Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about ways of knowing. Different fields prioritize different forms of knowledge. For a field like neuroanthropology, and anthropology more generally, there has been a struggle to define how we should know what we know. Personally, I believe that a healthy dose of both subjective contextual experience and objective neuroscience are necessary for a more complete understanding of phenomena. Leslie L. Heywood also calls for this approach in her 2011 article “Affective infrastructures: toward a cultural neuropsychology of sport.”
Leslie L. Heywood is a true example of the discipline-defying researcher. She holds a B.A. and M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Irvine. All the same, her work is infused with a hearty interest in affective neuroscience and physiology. These undercurrents seem to be a direct product of her experience as an athlete and coach. Heywood was a track star at the University of Arizona, earning the title Arizona State Champion in both the 800 and 1,600 meters. She was also ranked fifth in the U.S., held the state record for the mile for over two decades among other achievements. What I find most impressive about Heywood’s athletic history is that it was not the product of a single passion. After injury, Heywood transitioned into powerlifting and excelled as a strength training coach. More recently, marathon preparation led her to CrossFit as a participant and trainer.
This passion for an active lifestyle is often reflected in her research (Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women’s Bodybuilding, Built to Win: The Female Athlete as Cultural Icon, etc.). What is also evident in her varied career as an athlete and coach is her willingness to traverse institutional boundaries. Heywood , currently a professor of English at Binghamton University, is a member of the executive committee for Evolutionary Studies. She’s a published poet, editor of Ragazine: http://ragazine.cc/, and guest editor of an issue of Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience (where this article appears!). Now, back to the article at hand!
Identification of GAPS in research
The goal of every researcher is to produce new knowledge or to look at things in a new and potentially more productive way. The first step is always to identify current gaps in the literature. Heywood notes that while sport sociology focuses on the forest, sport psychology and kinesiology focus on the trees. Furthermore, none of these fields include the idea of embodiment, of lived experience, in their research. Some important factors being excluded from the picture are the social and familial contexts for individual athletes, the complexity of the brain-body-emotion relationship, and the affective consciousness of emotions. Heywood argues that an evolutionary perspective of emotion is more comprehensive than these previous, gap-ridden models. Furthermore, she offers the field of neuroanthropology the first swing of the bat.
Panksepp’s affective neuroscience
Founded by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, the field of affective neuroscience purports that emotions are the manifestation of biological and neural processes, processes that are influenced by the body, environment, and culture. Heywood uses Panksepp’s (1998) “core emotional systems” to understand play. Like the deadly sins, Panksepp lists 7 core emotional systems: SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC, and PLAY. Sport mainly involves the SEEKING, RAGE, and PLAY systems. Since SEEKING is a system based on motivation to fulfill an appetite for goods or meaning, it serves as the initiator of other emotional systems. SEEKING involves the hypothalmus and the mesolimbic dopamine system. The system of PLAY is active in the medial zones of the thalamus and promotes safe engagement. The system of RAGE is found in the amygdala, specifically the corticomedial areas, and is connected to the medial hypothalamus by the stria terminalis. RAGE is associated with the system of FEAR/PANIC.
In terms of sport
Two models have predominated our view of sport. The competitive model activates the SEEKING/RAGE systems. In this model, sport is seen as “a means to an end.” In dominant ideology, competition reigns. Few are the victors, which makes winning all that sweeter. No one likes to lose. However, there are those that attach intrinsic worth to participating in sport. Those that “prefer to play for fun” represent the participation model which invokes the SEEKING/PLAY systems.
Heywood offers a third model termed the “immersive model” which aims at maximizing the positives and minimizing the negatives of the competitive model. Heywood argues that competitive play can promote intra-group bonding and empower marginalized individuals or groups. On the other hand, competitive play tends to worship ability. In my opinion, this obsession with skill is in some ways very similar to our culture’s obsession over body image. The result is the same: an exclusion of the masses. Heywood’s new model focuses on Mihali Csikszentmihályi’s term of “flow.” In a sporting context, “flow” can be described as being “in the zone.” It is a focused attention that can only occur in a safe context. This perceived “safety” is directly linked to the social and familial context of the athlete.
Porges’ Polyvagal Theory
Stephen W. Porges‘ Polyvagal Theory states that mammals still carry remnants of past versions of the ANS. “Neuroception,” what I imagine to be a neural process not unlike a computer scanning for facial or fingerprint recognition, determines what in the environment is safe and what is dangerous. The reaction to this scan is hierarchical in nature. The newest system, evolutionarily speaking, will have first crack at the problem. This social engagement system (SES) involves the ventral vagal complex and initiates pro-social behavior to ameliorate the threat. Still feeling unsafe? The second system, the sympathetic nervous system, comes up to bat and decides to either swing for the fences (fight) or go for the walk (flight). The last system at our disposal is found in the unmyelinated vagus nerve and causes mammals to freeze like a deer in the headlights or play dead.
Pinch of Panksepp, Dash of Porges
The competitive model involving the SEEKING/RAGE emotional systems would be answered by the second-level response “fight or flight.” Evolutionarily, this model would be connected to competition over resources and steeped in our history as predators and prey. The participatory model involving SEEKNG/PLAY emotional systems would be answered by the first response-level response of the SES because play occurs in a safe context. It is here that we can see the influence of an individual athlete’s social and familial history. Past trauma upends a player’s affective balance, making it difficult to squash their fight or flight response. Activity like Panksepp’s “joyous play” has the ability to “right the ship” so to speak and recalibrate an individual’s affective balance. CrossFit may be one such example of this type of play. ‘Running for cause’ is another. To promote immersive play, culture should praise sportsmanship and other pro-social behavior while downplaying the “win-at-all-costs” perspective.
Immersive sport is the best way to experience sport as it involves SEEKING, PLAY, and RAGE emotional systems within a safe context that promotes “flow.” Evolutionarily speaking, the immersive model integrates Panksepp’s core emotional systems with Porges’ understanding of the neuroscience behind affective balance. It incorporates an examination of the specific familial and social contexts of individual athletes as well as the broader cultural neuropsychology of sport. This model states that it is possible to look twice at a situation. Seeing the trees does not prohibit us from viewing the forest as a whole.