Holistic Humor: Coping With Breast Cancer

About the Author

Kathryn Bouskill holds both a  BA and MA in Anthropology from Notre Dame and Emory respectively. She is currently  completing a Ph.D. in Anthropology and a M.P.H. in Epidemiology at Emory. She maintains an interest in the topic of breast cancer though her current focus has shifted from ethnographic research on coping mechanisms to the globalization of typically American breast cancer awareness campaigns and their social implications in new contexts, specifically in Austria.

The Author, Kathryn Bouskill
The Author, Kathryn Bouskill

The Big Idea

Kathryn Bouskill decided to take a slightly different look at humor and illness. Traditional interest centers around humor as therapy, the idea that laughter can be a form of medicine, and/or the physiological implications of humor. However, Bouskill preferred to explore how humor was utilized in order to cognitively augment a sociocultural reality through social connection and understanding among survivors. While the fear was an unavoidable constant, by focusing on the comedic aspects of the non-lethal aspects of breast cancer sufferers were able to regain a sense of control while navigating their new role. This presented as true across age, race, and SES.

Neuroanthropology:  Joining Humor and Coping

Discovering the presence of breast cancer is a polarizing moment. Life is almost immediately divided in two categories: life before cancer and life with cancer.  Once a lump is discovered the acceleration into the world of cancer is almost exponential. In an exceptionally short amount of time  a woman loses her health and, for many, most of  her defining feminine features. The experience is not only characterized by sickness but by loss of identity, both personal and social.  Any coping mechanism is defined as managing stressors by the cognitive consideration of the situation within the context of the individuals’ life, i.e. their sociocultural  context. Both humor and coping are rooted within such a context, as responding to humor requires social aptitude and understanding. Bouskill notes that humor is instinctual and is a topic that has lacked popularity through the evolutionary-adaptionist lens as it doesn’t have a necessarily affect fitness one way or another. In all actuality the study of  humor presents difficulty through almost any lens, the most glaringly obvious reason being that it is difficult to find in the lab setting.  Humor study has long been a key topic in enthnography as a means of both as a means of social bonding and deviance. Though there is still much to explore what is known it that it creates a discernible distance between an individual and their suffering.

Breast Cancer in the United States: Politics And Pink Ribbons

The U.S breast cancer awareness movement was prompted in response to the shocking stigmatization and victim-blaming that formerly characterized the disease. Breast cancer is now a common concept as noted by how commonplace it is to see anything and everything bedecked in pink ribbon. While these are great strides forward, the disease has also become feminized and all-encompassing. Most male sufferers are overlooked and the attitude towards the disease serves to further define the diagnosed as a cancer suffer before they are seen as anything else

“We Laughed for Hours!”

The interest in this topic was prompted when an inaugural breast cancer support group meeting had an unexpected affect on the participants. Rather than the tales of hardship and frustration, the organizer was met with three hours of laughter. Most of the ethnographic information was taken from the Midwestern support center that hosted that very meeting. Every participant said that they used humor, as defined by each of the survivors, to cope.

Transitioning to “Cancer World”

The transition to the cancer world is as literal as it is metaphoric. It means coming to grips with the realities of suffering from breast cancer, dealing with each and every physical and emotional facet. Survivors from the center and associated biomedical clinic formed deep connections to other sufferers and staff, often communicating outside of scheduled meetings. “Cancer World” becomes a social haven though it continues to be a physical hell. The solidarity is an earmark of their world.  The support center becomes a place where they are no longer required to be the valiant survivor, they can feel their feeling and express them any way they choose. Typically this turns out to be a form of humor that could be considered to the layperson to be morbid, but is simply an expression of their reality. Time also plays a role in the transition, as most sufferers will not be wise cracking about shaving their heads at their first chemotherapy appointment. It is a fluid process of acceptance.

Dealing with “Cancer World”

The psychological stress that accompanies the diagnosis of cancer arises in many forms.  Where does one turn to deal with such an outpouring of change and emotion? Having an outlet along with locale and label assist in modulating such stress responses. Social support leads to lower cortisol levels and overall better quality of life. Humor cultivates the social bonds that lead to these marked physiological and psychological changes. The participants noted that humor allowed them to take their minds off of the negative aspects of the disease, whereas dwelling and complaining only seemed to give is power over their minds in addition to their bodies

Language, Humor, and Meaning

Linguistically, humor alters meaning.  It allows people to joke about the serious as well as the inherently humorous. Within this support center is acted as a mode of changing the minds of those who suffered to a frame of mind that allowed them to accept and cope with their situation. Humor does not remove their stress but it does serve to lessen their anxiety. Though metaphor and idiomatic reference, their orient themselves within their own world as well as the one outside.

Recess and Reward: The Positive  Effects of Humor

Physiologically humor does actually provide physical advantages.  If is looked at as a reward then is can be linked to the  mesolimbic  dipaminergic reward system . It also activates the medial ventral prefrontal cortex,  as seen through fMRI data. Women are seen to experience  greater reward response from the language processing centers than their male counterparts. Additionally coping via humor seems to lower the systolic blood pressure in women. Humor, however, is too complex to be looked at in a purely neurological manner. Activation of neural reward centers is dependent upon social interactions and context. It cannot simply be chalked up to neural reward, as that explanation is far to simplistic.

