This Is Your Brain on Art

The​ ​Dance​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Scientist

Lennon Hayes


Paul Howard Mason is an anthropologist at Macquarie University in Australia. He has fieldwork experience in ethnomusicology and medical anthropology. His area of expertise includes neuroanthropology, dance anthropology, and the anthropology of martial arts. In his article, “Brain, Dance and Culture: The choreographer, the dancing scientist and interdisciplinary collaboration” he draws on his experience in these fields and makes the argument that dance provides a unique area of interest for anthropology.

Dance​ ​in​ ​Relation​ ​to​ ​the​ ​Brain,​ ​Culture,​ ​and​ ​Environment

Dance is shaped by culture and gives researchers an insight into how people perceive and interpret the world around them by the way they express themselves through dance. Dance is influenced by the embodied brain, culture, and the environment. These three categories overlap among themselves as well. These influences shape how the dancers speak to one another and how they begin to move from improvisation to choreography and finally to performance. Mason chooses a definition of culture from anthropologist Derek Freeman which says culture is made up of alternatives that are socially sanctioned and selected for out of all the possibilities in human variation. Mason says that choreography shows this definition of culture in a small time frame as researchers will be able to see the process of selection. Choreography comes from perception, symbols, and meanings. Researchers will be able to see complexity increasing as they observe the dancers in the studio.

First Lady Michelle Obama joins children for a Super Sprowtz show, a “Let’s Move!” event at La Petite Academy child care center in Bowie, Md., Feb. 27, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
Dance​ ​as​ ​Play

Play is a vital part of development and learning. The higher cerebral centres of the brain and the limbic system are involved in play. The limbic system is related to imagination and decision-making as well as emotions. This system that contributes to play also contributes to behaviors that are driven by emotion. This makes sense as dance is very often seen as fueled by emotion and being very emotionally impactful for dancers and viewers alike. Play helps individuals learn how to behave in their environment and with those around them. In the context of great socio cultural influence, play begins to create shared meanings and behavior. Mason says that play will then no longer be just for those involved in play but also those watching. This can be seen in the choreography of dance. Choreography shapes play behavior from improvisation with the influence of the brain, culture, and the environment. Dance thus gives researchers a way of seeing how these three categories interact and the influence they have on humans’ behavior.

Evolution​ ​and​ ​Dance

Mason states that these five processes contribute to evolution: variation, selection, complexity, organisation, and memorisation. They can be seen in relation to dance as they act on how a dance is formed. There are limitless possibilities in improvisation which accounts for the variation. Improvisation is then refined down into choreography, this is the aspect of selection. Complexity is, I believe, the dancers and the choreographers individual opinions and the way they believe the dance should be done. This information is then organized into the choreography for the performance and then the dancers must memorize it.

How​ ​to​ ​be​ ​Interdisciplinary​ ​and​ ​the​ ​Methods​ ​Involved

Mason suggests that scientists engage in fieldplay. That they should engage with the possibilities of dance and dancers should engage with science. What this would look like I am not entirely sure I know. This would allow for these concepts to be embodied and for the barrier between these two fields to be broken down. To truly study dance, the scientist must be engaged and dance itself is based in movement. The knowledge found in dance is in movement, which means one should be involved in order to have a better understanding. As one learned the movement necessary for contemporary dance, they can see their perception change. Mason refers to dance as the object and means of investigation. Creating choreography is distributed throughout the dancers, so the researcher must be involved as well. Choreography gives insight into social organization and the way humans express themselves.

How​ ​It​ ​Relates

This article dealt with embodiment in reference to dance and choreography. Embodiment has been talked about in class and it makes sense that it would apply to dance. A researcher can begin to embody dance while doing fieldplay giving them a better understanding and insight to the process. Emotions and the limbic system also come into play in this article. Dance is often highly related to emotions and creates strong feelings in those that are involved. It would be interesting to see how different forms of dance relate to different emotions. Just two weeks ago we spoke about physical activity in humans. This article on dance was reminiscent of the discussion on capoeira and how culture interacts with biological systems. Different forms of dance could also likely influence the vestibular system.

My​ ​Thoughts

I enjoyed this article. I am not a dancer myself so I do not have any first-hand experience that I can relate to the article. The evolutionary systems and dance was interesting. The connection to me was kind of difficult to see. I had to think about it for a while in order to grasp it. I had never really thought about dance in such a way before. I enjoy the idea of “the dancing scientist” and researchers participating in this way. It is a bit humorous to picture but it makes sense. Dance is all about movement and the best way to understand is to participate and understand that feeling. The section where Mason talked about dancers playing with the depths of science was something I would like to understand a bit more as I am not sure how that would be done entirely.


Born For Art

Rob Else


Colwyn Trevarthen, born 1931, is a professor emeritus of child psychology and psychobiology at the University of Edinburgh. Among other things, he has studied psychobiology and developmental brain science of expressive movement, human intersubjectivity and cultural learning, chronobiology and “musicality” of human action and applications in development, education, therapy, and art.

A mother playing with her baby (from
An Inborn Proclivity

Trevarthen makes a case for the human propensity for art and fiction as being ingrained in us from birth, and important components of how humans are uniquely adapted when it comes to learning, using, and being shaped by culture. To support this assertion, he uses a number of converging lines of evidence from a variety of different disciplines. First, he notes that Neanderthals, as far as we know, did not have any kind of artistic creations, like art or music, yet Homo sapiens sapiens had a rich history of these aesthetic pursuits. Second, humans are unique among other primates in our abilities of tone and rhythm, which even infants are able to display. Trevarthen calls this “communicative musicality,” and in previous work demonstrated that infant communication has “pulse,” affective “quality,” and a temporal narrative component. Third, human biology is fluid, rather than fixed, in the way that it develops, which Trevarthen suggests is a critical component of the connections that infants make with caregivers. He draws on the concept of epigenetics to show that even our DNA can be shaped in these early formative years, with great impacts later in life. Fourth, humans display a capacity for episodic memory unlike like found in any other animals, which is a key component of storytelling. Finally, Trevarthen draws on neuroanthropological literature that claims that the way that our brain develops in infancy is linked to processes of meaning making and social development.

How It Relates

One of these concepts that Trevarthen brings up, that of communication and play between mother and infant, relates to other readings we did regarding primate cognition, play, and learning. One main concern of ours in class was that we questioned whether we could be certain that non-human primates weren’t communication in similar ways with their babies, just in a manner that we as humans couldn’t pick up on. Further, Trevarthen’s work is similar to that of DeCaro who demonstrates a link between parental attention and well-being among young students.

My Thoughts

Overall, I thought that Trevarthen did not do a good job of structuring an argument for the inborn propensity of humans for art and fiction. While all the pieces are potentially there, he doesn’t discuss art or fiction again in any meaningful way after the first section of the article. It was also rather evident that Trevarthen comes from an evolutionary psychology perspective, and there is some problematic use of gender dynamics throughout the piece. From an anthropological point of view, it would be interesting to do observational work in a number of different cultures with infants as well, or draw upon existing literature, to discuss the relationships that mothers in different cultural settings have with their infants that may or may not promote artistry and fiction.


Questions​ ​to​ ​Ponder

1. Are there other interdisciplinary studies that would benefit from what Mason calls fieldplay? What do you think of the concept? As well as the idea that even a lifetime is not enough time?

