Category Archives: personal

Learning to cook: both fun and vital

I have enjoyed cooking since I was little watching my mom cook as I stood by on a step stool. Cooking and baking allow me to take seemingly random ingredients, form them together, and make something (usually) tasty. It has always been exciting to me to find new recipes and make them while adding my own touches. Cooking allows me to be expressive and creative while also serving a vital purpose, which is to feed myself.

I began taking an interesting in cooking because I enjoyed being in the kitchen with my mom. As I grew older and more capable, I was expected to be able to contribute to making meals for the family. It became important to me to learn to cook properly so that I could make meals my family would enjoy eating. Cooking brought me joy and eating yummy food was always a plus.

I have been involved with cooking for a little over a decade, always casually, but in that time I have learned a lot. As I have grown older I have become more focused on trying to cook healthier while still enjoyable meals. I have learned a lot about portions, what foods are best for feeling full, and foods that give more energy. I have also gotten much better at not accidentally harming myself in the kitchen. The more I am able to learn about different foods and methods for cooking the more I am able to change and adapt the way I cook.

Cooking serves an important function in my life. Feeding myself allows me to be alive and function on a day to day. Since I have educated myself on what foods are best, I can optimize my daily routine by ensuring that I feel good and have lots of energy.  Not to mention that today, it is generally cheaper and healthier to cook at home so being able to cook also aids me in that way.

One could say that humans and their ancestors have been cooking ever fire was tamable, proposed to date back to Homo erectus. Putting raw meat over fire and eating it may be simplistic but it certainly counts. Some scholars such as Richard Wrangham have asserted that cooking raw meat and eating it cooked instead of raw allowed for the human brain to develop greater than before. Cooking has continued to progress as humans learned how to use more tools and as they moved across the globe, trading goods with one another. My ability to cook even something as simple as a roast with potatoes and carrots would not be possible without our past ancestors drive to explore and the exchange of goods across the world.

 

 

 

Art and Neuroscience, or Two Halves Tied

Hi, I’m Kat, and I spend a lot of time thinking about art and sociocognitive theory. I’ve been painting and drawing since I was very, very small. It used to be one of the first things people learned about me, but now it’s one of the last. I see art as intrinsically tied to science, which may be why I took so much of both in college. To me, understanding one helps you understand the other. I like making things that make people feel things. To me, the art in itself is the transmission of feeling the object elicits. Synapses firing gracefully, elevated, as your eyes cross the surface of the painting, studying the peaks and waves. The things I tend to make are a combination of elegant and visceral.  I think about why we’re driven to create things with little purpose except decoration, and perhaps narration. And why I, specifically, am driven to create, and can with some degree of proficiency.

I made this in high school. My professors liked to describe this style as “ugly beauty”.

So, as with everything, we can investigate these quandaries with some degree of modality. Four questions, four answers.

Causation – This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer. Whether talent is heritable is still up in the air amongst most people. It’s interesting, surely. Jeremy Summers of the Genetic Literacy Project postulates, from a few studies, that artistic ability can be linked to a few things. One is the release of serotonin, albeit not necessarily the inherent presence of it. Many artists have been famously depressed, the most famous probably being Vincent Van Gough. This is something else we share. My work, itself, improves when my mood does. Some of Van Gough’s greatest work was done during his stay in the Saint Paul-de-Mausole mental hospital, including Irises, and the one we all know, Starry Night.

Irises was one of the paintings Vincent van Gogh  depicting the grounds of the asylum in Saint-Rémy. See more pictures of van Gogh's paintings.

Image result for van gogh starry night hospital window

Another link to creativity  is, strangely, a shorter bundled strand of fibers in the corpus callosum. The theory here is that it allows for access to both sides of the brain through a shorter path, allowing for a faster and more effective flow of ideas.

Ontogeny– This one is easy enough to answer. As I grew older, I was better exposed to drawings. My mother is extremely creative, and would always shower our house with fresh flowers and coats of paint. She was the first person that taught me to draw. I have had many teachers in my life that have lended me advice and helped to increase my vocabulary of form.

Phylogeny– People make art for many reasons. They make it to hold record, as with Egyptian Hieroglyphics, to record their very presence in this world among many.  They make it to communicate ideas, and make others feel things- at least I do. Some of the oldest pieces of recorded art are hand stencils on the walls of caves in Spain.