Conclusion

Humor allows breast cancer suffers a cognitive coping mechanism in three ways: 1.  It is a form of optimism that forces acceptance but also allows mental distance from stress 2. Allows a fluid transition to coping and finally 3. It taps into the human suite of traits that allow for stress relief and social group bonding through its instigation and laughter response.

All three of the above reasons are also challenges to how breast cancer and coping was previously assumed to be understood.

Emotions (Fear Faces)

The Authors: The article entitled “Cultural Specificity in Amygdala Response to Fear Faces” was researched by Joan Y. Chiao, Tetsuya Iidaka, Heather L. Gordon, Junpei Nogawa, Moshe Bar, Elissa Aminoff, Norihiro Sadato, and Nalini Ambady. All of these researchers sought to study the amygdala and whether cultural specificity had an affect on the neural response to fear faces.

Intro: The human amygdala is greatly activated to fear faces. It is thought that this heightened response is a reflection of an adaptive social signal to either warn or solicit help from others. Prior neuroimaging studies have only examined amygdala response to different emotional stimuli in participants within the same culture and not cross culturally, it remains unknown whether culture affects the neural response to fear faces. The researchers’ decided to test their hypotheses on two distinct cultures, native Japanese in Japan and Caucasians in the United States.

fear 1-001

Hypotheses: The authors had came up with two hypotheses for this research.
H1: Given automatic, prepotent nature of amygdala response to fear faces and the adaptive importance of responding to any signal of imminent danger in the environment, cultural affiliation will not affect the amygdala response to fear faces.
H2: Amygdala response may be enhanced for own- culture fear faces, given the greater similarity between self and other members of the same cultural group.

Experiment:
The purpose of the present work was to investigate these two competing hypotheses regarding culture and neural activation in response to fear faces. The researchers used event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging in two distinct cultures to investigate cultural specificity in the amygdala’s response. In total the experiment had 20 healthy participants both men and women between the ages of 18-25 years, with corrected- to-normal vision, that were right- handed. The experiment used digitized grayscale pictures of 80 faces each with either a fearful, a neutral, a happy, or an angry expression taken from Japanese and Caucasian posers (20 men and 20 women from each cultural group). All participants were tested within their own culture by an experimenter who conducted the study in their native language, for each trial participants made an emotion categorization judgment using one of four buttons, the order of the stimuli was randomized within and between functional runs.

amygdala
Results:
The fMRI results were evaluated in two different ways, through actual activation of the amygdala and response time/accuracy of emotions. Consistent with the researcher’s hypotheses, whole brain analyses revealed greater activation within regions of left and right amygdala for own culture compared to other-culture fear faces. Greater response to own-culture fear faces was also found in medial-temporal regions critical to successful encoding and retrieval of faces. The study showed that Caucasian participants were significantly more accurate at recognizing fear in their own-culture relative to other culture faces, while Japanese participants were faster in recognizing fear relative to Caucasian participants. To examine whether a culture of participant and a culture of face was present at higher thresholds, anatomical ROI analyses were also conducted. The anatomical ROI analyses also confirmed that amygdala response for recognizing fear was significantly greater for member’s of one’s own culture compared to other cultural groups. No other significant response for other emotional expressions were found in the ROI analyses.

In sum, the study demonstrates that cultural specificity ( or membership) modulates the brain’s primary response to fear. This is significant because the previously demonstration of the automatic, prepotent nature of the amygdala responses to fear faces underscores the significance of further cross-cultural testing at the neural level.

Recall Your Way to Health

Biographical Sketch

Dr. Cameron Hay is a premier cultural anthropologist in the study of health, medical systems, and medical knowledge, her major project being ethnography and comparison of the Sasak people of Lambok, Indonesia and their medical practice to American people. She cites her father as her strongest intellectual influence for his empathy and critical eye. Jon Andelson and Ron Kurtz sparked her interest in anthropology at Grinnell College. At Emory University, Dr. Hays earned her MA and  Ph.D. in anthropology with a biocultural focus. Earning a NSF Advanced Fellows award helped her continue her postdoctoral studies at UCLA, where she currently holds her secondary position as an associate research anthropologist.  She published her her first major paper in 1999 in the Medical Anthropology journal under the title “Dying Mothers: Maternal Mortality in Rural Indonesia.” Since then she has published 18 other papers and a book, Remembering to Live: Illness at the Intersection of Anxiety and Knowledge in Rural Indonesia.

Challenging Understanding of Medical Learning

Hay hopes to demonstrate three things about medical practice in particular and the effect of culture on the neurology of learning as a whole. The cultural context of medical learning affects how important different types of knowledge appear, in turn changing what and how we recall information. What information we tend to recall and how we recall it over time affects the tradition and practice of medicine.This process of ‘co-creation’ between medical knowledge and medical practice extends to “anytime learning takes place” (142). The process of learning then is generalized, not compartmentalized as academia would make it seem. Knowledge affects how we learn and is both culturally contextual and holistic.

Sasak Medical Tradition

Sasak tradition practiced in impoverished, rural community that continues to deal with the consequences of “domination, exploitation, and extraction.” Their history contributes to malnutrition, low wealth, low literacy, and life expectancy being around 50 years. Nevertheless, they have a self-sufficient medical practice, one not dependent on outside aid, in the form of jampi, “inherently potent sequences of words.” These words are memorized and used sparingly so as not to diminish their efficacy.

