Focusing on the “Environment” in Gene-Environment Interactions

Source: ResearchGate

The lead author of the chapter, Cultural Consonance, Consciousness, and Depression: Genetic Moderating Effects on the Psychological Mediators of Culture, is Dr. William W. Dressler, a professor of Anthropology at The University of Alabama. His work on culture and health has taken place in many settings including urban Great Britain, the Southeast U.S., and, in particular, Brazil where he has conducted research for over 30 years. Two of his main collaborators in Brazil are Dr. Mauro C. Balieiro and Dr. José Ernesto dos Santos, the co-authors of this piece.

Source: LinkedIn

Dr. Mauro C. Balieiro is a professor in the Psychology department at The Paulista University (UNIP), a Brazilian university based in São Paulo. His research topics include clinical psychology, psychoanalysis, and depression.

Source: http://www.joseernesto.com.br/site/

Dr. José Ernesto dos Santos is a professor of Internal Medicine at the University of São Paulo. His skills and expertise include nutrition, metabolism, insulin resistance, and metabolic diseases to name a few.

Overview

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dressler, Balieiro, and dos Santos (2012) focus on gene-environment interactions with a particular emphasis on the environmental aspect of this interplay. The primary research described in the chapter takes place in urban Brazil and centers around how cultural consonance, a measure of how much people actually embody the prototype of a shared cultural model (described in detail below), interacts differently with individuals who possess variants of a genetic polymorphism that codes for a receptor in the serotonin system. Overall, the researchers found a significant relationship between an individual’s genotype and how strongly cultural consonance impacted depressive symptoms. This research provides preliminary evidence for how  genotype can influence the impact of stressful life experiences on an individual and also demonstrates the importance of looking closely at the “environment” in gene-environment interactions.

Source: The Blue Diamond Gallery

Cultural Consonance

Dr. William Dressler first described the theory of cultural consonance which measures the degree to which individuals live up to the shared model of prototypical beliefs and behaviors within a culture. In order to determine what is prototypical, cultural domain analysis and cultural consensus analysis are employed as the first steps in this research design.

Pile Sorting (Source: Medical Anthropology Wiki)

Cultural domain analysis begins with individuals free listing terms that they associate with an area of life that has importance to them (e.g., lifestyles, social support, family life, national identity). Participants are then asked to sort these responses into piles so that terms that are similar are grouped together. The researcher does not specify the number of piles so it is up to each participant to decide how related the different responses are to one another. Through multidimensional scaling and cluster analysis, researchers can then graphically display how the terms are seen as similar and different.

The next step is to determine how much individuals agree on these groupings through cultural consensus analysis. The basic presumption here is that when individuals respond similarly to a set of questions, they are drawing on a shared knowledge base. By looking at correlations between participant’s responses, the researchers can then infer how much an individual understands the culture (referred to by the researchers as cultural competence).  

The results of the cultural consensus analysis are then used by the researchers to create a measure of cultural consonance for each domain. For example, when examining the cultural domain of family life, participants report how many of the items or behaviors apply to their family that were identified as being important in the cultural consensus analysis. A participant’s cultural consonance in a particular domain is then compared to some type of outcome variable, commonly depression. Research has found that individuals with lower cultural consonance tend to score higher on measures of depression and other negative health outcomes.

Source: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Gene-Environment Interactions

Dressler et al.’s research in Brazil looks at how  a single nucleotide polymorphism in the 2A receptor in the serotonin system (-1438G/A) interacted with cultural consonance in family life to predict depressive symptoms. The researchers found that cultural consonance in family life had a larger effect on individuals with the A/A variant as compared to those with the G/A or G/G variant. These results suggest that negative aspects in one’s social environment may result in some genotypes being more vulnerable to developing depressive symptoms than other genotypes. Importantly, in this situation it is neither the genotype nor the environment that is working in isolation; rather, it is the interaction of gene and environment that is important.