Image result for caveman handprint

Handprints from the Cueva de las Manos, Spain.

Art has also been used as a plea to the gods, or a ritualistic object. Which brings me into the final question.

Adaptive Value – I couldn’t possibly talk about science and prehistoric art without mentioning Mr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, a Neuroscientist and Art Historian who speaks about a number of artistic principles in relation to human survival and chemistry. In artistic objects as early as the Venus of Willendorf, Ramachandran talks about a “peak shift”- a change in behavioral response through what is deemed necessary for a species’ survival.

Woman Venus of Willendorf

The venus is one of the earliest examples of art in existence, made around 30,000 BCE. Found in the icy mountain ranges of Austria, its exaggerated curvature suggests the ideal female form in an environment of scarce resource. This shift occurred precisely due to what was seen as fertile, and thereby idealized in this way. It was thought to hold importance as an object of fertility.

 

The same can be said for more modern art, as well. While not in the same realm of magical thinking, exactly, it does play on some sensory skill developed in early human society, such as grouping and perception. Whether an object of religious significance, cultural commentary, or pure, unadulterated aestheticism, I believe it’s important to create. For both audience and viewer. Humans have always created, and I hope they always continue to. Myself included.

 

Get Comfortable being Uncomfortable

Me, exploring the bald face of a mountain in South Carolina. I was on my way to my first backpacking trip with a friend. In the woods just the two of us for three days wasn’t easy, but we got an amazing spot for the solar eclipse this year!

Hi, I’m Lauren and I’m always trying to push my own limits. I’m a senior working towards a B.S. in Psychology with minors in music and philosophy with a mind and brain concentration. My whole life is dedicated to making myself uncomfortable, because that’s how we grow as people. In high school, I was really shy and awkward and trying to blend in as much as possible. Really nothing special and really ok with it. But one day my band director (the whole shy and awkward thing definitely lends itself to being a band nerd, trust me) bestowed on all of us some wisdom that I will abide by for the rest of my awkward and extraordinary life: Get comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure he was talking about becoming a better soloist or something at least semi-music related– but that’s not how I heard it. It came at a time my senior year when I was deciding what college to go to– in-state or out-of-state, big school or small school, public or private. And I needed to hear something that would help me make this decision that I knew would help shape the rest of my life. Which brought me to The University of Alabama! And this mantra has been going through my head since I stepped foot onto campus back in August of 2014.

Me, circa 2013. Marching down Broadway in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Can you tell which one I am? Exactly.
“Get comfortable being uncomfortable” –Alfred Watkins (above)

Mechanism

These words of wisdom grant me a cause to push myself. It’s the only way I’ve figured out to be my best self, to stay busy,  and to reach my full potential. There’s always more that I can do and I like to be able to prove that to myself. It probably comes from my competitive nature– I always like to “win”, and if winning is doing something different than I did yesterday then that’s cause enough for me to try it!

These uncomfortable behaviors produce stress in my system. Cortisol flows through my veins probably way more than the normal person; I’m sure my immune system has been compromised and my memory is getting worse by the minute. That’s why I’m constantly writing everything down and my planner is my most valuable possession. Source

 

Ontogeny

Pushing myself like this is definitely a learned behavior. It’s something I work towards every single day. Whether it’s pushing myself to set up a one on one meeting with a professor (which gives me incredible amounts of anxiety), starting an independent research project, or running for club president, I’m definitely not predisposed to do any of these things. But day after day I find myself pushing to make something happen.

I’ve learned to overcome the butterflies in my stomach before every lab meeting and test review. I’ve retrained myself to embrace the jitters that come along with submitting a research proposal. Some argue that this feeling is an evolutionary mechanism designed to make you run away. I’ve retrained myself to run towards it.

 

Adaptive Value

This behavior definitely has allllll kinds of adaptive value. I mean, I’m always adapting to the new adventures I throw myself into. Spring semester of freshman year I tried out to be a coxswain for the Alabama Crew Club. No big deal, right? anyone can sit in the back of a boat and steer it. WRONG. I was so wrong. When I showed up (at 5 am), expecting to be one of several people hoping to make the team. Turns out, I was trying out to be a coxswain of the men’s team. And crew=rowing (something I only had a slight idea of when I showed up). But I was there. I sat in the boat and steered it down and back up the river. And at the end of practice (the sun had just risen because it was still only 7 am) they told me to read up about what I was doing and they’d see me the following morning! I had to adapt to be more social, to gain confidence, and to fill a leadership role overnight. And I’m sure that increasing the males around me by 400% definitely has the chance to increase reproductive success, statistically at least.