2. In the article, there is a quote from John Blacking about how we understand the minds of non-human animals by observing their movements and non-verbal communication. It then says that humans can be understood in the same way. What are your thoughts on that? Can you think of situations outside of dance that this is applicable and vital to understand?

3. What did you think about the idea of evolutionary systems and how they relate to dance? Do you see what Mason is trying to convey?

4. How does Trevarthen’s work relate to play theory?

5. How would you design a neuroanthropological study to provide further evidence for Trevarthen’s claims?

A New Kind of Participation Trophy

Image via MindBodyHealth (

What’s New in the World of Sports?

In this article, Heywood argues that current research in sports sociology and kinesiology focuses too much on the macro- and micro-level details of how sports affect human emotions, but neither delves into an “embodied theory of the emotions.” She suggests that using an evolutionary perspective appropriately includes how the autonomic nervous system (ANS) responds to the psychological atmosphere of sports.

Heywood also promotes a new model of sports, called “immersive sports” which combine the benefits of competitive athletics and recreational play and could integrate sports psychology into the field of neuroanthropology and improve coaching methods to push for greater emotional and public health.

Affect and Evolution

The author introduces Panksepp, a leading affective neurobiologist who researches the organization of affect in the brain. Where in our brains do we process and embody certain emotions? Panksepp proposes seven core emotional systems that combine neural mechanics with emotion: (1) seeking, (2) rage, (3) fear, (4) lust, (5) care, (6) panic and (7) play. In this model, seeking is the underlying emotional system, upon which all others compound.

Image via adrtoolbox


Rage Against the Competition

The two older models of sports are competitive and participatory. The competitive model values winning and achieving goals, whereas participatory is for recreational purposes. The author posits that competitive sports could be linked to a feeling of threat. On the other hand, participatory sports provide a sense of safety.

As mentioned previously, seeking is the basis for all affective systems. This system is activated in both competitive and participatory sports and is the motivation seeker of the emotional systems.

In addition to seeking, competitive play also activates the rage system, linked to fear, which processes environmental threats (in this case, threat to one’s status) and causes assertiveness and aggression.  This type of sport tends to prioritize winning, and therefore often deters those who are not the most athletic, but who simply want to have fun playing a sport.

Image via

Conversely, in participatory sports models, play is the other affect experienced, not rage, as the threat to one’s rank no longer exits in this atmosphere.  The author argues that the main point of this emotional system is to process feelings of safety and to force the brain to be more socialized.

A Rookie Model

Heywood advocates for a new sport modality, the immersive sports, which combine both participatory and competitive to maximize the benefits of each, limiting as many negative effects as possible. Like the other two modes, the immersive model is driven by the Seeking affective system , which activates the mesolithic dopamine system to create good feelings or an artificial high for the athlete.

The cornerstone of this model is a sort of hyper focus, or “flow” (Mihali Csíkszentmihályi). During this time, the athlete’s consciousness is centered solely on the sport, which can only be achieved in a safe environment. This is why the immersive sports models aims to eliminate the sense of threat of competitive sports without limiting the empowerment of competition.

Evolutionary Playbook

Stephen Porges uses his Polyvagal Theory to explain how evolutionary alterations to the ANS change emotional patterns and access. Neuroception assesses the danger of a situation and initiates a series of response pathways beginning with the newest, Social Engagement System (SES) on the ventral vagal complex, to Fight or Flight, to the oldest neural pathway on the UNmyelinated vagus nerve, paralysis and out-of-body sensations. In order to reach the level of focus discussed in “flow,” an athlete must be able to eliminate the fight/flight sensation (by eliminating the threat to one’s rank) and only use the first neural pathway, the SES.

Image via

Combining the theories of Panksepp and Porges, Heywood argues that a poor familial environment can play a major role in the athlete’s neuroception and can render them unable to pacify the fight/flight reaction.

So, What Now?

Heywood promotes a new field of research, a cultural neuropsychology of sport, which examines these evolutionary affective systems in relation to cultural norms. She mentions analyzing cultural resistances to certain populations participating in sports as well as incorporating familial environment, reaction to disturbances, and personality into the study.

Understanding these evolutionary mechanisms behind emotion and affect could inform and drive changes in modern coaching and even parenting styles. We know now that extreme pressure in a competitive sport environment can inhibit the suppression of the fight/flight response and prevent the athlete from accessing that intense, optimal performance, “flow” state. Promoting a feeling of safety in all sports could also recruit others who are hesitant due to the competitive threat of some teams and improve public health initiatives.

Play-by-Play Recap

I think this article did a really great job of incorporating the neurobiological and evolutionary aspects of neuroanthropology. That being said, I think it could have delved a bit more into the cultural nature of this research, as I imagine it would be very interesting to examine these affective systems cross-culturally in relation to the athletic atmosphere. I appreciate that the culture aspect was mentioned in the end; I just wish it were incorporated more throughout the article.

Reading this article, I thought back to our discussion about parenting and child development last week. We talked about parents who force their children to do certain activities, versus those who allow their children to choose their own activities and those with unstructured playtime. Could parental desire for their children to do well provide an additional sense of threat to competitive sports that further drives the fight or flight response, prohibiting the access of the peak focus? Or could it activate different systems like the fear system, if the child is afraid of disappointing their parent?

Discussion Questions
  1. How does this topic relate to our previous discussions of embodiment?
  2. How do you think different parenting styles might affect these core emotional systems?
  3. Can you think of other benefits or drawbacks of competitive sports that were not mentioned in the article?
  4. Can you think of any real life examples of immersive sports models other than those mentioned in the article?

The Equilibrium System: Our Malleable Mental Module

Greg Downey conducts research on the physiological, perceptual, and phenomenological impact of physical exercise. He is particularly interested in the effects of skill acquisition on cognitive and sensory learning, in the context of sports and dance. Downey believes that human variation stems from patterns of enculturation of the body and the brain. He is the author of the chapter titled, “Balancing Between Cultures: Equilibrium in Capoeira,” found in the 2012 book, “The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology”. Downey coauthored this book and also wrote a book in 2005 titled, “Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art”. Downey currently works in the department of anthropology at Macquarie University in Australia and teaches a variety of topics including human rights, ethnographic research methods, economic anthropology, and global poverty. He conducts fieldwork in Brazil, the United States, and the Pacific and studies practices such as mixed martial arts, echolocation in the blind, cognitive skills in sports, and metabolic changes in free divers.

Downey’s chapter narrows in on the neurological enculturation of the human sensory systems; specifically, those associated with equilibrium. By contrasting Afro-Brazilian capoeira practices with gymnastics techniques, Downey depicts the pliability of the human equilibrium system. Through this comparison he demonstrates how cultural patterns are responsible for differences in physical balancing skills. Proprioception is a multisensory system that functions in our periphery without conscious monitoring, until something goes wrong and our sense of balance is disturbed. The vestibular system is located in the inner ear where the semicircular canals and the otoliths (tiny ear bones) reside. These bones detect linear motion while the semicircular canals detect angular motion. Downey explains how this complex multisensory system consists of a feedback loop that allows individuals to detect their body positioning, correct for error, and anticipate future adjustments in order to maintain balance. While this function was previously thought of as a fixed neurological system, research shows that it is highly flexible and able to be refined via conditioning and training.