My Thoughts

I was very impressed with how the Dressler et al. chapter presented genetic research in a highly accessible manner. As we have discussed throughout this semester, creating writing that can be understood by a variety of audiences is crucial to interdisciplinary research. For instance, many of us struggled with the Balsters et al. article from earlier in the semester because it was written in a more technical language. If neuroanthropology is going to achieve its goal of uniting fields such as neuroscience and anthropology, it is important to make sure that there are pieces available that skip over some of the more complex aspects and summarize the main points.

With that being said, I would say that one drawback of cultural consonance research is that it can be a bit hard at first to wrap your mind around all of the terms due to the similarities of the words being used. For instance, it took me a little while when I first started reading this research to be able to discern the difference between cultural consensus vs. competence vs. consonance. I find this interesting because the concepts are not actually that hard to grasp and once you do get them sorted out in your mind, you cannot really understand where the confusion initially came from. However, I have noticed that I have to be careful when I am describing these ideas to people who are not familiar with this work because I can see the looks of confusion when I start using the terms too quickly. I am curious, did others who weren’t familiar with the cultural consonance literature find themselves confused with the terminology at first as well?

Source: Pixabay

Discussion Questions

  1.  What is the best way to define culture?
  2.  How can Dressler et al.’s research be used to help individuals with depression?
  3.  What did you think about the limitations of the Dressler et al. study and how could this research be improved?
  4.  How could future research further test the link between “culture, consciousness, neurophysiology, and depression”?
  5.  How does embodiment theory relate to cultural consonance?

Suicide Prevention: Insert Culture Here

Authors

This article, Applying Nepali Ethnopscyhology to Psychotherapy for the Treatment of Mental Illness and Prevention of Suicide Among Bhutanese Refugees, was co-written by two MDs, a photographer, and a medical anthropologist with a PhD and an MD. Brandon Kohrt and James L. Griffith both currently hold positions as medical doctors at the George Washington University School of Medicine and this is likely where their decision to collaborate on this study stemmed from.

Brandon Kohrt has both an MD and a PhD. He earned both of these degrees at Emory University in 2009 and has been working in Nepal since 1996. His work in Nepal has included conducting research and aiding victims of war. He is a medical anthropologist and a psychiatrist. Since 2006, Kohrt has worked with the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization and in 2010 he became a consultant to The Carter Center Mental Health Program Liberia Initiative. He currently holds an adjuct associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University and a medical faculty associate position at George Washington University in Washington DC.

James L. Griffith is an MD in psychiatry that he received at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in 1976. He also received an MS in Neurophysiology from the same university in 1979. He is currently a professor and the chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington DC.

Sujen M. Maharjan is a photographer in Nepal.

Damber Timsina at the time that this study was published held a position at Grady Memorial hospital in Atlanta Georgia.

Background on the Conflict

If you’re like me and only somewhat remember talking about the Bhutanese during high school history but you don’t remember a whole lot about it then this section is for you. Bhutan is a small country in Asia that is settled between India and China and next to Nepal. During the 1990s, there was an effort made by the Bhutanese government to rid the country of Lhotshampas, or ethnic Nepalis. An elitist political group in Bhutan viewed this group of people as a cultural threat. During this time, Lhotshampas were beaten, attacked, and killed until the ethnic group was forced to flee Bhutan to neighboring Nepal. By 1996, over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees were living in camps in Nepal. This ethnic group has not been able to return to Bhutan since.

Overview

This article addresses the importance of personalized mental health treatment and the necessity of understanding a person’s background and culture when discussing delicate topics. The authors address how ethnographic practices can be integrated into neuroscience to make treatments more successful.

Part One: Neuroanthropology and Psychotherapy

Neuroanthropology is emphasized throughout this article as a means to bridge the gap between medical care and individual people. It is defined as “the enculturation of the nervous system”. Psychotherapy is the other important concept put forth in this article as a way to use psychological methods to help a person heal. The main components of psychotherapy are laid out as the hope for change, environmental and contextual factors, the relationship with the therapist, and a specific plan. Neuroanthropology steps in to explain the enculturation of a particular person so that a personalized plan can be draw up and so that the therapist knows how to interact with their patient to build a better relationship.