Alabama Crew Club Men’s 8+ after winning bronze at a regatta in Gainesville, GA this spring.

Phylogeny

I don’t think this kind of behavior is an evolutionary trait– I think it’s a socially developed trait. Maybe there are some people who can push themselves naturally all the time (maybe they’re called extroverts?), but I am not like that. Maybe that truly is how some people get ahead and become CEOs or Senators or other models of “successful people”. But in my personal experience, this is a trait that derives from necessity, not from actual innate drive.

Me, standing in front of an Atlas V rocket just hours before launch. I got to watch this rocket launch the OSIRIS-REx payload into space. Ask me about it some time.
Although it might have been a “safe” start, freshman year I was in the Million Dollar Band to make new friends– here we are at the SEC Championship (2014)

It’s really strange to think about yourself in terms of evolutionary adaptations. As a psychology major with a focus on brain studies, it’s something I’ve never had to do before. It’s definitely beneficial to examine yourself in terms of how you go about daily life. As a psych major we’re always told things like, “now don’t try to analyze yourself in this way, you’ll just think you’re a psychopath!” and other ridiculous things about the parallels we may start to see in ourselves and our friends to the disorders we learn about in abnormal psych classes. I think this gives a really nice reflective perspective to how we see ourselves in the context of our classmates and in a broader context, too.

 

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.

Playing With Play-Doh: The Reemergence of a Childhood Pastime

Hello, my name is Abbie, and I’m a senior at UA. I’m majoring in Biology and Spanish with a minor in Anthropology. My hobbies tend to lean more towards the arts: playing flute, painting, drawing, and perhaps the least popular amongst our age group, sculpting with Play-Doh.

Commonly thought of as an easy arts and crafts activity for young children, using play-doh has quickly become a valuable hobby as I’ve grown older. Opposite to most, I seem to have grown into this habit instead of abandoning it with age. I find that it has stress-relieving and relaxing properties and provides a creative outlet to relieve any frustrations or anxieties.

Juxtaposition of my Play-Doh nature with real nature.

This particular hobby had a fairly uneventful beginning. Walking through a Target store one day, I walked by a display of Play-Doh and spontaneously decided to purchase a few tubs, recalling how much I enjoyed it as a kid. That night happened to be in the middle of midterm exams, and it was particularly stressful as I had several exams that week. During a study break, I picked up one of the tubs and just began rolling the dough around, not making any intentional shapes, instead using it as “stress ball” of sorts.

This became a habit of mine while on study breaks to help relieve stress about upcoming exams. Eventually, I began using it while studying, much like the fidget cubes that many individuals use today, using it not only to eliminate anxiety but also to better my focus. It quickly became a more frequent pastime, not only using it as a stress ball, but also beginning to make pictures and shapes (though unrecognizable to others). I began carrying Play-Doh around with me in my back-pack, on short trips, and even on a summer long vacation out of state. I now use it almost daily to rid myself of any of the frustrations induced by the day’s events. It has rather quickly evolved into one of my most relaxing and beneficial hobbies, and my Play-Doh collection has grown significantly since its beginning.

It’s no Pyramid of Giza, but it is a work in progress.

Humans have utilized sculpture as an art form for centuries, though, most did it for different reasons than my own, citing religion and mythology as a common influence and model for their creations. Many also used it as a form of recreation, and this habit seems to have been passed down through generations. Though our prehistoric ancestors likely weren’t using brightly colored salt dough, sculpture as a hobby is not a new concept.

A more time consuming creation made during a Harry Potter movie marathon.

Though not directly responsible for increased survival chance, playing with Play-Doh does provide a group of advantageous traits that could be useful in a survival circumstance. Playing with Play-Doh not only reduces my stress levels, but also has increased my creativity and imagination. Creativity could prove useful as a potential problem-solving trait, which could potentially improve my overall ‘fitness’ as an individual. It can even be used to improve fine motor skills, depending on how detailed one’s creations become.

Monika Wanis – Why I like extreme sports!