Gymnastics, ballet, martial arts, figure skating, and space travel are a few instances in which this vestibular system may be trained to perform in distinct ways. Superb balance after spinning in circles and the ability to mitigate motion sickness are a couple of examples of the plasticity of this system and how with practice, humans are able to acquire these unique abilities. Downey explains how differences in training and practice between gymnasts and capoeira practitioners allow for the strengthening of specific, but divergent vestibular skills. For example, gymnasts maintain a forward-facing gaze during hand stands while capoeira practitioners are not permitted to even look at the floor. Furthermore, gymnast movements are tightly controlled while capoeira movements are dynamic and mobile. Downey’s purpose in this comparison highlights how different cultural practices subsequently elicit and strengthen different neurological proprioceptive and motor skill sets.

This chapter reminds me of almost everything we’ve read in this class and the ongoing discussion about the bidirectional feedback loop and dynamic interaction between biology and culture. I am starting to associate the term “neuroanthropology” with the phrase “nature – nurture”. If we break down the term into “neuro” and “anthropology,” we are easily able to associate “neuro” with “nature” or “biology” and “anthropology” with “nurture” or “culture”.

I thoroughly enjoyed this reading. I enjoyed the organization of Downey’s thoughts and how not only did he strategically unfold his argument, but in order to further ones understanding of this phenomenon, he used examples from two disciplines that utilize the same sensory system in different ways and explained how this utilization yields diverse outcomes. I do wish, however, that a more neuroscientific explanation was provided for this phenomenon. As I was reading, I wondered specifically what mechanisms do scientists think are responsible for this mental modulation?

This chapter reminds me of the chapter titled, “Memory and Medicine,” by M. Cameron Hay. Similar to how memory systems can be reinforced by specific memorization practices found in different cultures, the equilibrium system may also be scaffolded and strengthened in a particular way. I see it as such: specific memorization techniques (culture/nurture) lead to the strengthening of specific neural pathways associated with memorization (biology/nature), which in turn, lead to specific memorization behaviors during memory recollection (culture/nurture/the individual). Analogous to this explanation is the following: specific balancing techniques (culture/nurture) lead to the strengthening of specific neural pathways associated with balance (biology/nature), which in turn lead to specific balancing behaviors during balancing practices (culture/nurture/the individual).

This chapter also reminded me that not only can sensation be culturally patterned but so can perception. Individuals living in different cultures may be culturally patterned to select, organize, process, and interpret information in different ways. Studies conducted by Segall, Campbell, and Herskovits (1963), using the Muller-Lyer Illusion test, reveal that there are cultural effects on the visual perception of optical illusions. Furthermore, another study conducted in 2009 by Ishi, et. al., researchers showed Japanese and American students images of familiar objects as wholes and as fragmented parts to determine if there are differences in analytical versus holistic perception. Findings show that American students were better able to identify the objects in the fragmented conditions when compared to the Japanese students. Researchers believe that this may be a reflection of American “individualistic” culture versus Japanese “holistic” or “collective” culture. These findings also coincide with what Downey presented in this chapter. It is important to acknowledge that visual perception is not natural, but rather cultural. Similarly, proprioception is also culturally mediated.

Questions to Ponder:

  1. Can you think of anything that is completely void of culture or not modulated by culture?
  2. What are some other examples of biological systems that were previously thought to be devoid of cultural influence?
  3. Can you think of a neurological study we can conduct to determine neurological similarities and differences between different culture’s vestibular dispositions?
  4. While understanding how culture impacts nature and vice versa, what dangers could we face when we begin to place cultural emphasis on differences?
  5. Can viewing biological systems in light of cultural influence cause for an increase in the categorization of people into groups, thereby creating harmful cultural constructions like race?


Further Reading:

Hay, M. Cameron. “Memory and Medicine.” In The Encultured Brain, D. Lende and G.   Downey, eds. (2012): 141-168. Cambridge: MIT.

Ishii, Keiko, Takafumi Tsukasaki, and Shinobu Kitayama. “Culture and visual perception: Does perceptual inference depend on  culture?” Japanese Psychological Research 51,2 (2009): 103-109.

Segall, Marshall H., Donald T. Campbell, and Melville J. Herskovits. “Cultural differences in the perception of geometric illusions.” Science 139,3556 (1963): 769-771.

Cultural Contexts & Paleo Parenting: How Anthropologists Study Well-Being in Children

Source: Pixabay

The chapter, ‘Child Well-Being: Anthropological Perspectives’ in the Handbook of Child Well-Being (2014), is co-authored by anthropologists Edward G. J. Stevenson and Carol M. Worthman.  While not explicitly stated, it is highly likely that this collaboration came about due to the author’s shared affiliation at Emory University: Dr. Worthman has been a faculty member at Emory since the 1980s and Dr. Stevenson graduated with his PhD from Emory in 2011.

Dr. Stevenson (Source: UCL faculty page)

Dr. Stevenson is currently a Teaching Fellow at University College London and his research is focused on health and human development in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr. Worthman (Source: Emory faculty page)

Dr. Worthman is the director for the Laboratory for Comparative Human Biology at Emory University which began in 1987. The lab focuses on differences in human well-being and aims to collaborate with non-laboratory based researchers.  Former members of this lab include several authors that we have read this semester including Dr. Seligman, Dr. DeCaro, and the co-author of our textbook, Dr. Lende.


This chapter focuses on breaking down how anthropologists approach studying well-being in children by distinguishing between different conceptual models and how they are impacted by historical and environmental factors. 

Heuristic Models

Source: Pixabay

Heuristic models commonly fall into three categories (ecocultural, developmental niche, and cultural mediation) and generally compare how child development and well-being differ in two cultural contexts. These models provide valuable information about a particular culture at a specific point in time.

Ecocultural Model

This model examines how child well-being is influenced by everyday activities and routines. For instance, the authors provide the example of how an ecocultural model can be used to look at how parents of children with disabilities adapt to their child’s needs versus parents of children without developmental disabilities (see Weisner 1997, 2002). The benefit of this type of model is the ability to examine child well-being at smaller levels such as the individual household.

Developmental Niche Model

Super and Harkness (1986) originally developed this model to look at cross-cultural variation in child development. This model focuses on a wide-range of factors that can influence child health and development. This includes looking at  physical and social circumstances, local customs, the beliefs and goals of caretakers, as well as traits the child are born with or epigenetic factors.

Cultural Mediation Model

This model combines insights from evolutionary theory, economic-demographic pressures, and cultural elements to examine how child care is organized within a society. The authors emphasize that each of these factors in isolation cannot provide an explanation for childcare practices.

Predictive Models

Source: Pixabay

The authors suggest that there are four main categories of predictive models: discordance, developmental ecology, embodied capital, and ecosystem dynamics. These models take more of an evolutionary approach and attempt to  gauge what universal factors might impact childhood well-being.

Discordance Model

This model deals with environmental mismatch between modern and ancestral environments. Given the vast amount of time that humans spent in hunter-gatherer groups, this model predicts that child well-being will be highest in situations that more closely resemble these ancestral roots.

Developmental Ecology Model

Evolution teaches us that there are always trade-offs. This model focuses on how early experiences influence future development in humans in order to employ the most adaptive responses to environmental conditions.  An example of this might be to look at how breastfeeding impacts future immune response or how early life nutritional deprivation may increase fat storage later in life (known as the “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis).

Embodied Capital Model

The concept of embodied capital refers to an individual’s ability to survive and reproduce based on the current conditions and capacities of the individual. This model uses this concept to explore how parents invest in children. It is predicted that in situations where resources are scarce, parents may focus on quantity of offspring over quality. On the other hand, when conditions are favorable, it is predicted that parents will invest more in a smaller amount of offspring (i.e., quality over quantity).

