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 | Leave a 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 , , , , , , , | 3 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 | 1 Comment

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.

Category: Announcements | Leave a comment

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 , , , , , , | 5 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

The Research Domain Criteria of the NIMH and the RDoC Vision for Mental Health Research and Diagnosis

Research Domain Criteria NIMHI present this very long post with minimal revisions and surely with its fair share of mis-spelled words and editorial mistakes. But I just want to get it out at this point… Consider it a first draft of my ideas on the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) approach that has been presented as the research-based contrast to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5, the latest version of the “bible” for diagnosing mental illness.

I spend a long time in the first part of the post outlining what the RDoC is and the logic behind its approach to research on mental health. This post mixes together the anthropology of biomedicine with critical neuroanthropology, so I wanted to really get at where the RDoC approach comes from. Well, “really get at” might be an exaggeration, but I did go over some of the basic documents and reporting on the RDoC.

Then in the second half I engage in critiques of the RDoC. The RDoC minimizes the social and cultural dimensions of mental health and health care, promotes one vision of the brain over other potential visions, and has difficulties in how it has conceptualized the move from research to improved diagnosis. Whether you consider those flaws minor or fatal likely depends on your overall views about mental health, but that’s not really my point here. Rather, I think it’s important to consider the RDoC approach quite specifically, given that it’s presented as something open to adaptation and also as a guide to funding for years to come.

Tom Insel, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Research Domain Criteria approach to Mental Illness

The New York Times provided a recent profile of Tom Insel, the innovative psychiatrist and neuroscientist and long-serving director of the National Institute of Mental Health, part of the US’s National Institutes of Health. It covers his career, from developing pharmacological treatments early in his career to his ground-breaking work with prairie voles and the biology of attachment. But I want to focus on the ending parts, and the vision that Insel has for research on mental health.

Benedict Carey writes that Insel recognizes that “the previous generation of biological research in psychiatry has been largely a disappointment, both in advancing basic science and in improving lives.” So Insel is doubling-down on neuroscience as the way to tackle mental health.

His second stubborn conviction is that the only way to build a real psychiatric science is from first principles — from genes and brain biology, as opposed to identifying symptom clusters. Some of the mental health institute’s largest outlays under Dr. Insel have been to support projects that, biologically speaking, are like mapping the ocean floor.


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Category: Brain, Critique, Health, Mind, Society, Variation | 8 Comments

Brain Helmet at the Sochi Olympics

John Fairbairn, a Canadian Olympian competing in the Skeleton, has an awesome helmet!

Brain Helmet Skeleton
Original (plus other great helmets) found at Behold the awe-inspiring beauty of the Canadian skeleton team’s helmets.

And here’s Fairbairn with an action shot!

Brain Helmet in Action
Original (and more photos) found at Canadian skeleton team for Sochi revealed, along with their unique helmet designs.

Category: Fun | 2 Comments

On Racism and Sexism and the Benefit of the Doubt

I show this video clip from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart when I teach introductory anthropology classes on race and racism. It captures one subtle way race and racism works in US society today, rather than the older paradigmatic examples of Jim Crow laws and the segregation of society. Plus it’s funny, so students often tune into what is being said even when it’s uncomfortable.

I’m posting the clip here because I think it’s relevant to the debate happening online about gender, race, and class in the world of science blogging. Who gets the benefit of the doubt? Who doesn’t?

Update: For better or worse, a case has come up which illustrates “the benefit of the doubt” vividly – Danielle Lee, who didn’t get it on Friday from Scientific American, and Bora Zivkovic, who runs the Scientific American blog network and who has confirmed allegations of “inappropriate” behavior with at least one woman that date back to incidents that happened over a year ago.

Back to original: And for those looking for a good round-up of developments on what has happened with the case of Dr. Danielle Lee, Scientific American blogs, and #standingwithDNLee, please see the post by Maryn McKenna, On Clarity, Dignity, Apologies and Moving Forward.

Finally, this post from neuroscientist student Rim In the end, let’s make sure something good comes out gives an important point-of-view piece on why these controversies matter.

Category: Critique, Gender, Society | 2 Comments

Lily White

This is a post about decades of science. This science doesn’t fit the normal template of “science,” of experiments and testable hypotheses and the like. Then again, a lot of research on humans rarely does. We’re humans, after all.

Still, this post draws on many, many years of peer-reviewed empirical work. This body of work has focused on how people classify and judge each other, and how power is inevitably part of how humans interact.

The case I will examine is what happened with Danielle N. Lee, a young African-American biologist. Dr. Lee has her own blog, Urban Scientist, part of Scientific American blogs. Last Friday, Dr. Lee posted on being called an “urban whore” in an email from an editor at Biology Online. They asked her to write something for them, and Dr. Lee refused once she learned that she would not be compensated for her work. The Biology Online emailed her back, “Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”

Dr. Lee addressed what this email meant to her in the context of being a professional scientist who is also an African-American woman. You can see her video response here, and find her overall post here at Dr. Isis’ website. The reason for that is Scientific American took her post down. They didn’t consult her. They just removed it.

The first indication of why came in a tweet from Mariette DiChristina, the editor-in-chief of Scientific American. She wrote, “@sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area and was therefore removed.”

In other words, the Scientific American reaction was one of determining boundaries and what counted as appropriate or not.

An important question becomes, Why?

DiChristina penned a response today, highlighting her position as Editor-in-Chief in the title of the post.

We recently removed a blog post by Dr. Danielle Lee that alleged a personal experience of this nature [prejudice and inappropriate treatment]. Dr. Lee’s post pertained to personal correspondence between her and an editor at Biology-Online about a possible assignment for that network. Unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post. Although we regret that this was necessary, a publisher must be able to protect its interests…

There are many ways to interrogate the response from Scientific American’s editor-in-chief. The comments on DiChristina’s post are an excellent place to start. But I’m not so concerned here about the mop-up after negative press. I’m interested in what happened and why on Friday. Here are some insights garnered from anthropology.