2010 Skydive with “Tree Man” in Middletown, Ohio

Hi! My name is Monika Wanis, I am a second year Biocultural Medical anthropology graduate student. I am originally from Cairo, Egypt but have lived in Columbus, Ohio for the past 20 years. I attended The Ohio State University for my undergraduate degree in Anthropology, Psychology, Integrative Medicine and Neuroscience. I speak Arabic, English, Spanish, and Russian. I am also currently a TA for 2 sections of Cultural Anthropology. My favorite hobby is doing any extreme sport. I went skydiving on August 27th of this year for the second time for my birthday! According to Tinbergen’s 4 Questions Why, here is why I like extreme sports:

Proximate Causes

  • Mechanism – Physiologically, extreme sports often involve behaviors that increase your heart rate and produce a surge in hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and dopamine. These substances may cause feelings of happiness and euphoria, therefore providing positive feedback for the extreme behavior and potentially creating a feedback loop.
  • Ontogeny – My interest in extreme sports has developed over a lifetime. I don’t think I was born with an innate desire to jump out of airplanes. I may have been born with a slight bias towards risky behaviors but then through interactions with people who are involved with extreme sports, I became attracted to the hobby and over time, began experiencing and enjoying them more.

Ultimate Causes

  • Adaptive Value – While extreme sports may appear to be in contrast to increasing my reproductive fitness, it actually may contribute to it! If I were to die doing an extreme sport then obviously it does not contribute to my reproductive fitness. However, doing extreme sports and surviving may be a mechanism of sexual signaling to onlookers that indicates that although I engage in these risky behaviors, I am strong/smart/clever/etc. enough to survive, thus, increasing my my mating and reproductive potential because those are characteristics that increase my chances of survival.
  • Phylogeny – This interest in extreme sports may have evolved to set myself apart from the rest. Due to an increase in education levels, income, competition in the job market, an interest in extreme sports could be an evolution due to these selective pressures. Practicing extreme sports is a behavior that is different from what is traditionally seen as a desirable characteristic in a mate, therefore, it may have evolved as an additional characteristic that may be seen as desirable.

 

Red or Green?

This was taken in December 2014 during a visit home. Note the complete lack of snow or any sign of winter present.

I was born and raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It’s hard to pick out what I miss most about this gorgeous little city nestled in the desert. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming friendliness–the way that people aren’t afraid to joke and laugh with total strangers. Maybe it’s the 350 days of sunshine a year and the blissful ability to perceive the 70’s as brisk weather. Or, it might just be that little green pepper, the one that tastes like pure happiness and instantly transports me back home–Hatch green chile.

I am about to make a claim that will sound utterly ridiculous to most people and completely mundane to any New Mexican: My favorite hobby is tracking down and consuming Hatch green chile.

A picture of me that my roommate took at the Wegmans’ Hatch Chile Festival in Binghamton, NY in 2016.

To understand how it is that I can declare grocery shopping and eating as the hobby that most defines me, one first needs to understand that green chile is not just food to New Mexicans–it’s a central part of our culture. In fact, this weekend tens of thousands of people will descend upon the New Mexico village of Hatch for the annual Hatch Chile Festival. But it doesn’t take a special event like a festival to get New Mexicans excited about green chile, we incorporate it into everything that we eat. We add green chile to burgers, pizza, sandwiches, and breakfast. We have green chile wine, green chile toffee, and green chile custard. Fast food chains like Sonic or McDonalds let you add green chile to any of the menu items for a few quarters. New Mexico is even the only state that has an official question: “Red or green?”

In 2010, I moved to New Paltz, NY to attend grad school for my M.A. in Psychology. In the months prior to my departure, each joyful congratulations about my move from my fellow New Mexicans was quickly followed with their condolences that I would soon be unable to easily get green chile. Indeed, I found one of the hardest adjustments to my new life on the East Coast was the difference in food.

A combination platter smothered in green chile and cheese.

Each time I would return home, my mom would have a combination platter smothered in green chile waiting for me in the car so that the second I was off the plane I could start to get my green chile fix.

However, to my surprise, I wouldn’t have to go completely without green chile while I was in New York. Each time that I would stumble upon a place that had Hatch green chile it would be a day of intense celebration. I would quickly buy 20 pounds or more to store in my freezer to carefully portion out through the next year. Beyond just the joy of having my stash of peppers in the freezer, was the fun of getting to share this treasure with New Yorkers who had never even heard of Hatch, New Mexico.

My first Hatch Chile Festival at Wegmans in Binghamton, NY in 2014. I literally wept tears of joy in the parking lot when I smelled the green chile roasting.