Ecosystem Dynamics Model

The final model presented explores how macroecology (e.g., political-economic, demographic,  technological context) and microecology (e.g., immediate surroundings, caretakers,  childcare customs) influence childhood well-being.

Historical Transitions, Policy Implications, & Future Research

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The final sections of the chapter describes how the theoretical models of child well-being described above are impacted by historical changes in five areas: (1) demography, (2) epidemiology and nutrition, (3) education, (4) politics/economics, and (5) ecology.  The authors argue that by considering these factors and models, policymakers and researchers can better understand how to improve child well-being.

My Thoughts

One of the aspects of this article that I liked the best was the use of tables to summarize some of the main areas of research along with some sample citations. I felt that this was an effective way of organizing the wealth of information that was provided without becoming overwhelming. While I generally enjoy brevity in a paper, this might be one of the only times that I would have liked to have seen more examples for each model simply because I found the content so fascinating. However, for someone less interested in these topics, this chapter provides a great overview that is also easily digestible.

Source: Max Pixel

Discussion Questions

  1.  Well-being was also a central focus of the Campbell chapter from last week. How do you feel these two papers compare in their conceptualization of well-being? Did one have a stronger approach?
  2.  What are some ways in which children living in industrialized societies might be worse off than those living in circumstances that more closely reflect our hunter-gatherer ancestors?
  3.  Conversely, what are some ways in which children might be better off in modern environments?
  4.  Did you feel that any of the models were stronger than others?
  5.  Could any of the models presented be applied to your research interests?



The Right Type of Busy


Dr. Jason Decaro is an associate professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in human development, evolutionary biology, and social epidemiology in East Africa, Central America, and the U.S. He received his Ph.D. from Emory University as a student of Dr. Carol Worthman, who is a Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor at Emory University. She received her  Ph.D. in biological anthropology from Harvard University and specializes in human reproduction, development, and developmental epidemiology.

In this 2008 research article, Decaro and Worthman examine the link between childrearing practices and the child’s emotional response to normative social challenges, particularly the cardiovascular response. They conclude that culture shapes family ecology and this has a measurable effect on a child’s developing cardiovascular response. Ultimately, patterns in cardiovascular function can be linked to long-term health and well-being.

Study Overview 

Specifically, the busyness of the mother’s schedule, rather than the child’s, was examined to see if there were any implications for the child’s respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) following the normative social challenge of a school grade transition. RSA is a natural variation in an individual’s heart rate that occurs during the breathing cycle. RSAs are described in terms of vagal tones,

image via Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body

which refers to the activity of the vagus nerve. Increased vagal tone corresponds to diminished heart rate and more variability. RSAs are pronounced in children and are thought to be indicative of mental health. Research also suggests that children with more significant maternal attachments demonstrated higher vagal tones and, therefore, more social integration and empathetic receptiveness.

Decaro and Worthman hypothesized that 1) maternal busyness in year 1  (prior to grade transition) will affect the child’s RSA the following year, 2) maternal busyness will be linked to high maternal and family function, and 3) maternal mood, family dinner frequency, and parenting stress will also predict the child’s RSA in the following year.


The study consists of 38 families from metro Atlanta, GA. All children attended Pre-K the first year and kindergarten or some other form of primary schooling in the following year. Each family was visited four time during the child’s Pre-K year and data on daily schedule and maternal and child busyness was collected. Parenting stress and depression inventories were collected and frequency of family dinner was also collected as a marker for family function. In the last interview, a continuously monitored electrocardiogram (EKG) was conducted on the children as a baseline for future physiological data (prior to school grade transition). During the monitoring, children were asked to engage in a non-threatening interaction with two puppets to simulate social transition and interactions in the following grade year.

Berkeley Puppet Interview
image via University of Oregon

During the second year (after school grade transition), each family was visited again 3 to 11 weeks after the transition and the same data was collected.

Results and Discussion 

The study found that, consistent with the first hypothesis, maternal busyness but not child busyness predicted the children’s parasympathetic regulations (RSA patterns) during the second year. The results showed a statically significant increase in children’s RSA in relation to maternal busyness, however, in married families only. (Remember that high RSA is a marker of low arousal). The study also confirmed the second hypothesis that high levels of maternal busyness correlated with positive maternal mood and less parenting stress. The results showed that increased maternal busyness correlated with lower maternal depression, as well as lower parent-child dysfunctional interactions/ parenting stress. The third hypothesis, however, was not confirmed by the study which showed that family dinner, parenting stress, and maternal mood were not predictors of children’s vagal regulation.

My Thoughts 

It was difficult for me to understand the psychological implications of the biomarker used in this study. My understanding is that vagal tones are thought to have a regulatory effect on social and emotional function. Therefore, a higher vagal tone, which we now see is observed in children whose mothers have low scores of depression and parenting stress, indicates that the child will exhibit less social inhibition and maybe deal with social normative challenges, like grade changes, better than children with low vagal tones. It would make sense then that RSAs and vagal tones are studied as a predictive measure. I did think that the RSA was interesting to learn about, especially in relation to child development. It plays into the parasympathetic nervous system and the idea of “rest and digest,” which is a fascinating topic.

I also feel like this article did a good job of explicitly stating its main points and using language that was easy for the reader to follow. A lot of the physiology was explained, too, which is important for biological anthropology.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Why do you think there is a disconnect in the results between married families and single mothers?
  • What does this study suggest about the state of a mother’s well-being and the well-being of her child?
  • Can you think of any confounding factors that may have played a role in children’s physiological response that were not mentioned in the study?
  • Are there any other biomarkers linked to early developmental experience that could be used?
  • What are some cultural beliefs that shape childrearing practices?


  1. Decaro, J. A., & Worthman, C. M. (2008). Culture and the socialization of child cardiovascular regulation at school entry in the US. American Journal of Human Biology, 20(5), 572-583. doi:10.1002/ajhb.20782
  2. Gray, H. (2012). Anatomy of the human body. London, England: Bounty.
  3. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2017, from

Understanding Embodiment: A Many Faced Coin.

What is Embodiment?

How cognition, emotion, body, and culture affect onto one another. It’s a constant question that’s been around as long as people have studied human behavior. There have been many iterations of this theory- from Albert Bandura’s theory of reciprocal determinism in the early 1960’s, to the field of Epigenetics in the present day. The current catch-all for this is the theory, expanded, of embodiment. It’s a simple concept with not-so-simple facets. Embodiment is the expression of how culture, mental processes, and the body affect onto one another. More simply put, that our behavior comes from more than jour brains alone. The idea, to us, seems like a no-brainer. The body and the fluctuations of mind exist in synchrony. The delicate rhythms of human response and perception have shaped our reactions in the past, and will continue to in the present and future. The conventional wisdom of Embodiment is something I’ve heard referred to as the “mind, body, spirit” connection.

Image result for mind body spirit
Image via

While not something wholly scientific, I think it’s a good way of saying that the body works with cognition and emotion in tandem, not in separate measure. It’s a lot to take in on a molecular level, and perhaps even more difficult to daisy-chain all the processes that allow emotion to circulate and surface.

Untangling the web: What composes embodiment?