Although the Sasak medical tradition is vastly different from American medical practice and the communities American practice thrives in, Hay maintains that they can both be understood in terms of medical terminology, organization, and retrieval co-evolving to suit the needs of the community.

The Sasak regard biomedical care as speeding recovery but not healing like jampi. Jampi act as memorized responses to illness and are precious in part because they are not written down.  Giving and receiving jampi requires isolation. To limit degredation of memory, Sasak employ “multiple constraints:” consistent form, limited words around the limit of human memory capacity, the association of jampi with great importance leading to heightened arousal and thus encoding, self-concept of healers reinforcing already strong recall, and the intentional encoding based on future need. Because of the importance of memorization, Sasak tradition relies on the hippocampus, medial temporal lobes, and prefrontal cortex.

American Medical Tradition

American practice relies on several assumptions. Skilled practice is supposedly scientifically sound, with medical education valuing semantic knowledge over episodic. By being consistent, American practice hopes to avoid individual variation, especially through guidlines, even though American students are not good at memorization. American practice also assumes that it can be wrong, and thus can always be improved. Physicians tend to become more skeptical the more experience they have reading journals and practicing. Finally, American practice does not transfer knowledge of how medicine works in practice, but expects students to gain a holistic view over time.

Embodied cognition offers a way to understand why practical experience and episodic memory serve physicians better than semantic memory. Cognitive action can stimulate motor action, generating procedural memories. Procedural memory and episodic memory combine to make schemas, maps of one’s knowledge and appropriate response; the process of memory consolidation is closely tied to the hippocampus and neocortex, which takes over the cognitive burden. Over time and with enough reinforcement schemas become hippocampal independent and automatic, employing the basal ganglia and caudate.

Diagnosis and Motivation

Illness not recognized immediately push both Sasak and American healers toward more effortful recall. In Sasak communities, when few people gather, there are fewer jampi and low anxiety, but larger groups talk more often about illness, increasing anxiety and the stress response. Stress leads to release norepinephrine, activating the amygdala and thalamus, increasing attentiveness and potentially leading to activation of the hippocampus, facilitating recall. Since American healers tend not to rely on recall as much, stress pushes physicians to external resources, which might then be reintegrated by the stimulated hippocampus into their schema of treatment. Each of these strategies have a use: the Sasak reliance on memorization and connection to specific individuals helps when someone does not have personal experience treating an illness, whereas the American dependence on schemas and skepticism is suited to developing procedures for and diagnosis of new diseases.

Psychtable

psychtable 2

Body Image: the slave driver of behavior, the mediator of perception

Biographical Sketch (The man behind the article)

Charles D. Laughlin is one of the pioneers of the theory of biogenetic structuralism in neuroanthropology. In 1966 he completed his anthropology B.A. at San Francisco State College. Unlike the youth of today (myself included) who take a leisurely year off after college, Dr. Laughlin spent one postgraduate year as a senior fellow for the Institute of Neurological Sciences at UPenn. He earned a M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Oregon in 1968 and 1972, respectively. For over twenty-five years, Dr. Laughlin taught anthropology at Carleton University located in Ottawa, Canada. He retired in 2001, gaining that ever so coveted emeritus status in Anthropology and Religion.  He has not, however, retired from talking about interesting topics.  He has a blog and a website!  On his website he provides a glossary of terms that prove to be very helpful in understanding this article.

In the 1997 article “Body, Brain, and Behavior: The Neuroanthropology of the Body Image,” Dr. Laughlin takes a biogenetic structuralist approach in understanding human body image.

Origins

Body image develops out of the genetically prescribed organization of the prenatal and perinatal nervous system. Body image is essentially born before we are, in our neurognostic structures.

Before I exited the womb, I had a developing body image!  Even before I was born I was a Demon Deacon! This initiated my behavior of getting at B.A. from Wake Forest University in 2012.
Before I exited the womb, I had a developing body image! Even before I was born I was a Demon Deacon! This initiated my behavior of getting at B.A. from Wake Forest University in 2012.

Development (Growing into your body…image)

Body image develops under the influence of genetic and sociocultural factors. The organism has to respond to the demands of the environment in which it is placed. Therefore, the organism must actively produce and preserve the self-organization that is adapted to said environment.   I view this idea as the equivalent of niche construction in the cognized environment.

Environment (If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?)

A complex series of models are produced during this cycle of self-promotion which tell us how to experience both our bodies and the outside world. These models combine to form the cognized environment. The operational environment is a transcendental reality and is separate from our knowledge of the world and our soma.

The trees represent our operational environment which transcendental from our cognized environment represented here as the path we walk.
The trees represent our operational environment which is transcendental from our cognized environment, represented here as the path we walk.

What is Body Image?

Body image is an integral part of the cognized environment. Psychologically, body image is a conglomeration of models that dictate how we experience our body. Physically, body image is a system of synchronized networks known as neural entrainments. While these entrainments are born out of neurognostic structures that are “hard-wired,” this origin does not preclude our body image from being neurally plastic. It is important to note that multiple entrainments work together to produce body image. Some of the associated entrainments are cognitive, affective, and somatic.

Imagery

There are many properties of images and Laughlin modifies the list of characteristics found in Morris and Hampson’s (1983) classification. These include abstraction, penetration, inspection and scanning, system limitations, reverberation, image transformation, memory induced transformation, transformation of part or whole, perception and imagination, and vividness. These properties underlie the tenuous connection between sense and perception. Sensorial events may occur internally, in the absence of any external perception as is the case with imagery produced by dreams or hallucinations.

