Immanuel Kant that it was the “most dispensable” of our senses. As Ewelina Wnuk and Asifa Majid of the Max Plank Institute summarize, a range of Western thinkers from Condillac to Pinker argue that aroma offers humans little of value, that the sense is vestigial, rudimentary, and under-developed (see Wnuk and Majid 2014: 125).

In fact, the human sense of smell is far more acute than we might realize, and new linguistic research emerging from a cluster of groups in southeast Asia suggests that our inability to smell might be a cultural problem, not an invariant fact of human nature. Our language hampers our ability to perceive aroma.


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Category: Culture, Language, Skill | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Professors, Don’t Cloister Yourselves

Nicholas Kristof delivers an effective Sunday op-ed in the New York Times, Professors, We Need You!

Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.

That’s how it opens. Kristof continues later:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

And here’s his summary of the piece on Facebook:

My Sunday column argues that academics have marginalized themselves from the grand national debates, in part by nurturing a culture of unintelligible writing. And when they wall themselves off from public influence, we’re all the losers.

Link to full piece, Professors, We Need You!

Update: Erik Voeten pens a good response to Kristof at the Washington Post, Dear Nicholas Kristof: We are right here!

I think that Kristof means well, and there is surely something to the general themes he touches upon. I am not saying that all is well in the land of pol-sci academia. Yet, the piece is just a merciless exercise in stereotyping. It’s like saying that op-ed writers just get their stories from cab drivers and pay little or no attention to facts. There are hundreds of academic political scientists whose research is far from irrelevant and who seek to communicate their insights to the general public via blogs, social media, op-eds, online lectures and so on.

Category: Critique | 2 Comments