Anthropologist Carol Worthman manages to cover many of these complex facets in her 1999 article on the subject. She says that emotion is an important survival tool, serving a myriad purposes. From mitigating trauma on a molecular level, to helping us navigate social interaction. She critically examines the often posed false dichotomy between emotion and “rational” or “instinctual” cognition. She proposes a dual model of embodiment, where local biology and cultural/biological ontogeny feed into each other. A good deal of the terminology in this article sent me running to some sort of Rosetta stone in a desperate plea for deciphering. I’m going to try to bluntly dissect them throughout this post. In layman’s terms, this is how biological factors weigh against individual development, and, on a more macro level, development within a culture.

The second major cultural dichotomy to examine here is ethos versus eidos. Ethos is probably a term most are familiar with. It is, simply,  a distinctive aspect of a certain culture, displayed in social beliefs and systems. It’s almost the spirit of a culture, shown through values. Eidos, on the other hand, is the rational paradigms and physical practices of a culture. It is how physical practices are implemented within it, such as diet and body modification.

Image result for ritual tattoos

A familiar example to most of us- Native American tattoos to signal status or fertility. Image via

Ethos, Eidos, and the weighing of emotion

If you’re like me, your original thought was probably to see these, at most, as vaguely interconnected on opposite ends of a similar spectrum. I honestly think this is a symptom of trying to believe that rational thought, act, or instinct is diametrically opposed to feeling and emotion. Ethos, the spirit of a people, seems far less concrete than the physical practices of a culture. On another project I’m working on, we talk about how people tend to see things as a dichotomy instead of a spectrum of continuum.  The truth of the matter is much more tangled to grapple with- ethos and eidos may be dissimilar, but they shape behavior in equal measure.

This is equally true when we examine cognition itself. For many years, people thought emotion and rational thinking were so dissimilar, they each had their own side of the brain, and these sides did not interact. We even now hear colloquially that someone is more “right brained” or “left brained” if we feel they are more emotional or rational. Worthman says emotions do have a “home” in the brain, but it is not on one side. Moreover, it is in the limbic system, thalamus, and amygdala- parts of the brain crucial to dealing with preconscious processing, and store visceral memory. She gives this figure to explain the connection:


via Worthman, 1999.

Which, to me, echoes the “iceberg model” of behavior quite neatly:

Image result for iceberg model cogniting

via Gai Foskett. This is a simple model of what affects observable behavior on a subconscious level.

Both models state that emotion is crucial in the process of both reaction and storage. It is a tool that allows us to cope, and fosters things such as creativity and self-value. And it works in tandem with instinct and cognition, not opposed to it.

Problems with studying embodiment: Development, Ontogeny, and measurable value.

Worthman states that a central problem with regards to embodiment is how adult-centered the field of anthropology tends to be. She postulates in order to study the holistic model, we must also examine the developmental stages of an individual- on both a macro and micro level. A large problem, in general, with embodiment, is we have no measurable way to quantify emotion, or weigh individualism against cultural value / expectation. She asserts culture can, however, influence the form and function of the body. I question this. Does is suggest the individuals self believed purpose or their culturally dictated purpose more affecting? This also, again, does not account for individualism. The keystone here, I think, is that culture can dictate -when- an individual experiences a certain thing, or at least increase the likelihood of it. Many cultures have ritualistic rites, concrete or abstract, that individuals go through after a certain life event, or to prove a certain social status.

Image result for bullet ant gloves

Example of the above: Satere-Mawe tribesmen of Brazil must withstand the sting of hundreds of bullet ants many times to be considered adults. Image via NoiseBreak.

We’ve long since known that behavior, cognition, and environment tie into one another, each affecting an individual. Not so long ago, this was called reciprocal determinism, and before that, sociocognitive theory. One of the main takeaways from the former was that environment was critically undervalued in its effect on both other factors. Embodiment says this in so many words, with an emphasis on cultural and social environment.

Food for thought:

  • How similar or dissimilar are sociocognitive theory, reciprocal determinism, and embodiment? What is similar or different?
  • How is eidos perceived in comparison to ethos? Is one more important?
  • Emotion is undoubtably worth examining. Why is it hard to do so? How do we do so?
  • How does cultural influence weigh in comparison to individualism on behavior?


Further reading:

  1. Biocultural approaches to the emotions. Carol Worthman, Alexander Hinton – Cambridge University Press – 1999
  2. The Embodied Cognition of the Baseball Outfielder. Andrew Wilson –
  3. Embodied Cognition: What It Is & Why It’s Important. Jeff Thompson –

It’s a Man’s Man’s World

Dr. Benjamin Campbell, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, received his PhD in biological anthropology from Harvard. He is generally interested in the evolutionary study of the human life course, hormones as modulators of human biology and behavior, and neuroanthropology.

Campbell applies these interests in the embodiment of masculinity among Ariaal men, pastoral nomads of the Marsabit District in Kenya. Embodiment, to Campbell, refers to the experiences of the body that provide context for cognition, including things like muscle tone, heart rate, and endocrine release. In this way, testosterone can be thought of as something that is “embodied” in the experiences of Ariaal men. Campbell hypothesizes that since testosterone is embodied, varying levels of testosterone can then affect the well-being (specifically the energy levels, libido, and enjoyment of life) of Ariaal men in a measurable and meaningful way.

Samburu Man (From Wikimedia Commons)

In order to test this hypothesis, Campbell used the World Health Organization (WHO) quality of life questionnaire (WHOQOL) with 205 men in two different settlements, one nomadic and one close to a town, and collected saliva samples to test testosterone levels. Once he controlled for dopaminergic sensitivity (based on the Taq1 A1+ genotype, received from hair samples), residence (nomadic encampment or town settlement), and age group he ran a regression analysis to model the relationship of testosterone levels to the outcomes of satisfaction with energy, positive emotions, and satisfaction with sex which form his well-being outcomes. Of these, testosterone is linked with an increase in satisfaction with energy and positive emotions, though residence remains a stronger and larger predictor of the outcomes. In this way, embodying masculinity, in the form of increased testosterone levels, is associated with well-being.

(From Flickr)

From this conclusion, Campbell claims a “nearly” universal relationship between testosterone and well-being in men. However, the only other studies he cites to make this claim were done in Germany, the U.S.A., and Finland. It seems that more research would need to be done in countries in various geographic regions in order to be able to make any claims of a larger pattern of testosterone levels relating to well-being. Further, the exact pathways by which it does so would need to be explored in more detail. Of the variables used in this study, the one with the largest effect size and significance related to well-being had to do with living in the nomadic encampment, which Campbell suggests could be due to the men living closer to their cultural roots. If we are conceding that living in line with valued cultural roots contributes importantly to well-being, then we would need to somehow control for the possibility that it is living up to the cultural “model” of manliness, which testosterone might contribute to, rather than the testosterone itself, that is contributing to well-being. Along these lines, the socioculturally constructed nature of the gender role of “masculinity” would need to be further explored within each of the different contexts in which testosterone is being tested for its contributions to well-being.

For further consideration:

  1. What, according to Campbell, is the relationship between embodiment and emotion?
  2. What are some of the benefits of looking at the relationship between a hormone and well-being? What are some of the drawbacks?
  3. What methodological changes could be made to address some of the further research questions either brought up here or in Campbell’s chapter itself?



Campbell, Benjamin. “Embodiment and Male Vitality in Subsistence Societies.” In The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology, edited by Lende, Daniel H., and Greg Downey, 237-259. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press. 2012.