From explaining to the perplexed employees what the hell I was planning on doing with that much green chile, to introducing my friends to the wonders of this food–these were the moments where I got to share New Mexico with New York. I would tell anyone who would listen about our cultural obsession as I channeled Bubba from Forrest Gump with my endless list of everything that green chile can go into. Through following leads and sheer luck, I was able to have a stock of green chile in my freezer for 5 out of the 7 years I was in New York.  

Now, as I begin my life down in the south, I was overjoyed to find in my first week here that a local restaurant was willing to sell me Hatch green chile. The manager was very kind as he gently explained that they could, unfortunately, only sell it to me in 5 pound bags. I did my best to hold in my laughter as I explained that this wouldn’t be a problem as I was hoping to buy 20 pounds to freeze. After confirming with him several times that he did hear me correctly and that I did understand how much that would cost (~$80), he brought out the most beautiful sight that any New Mexican living out of state could possibly see:

20 lbs. of Hatch Green Chile that I acquired during my first week in Alabama.

So, why do I have this obsession and can Tinbergen’s 4 questions help get at the answer?

Proximal: Proximate is always the easy one. At the most basic level, I eat green chile because green chile is delicious. I continue to seek out and consume green chile because it tastes very good to me. The more interesting question, of course, is why?

Functional: Before we ask, why green chile tastes “good” to me, we should  really start by asking, “why do we taste things at all?” In general, it is adaptive to have keen gustatory abilities so that you can detect potential toxins. Thus, when something tastes “bad” we generally develop an aversion to it; and, lo and behold, that thing that tasted “bad” is more often than not something that could be potentially harmful to your health and should be avoided.

In fact, Dr. Gordon Gallup gave a fascinating talk in the SUNY New Paltz Evolutionary Studies seminar series when I was a grad student that argued that one of the major overlooked factors in the mass extinction of dinosaurs was their inability to develop taste aversion to toxic plants

Now, to our main question. There are a couple of reasons for why I have such a positive reaction when I consume this substance. One interesting evolutionary hypothesis proposed by Dr. Jennifer Billing and Dr. Paul Sherman in the late 1990s suggests that spices (many of which are powerful antimicrobial agents) may aid in reproductive success by cleansing foods of pathogens; thus, those individuals who find these flavors enjoyable would have an advantage when it comes to health and survival since the food they consume is less likely to be contaminated. To support this hypothesis, the authors demonstrate that areas with a higher mean temperatures and thus a higher likelihood of food spoilage (i.e. pathogen contamination) also contain more spices in their cuisine. Given the hot climate of the southwest, it was likely adaptive to incorporate chile peppers into the local cuisine.

Another reason for my green chile obsession is likely due to this being an in-group marker for my identity as someone born and raised in Las Cruces, NM. By eating green chile, I feel connected to my group–something that is highly desirable in an incredibly social species like humans. Additionally, it might be that demonstrating my ability to consume spicy foods is a form of costly signalling as it demonstrates pain tolerance.

Phylogeny: We can also make an argument for an evolutionary legacy here. Humans have been adding spices to their food for thousands of years. Additionally, we see this cross-culturally which suggests a shared evolutionary history.  In fact, in Billing and Sherman (1999), 22 out of the 34 countries examined had chile peppers in their traditional recipes.

Ontogeny: Preference for green chile does depend on a number of factors related to age and reproductive state. For instance, as I’ve grown older, I have started to enjoy hotter peppers than I did as a child. Additionally, it might be that this preference for spicy foods would change depending on my current reproductive state. A somewhat controversial theory put forth by Margie Profet in the late 1980s and later expanded upon by Flaxman and Sherman in 2000 suggests that a pregnant woman’s taste aversions and cravings in the first trimester are an adaptive mechanism for protecting a vulnerable fetus as well as a vulnerable mother who is immunosuppressed in the first trimester so that she does not reject the growing embryo. This could mean that preferences for spicy foods like green chile might change during this stage. 

In conclusion, if you ever get the chance to try Hatch green chile–do it! Just be warned that you may end up with a packed freezer and an uncontrollable reaction to suggest that every meal you have “would be better if they added green chile.”