Part Two: From Ethnography to Ethnopscyhology

Ethnography is the primary fieldwork method utilized by cultural anthropologists. It’s a way for the anthropologist to tell the story of the particular culture that they are studying. This section of this article is explaining the process in which psychology has been able to take notes from cultural anthropology and create mental health treatment plans best suited for individuals from cultures other than that of the therapist. The ethnopschological work done for this study includes defining the divisions of self within the Nepali culture. These divisions include heart-mind, brain-mind, and soul. Without an understanding of these divisions, the Nepali refugees would have been unable to receive the help that they needed from their therapists.

One of the most important divisions in Nepali culture that of the brain-mind and the heart-mind. The heart-mind is related to emotional feelings such as sadness and depression while the brain-mind is focused on behavioral control issues. Ailments of the heart-mind that go untreated can often affect the brain-mind. Brain-mind disorders carry heavy social stigma in Nepali culture and knowledge of how to approach this cultural idea is imperative to properly treating mental health issues with Nepali patients.

Part Three: Psychotherapy for Nepali and Bhutanese Patients

Cognitive behavior therapy, interpersonal therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy are three methods that are commonly used with Ethnopscyhology because of how easily these methods can be adapted to fit the needs of the patients. An advantage of Ethnopscyhology is that the therapist is able to act as an ethnographer, meaning that they can communicate with their patient in a way that puts them as ease when discussing their home culture and allows both the patient and therapist to design a treatment plan that best fits the individual.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

A technique designed by Aaron Beck to treat depression, the basic idea of this method is to tackle the ‘automatic thoughts’ associated with negative experiences. The example given in the article was that of a man who suffered seizures after his mother had a stroke and after he was relocated away from his parents upon entering the US. Through CBT, the man and his therapist were able to determine that his seizures were caused by his thoughts that if anything were to happen to his parents that it would be his fault. Through treatment, he was able to overcome these thoughts and develop healthier ways to handle his thoughts of guilt.

Interpersonal Therapy

Harry Stack Sullivan was the man who created the method of interpersonal therapy because he understood the importance of culture and saw the need to address relationships in psychiatric treatment. Based on the ethnographic data collected, the therapists working with the Nepali refugees are aware that issues regarding mental health often affect social status and family relationships. This method of therapy works to reduce relationship disputes and interpersonal sources of distress rather than focusing solely on the individual.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

This method was developed by Marsha Linehan to help people who engaged in self-harm and suicidal behavior. The rate of suicide among the Nepali refugees is 35 of 100,000, which is higher than the national average of 21 of 100,000. At the point that this paper was written this method had not been directly applied to a Nepali refugee. The basic idea of this method is to alter the perceptions the patient has of their emotions and sensations of their stress. The main goal of this treatment method is to lower the rate of self-harm and suicidal behavior.

Part Four: Can Ethnopsychology Usefully Inform Mental Health Interventions in Other Populations?

 

Due to the understanding of Nepali culture, more personalized psychiatric treatment plans can be implemented. During treatment, the therapist was able to work with a fuller knowledge of the patient’s culture and was able to develop a plan that would treat the mental health issue at hand while lowering the social stigma of the disorder for the patient. Ethnopsychology can be used to create personalized treatment plans for patients of all cultures. Generalizations can be made from culture to culture while still altering certain aspects as needed to properly treat a patient.

Summary

It’s very important that the therapist is able to communicate with the patient to work through the issues that the patient is experiencing. In the case of the Nepali refugees, cognitive behavior therapy and interpersonal therapy have proven to be effective in improving the lives of the refugees following their move to the US. Using the same ethnographic processes of learning about new cultures and determining what is socially unacceptable and how the body is divided within these cultures is extremely important in developing the best treatment plan for a patient.