The Bidirectional Relationship Between the Brain and Behavior

Memory and Medicine

Cameron Hay is a cultural anthropologist who specializes in medical and psychological anthropology. Her research endeavors revolve around understanding, experiencing, and coping with illness and disease from the perspective of patients, family members, and health care providers. The goal of her research is to facilitate mutual understanding between patients, physicians, and public health experts in order to allow for enhanced communication, ultimately leading to better health outcomes. Specifically, she hones in on the social distribution of medical knowledge, health disparities, health literacy, empathetic communication, healer-patient communication, health care decision making, experiencing chronic illness, and psycho social stress and health. Hays is currently a professor and the chair of the department of Anthropology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She also serves as the director of the Global Health Research Innovation Center and the coordinator of the Global Health Minor at Miami. Her secondary position is at the University of California in Los Angeles where she works as a researcher at the Center for Culture and Health at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

Hays conducts ethnographic research in Lombok, Indonesia. Her case study titled, “Memory and Medicine”, that was featured in the book, “The Encultured Brain”, is a comparative study of the memory systems of Sasak healers and American physicians. This chapter is an analysis of contrasting medical practices of rural traditional Indonesian healers from the island of Lombok and urban biomedical doctors from California. Knowledge, memory, and memorization are the three key concepts that are employed in both healing systems. However, the extent to which each of these is deferentially used is crucial to understanding how medical information is socially and neurologically organized. Hays believes that different medical traditions utilize different types of memory systems which bolster the neurological memory processes in different ways. Three key arguments that shape her research are that memory and medicine co-evolve within local contexts, the co-evolution of these processes are not only evident in the analysis of medicine, and in order to understand her argument, we have to mend the gap between biological science, social sciences, and humanities.

Hays believes that the reason why neurological differences exist between these two types of healers is not because one practitioner is more intelligent than the other, but rather the neurological processes elicited in the memory encoding, organization and retrieval processes are intertwined with social, technological, and institutional traditions specific to that culture. In order to heal, the Sasak use jampi, or memorized formulas that are solely orally transmitted to selected individuals. Anxiety invoked during memorization is believed to enhance the memory encoding process. In America, formal training consisting of learning through evidence based scientifically published articles. In contrast to the Sasak, emotional anxiety is discouraged and viewed as a breech of clinical objectivity. Sasak medical tradition utilizes episodic memory which elicits the use of the hippocampal associative systems and is bolstered by emotional reactivity of the amygdala. American medical tradition utilizes a combination of episodic memory, semantic memory and procedural memory. The integration of medical knowledge is facilitated by the hippocampus but once schemas, or representative models are formed, schemas can be accessed independently of the hippocampus. Overall, Hay’s main argument is that any knowledge set is biocultural and influenced by differences in local assumptions, information distribution, learning and remembering processes, and the strengthening of certain neural pathways.

This article reminds me of several articles that I have read about fire walkers. Fire walkers are oftentimes able to recall specific details about their experience during this rite of passage.  This enhancement in memory is because the event was emotionally significant, causing their amygdala to become highly active, which assists with memory storage. Similarly, better memorization of a jambi formula may be due to the anxiety invoked when slapped on the arm. The ability to recall particular details about one’s fire walking practice or a specific jambi line is associated with the consolidation of episodic memories. This article also reminds me of the idea of synaptic pruning and the brains remarkable plasticity. For example, the brains of blind individuals show weakened neural associations within the visual cortex but enhanced neural associations in other brain regions such as those associated with sound.

I enjoyed reading this article but was also hoping she would have included articles in support of her suggestions. I wished there was an accompanying study depicting neurological evidence of a correlation between higher rates of neural activation in certain brain regions and specific health care providers. She mentions that the bridging of disciplines in order to enhance biocultural understanding is valuable, however, she fails to display this transdisciplinary and collaborative research essence in her own work. I also recognize that she may have other studies that do exactly what she proposes. What I did not fully see in her article is the applicability of her research. I understand why it is important that the brain is able to shift and differentially allocate resources to certain regions but other readers may wonder why it is important to know that some healers predominately use a specific type of memory. How is this research valuable and applicable to us? Most grant proposals and published articles require an explanation of the “bigger picture”. What I did not grasp as well was this “bigger picture” and exactly what her research contributes to the field of neuroanthropology.

Questions to Consider

  1. How can we benefit from this newly learned knowledge about the influence of cultural practice on neural pathways and the recollection of memories?
  2. What type of hypothetical research project could we propose to test the validity of the idea that health care traditions strengthen certain specific neural pathways?
  3. How can you use the “use it or lose it” phenomena to explain why certain neural pathways are augmented in healers cross-culturally?

Body, Brain, and Behavior: The Neuroanthropology of the Body Image

Charles D. Laughlin is currently a professor of religion at the University of Ottawa and is a professor emeritus of the Carleton University in Ontario, Canada where he previously taught anthropology and religion. Laughlin is interested in a theory that he and his friends, Eugene G. d’Aquili and John McManus, developed during the 1970s and 80s. The theory of biogenetic structuralism is a type of neuroanthropology that incorporates the brain, consciousness, and culture. Laughlin has devoted a large part of his career to collecting ethnographic data in Northeastern Uganda. Later, his interests in consciousness and the ways in which societies structure and interpret alternative states of consciousness led him to live in various Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and India.

Lauglin’s article titled, “Body, Brain, and Behavior: The Neuroanthropology of the Body Image”, focuses on how an individual’s neurocognitive model of his or her body is comprised of a combination of internal and external sensory systems. He defines body image as, “a dynamic set of models within their cognized environment that integrates currently anticipated and remembered perceptions of their body, as well as all other habitually entrained neural networks producing affect, cognitions, and habitual motor patterns related to their body”. He proposes that the model of the body is already present within each individual upon birth but develops and takes shape through genetic predispositions and subsequent sociocultural influences. Prior to explaining his position, Lauglin provides the reader with a list of traits associated with the neuroanthropological theory of body image. He states that the body image is a construct of the nervous system, the body is transcendental relative to body image, and behavior controls perception so that the body perceived matches what is expected. This means that the ability to acknowledge one’s body is innate, developing prenatally, the actual physical body is much more complex than the nervous system’s model of it, and lastly, behavior provides a negative feedback loop so that individuals act in accordance with their desired body image.

Lauglin describes how the nervous system models the environment within the body by explaining the neural networks that are involved with body image development. He lists the different types of memory images and indicates that eidetic imagery, or images that occur vividly but are not perceived as real, may be used to change one’s body image. Lauglin also explains how the multiple representation model, or the belief that verbal and imaginal systems are distinct and independent modes of representation, is the most widely believed model, as opposed to collapsing both systems. He breaks down this model by explaining how the right hemisphere predominantly processes nonverbal imagery while the left hemisphere processes verbal symbolism. Lastly, Lauglin discusses how body image may be changed by using clinical methods that utilize ritualized visualizations and guided imagery may prove to be therapeutic and help change negative body image.

I enjoyed reading this article because body image is such a fascinating topic and a very salient topic as well, especially on a college campus. This article reminds me of the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) to help alter maladaptive thought patterns. Lauglin’s article also relates to other articles I have read that discuss how facial and physical symmetry are one of the few characteristics that are seen as attractive and desired features of a prospective mate cross-culturally. I believe that from an evolutionary anthropology perspective, physical and facial symmetry are subconscious indicators of health and fertility. Symmetry may be an indicator of superb genes and people may subconsciously seek more symmetrical mates in order to reproduce with an individual who is more fertile and more likely to yield healthier offspring.