Images also come in many forms: memory images, imagination images, after-images, dream images, hallucinations, hypnagogic/hypnopompic images, and eidetic images. For Laughlin, the images most pertinent to our discussion of body image are those that are produced by memory, perception, or a combination of both. Here he enters in an interesting conversation on brain hemisphere dominance. I appreciated this little reprieve in the middle of the article because it is a topic that I am more familiar with. Leaving the meta philosophy behind for a second, Laughlin breaks down hemispheric differences in regard to processing and remembering nonverbal imagery. I find this to be a more complex and nuanced presentation of the colloquial understanding that the right hemisphere is creative and the left is analytic. I do feel that this section lacks the depth of knowledge found in other sections. This might be a product of my slightly increased understanding of hemisphere dominance (or lack thereof). The rest of the article is a little above my pay grade, so to speak. Or, maybe the research just isn’t there yet.

Behavior’s Role (“Behave yourself!” to control perception)

Neural models demand investment and upkeep like a well-landscaped front lawn. Laughlin describes entrainments as “living models” that are “ever-changing.” Models associated with body image are constantly evoked, fulfilled, and expressed through behavior that involves perception and entrains networks.

The Powers model states that all behavior functions in a cybernetic, negative feedback loop. When applied to body image, this means that behavior is directed by the organism to manage perception. Body perception must approximate body expectations as put forth by the organism’s body image.

Combining a) the idea of body image and its entrainments as “living” and b) the theory of cybernetic behavior, it is easy to see how c) fulfillment mode works. Laughlin states that body image “‘desires’ its object” (59). Entrainments are activated and produce the perception of the desire which, sometimes, leads to behavior. Here, the model is reinforced by activating its entrainments thereby further increasing its neural robusticity. Fulfillment can be perception based or imagination based.

Body imagery can also be evocative, a process which Laughlin notes could be described as backwards fulfillment. Perception is stimulated either externally or driven by some inward desire. Perception then high-fives models associated with body image (the models respond with a “hey, that reminds me of this image”). The awakened image becomes a spider weaving webs of intentional cognitive associations. Lastly, body imagery may be expressive, which is specifically behavioral (communicative behavior, or transformations of outward appearance of the soma).

Practical Uses of Body Image Knowledge (The “So What?”)

My favorite part of this article is the “Visualization and the Body” section. Here, we learn how we might be able to harness the mechanisms and properties behind body image to promote healthy models. Health disorders associated with body image involve models that have, as Laughlin describes it, “become maladaptively disentrained to perception” (62). If these models that mediate body image are not part of a functioning feedback system, the perceived body image and the expected body image as set up by the models are found to be increasingly at odds. This lead to extreme behavior aimed at controlling perception (anorexic behavior, for example).

Utilizing eidetic imagery, specifically visualization techniques, we can produce important changes in body and body image. These “treatments” are utilized in midwifery and obstetrics, Jungian psychology, and the new field of psychoneuroimmunology.

Eidetic imagery does not come natural to most of us. But, not to worry! You can practice “mental imagery cultivation” and increase your ability to produce images in “the mind’s eye.”

“How Fat is Too Fat?” (A plug for Eileen Anderson-Fye’s research)

Dr. Anderson-Fye reverently gave a talk at the University of Alabama on her research regarding fat stigma in different cultural contexts. Her research highlights the culturally variable nature of body image. As Laughlin notes, our body image is a system of models that tell us how to experience our body and that it desires an object. What this desire is as well as the magnitude of the desire is culturally determined. Dr. Anderson-Fye pointed out that it is unknown how much stigmas affect people’s behaviors. From a neuroanthropological point of view, I would suggest that the obesity stigma does not directly affect behavior but instead targets body image models by altering desire. This altered desire (what the ideal body type is) is culturally based (a normal BMI classification in the US would be considered overweight in Japan) and influences perception of the body which, in turn, initiates behavior.  As Laughlin states, “behavior that transforms the symbolic form of the body is behavior intended to produce a desired perception of the body…and my behavior, especially in public, would tend to be geared in part to maintaining my own and others’ desired perceptions of me” (54).

As Laughlin states, "behavior that transforms the symbolic form of the body is behavior intended to produce a desired perception of the body...and my behavior, especially in public, would tend to be geared in part to maintaining my own and others' desired perceptions of me" (54).
I strike a model’s pose and distort my body for the camera.
Psych Table ratings for the article in question.
Psych Table ratings for the article in question.

Biographical information gleaned from:

Laughlin, C. (2005, September 20). Something About Charlie. Retrieved September 23, 2014, from http://www.biogeneticstructuralism.com/allabout.htm

A Review of This Week’s Readings on the Methods of Neuroanthropology

While I do believe anthropology is one of the most useful and applicable majors out there, I have personally crossed paths with many potential employers who do not share my enthusiasm for the discipline. Whether it is a misunderstanding of the mission or applicability of anthropology, our discipline has people scratching their heads. For the record, anthropologists do not dig up dinosaurs or steal artifacts from ancient and cursed tombs (anymore). I believe that both articles discussed today, Lynn et al. (2014) and Seligman and Brown (2010), turn that head scratching into a knoggin’ knocking “why didn’t I think of that!?” The public has to acknowledge the usefulness of a biocultural approach in understanding the “encultured brain” as Lende and Downey (2012) so aptly put it. Every person loves to hear how special they are. What could be more incising to humanity than describing the intricacies of our big brains and the ways in which our biology influences our culture and vice versa.