For Additional Reading: 

  • Billing, J., & Sherman, P. W. (1998). Antimicrobial functions of spices: why some like it hot. The Quarterly review of biology73(1), 3-49.
  • Flaxman, S. M., & Sherman, P. W. (2000). Morning sickness: a mechanism for protecting mother and embryo. The Quarterly review of biology75(2), 113-148.
  • Profet, M. (1988). The evolution of pregnancy sickness as protection to the embryo against Pleistocene teratogens. Evolutionary Theory8(3), 177-190.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

The Amstel river that runs through the city of Amsterdam.

I feel a little silly writing a personal post about travel- like the typical millennial blog about why you should travel to every country before you turn 30 (if you are blessed with money and time). Honestly, I’m not sure I would even call traveling a hobby and I don’t think I would consider myself a “wandering soul” or someone with the “travel bug.” I am perfectly happy nesting in my bed during my vacations.

Most of the hobbies I consider essential to how I define myself are personal, and, usually, things that no body knows about me. That’s what makes them special. However, I do think traveling has had some impact on the person that I’ve become and the way that I view things. Plus, it’s the only thing I have original images of so….

Historically: Ancestrally, I suppose humans have always been nomadic before civilization evolved; although, I don’t think early homo sapiens traveled for the same reasons that I did. Their reasons were purely pragmatic and had nothing to do with the existential crises that people my age seem to face. Nomads went where the food was. Come to think of it… so did I.

In more recent history, traveling (at least, internationally) has not been a theme in my family, aside from my father and I. My mother’s

The Hohenzollern Bridge that goes over the Rhine river in Cologne, Germany. It’s filled with locks, much like Pont des Arts in Paris.

family were all born and raised (and stayed) in Alabama. My mother, by coincidence, has a crippling anxiety of planes, so she never traveled- ironic since my father is a pilot. I guess both of my sisters just never really had the desire to. They’re home bodies, like me, but I never like to say no to an opportunity.

Proximally: If my father weren’t a pilot, I probably would have never left the country, or at least not in my twenties. Traveling is expensive if your airline tickets and hotels aren’t free- I’m privileged in that regard. It started with me just meeting my dad on trips. He flies cargo so his job is basically to fly a plane full of boxes to one location, wait a couple of days, and then fly it back. He flies the Asia route, so his typical destinations are places like Dubai, China, India, ect.. but every now and then they do half way stops in European countries, like Germany. For my father, traveling at this point is more of a job than an adventure, so when he gets bored, he asks us to fly out and visit him. I’m usually the only one who says yes, so I’ve become accustomed to traveling solo.

But flying non-reservation to distant lands isn’t as romantic as it sounds. Flying as the dependent of a cargo pilot has its pros and cons. Pro- I can fly any airline I want. Most dependents of airline pilots only get free tickets on the airline they’re associated with. Cons- Depending on the airline, my name is always the last on the list. Planes are notorious for over selling their tickets. But just as an extra precaution, they allow a list of stand by passengers to sit around and wait to see if the plane fills up. If it doesn’t, that’s where the list comes in. First, goes the people who work for the airline, then the dependents of those people, then me. Sometimes I’ll spend all day in an airport trying to catch a flight with an empty seat. If I’m lucky, they will only have first class seats available and I’ll get the seat for free.

Pretty much the only photo I took in Iceland before my camera ran out of storage.

Getting to my desired destination can be like a game of planes, trains, and automobiles. Sometimes it amounts to more time in the air than on the actual ground. The first time I visited him in Germany, I took a 9 hour flight to Amsterdam (although first class so I’m not complaining), then an hour bus ride to a train station, then a three hour train ride to Cologne where my dad was. I was in Cologne for less than 24 hours before I had to go back. I honestly don’t mind the traveling. Sometimes it can be more adventurous than the destination.

Developmental: I don’t want to say that traveling is developmentally essential in your 20s. It’s a luxury in more ways than one. I know you’ll see a million blog posts about how to travel on a budget and how it can be affordable for anybody, but really that’s only one part of the equation. Traveling takes time. Not everyone has the luxury to drop whatever they’re doing and leave the country or take breaks from school or work. More than that, it takes support. There are a lot of factors to international travel.- customs you have to adhere to, languages you have to take into consideration, along with currency differences and travel restrictions. You can always wing it like I did, but I wouldn’t advise it. I may have traveled alone, but I was never really alone. When I lost my wallet in Shanghai, I was able to call my mom while I had my mini panic attack, and when I got on a train going the wrong direction in Amsterdam, I had a friend to call who spoke fluent Dutch and was able to get me back in the right direction. It’s the little things you don’t think of that really make traveling a privilege, not just the money.