These insights come in two linked sets. First, in a confrontation like this, race, gender, and class inevitably come into play. All three are on vivid display, though the one I think might be quite important – class – is given the least attention. Second, power was exercised. Scientific American invoked their legal right, something the bloggers signed onto as part of the fine print, and summarily dismissed Dr. Lee’s post from their site. Obviously they felt justified in doing so. Part of the reason why has to do with race, gender, and class, but it’s not a full explanation. Scientific American surely thought they were in the right in more than a legal sense, and here ideology and money come into play.

Let me say here that, yes, this is my interpretation. That’s how a good part of human science works. It draws on decades of scholarship and applies it to a novel situation. It’s not an exact science, but it’s quite empirical – these sorts of things come up over and over again.

Let me also say that I am being quite specific here in my register – in the tone and quality of language, aiming for “scienciness” (think “truthiness”), a reasonable tone that evokes science and being measured and the importance of evidence and all that. In other words, I am speaking exactly like the white scientist who lives in a nice house that I am.

Gender, Race, and Class

Dr. Lee’s case just slaps one across the face with cultural anthropology’s triumvirate of gender, race, and class. She gets called an urban whore by a guy? In explicit contrast to her being an “urban scientist”? Gender is easiest of the three to evoke. She wants money to do what she does? – she must be a whore, making this guy’s life difficult.

Urban whore becomes the marked category, the gendered one. This is not rocket science. In fact, it’s a lot clearer than rocket science. Online writing has made this point again and again, so I won’t belabor it here.

For me, it’s the combination of race and class that is more interesting and more telling. One thing I admired quite a lot about how Danielle Lee wrote her original post was her use of language.

My initial reaction was not civil, I can assure you. I’m far from rah-rah, but the inner South Memphis in me was spoiling for a fight after this unprovoked insult. I felt like Hollywood Cole, pulling my A-line T-shirt off over my head, walking wide leg from corner to corner yelling, “Aww hell nawl!” In my gut I felt so passionately: “Ofek, don’t let me catch you on these streets, homie!”

And then Dr. Lee code-shifted, moving to a voice that likely felt more comfortable to most readers of Scientific American.

It wasn’t just that he called me a whore – he juxtaposed it against my professional being: Are you urban scientist or an urban whore? Completely dismissing me as a scientist, a science communicator (whom he sought for my particular expertise), and someone who could offer something meaningful to his brand. What? Now, I’m so immoral and wrong to inquire about compensation?

As David Kroll writes, “@SciAmBlogs permits “fuck” but not southern US, inner city vernacular. My hypothesis…”

Dr. Lee, it seems, made the mistake of sounding too ghetto. She let that part of her get out, and oh no, we can’t have that. Or as Editor-in-Chief DiChristina put it, “I’d like to elaborate on the original brief statement on Twitter that this blog fell outside Scientific American’s mission to communicate science. While we interpret that mission with a lot of latitude, Dr. Lee’s post went beyond and verged into the personal, and that’s why it was taken down.”

I wish I could sound so ghetto as Dr. Lee, but I’m the white guy, so I get to write like this. But I won’t get judged for letting my inner white guy out. I can have fun using words like “ghetto.” Not everyone gets that same easy permission.

Power: Ideology and Money

Gender, Race, and Class are pretty boring on their own. Well, for me at least, since they don’t really affect me all that much. (Ask the people they do affect, and you’ll get a much more visceral response.) But it’s also an interesting question of how gender, race, and class acquire so much social force. In anthropology, that question is often answered by drawing on the concept of “power.” Power inevitably affects social interactions between people, shaping what is acceptable and what is not, and often hiding what’s really going on in obfuscations that people generally find believable.

Ideologies do that sort of work. And science, along with being a way of generating an empirically-validated body of knowledge, also works as an ideology. Certain types of things get to count as “science” and other types of things do not. Dr. Lee’s post was not appropriately about “discovering science.” It was “too personal” and facts “weren’t verified.” And, quite simply, it was “therefore removed.”

But why was this post so threatening as to merit removal? It’s not about the red herring of Biology Online being an online affiliate of Scientific American (i.e., it pays for ads). Might it be because the post stands in such stark contrast to much of Scientific American’s audience?

Scientific American is quite specific about its audience. “Science Consumers Are High Wealth Consumers,” the press kit quite specifically states. And given the lack of any mention of minorities amidst its demographics, it’s easy to assume that not a lot of minorities are reading Scientific American. And, finally on the gender sider, for the magazine, it’s 71.9% male. Online, it’s a bit more balanced, only 58% male.

This sort of analysis shouldn’t be so easy. I shouldn’t be able to write this post on a Sunday night. But it’s just so obvious – gender, race, and class shape what has happened to Dr. Lee in profound ways. The ideology of science – of what counts and what doesn’t – becomes central to justifying what is done. And the publisher is very explicit about “protecting its interests,” which rely on the type of high wealth consumers who read the material that Scientific American publishes.

Why does this matter? It matters because what science is depends vitally on who creates and consumes science. Dr. Lee makes this point much better than I can. Last January she wrote the post, A Dream Deferred: How access to STEM is denied to many students before they get in the door good.

For kids like my students – inner-city kids from poor families (whether working-class or on welfare), average or below-average academic performance, some with behavior problems – interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) dies by 10th grade and one of three things kill the promise of opportunity.

-Lack of resources
-Benign discouragement by well-meaning adults
-Active exclusion by powerful gatekeepers

The last part was prescient, wasn’t it?

Category: Critique, Gender, Inequality, Society, Variation | 14 Comments