Discuss

  1. How do you think the social stigma of certain mental illnesses impacts treatment here in the United States?
  2. Explain how you would create a treatment plan for a refugee using Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
  3. Where do you think the most stigma lies in our culture and which psychotherapy methods presented here in this article would be most useful in treating mental health illnesses here in our country?
  4. Are there other places in our medical system that could benefit from ethnographic practices and an understanding of different cultures?

Using Cigarettes to Explore why Smart Students do Dumb Things

About the Author

Dr. Peter Stromberg received a BS and BA at Purdue and then received his PhD from Stanford in 1981. He completed post-doc fellowships in psychiatry and human development. He now teaches several Anthropology classes at the University of Tulsa. Although he seems like a charismatic guy, I’m not 100% sure why he got a chile pepper on Rate my Professor.

Subtle Ironies

He starts off the chapter by pointing out how ironic it seems that the smartest kids are the ones that go to college, but that they also allow themselves to pick up these self-destructive habits in college. I’d like to expand that even further—I know everyone has done things that are widely considered bad for you while in college. Whether it’s an all-nighter before a big test you procrastinated on, pizza and ramen on the same day, or drinking to the point of blacking out. All the “best and brightest” at our University can absolutely tell you these behaviors are unhealthy, yet they continue to engage.

As he describes it, these behaviors come from a “lapse in agency”, or losing yourself in the moment. He does a great job breaking apart that terminology, but as I imagine it, the lapse in agency comes at around 2 am during your all-nighter, or after that 7th drink at the party, or anytime you’re around your friends just giggling about things you know no one else would find funny. Agency itself is the concept that we have control of our actions and can therefore be responsible for them. He also mentions that we can recognize others as independent agents who have their own thoughts, feelings, and motives as well. This is what truly sets us apart from other mammals and allows us to have free will—we gossip about each other, set each other up on dates, and play messenger between parties. We have the social capacity to recognize how others may react to our actions and we have to claim responsibility for those actions. Other animals don’t have this ability, and it’s this social manipulation that develops over a lifetime that allows us to become independent agents.

Small Scale Mob Mentality

Once Stromberg sets up this definition and clarifies that it is unique to humans, he begins to explain how, as independent agents, we sometimes don’t understand why we make the decisions we do. One explanation for this is Durkheim’s collective effervescence. Originally used in spiritual and religious practices, this term is applicable to so many other social interactions, as Randall Collins has pointed out and Stromberg adapts for his purposes. A great example of this phenomenon is during football games. You may be shouting things you don’t even understand just because thousands of people around you are also shouting. You’re swept by the feelings and emotions of others so much that it impacts your decision-making and behavior. By making associations between your feelings, the place, and the collective emotions you may make associations with the sport itself. I don’t think he does an excellent job explaining the flow of logic here, but this is how I imagine it: Your emotions → the emotions of the people around you → your emotions → the objects associated with the event + your behavior → how you behave the next time you’re reminded of the situation/ object. To me, it seems like it mixes in classical conditioning, but the author never specifically mentions that. I guess another way to explain it would be that when you’re excited in a social situation, you become conditioned to act that way in similar future situations.

Young, Dumb, and Broke (Khalid)

Once Stromberg sets the scene for our behavior as individuals (and that we are aware how it affects the collective) and for collective behavior (becoming excited and transferring that behavior to future situations) he can start to unravel why the smartest young adults might make thoughtless decisions, like smoking cigarettes. He groups these reason into three categories—imitation and rhythmic entrainment, pretend play, and emotional arousal.

Sorry Not Sorry (Demi Lovato)

As seems obvious to any college student, the first explanation is a social one. All those times in elementary school when you were reminded, “just say no!” were actually for now. In this explanation, smoking follows the classical conditioning model I laid out above, that smoking becomes associated with the social situation. According to Stromberg’s study, the most social people tend to give in to smoking more often than those who do not place value on parties and social gatherings. Just like so many things in Western Culture, cigarettes can be seen as a status symbol. While originally smokers were separated into a higher class, in light of all the negative health ramifications smoking has been transferred to a lower social class. This is another interesting irony in smoking because very few in the lowest social classes can afford to go to college yet smoking still holds that stigma. He also asserts in this argument for social imitation that mirror neurons are at play. Mirror neurons are well established to play a large role in development while a child is learning how to do coordinated movements, but they may also be active later while young adults are learning new activities with social implications (such as smoking).