A random hammock i found in Ambergris Caye, which is an island off the coast of Belize.

I suppose that it is most common for people to want to travel in their 20s. It’s typically a time in your life when you have minimal responsibilities and attachments, which is ideal when you’re leaving the country. I do, however, think that it’s just as acceptable, maybe even more so, to do it later on in life. At that point, you have more financial accessibility, life experience, etc. but I do understand the “seize the day” attitude people have and the appeal and romanticism of traveling when you’re young. It’s a common theme that traveling is something that changes you forever. You hear stories about someone climbing to the top of the Eiffel tower or studying abroad in Italy and becoming a “new person.” I think that’s kind of absurd. These are just places; they aren’t magic. Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonderful experience to have and it can have a lasting impact, but not being able to travel doesn’t mean you aren’t developing as a person and being able to travel doesn’t mean you will become a new one.

The coast of San Juan, PR. Right next to Fort San Cristobal.

Functional: Well, one thing that isn’t compatible with international travel, I’ve learned, is a crippling fear of planes, so you have to be able to physically get yourself to your destination. A big part is just mobility. That’s another luxury. Not everyone can travel easily and at a fast past. There are a lot of physical factors that can limit that.

Themes in exercise adherence vs. dropout

After reading Greg Downey’s The Encultured Brain chapter on neural enculturation in capoeira and Lisa Heywood’s 2011 article advocating a cultural neuropychology of sport, I thought a lot about how these articles applied to physical activity in general. What makes people commit to physical activity? This isn’t a question I’m unfamiliar with. As a chronic yo-yo dieter and infrequent exerciser (who has the time anyway?), this is something I’ve asked myself for years, only to find myself lacking motivation again and again despite the colorful articles found online and in pop-culture magazines promising to give me a new outlook on my physical health and help me form lasting fitness-related habits.

Lisa Pridgeon and Sarah Grogan provide insight into why adherence to an exercise regimen in difficult for some  by exploring themes shared by people (adherers and non-adherers) who, currently or at one point, held gym memberships. Pridgeon was advised in this project  by Grogan, a professor at Staffordshire University’s School of Psychology Sport and Exercise. Grogan’s primary work is in exploring body image.

Pridgeon and Grogan interviewed 14 men and women, asking them to talk openly about their gym/exercise experience. 9 were current gym members, who adhered to a regular exercise routine, while 5 were former members. All were members of a small gym in the UK where membership was composed of 90% males. The participants in the study reflected the gym’s gender proportions. Pridgeon and Grogan then used interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) to identify common themes in gym experience among the participants.

Both participant groups had three themes in common when considering commitment to an exercise regimen, as well as a theme specific to each group. Adherers and non-adherers shared ideas of upward social comparisonculture, and habit. Although these three themes were present in all participants’ ideas about adherence to exercise, their attitudes toward these themes differed between groups. Adherers alone shared a theme of exercise dependency, while non-adherers shared ideas of social support as a motivating factor.

Upward Social Comparisons

We all compare ourselves to the people around us. In a gym setting, this often means interacting with people of a higher fitness level. For people who adhere to a regular exercise routine, this upward social comparison is motivating. For most adherers, the idea that you could progress without these comparisons (the presence of a role model) is ridiculous. Although this was a motivating factor for adherers, there was a negative tone behind some of these stories, namely that having a role model decreased body satisfaction and therefore drove the individual to continue to exercise more.

The story is a little different for non-adherers. Upward social comparison for these people also increases body dissatisfaction, but typically at such a high level that it discourages these individuals from continuing to exercise. Especially in females, this heightened body dissatisfaction is an important factor in why they discontinue exercise routines.

Culture

I’m sure we’ve all seen the Planet Fitness commercials that promote their gyms as a “Judgement Free Zone.” This ad campaign is an effort to separate their gyms from “gym culture,” which a lot of people view negatively. Pridgeon and Grogan found that gym culture meant something different to men and women. Men viewed fitness in the gym as competitive. Individuals were always striving to be better or equal to their peers. Success in these endeavors is recognized and praised by their peers, and therefore is very rewarding. Women see gym culture as a support system and value social interaction and acceptance over competition.