Cartoon by Gary Larsen, accessed through www.scienceinseconds.com
Cartoon by Gary Larsen, accessed through www.scienceinseconds.com

Seligman and Brown (2010) focus on the niche construction of cultural neuroscience and how anthropology and social cognitive neuroscience are uniquely capable of combining to answer questions dealing with social construction of emotion, cultural psychiatry, and embodiment of ritual. This article really got me pumped for all of the applications of neuroanthropology whereas Lynn et al. (2014) made me envious of the opportunities awaiting current and future undergraduate students. This latter article focuses on how one might train an army of undergraduate students and prepare them for a future in neuroanthropology. Both of these articles presented me with new and improved methodologies that can be utilized in situ when completing fieldwork. Technologies that measure health and wellness are becoming more portable and affordable. As we know, it is not easy to replicate cultural contexts in a lab. One concern, however, did pop into my head. Seligman and Brown mainly use the term cultural neuroscience whereas Lynn et al. uses the term neuroanthropology. In a fledgling field, it seems to me of the utmost importance to have some agreed upon terms and conditions. Still, I am sure a Sherwood Washburn will come along in time to define neuroanthropology’s past and clearly declare the direction of its future.

A concept of great interest to me, and mentioned in both articles, is dissociation. This interest led me to an article on depersonalization disorder (DPD). Depersonalization can be described as a loss of self. As Adler et al. (2014) puts it, people experience “unreality, detachment, or being an outside observer with respect to one’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, body, etc.” (230). DPD may also involve derealization in which people’s experiences seem surreal and illusionary. Patients often list disruptions in cognitive functioning as a primary symptom of DPD. Adler et al. uses the “Spatial Cueing Paradigm” to assess whether DPD affects the mechanisms behind selective spatial attention. They hypothesize that differences in the selective spatial attention between DPD subjects and control subjects would be magnified during difficult tasks. Response times (RTs) were measured for valid, neutral, and invalid cue trails and RT benefits, RT costs, and total attention directing effect calculated. Then, a discrimination condition was presented in which the subject had to distinguish between two different types of events. They were asked only to respond to the “target.” A total attention directing effect was exhibited by all participants and the only marked differences between DPD patients and healthy participants were present in the high-demand condition. In short, the amount of brainpower a situation calls for affects the attention.

Figure 2 from Adler et al. (2014) that illustrates the valid cuing condition.
Figure 2 from Adler et al. (2014)  illustrating the valid cuing condition.
Figure 3 from Adler et al. (2014) demonstrating the targets of  different conditions.
Figure 3 from Adler et al. (2014) demonstrating the targets of different conditions.

Evolving Brain Stuff, Y’all (part 2)

****Pictures coming soon***

I was especially excited to review “Evolution and the Brain ” from The Encultured Brain because evolution is something that interests me. I really like to see how evolutionary theory applies to different disciplines (can anybody say EvoS?). Theodosius Dobzhansky said “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” I have found that this can apply to many different fields other than biology.

I have studied development in the context of evolution before, but never in a neurological context. This chapter really built onto my existing understanding of human evolution. As someone studying anthropology (I guess this is a neuroanthropology blog), I was especially excited to read about how the human brain and culture interact and how we can understand this interaction in an evolutionary context. Below is a quick summary of the chapter.

About the Authors

Greg Downey is Head of Department and Associate Professor of anthropology at Macquarie University. His interests include, but are not limited to, neuroanthropology, ethnomusicology, economic anthropology, and evolutionary theory. His main research focus is on skill acquisition from a neuroanthropological perspective.

Daniel H. Lende is an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida. His interests include neuroanthropology and biocultural medical anthropology. His research interests focus on substance and abuse, stress, cancer, PTSD, among others.

Together, Downey and Lende run the PLOS (Public Library of Science) blog site. The PLOS blog site is intended to facilitate discussion about science and medicine.

Size Matters

When we talk about how special human brains are, we typically first talk about size. Although size itself is not the only feature important when studying the brain, it is especially important to consider in an evolutionary context. It takes a lot of energy from high quality food sources to develop and maintain large brains. However, absolute size isn’t the determining factor of intelligence, and neither is relative brain size. Rather, the encephalization quotient of an animal best predicts brain and body size relationships. Humans are outliers, with a ~6X higher encephaliztion quotient for mammals our size.

Before our ancestors enjoyed an increase in brain size, they were distinguished by bipedalism. After this initial divergence, our ancestors’ brains tripled in size by two million years ago. Body size also increased, but not at the same rate. Another jump in brain size occurred about 500,000 years ago. Genetic research has revealed a great deal of similarity between humans and chimpanzees (our closest relatives) especially compared to our other primate relatives. Even the small differences in our genes account for huge phenotypic variation.

“Evo-devo” is a recently developed paradigm combining evolutionary theory and developmental biology. The idea that we can look at developmental processes to get an idea of how evolution has shaped us is not a new idea, but only recently has it been a widely accepted way of evaluating how evolution has shaped us.