 

Cool Kids (Echosmith)

His next explanation includes something that I’ve never heard used to describe social situations after about 11-years-old: Pretend play (although I understand the concept continues throughout life, that terminology is typically used in describing children). As I understand it, because smoking is something most of these students would not normally do, they are playing the part of a much “cooler” version of themselves, imitating others they see as cool. A cigarette is just a prop in that game, much like my mom’s makeup was a prop when I pretended to be a princess when I was five. The lapse in agency occurs when students take on this new role and are no longer playing the part of their self, the rational being who knows smoking is bad. This also reminds me of the multiple selves theory, which states that there are actually three selves, a theater of consciousness, the narrator, and the public self, which would be the one who finds it more attractive to smoke in social situations.

Look What You Made Me Do (Taylor Swift)

The third explanation Stromberg gives is one of emotional arousal, which centralizes around Durkheim’s Collective Effervescence. Using mimicry and rhythmic entrainment the collective group involved in the social gathering will collectively feel an amplified emotional state. The agency then shifts from the individual to the group, who are all feeling highly emotionally aroused. This can also translate to a sort of amnesia, where memories become foggy. Through this loss of agency is another time when people may lose their ability to inhibit behaviors they normally would not take part in. By associating this state with smoking, first-year students are probably more likely to continue it into the future, they may seek this dissociated pleasure every time they smoke.

Questions for Conversation:

  1. Mirror neurons are usually studied using fMRIs. Using that, could we develop a procedure to see mirror neurons active in more intricate social situations such as smoking?
  2. Even though nicotine is highly addictive, Stromberg never actually mentions addiction, why do you think that is?
  3. Could smoking in this context be considered a behavioral addiction rather than a physical dependence?
  4. Do you agree with the assertion he made that college students find smoking to hold an “erotic prestige”?

Breaking Down Addiction Into Its Constituent Parts: Neuroscience, Incentive Salience, Environment, and Habits

Dr. Daniel H. Lende

Daniel Lende is an associate professor from the department of anthropology at The University of South Florida. He was trained in medical, psychological, and biological anthropology and public health at Emory University in Georgia. His research interests revolve around substance use and abuse, behavioral health, stress, cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, embodiment, interventions in behavioral health, and risk-factor epidemiology. He has done fieldwork research in both Colombia and the United States. Dr. Lende and Dr. Downey (the other author of our class book) started Neuroanthropology, which is one of The Public Library of Science (PLOS) Blogs.

Addiction and Neuroanthropology

“Addiction and Neuroanthropology” by Daniel H. Lende is a multifaceted explanation of the neural and cultural processes intertwined in drug seeking behavior and addiction. A difference between Colombian ideologies of addiction and North American ideologies is that in Columbia, the problem of addiction doesn’t revolve around pleasure. In Columbia, addiction defies their basic social value, which is protecting family, friends, and the community. In this context, addiction is problematic because drug seeking and using surpasses basic social values. In the United States, however, pleasure is one of the main concerns about addiction. It is viewed as a disease that develops due to one’s biology and self-control. Lende uses both a combination of previous neuroscientific evidence in conjunction with his ethnographic fieldwork to explain how addiction is not a problem of pleasure or the self, but a neuroanthropological conglomerate of a host of factors.

Lende states that addiction is composed of two parts, the compulsive desire for a drug and the drug habit that is formed. Addiction, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) consists of four parts. The first criteria are that addiction involves the experiencing of tolerance and withdrawal. The second discusses how addiction also involves continued drug use despite their impact on health and one’s social life. The third further explains addiction as the persistent desire to use drugs after multiple failed attempts at controlling use. Lastly, the fourth criteria are about how drug use interferes with daily life and roles and obligations are neglected.