With respect to physical body size, the notion of attractiveness also varies from culture to culture. Some regions in the Middle East and Africa believe that larger body size indicates wealth since they can afford to eat and become large. Furthermore, larger body size may also be indicative of health and reproductive capacity since being undernourished may cause for fetal termination since it may not have enough nutrition to survive to birth. On the other hand, in America, it is believed that those who are thinner are wealthier since they have the means and resources to purchase higher quality foods or can afford to spend their money on gym memberships and their time exercising instead of working. Neither of these “indicators” may actually be true but this article led me to wonder about how body image disorders develop and why.

Questions to Consider

  1. What are some current ways in which body image disorders are currently being treated and how can we improve upon these methods according to Lauglin?
  2. Do you think that certain cultures have an increased incidence or prevalence of body image disorders compared to others? Ie. Do women in America have more rates of anorexia because thinness is portrayed in the media? Or do women in South Africa have more rates of binge eating disorder because being overweight is valued in that culture?
  3. Tying in Hay’s article, do you think that the neural pathways associated with negative body image are strengthened over time while positive body image pathways are weakened? Do you think this impacts one’s memory encoding, organization, and retrieval processes in any way?

The Evolving Human Brain


It has long been appreciated that there is something about the human brain that makes it unique amongst other primates and mammals in general. Dr. Greg Downey  and Dr. Daniel Lende explore how and why the human brain has evolved the way that it has in Chapter 4 of The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology. The authors are well-qualified to provide an overview on this topic as both have a wealth of publications in this area, as well as being leaders in the development of the field of Neuroanthropology.


Blue Whale at The American Museum of Natural History

What makes a human brain unique? Is it simply the sheer size of it? Well, no. Anyone who has visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City can clearly see that the enormous blue whale hanging from the ceiling has a brain much larger in size than that of a human’s. Perhaps the issue is not sheer size then, but the size relative to one’s own body. Unfortunately, we once again do not have a satisfactory explanation for human’s unique cognitive capabilities. While looking at relative size does work to explain the blue whale example (a blue whale’s brain only accounts for 0.01% of its body’s mass while a human brain accounts for 2%) we see other species that are an exception to this rule. For instance, a pocket mouse has a brain that comprises 10% of their body mass, much more than that of a human and yet we don’t see the unique functionality of a human brain expressed in a mouse.

Pocket Mouse at White Sands National Monument

However, when we turn instead to the encephalization quotient (i.e. the ratio of predicted brain mass to observed brain mass) we see that humans do stand out in this respect. In fact, humans exhibit an encephalization quotient that is between five to seven times higher than what is predicted for a mammal of our size. While greater encephalization is found across primates, humans are still an outlier and it appears this has been true for quite some time. Around two million years ago the genus Homo appears and with it we see a tripling in brain size in our ancestors as compared to other apes. However, it is not just the increase in size that is notable here–brain organization is a key component in better understanding our cognitive evolution.


So, do humans simply have brains that have a ton of new structures that other primates don’t possess? This is once again an incorrect assumption. Rather than humans and primates differing in existing regions of the brain, our current evidence suggests that the differences are actually proportional which has fascinating implications for our evolutionary understanding of cognitive function. Instead of evolving new structures, it appears that humans have modified or repurposed existing structures so that certain brain regions have expanded at a different rate than others. This evolutionary trade-off has resulted in decreased development in areas like the human olfactory bulb, while structures like the cerebellum which is involved in frontal lobe functioning has shown great expansion.

Human Olfactory Bulb


In addition to size and structure changing across evolutionary time, connections among regions of the brain have also seen significant changes.

In particular, we have seen an increase in the total number of neurons and with this, we see that larger brains tend to develop areas that are increasingly independent or modular which requires an increase in white connective matter. Understanding the brain’s connectivity is likely a key component of understanding human consciousness. Further, many researchers are now emphasizing the failure of previous metaphors such as the brain being “hard-wired” which does not capture the way in which brains are shaped through interactions and development (i.e. “wet-wired”).


To better understand how it is that experiences help shape the brain, Downey and Lende draw on the concept of niche construction which emphasizes the role that organisms play in shaping their own environment and subsequent selective pressures.

The authors argue that niche construction provides a place for cultural researchers within evolutionary studies–an interdisciplinary relationship that is too rarely created. This relationship is absolutely necessary since an understanding of human “intelligence” cannot be obtained by looking simply at the size and structure of the brain. Rather, we must also consider how our social relationships allow us to transfer and amass all of the components that we regard as forms of “intelligence” (e.g., technology, skills, information). Moreover, the authors emphasize how emotions, motivation, and perception are all factors that play into our social and cultural complexity and, thus, cognitive evolution.


This last section of the chapter was by far my favorite as I feel the authors made a convincing argument for the role of culture and social relationships in our understanding of human evolution. Additionally, I think that they do a great job of not allowing those who are skeptical or critical of previous evolutionary research to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” I think their point is best summed up in the following quote:

Powerful, but overly simple, models of evolution that assume evolutionary traits will necessarily result in human universals need to give way, not to erase evolutionary explanations, but to provide richer accounts that incorporate data emerging from genetics, paleoanthropology, comparative neuroscience, and anthropology, including research on human diversity (p. 124).


The lead author for this paper is Dr. Joshua Balsters whose research interests are in the area of social and emotional decision making. While not covered in the article, Dr. Balsters states that his specific interest is in Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) which he studies using a combination of fMRI, EEG, and computational modeling.


Capuchin Monkey

At the broadest level, the researchers are interested in whether the process of brain evolution is mosaic (i.e. evolutionary pressures act on individual neural structures) or concerted (i.e. evolution acts on interconnected parts of the brain that comprise whole functional systems). To test this, the researchers examine the cortico-cerebellar system in three different primate species: humans, chimpanzees, and capuchin monkeys.



The study consisted of obtaining high-resolution MRI scans from 10 primates from each of the previously mentioned species (5 females and 5 males). All of the included primates had either reached sexual maturity or were close. The researchers were able to isolate the cerebellum and examine the lobules related to the primary motor cortex and the prefrontal cortex.


The data demonstrate that the lobules related to motor and prefrontal cortex occupy a greater proportion of the human cerebellum (83.87%) as compared to chimpanzees (67.1%) and capuchin monkeys (56.82%). Moreover, the results show that where there were increases in the prefrontal cortex, there were proportional decreases in the motor cortex. Since the volume of areas of the prefrontal cortex increased relative to cerebellar lobules connected to the motor cortex, these data suggest that these associated functional systems evolved together.

Cerebellum in Humans


This study provides support for the idea that brain systems evolve in a concerted fashion. The results from this study are important as they suggest a potential route to find clues regarding the evolutionary pressures that may have contributed to various expansions in the brain. Additionally, this research demonstrates how comparative MRI can be utilized to examine differences across primates.


I was able to somewhat follow the methodology of this study; however, I found myself both intrigued and somewhat intimidated by what I couldn’t grasp. This makes me wonder about some of the practical issues with interdisciplinary collaboration. I loved Downey and Lende’s description of how cultural researchers could and should be involved in evolutionary research, but there will likely be some limitations to this collaboration. In many ways, Balsters et al. (2009) is speaking a different language with words and acronyms that will have no meaning to someone who is not well-versed in the cognitive literature. Even simply grasping the hypothesis or overall finding for the study would likely be quite difficult for someone outside the field to grasp. Here is our challenge: if we were to reduce the complexity of the article, perhaps more researchers could understand the results; contrastly, researchers most likely to utilize this study will need a detailed report of the methodology and results in order to replicate or expand on this study. How do we find this balance? 


