All posts by rjelse

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?

It’s a Man’s Man’s World

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

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

Samburu Man (From Wikimedia Commons)

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

(From Flickr)

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

For further consideration:

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

 

Source:

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

 

Monkey See, Monkey Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Primate Brain Evolution

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

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

Play, Social Learning, and Teaching

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

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

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

Primate Cognition

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

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

Questions for consideration:

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

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

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

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

Resources:

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

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

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

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

Lende, Daniel H., and Greg Downey, eds.
2012   The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

 

Flowing Down Mountains

I grew up in Durango, Colorado, and completed my bachelor’s degree in Boulder, CO, and master’s degree in Fort Collins, CO. Snow and mountains are in my blood. My parents joke that I’ve been skiing since I was three months old, when my dad would ski with me tucked into the front of his jacket. Alpine skiing, telemark skiing, and backcountry skiing have been some of my main hobbies throughout my life. Some of the reasons for this include community, being in nature, and enjoyable exercise, but the main reason that I enjoy skiing is because it puts me in a state of “flow.”

The concept of flow, pioneered by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is a state in which an individual is focused and fully absorbed in some task, generally one that is both challenging and rewarding (2014). Organized by Tinbergen’s four questions, there are a number of reasons why behaviors leading to a flow experience are important for humans.

Author telemark skiing in Crested Butte, Colorado
Function

Modern life has multifarious forms of stress–physical, environmental,  psychological, and social–that bombard the individual constantly. As Robert Sapolsky discusses in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (2004), modern stressors might even cause a higher burden of stress than our ancestors may have had. In the face of these stressors, we need ways to help deal. Flow, and other states that take us out of our normal patterns of thinking, can help to alleviate some of the burden associated with constant stressors (see Lynn 2005). During a flow experience, like flying down a snowy mountain at 50mph, the mind is focused only on the immediate. Stress falls away, and is lessened after the experience as well.

Phylogeny

What is now an adaptive trait for helping to deal with the stresses of the modern world has a long evolutionary history as well. The “living in the moment” feeling associated with flow, and the hyper-focus and skill that comes from it, would have been necessary for hunting and fighting. Those able to “turn off” their brains to focus fully on the task at hand, especially in dangerous, self- and community-threatening situations, would have been selected for over those who weren’t.

Mechanism

Flow experiences likely occur through cognitive mechanisms that help to stem the tide of an otherwise overwhelming amount of information in dangerous or threatening situations. Energy and attention go only to the absolutely necessary functions required for action in the moment: it’s not helpful to be worried about that thing your girlfriend said when an enemy is swinging a club at your head.

Ontogeny

While the exact biomechanics of flow (and other dissociative states) are not fully understood, a gene, designated catechol O-methyltransferase, or COMT, has been identified that is a candidate for contributing to an individual’s propensity for absorption–a necessary component of flow. The presence of a gene that contributes to one’s ability to enter and maintain a state of flow suggests that this is a crucial aspect of the human experience that has been consistently selected for.

You can flow down mountains in whatever manner suits you (or accidents force you to).

 

For more information, check out:

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly
2014   Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Lichtenberg, Pesach, Rachel Bachner-Melman, Richard P. Ebstein, and Helen J. Crawford
2004   Hypnotic Susceptibility: Multidimensional Relationships with Cloninger’s Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire, COMT Polymorphisms, Absorption, and Attentional Characteristics. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis 52(1): 47–72.

Lynn, Christopher Dana
2005   Adaptive and Maladaptive Dissociation: An Epidemiological and Anthropological Comparison and Proposition for an Expanded Dissociation Model. Anthropology of Consciousness 16(2): 16–49.

Sapolsky, Robert M.
2004   Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers / Robert M. Sapolsky. 3rd ed. New York: Times Books.