What determined adherence or non-adherence when it came to culture was simply whether or not the individual felt the gym’s culture was consistent with their personal identity.  Non-adherers reported feeling like an outsider while adherers viewed the gym culture as re-affirming their personal identity.

Habit

Both adherers and non-adherers agreed that forming habits was important to adherence.  Adherers simply removed the decision making process, and were instead prompted to engage in exercise through situational cues. For non-adherers, reestablishing a lost habit was one of the biggest obstacles to rejoining the gym.

Dependency

This theme was present in the account of adherers only. Addiction and endorphins were credited with adherence. While dependency could be detrimental, the adherers asserted that some level of dependency was necessary to maintain their adherence.

Social support

For non-adherers only, losing or lacking social support was a common reason for gym dropout. These people found that their exercise adherence was better when they planned to go with someone instead of going alone.

Member validation

One member from each group switched roles during this study, and were able to confirm these themes. An adherer stopped exercising after an injury, and found it hard to reestablish his gym habit. Conversely, a non-adherer started to exercise more and confirmed the dependency theme, reporting increased gym attendance increased her body satisfaction and self efficacy.


Understanding reasons behind exercise adherence can be very important when taking into account a lot of long term health problems can be fixed or controlled through regular exercise. This phenomenological approach from Pridgeon and Grogan provides unique insight into this problem.

 

Depression in Regard to Modes of Alertness

Lately, the class has been focused on how people experience culture. Culture affects people differently based on the extent to which an individual lives up to the culturally prescribed prototype. William W. Dressler’s model of cultural consonance targets this effect. This disentrainment to the primary cultural model creates stress and may be lead to depression. But what exactly is depression? In his 2013 article “Give Me Slack: Depression, Alertness, and Laziness,” John Marlovits describes depression as a mode of alertness.   For Marlovits, alertness can be viewed as one of many organizing principles that mediates everyday life. Specifically, depression is a process constituted by many enactments of alertness used to control what Marlovits describes as “affective currents.” These currents are recognized but not necessarily understood or categorized. Like the wind, the currents are felt yet invisible.

Marlovits’ ethnographic work in Seattle (18 months 2003-2004) left him with a sense of how different depressive enactments culminate in different modes of alertness.   Seattle was chosen for its pop culture definition of being a city in response to urban decay, a city more authentic, a city more grounded. Marlovits found that the reality of Seattle was in juxtaposition to this pop culture narrative. As represented by the dilapidated Kalakala art-deco depression-era ferryboat, Seattle as an imagined community was hopeful and nostalgic. The real Seattle could not measure up to this idea of an apocalyptic refuge and the depressive enactments of its inhabitants underscored this contradiction. For an informant named Steve, his response to a life-threatening heart attack was agency panic, meaning that he felt that something was a bit ajar after the incident but that he had the willpower to escape full on depressive symptoms. Marlovits’ coffee consumption, a habit in line with capitalism and the protestant ethic, led to a “pace” of life that was distinctly alert whereas the smoking habit of clients from a mental health clinic promoted more disengagement and “ellipsis in time.” Both coffee consumption and cigarette use are forms of self-medication and ways in which we entrain ourselves to a certain life tempo. Engagement and disengagement are thus everyday habits of alertness and help order time.

Marlovits seeks to tie alertness back to depression with the pop culture persona “Slacker” and the very real persona of Kurt Cobain. Cobain, the lead vocalist for Nirvana, represented alertness that was at once “confused” and “distorted.” His music and stage persona promoted “sensing the present,” which was a strong current in the act of self-harming. Cobain’s “passivity” and “despondency” typified the slacker identity as particularly defined in Richard Linklater’s 1991 film “Slacker.” The slacker’s inattentiveness can just be a way of disengaging to slowly “feel out” the new conditions of life. Why not “go with the flow” and eventually re-engage once the shock has run its course? Slackers are “lazy visionaries.”  Depressive enactments, acts of disengagement, are thus a way of coping with the uncertainties of life.

Rock music concert.
Rock music concert, “slamming bodies.”

I think that Marlovits makes some interesting points, but there is not a strong enough argument linking depression to modes of alertness. My question would be to what degree should depressive enactments be viewed as abnormal? As Marlovits illustrates, everyone has their own habits that promote engagement or disengagement (alertness or inattentiveness) so it seems likely that everyone at some point in their lives utilizes depressive enactments to mediate cultural contradictions or uneasy/unknowable realities.