So, what drives the actual behaviors associated with addiction? The 1993 theory of addiction proposed by Robinson and Berridge claims that incentive salience is the reason for addiction. This theory led to widespread belief that the mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway was singlehandedly responsible. Lende proposes that this view of addiction is problematic and desire and involvement, or the cultural aspects of drug use, are a couple of the components missing from this explanation.

Neuroscience and Addiction

Previous studies have shown us that addiction involves many interconnected brain areas such as emotion, memory, and choice. Addiction encompasses the basal brain, which is involved in body regulation and activation, limbic circuits associated with emotions and environmental processing, and frontal cortices, which are associated with executive functions such as control, planning, and organization. The neuroscientific aspect of the pursuit of drugs and the repeated use of drugs involves two parts of the mesolimbic pathway, the ventral and dorsal striatum and the ventral tegmental area.

Incentive Salience and Addiction

Reward theory states that environmental stimuli shape animal responses. Berridge and Robinson believe that there are three facets to the reward process. The first is liking, or the hedonic impact, learning, or making predictive associations, and lastly, wanting, or incentive salience. Incentive salience is a type of “wanting” that involves goals, expectations, and future outcomes. Salience, however, is still not the complete picture because desire and involvement are both biological and cultural. Incentive salience is mediated by both the nucleus accumbens and the ventral pallidum. Furthermore, individual experiences, the presence of cues, social contexts, and environmental influences all produce different patterns of firing resulting in differences in salience signaling.

An example that provides a better understanding of the behavioral side of the explanation is adolescent drug use. Students with problems in their home life and academic problems at school see few options for fun, success, or a sense of involvement in either of these settings. When rewards from school and family are absent, these two contexts become irrelevant and lose their incentive salience, therefore, students seek other options and other realms where rewards are provided and incentive salience is present. As Berridge et al. (2009) would sum it up, incentive salience is about a subjective sense of “this matters,” rather than conscious desire. Incentive salience is about the motivation of drug seeking rather than the appreciation of wanting or desiring drugs.

Neuroscience and The Formation of Habits

Habits, as defined by Graybiel (2008), are “learned, repetitive, sequential, context-triggered behaviors performed not in relation to a current or future goal but rather in relation to a pervious goal and the antecedent behavior that most successfully led to achieving that goal.” Habits are a product of both behaviors and neurobiology.

Neurologically, learning about the rewards associated with drug use activates the ventral striatum. As drug use becomes persistent and repetitive, a neural activation shift takes place from the ventral striatum to the dorsal striatum, where activation here serves to maintain drug seeking and drug using habits. Due to this shift, the ventral striatum, which serves to evaluate outcomes and consequence of behaviors, no longer serves its function and behaviors are mechanically produced. Despite increased tolerance, habits mediated by the dorsal striatum become resistant to change regardless of the rewards reaped by that behavior.

An example of this is extinction training in lab rats. Rats trained to press a lever that delivers drugs exhibit neurobiologically mediated behaviors associated with the dorsal striatum. When placed in a different context where lever pressing does not yield drugs, rats continuously lever press although no drugs are administered. Only when the dorsal striatum or nucleus accumbens are lesioned do rat lever pressing behaviors cease.

Behavior and The Formation of Habits

This neurological explanation leads people to believe that addicts find little pleasure in continued drug use. However, behaviorally, drug use may still be a rewarding activity. The social interactions associated with drug use are rewarding despite the blunting of the pharmalogical effects of the drug. Once addiction sets in, oftentimes familial relationships and community involvement decreases and strong social bonds develop between drug users. Even without the same extent of high, the social networks formed with drug users become a major source of social interaction. Additionally, stress increases dorsal striatum activation which further reinforces habitual behaviors.

Summary

Drug use has more incentive salience than other areas of one’s life and becomes habitual. Increased drug use is reinforced because of social bonds between drug users, the neurological rewards associated with the high of the drug, and the activation of habit solidifying brain regions. The more involvement in drug social groups, the more incentive salience signaling increases and drug users seek drugs out even more. This complicated picture of drug use shows how addiction is both neurological and anthropological.