Structure Matters

Comparative neuroscience is a great way to see how evolution has acted on the brain structure itself. By looking at human brains along with other primates we can see that evolution acts on existing structures, changing the function of a structure instead of creating a completely new structure. One way this is exhibited is by increasing the size of certain regions in proportion to others. There are often trade-offs when this happens; when one region increase another must decrease in order to remain metabolically stable. Humans are especially unique in our hemispheric specializations. This creates a streamlined process for quicker and more varied neural processing but also leaves us highly susceptible to injury (trade-off). Brain regions growing disproportionately is a demonstration of natural selection acting on this growth.

Connections Matter

The larger our brains get, the more neurons we possess, opening up more connections in neural pathways. Evolution acts, not only on the number of neurons in a region, but also on connections within and between regions. In humans, control of our larynx has been affected by a neocortical “invasion,” which is important for language. Other animals do not have these connections, and are therefore missing brain function vital to speech.

Not a Brain Alone

I think it is hard for people to grasp that intelligence is not shaped entirely within. Culture plays a big role in our learning and brain development. During the first three months after birth, there are many neurons in an infant’s brain that adults will not possess. During these three months, vital connections are made, and there is a pruning of neurons that go unused. It is during this time that a lot of cultural cues become ingrained in people. The social intelligence hypothesis places paramount importance on intelligence as a tool for cooperation. The focus is on the individual and how collaborative actions benefit the individual. In the cultural niche hypothesis, emphasis is on the interaction between multiple brain. Many human intelligence innovations could not be possible without the collaboration of multiple peoples’ brains. Regardless, sociality is a large contributing factor to human intelligence.

Evolving Brain Stuff, Y’all

The Authors: The article, entitled “Evolution of the Cerebellar Cortex: The Selective Expansion of Prefrontal-Projecting Cerebellar Lobules,” was researched and written by Dr. John Balsters, E. Cussans, Jörn Diedrichsen, Dr. Kathryn A. Phillips, Dr. Todd M. Preuss, Dr. James K. Rilling, and Dr. Narender Ramnani. All of these people have interests in the cerebellum and motor functions.

 

Hypothesis: The authors predicted that since the prefrontal cortex has evolved to be larger in relation to the motor cortex in humans, there should also be enlargements in the cerebellum, specifically those parts that are associated with the prefrontal cortex, in relation to the lobules of the cerebellum associated with the motor cortex.

 

This shows where the cerebellum is located. The prefrontal cortex is located at the front of the cerebrum and the motor cortex in about the middle of the cerebrum.

 

The Experiment: They decided to test their hypothesis by examining three different primate species, humans, chimpanzees, and capuchin monkeys.  They took ten different subjects for each species, five of these were males and five were females.  All of the subjects were of an age where the brain would have reached full maturity.  High-resolution MRI scans were taken of each of the subject’s brains, as well as structural images. Using various programs, the scans and images were oriented in the same direction, and the cerebellum was eventually isolated from the rest of the brain, so that the scientists were left with only images of the part of the brain they were interested in (those lobules that were associated with the motor loop or the prefrontal loop). They then extracted images for the cerebellar lobules using the FSLView program. The volumes of each of the images of the cerebellar lobules were then calculated. The specific parts of the cerebellum they isolated were Lobule V, Lobule VI, Crus I, Crus II, Lobule VIIb, and Lobule VIIIa. After completing the calculations of the volumes of the lobules, they decided to compare the volumes measured against the volume of the whole cerebellum and against the sum of the volumes that had been masked, which are those related to the motor and prefrontal cortex.

 

A capuchin monkey

 

Results: In reference to the lobules of the cerebellum when compared to the whole cerebellum, the largest differences across the species came from the comparisons with Crus I and Crus II, in which humans were found to have the greatest proportion, followed by chimpanzees and then the capuchin monkeys.

A chimpanzee

 

In reference to the lobules of the cerebellum when compared to the masked volumes, it was found that the volumes of the masked lobules occupied the greatest portion of the cerebellum in humans, followed by chimpanzees and then capuchin monkeys respectively. Through this comparison, it was again shown that the greatest differences between species came from the Crus I and Crus II sections.

 

Difference in size of a human brain (left) and a chimpanzee brain (right).

Discussion: They have shown that the evolution of the cortical lobules is directly related to the evolution of the neocortical areas that are associated with them. Crus I and Crus II specifically are much larger than other lobules associated with the primary motor cortex. It was also discovered that Crus I and Crus II in capuchin monkeys are significantly smaller than Crus I and Crus II in humans and chimpanzees. The enlargements in the cerebellar cortex relate to those of the prefrontal cortex in all of the species. These enlargements in the human brain correlate specifically to its functional specializations.

The scientists compare their data to that of the brains of Old World monkeys and hypothesize that the volumes of Old World monkeys should fall in between those of the chimpanzees and the capuchin monkeys, which upon further examination proves to be accurate in the observation of one macaque monkey.

The allometric trends that could arise due to these differences between the species are an area the scientists think needs more study and that they did not examine specifically.  They do, however, state that humans definitely depart from the isometric trends, which they attribute to the differences in the cerebellum.

The enlargement of the prefrontal cortex in humans had been attributed to white matter expansions as opposed to grey matter.  This study suggests the opposite. It is mentioned that the cerebellum is largely made of white matter, but the lobules that were examined in this study were largely comprised of grey matter, which is the reason for the shift.