  • How would our understanding of human brain evolution be different if we didn’t consider it in terms of niche construction?
  • What are some arguments against the idea that humans have “unusual cognitive abilities?”
  • In light of new ideas regarding “dual-inheritance,” what are some reasons why anthropologists might be uniquely qualified to examine human cognitive evolution?
  • How might we define “culture” in evolutionary terms?
  • With the full acknowledgement that there is very likely more than one explanation for human brain encephalization, what is your favorite theory for why humans evolved such large and complex brains?
  • How can we encourage interdisciplinary research when each field has their own “language”?

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Cognition, learning, and evolution in human and non-human primates

Primate Social Cognition, Human Evolution, and Niche Construction
Evolution of a student

The old image of a human evolving from an ape by gradually getting more upright is a common way to portray the concept of evolution, even though the imagery portrays a slightly incorrect concept: humans did not evolve “from apes,” modern day humans and modern day non-human primates evolved from a common ancestor. While this distinction may seem semantic, it’s important to note because the study of modern non-human primates is not quite exactly the same as peering back into our own evolutionary history. It can, however, still offer incredible insights into the overall evolution of our species, especially when it comes to cognition and learning, and offers clues as to how our species’ brain evolved the way it did. That is, studying cognition across the Primate order can provide a framework for understanding cognitive functioning and evolution.

One of the key commonalities all primates share is a dependence on close social relationships for support with security, food resources, and child rearing (MacKinnon and Fuentes 2012). Living in stable social groups allowed early primates to be able to deal with threats more efficiently. This lead to changes in the environment, such as, among other things, predators deciding to go after other pray. As threats lessened as a result of the adaptation of social groups, primates were then able to spend more time and energy in building social relationships, exploring territory, and experimenting with different foraging strategies (MacKinnon and Fuentes 2012). All of this lead to primates both requiring and having the opportunity to increase cognitive functioning. In this way, primates shaped their environment and were in turn shaped by the changing environment. This concept is called niche construction—primates created a niche for themselves in their environment that shaped both the environment and their evolution. This concept illuminates some of the intricacies involved in understanding evolution: the model of organisms merely adapting to their environments for the purpose of survival doesn’t quite capture the complexity involved.

Human niche construction and evolution, specifically, depended upon an increasingly sophisticated way of interacting with the environment. With the use of more tools, better survivability rates for infants, and increasingly complex methods of communication, early humans were able to efficiently increase their territory and cooperate within and among groups. The success of these adaptations meant more resources, and the conditions were fertile for the evolution of human cognition.

This chapter gives a good, easy to understand overview of the evolution of primate cognition, and makes a good case for the purpose of studying primate cognition in neuroanthropology. Of course, as an overview it ends up lacking in some specificity of the concepts covered, but the following articles address some of the more important areas more in-depth.

Understanding Primate Brain Evolution

The increasingly social nature of primates, as well as the increasing complexity of interactions with the environment, lead to an increase in the types of interactions and concepts that needed to be exchanged. To put it another way, the complexity of interactions increased. This is the basic idea behind the social brain hypothesis, which says that brain size, specifically the neocortex, is correlated with not just group size but the complexity of relationships within a social group (Dunbar and Shultz 2007). Some examples of complex social interactions necessary for survival in large groups that primates exhibit that require higher cognitive functioning include tactical deception, social play, and the use of subtle social strategies (Dunbar and Shultz 2007). The increase in neocortex size does not come without some tradeoffs, however: diet, infant care, and development have all shifted to account for the change in brain size necessitated by and necessary for increasingly complex social interactions.

This article is a thorough examination of the variables at stake in understanding the evolution of primate cognition. However, the statistical analyses and language used make it unapproachable for a casual reader. The previous piece covers the subject material in a more approachable way, though certainly doesn’t go into the depth of what’s involved in the social brain hypothesis.

Play, Social Learning, and Teaching

Complex social interactions like the ones required for primate survival, and that lead to the evolved human brain, needed to have been passed down from generation to generation in order to be evolutionary. One primary way learning of this kind takes place is through social play. Play is, in terms of survival, both costly and risky, which means that it likely has significant adaptive value (Konner 2010). As it turns out, the smartest animals are the ones that play the most, and it’s likely these two things co-evolved (Konner 2010). Interestingly, while the size of the neocortex is associated with intelligence and social complexity, the capacity for play appears to be housed in the limbic system, an older and more primitive part of the brain; however, animals with larger brains do play more and the animals with the largest brains play the most (Konner 2010), perhaps reflecting the increased complexity of the learning that needs to occur. For more information on the regions of the brain, see Kalat (2012).

While the process is not fully understood, social learning, unlike basic learning processes, likely takes place due imitative learning, assisted by the mirror-neuron system (MNS; Konner 2010). The MNS activates not only when one observes an action, but also right before an action is taken, which suggests that there is a link to the ability to perceive the intentions of others (Konner 2010).

This chapter comes from a book on childhood and development, so this chapter on social play doesn’t quite go into the specific depth that we might be interested in as neuroanthropologists, especially the neurobiology of social learning. While the mirror-neuron system is interesting and an exciting step toward understanding, its treatment is rather shallow and other systems aren’t included in the explanation.

Primate Cognition

While the above articles explain in varying degrees of accessibility the arguments for the evolutionary path of human cognition, they don’t go into much detail about the cognitive capabilities of our primate ancestors. Understanding the extent of primate cognition could help to understand the capabilities that primates had, prehistorically, that could contribute to and be shaped by their social complexity. According to Beran et al. (2016), controlled attention, episodic and prospective memory, metacognition, and delay of gratification have all been observed in chimpanzees. Non-human primates don’t match the cognitive abilities of humans in these areas, but their presence sheds light on the potential cognitive capabilities of our primate ancestors. Of course, it needs to be kept in mind that their study was done in a controlled laboratory setting with a modern chimpanzee, so the results would be different than a wild primate ancestor.

The scope of research included in this paper is impressive. Each component of cognition is tested well, with good results. While it is a psychology-oriented paper, more discussion of the implications for the understanding of primate evolution would have been welcome. Additionally, there isn’t any discussion of how these cognitive capabilities would be expressed in natural settings.

Questions for consideration:

What is niche construction, and how does it relate to our understanding of evolution? Can you think of any other examples of it?

What is the social brain hypothesis, and how does it relate to the evolution of the brain? What lines of evidence do we have that support this hypothesis?

How do modern advancements in technology alter the way we think about “play” as it relates to social learning?

What do you think about the understanding of gender in play relationships described in Konner’s article?


Beran, Michael J., Charles R. Menzel, Audrey E. Parrish, et al.
2016   Primate Cognition: Attention, Episodic Memory, Prospective Memory, Self-Control, and Metacognition as Examples of Cognitive Control in Nonhuman Primates. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science 7(5): 294–316.

Dunbar, R.I.M, and S. Shultz
2007   Understanding Primate Brain Evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 362(1480): 649–658.

Kalat, James W.
2012   Biological Psychology. Cengage Learning.

Konner, Melvin
2010   The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind. Harvard University Press.

Lende, Daniel H., and Greg Downey, eds.
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