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.

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.

Continue reading »

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

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.

Continue reading »

Category: Brain, Critique, Health, Mind, Society, Variation | 13 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

Anthropology: Growth and Relevance, Not Popularity

Anthropologists can suffer from Jared Diamond envy. Here in the United States we bemoan when Diamond’s latest book rises on the bestseller list. While he might deliver anthropology-lite to the masses, he’s not even an anthropologist! goes the lament. It’s not even good anthropology, others add. Undergrads could take it apart.

Then the questions begin: Where are all the popular anthropologists? Why don’t we have one or more Jared Diamonds ourselves?

This pursuit of popularity is a mistaken one, I believe. It’s as if we want to turn Monty Python and the Holy Grail into a Jerry Bruckheimer action movie:

Anthropology isn’t really built that way.

Pursuing Relevance

Far better if we pursue relevance. Doing so means broadening our concept of popularity. We can find audiences that more closely match what we do as anthropologists. These might not be the mass audience some of us crave. But they might be the right audience.

A good example of this type of relevance is Liz Bird’s Asaba Memorial Project, which examines the impact of a terrible 1967 massacre during Nigeria’s civil war. Bird recently put together a video on this work, which has been taken up through social media in Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora.

This work focuses on local relevance rather than mass popularity. 6000 views is nothing like Diamond, but as more and more anthropologists take to these forms of dissemination, our reach will grow. We should aim for the long-tail of the world, rather than swinging at the fences hoping for that mega-hit.

Growth Matters

Growing the field also matters. Increasing over overall size is key to increasing our overall impact. Anthropology is a small discipline. Growth means that we can research more of the world’s diversity and better address the myriad problems we face today.

Training more students also means more people access what we do. Most of our students go onto careers outside the discipline, and that’s a good thing. They carry anthropology with them, and then they start to solve the problem of how to make anthropology relevant to a particular job or issue. It’s the sort of grassroots growth that will last.

Given how we work as a discipline, our impact often comes through how we intersect with others. Skulls and artifacts need to be seen, often touched, to truly appreciate, and then context provided to understand their import. Field work is a day-to-day endeavor, something achieved over the long-term. Our “it’s complicated” message requires time to convey, and works better if there’s interaction that can help illustrate what’s going on.

What anthropology does isn’t easy to package into sound bites.

We need people to have an impact, not stars.

Category: Application | 5 Comments

The cultures endangered by climate change

By Greg Downey

The Bull of Winter weakens

In 2003, after decades of working with the Viliui Sakha, indigenous horse and cattle breeders in the Vilyuy River region of northeastern Siberia, anthropologist Susan Crate began to hear the local people complain about climate change:

My own “ethnographic moment” occurred when I heard a Sakha elder recount the age-old story of Jyl Oghuha (the bull of winter). Jyl Oghuha’s legacy explains the 100o C annual temperature range of Sakha’s subarctic habitat. Sakha personify winter, the most challenging season for them, in the form of a white bull with blue spots, huge horns, and frosty breath. In early December this bull of winter arrives from the Arctic Ocean to hold temperatures at their coldest (-60o to -65o C; -76o to -85o F) for December and January. Although I had heard the story many times before, this time it had an unexpected ending… (Crate 2008: 570)

Lena Pillars, photo by Maarten Takens (CC BY SA)

Lena Pillars, photo by Maarten Takens (CC BY SA)

This Sakha elder, born in 1935, talked about how the bull symbolically collapsed each spring, but also its uncertain future:

The bull of winter is a legendary Sakha creature whose presence explains the turning from the frigid winter to the warming spring. The legend tells that the bull of winter, who keeps the cold in winter, loses his first horn at the end of January as the cold begins to let go to warmth; then his second horn melts off at the end of February, and finally, by the end of March, he loses his head, as spring is sure to have arrived. It seems that now with the warming, perhaps the bull of winter will no longer be. (ibid.)

Crate found that the ‘softening’ of winter disrupted the Sakha way of life in a number of ways far less prosaic. The winters were warmer, bringing more rain and upsetting the haying season; familiar animals grew less common and new species migrated north; more snow fell, making hunting more difficult in winter; and when that snow thawed, water inundated their towns, fields, and countryside, rotting their houses, bogging down farming, and generally making life more difficult. Or, as a Sakha elder put it to Crate:

I have seen two ugut jil (big water years) in my lifetime. One was the big flood in 1959 — I remember canoeing down the street to our kin’s house. The other is now. The difference is that in ‘59 the water was only here for a few days and now it does not seem to be going away. (Sakha elder, 2009; in Crate 2011: 184).

(Currently, Eastern Russia is struggling with unprecedented flooding along the Chinese border, and, in July, unusual forest fires struck areas of the region that were permafrost.) As I write this, the website CO2 Now reports that the average atmospheric CO2 level for July 2013 at the Mauna Loa Observatory was 397.23 parts per million, slightly below the landmark 400+ ppm levels recorded in May. The vast majority of climate scientists now argue, not about whether we will witness anthropogenic atmospheric change, but how much and how quickly the climate will change. Will we cross potential ‘tipping points’, when feedback dynamics accelerate the pace of warming?

While climate science might be controversial with the public in the US (less so here in Australia and among scientists), the effects on human populations are more poorly understood and unpredictable, both by the public and scientists alike. Following on from Wendy Foden and colleagues’ piece in the PLOS special collection proposing a method to identify the species at greatest risk (Foden et al. 2013), I want to consider how we might identify which cultures are at greatest risk from climate change.

Will climate change threaten human cultural diversity, and if so, which groups will be pushed to the brink most quickly? Are groups like the Viliui Sakha at the greatest risk, especially as we know that climate change is already affecting the Arctic and warming may be exaggerated there? And what about island groups, threatened by sea level changes? Who will have to change most and adapt because of a shifting climate? Daniel Lende (2013: 496) has suggested that anthropologists need to put our special expertise to work in public commentary, and in the area of climate change, these human impacts seem to be one place where that expertise might be most useful.

Continue reading »

Category: Consumption, Critique, Development, Inequality, Society, Technology | Tagged , , | 6 Comments