 

My comments: I found this article to be incredibly difficult to understand, which was surprising to me because I do not usually find myself struggling to read articles about research experiments.  That being said, research articles such as this are very often written with a specific audience in mind and are therefore fairly exclusionary to the general public. The problem with this is that laymen can not find materials to read on subjects like this because they are largely unreadable to the public. It can cause a lot of misunderstanding or loss of interest in subjects such as this because most people will not usually try to wrestle with and understand much of the scientific jargon used in the article.

Sports Culture

I know I’m late with my introductory blog, but hopefully I am doing this right and you all enjoy!

 

I really struggled to come up with a specific topic to write about because outside of this whole school thing I feel like I am all over the place. Then I realized the whole reason I felt like I was all over the place was because of sports. My whole life I have either been at school or at a practice. Although I no longer play sports,  I am fortunate enough to have landed an internship with the Athletic Events Management Department here at Alabama. I have been to about 65% of all of the athletic events on campus in the past 3 years. Now looking back, that’s  A LOT of my time. I would consider my internship more of a hobby because I do not get any form of school credit for it, just a resume’ boost honestly.

Aside from just Alabama Athletics, I am simply obsessed with sports. My TV is constantly on ESPN, my twitter feed, instagram, email, notifications on my phone -everything is filled with sports information. My favorite sports however are football, basketball, and softball.  I was the little girl at all the football games with her dad , who could name all the positions, the plays, the players, etc. Similar to Hayden Panettiere’s role in Remember the Titans, well the good parts of her role, (Ironically, I grew up a Tennessee Titans fan).  Basketball was a big family sport to watch when I was younger. My Filipino family has always been obsessed with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Basketball is a very popular sport in the Philippines, although most Filipino’s do not have the height for the sport they still very much appreciate and play the game. Literally, my cousin was so obsessed with basketball he named his daughter MJ(after Michael Jordan). I cannot make this type of stuff up.  Lastly, softball is one of my favorite sports because I played it for over 15 years. I miss the game a lot, but I thought I wanted to have a life. Little did I know that my life would still be consumed with it in some form or way.

Sports are thought to some as an element of culture. It is interesting to see it’s on going evolution within our culture to being considered only form of entertainment and to almost a subculture within its itself.

Historically: Sports can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, where healthy, athletic bodies were very evident in their art and where the Olympics originated from. Progressively during the World Wars, there was steady growth in the participation of sports continued for all classes of society to where we are today, as a part of a national culture that extends to majority of the population.

Proximally: The only way I can explain this is by saying since I was raised playing sports, watching sports, and being around different sports that is was only seemed fitting for me to like them as much as I do. It’s a good possibility that since I was always with my dad more than my mom that could have heavily influenced my perception.  I also met all my best friends through playing sports, being at the ballpark, and places like that. We were all raised through sports.

Developmental: Of course as a child I wanted to be around my friends as much as possible and essentially have play time with them.  So wanting to have friends and be around friends is appropriate for developing children. Sports also helps teach rules, social skills, and not to mention physical development.

Functionally: Physical development is an obvious pro of sports, I would like to think that not only does it help with one’s body but  the mind also. There’s been several studies done where sports help with stress and looking back at history sports have been used to promote peace and unification for culture’s also.

This isn’t the last you will hear about me talking about sports culture, this barely scratches the surface. But here is a pic of me working the first football game of last season with my coworkers. Hope to see you all at Bryant Denny Saturday!

 

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Musings on the Usefulness of Mindfulness Meditation

I’ve been thinking about centering my research topic around an investigate of the usefulness of mindfulness meditation, a practice taken to new heights by the Shaolin monks, in treating the traveling malady culture shock .  It would be interesting to look at several different subsets of travelers: students studying abroad, military members about to deploy, and anthropologists completing ethnographic research.

H1: The practice of mindfulness meditation influences degree of environmental familiarity.  (This hypothesis would involve an ethnographic study of the  Shaolin monks and an examination of the mind-body connection in the novices as compared with the masters)

H2: The degree of environmental familiarity influences how the mind-body connection is perceived. (Questionnaire measuring mind-body dissonance taken before trip and after arrival)

H3: Conditions involving disorientation such as culture shock can be managed by practicing mindfulness meditation. (Half of the subject set to practice mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes a day for the entirety of the trip. Questionnaire measuring mind-body dissonance taken every two weeks)

A student studying abroad in St. Croix.
A student studying abroad in St. Croix.

-C.M

Primate Social Cognition

The Following is a brief summary of “Understanding Primate Brain Evolution” by R.I.M Dunbar and Susan Shultz. The researcher begin by describing the original social brain hypothesis, which was used to explain why primates have larger brains compared to their body size when compared to other vertebrates. Throughout this explanation they state that the limiting factor for research into the limit of the social brain hypothesis is the small amount of attempts to to evaluate if the relationship between brain size and group size is truly bound to these variables. Their points to prove throughout the research were to:

  1. confirm the original findings hold up to not only primates but a wider perspective across the mammalian spectrum, and
  2. View brain evolution within a broader perspective.