Similar Research

This chapter reminds me of our very first readings that discussed nerves, synapses, neurotransmitters, and different regions of the brain. It also reminds me of the second week’s readings about the encultured brain. Addiction is a perfect example of how the brain is encultured. This chapter shows how a neurological structure could influence behaviors and how an individual’s environment and behaviors also serve to reinforce neural activation patters and solidify these behaviors. This reading also reminded me of articles written by Dr. Gilbert Quintero, a cultural anthropologist who researches the social, cultural, and political economic aspects of drug use. Like Lende, Quintero has also studied young adult populations in the United States.

Towards the end of the chapter Lende touches on the idea of cultural models and how they play a role in the addiction process. If you all don’t already know, Dr. Bill Dressler, here in our very own anthropology department, conducts a lot of research on cultural models. His research focuses on how cultural consonance or discordance with salient cultural models may produce health benefits or may prove to be detrimental to one’s health. Next week’s reading on depression and anxiety discusses this concept further. People who are not culturally consonant with salient cultural models of a “good life” develop higher levels of anxiety than those who are culturally consonant. This relates to Dr. Lende’s argument because as we learned, higher levels of stress increase activation in the dorsal striatum. And as we know, the dorsal striatum serves to maintain and further perpetuate habits. Therefore, stress and anxiety associated with alienation from the community and family, coupled with societies’ negative view of addiction and the addict’s discordant lifestyle with salient cultural models, serve to dig a drug addict deeper into his or her drug pattern.

What I Liked or Didn’t Like

I liked how this chapter began by showing the contrasting ideologies behind addiction in Columbia and the United States. I also liked how the discussion progressed to an explanation of previous beliefs about drug use, addiction, and drug addicts. I believe that Lende’s approach of providing the reader with broader preconceived notions about addiction and his “busting” of these myths is an effective way to draw the reader in and provide alternate explanations. He talks about how historically, people have either taken a strictly neurological approach to addiction or a strictly behavioral approach to addiction. Then, he mends these two arguments by explaining how both are intertwined and are required for an accurate and holistic explanation of addiction.

What I thought was lacking was the organization of the chapter. I felt like there were certain areas that could be more condensed and straight to the point. I also felt that information that should have been presented together was scattered around which made it a little more difficult to grasp. This disorganization made the reader fetch for information and have to piece it all together for a comprehensive understanding. Similarly, I felt that a summary at the end of each section with the key take away points would have been beneficial to understanding how each component of the argument ties into the argument as a whole.

 

Questions for Pondering

  1. If the nucleus accumbens and the dorsal striatum are responsible for forming habitual drug seeking behaviors in addicts, why don’t we just lesion those brain areas?
  2. Why do you think that current drug rehab programs so often fail to change addictive behaviors?
  3. Using what Lende has shared with us, how could we use this knowledge to develop a more effective treatment process?
  4. Some children with negative home lives do not turn to drugs while others do. What do you think determines whether a child turns to drugs or not?
  5. Nature or nurture? Which do you think takes precedent in the context of addiction? Why?

This Is Your Brain on Art

The​ ​Dance​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Scientist

Lennon Hayes

About

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.

(from commons.wikimedia.org)
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

About

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 publicdomainpictures.net)
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.

(from commons.wikimedia.org)
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 (mindbodyhealth.us)

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 hdqwalls.com

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 lifechangehealthinstitute.ie

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.

Overview

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

CULTURE AND THE SOCIALIZATION OF CHILD CARDIOVASCULAR REGULATION AT SCHOOL ENTRY IN THE US

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.

Methods

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?

Sources:

  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 http://pages.uoregon.edu/dslab/BPI.html

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 HolisticHealth.blog.

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 http://www.enjoythemomentrituals.com/.

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 – https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cognition-without-borders/201207/the-embodied-cognition-the-baseball-outfielder
  3. Embodied Cognition: What It Is & Why It’s Important. Jeff Thompson – https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beyond-words/201202/embodied-cognition-what-it-is-why-its-important
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