As the social brain hypothesis was extensively tested on primates, research from Perez-Barberia & Gordon (2005) and Shultz & Dunbar (2006) have been able to show that social species have a larger brain. It was also considered that habitat may play a part as those in mixed habitats had a larger brain than that of the mammals in the open or closed habitat. Dunbar and Shultz stated, “that the two traits are under tightly coupled selection; changes in one trait (sociality) are only possible if they are associated with changes in the other trait (brain size)”

Perez-Barberia’s analysis provided a hand for lagging evolution throughout the 3 different habitats but did not find consistent pathways for these findings. Thus providing a “flexibility” or lack of cohesion within the groups.

To evaluate a in greater depth the relationship between brain size and association  between species-specific behavioral, ecological, life-history characteristics, etc to the social brain hypothesis, Shultz & Dunbar created an evaluation in which a three-step analysis.

  1. the univariate analyses in which the different behavioral and ecological traits are measured with how much they associate with measures of the brain size.
  2. the use of general linear models to test alternative models of the characteristics and how they relate to both brain size and being social.
  3. They built a test a path model to integrate life history, ecology and social complexity as causes and consequences of brain size.

With this test they found that the brain volume correlates with the sociality of the vertebrates. In primates particularly, it is a strong relationship to the size of the social group but more importantly the act of “social play”.

Along with the size of the brain it was found that the neocortex in some cases also appeared larger within primates. Pointing to the importance of the frontal lobe.

With this information discovered, they have a very small look as to how the brain produces these effects and suggested that as brain size increases, a disproportioned computational power becomes available. Thus allowing for increasingly sophistication in social behavior of the primate or animal in question.

The experiment as a whole is a very grand idea and gave one a closer insight into the wonders of the brain and how ones surrounding can affect characteristics like sociality or brain size. I would want to look more into the genetic mechanics behind this or if they in fact play a part big or small into the outcome of the brain size, learning, or intelligence level.

—A.A

Chapter 3

The following is a brief summary of chapter 3 of the book “The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology” edited by Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey. The title of the chapter is “Primate Social Cognition, Human Evolution, and Niche Construction: A Core Context for Neuroanthropology.” It was written by Catherine C. MacKinnon and Augustine Fuentes. The authors begin their discussion with the background of primatology. In the 1930s up through the 1950s researchers were focused on studies of social behavior and ecology of the nonhuman primates. In 1951, Sherwood Washburn called for a “new physical anthropology” in which research would integrate laboratory and field studies, examine comparative anatomy and functional morphology, and describe the links between ecology and behavior. In the 1960s and the 1970s fieldwork was conducted with chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, and orangutans by researchers such as Jane Goodall, Diane Fosse, and Birute Galdikas. In the field of psychology, Harry Harlow conducted his notorious experiments on the significance of primate mother – infant attachment and social bonding. In the 1970s and the 1980s the focus turned to social biology and evolutionary psychology. Here researchers focused on how human brains gained cognitive components that evolved to solve the reproductive problems faced by our hunter gatherer ancestors.

Primates, including humans, share various general characteristics including; prehensile hands and feet, a reliance on visual and tactile sensory pathways, extended periods of infant dependency and development, and significantly enlarged brain to body size ratios. The expansion of the visual system is seen as being tied to sociality. Primates must be able to read complex social signals and their emotional content. Among primates there is a strong tendency towards sociality and group living. Physical and emotional bonding and social attachment have been determined to be crucial for the healthy development of the central nervous system. Primates employ color vision to help find foods, use their memory in the spatial mapping of resources, and communicate about food sources as well as predators. The authors suggest that our brain and our visual system selectively focus on information which can protect us from potentially dangerous individuals or situations. Advanced cognitive structures allow primates to display a great range of plasticity in foraging behavior and living environments.

Primates also engage in niche construction, which can be defined as the modification of the functional relationship between organisms and their environment by actively changing one or more of the factors in that environment. Through this process primates have significant effects on their environment which then affect their population. For example, responses to the energetic cost of increasing brain size and extended period of child rearing in genus Homo included more cooperation between group members, an increase in the complexity of communication, and increased effectiveness at avoiding predators and an expansion of the types of environments in which they live. This is also seen in other primate species. For example, female capuchins keep track of and maintain large social networks over the course of their lifetimes. Social organization characterized by fission-fusion groups and subgroups common among chimpanzees is another example. It is been observed that some members negotiate rank through aggression while others rely on coalition partners and social bonding. The authors conclude that a highly evolved social cognition is required to keep track of the social networks. The authors suggest that social network analysis can be a fruitful method allowing researchers to examine types of interactions among individuals in a social group. Social network analysis allows for the examination of complex patterns in which primates organize themselves socially.

Primates also share the characteristic of an extended period of dependency after birth. The level of social complexity is correlated to increased sizes of neo-cortices. Among the primates, humans have the least mature brain at birth followed by a period of rapid brain growth, influenced by an environment rich in social stimuli. It is also suggested that an increased consumption of animal protein also brought hominids in close competition with carnivores also resulting in an increase in brain size.

The cultural intelligence hypothesis suggests that humans have a species specific set of social cognitive skills for participating in and exchanging knowledge through particularly complex cultural groups. Among primates, research has found cooperative and altruistic behavior in certain situations with varying results. Chimps have been found that while in adjoining cages they will sometimes give tokens which produce a food reward for both of the animals. It is also been shown in laboratory research that capuchins may value equitable behavior. In conclusion, research suggests that primates display extensive plasticity in sociality and cognitive functioning which results in increasing brain size, social complexity, and evolutionary success via biosocial niche construction.

http://www.exploratorium.edu/evidence/

–G.B