Tag Archives: capoeira

The Equilibrium System: Our Malleable Mental Module

Greg Downey conducts research on the physiological, perceptual, and phenomenological impact of physical exercise. He is particularly interested in the effects of skill acquisition on cognitive and sensory learning, in the context of sports and dance. Downey believes that human variation stems from patterns of enculturation of the body and the brain. He is the author of the chapter titled, “Balancing Between Cultures: Equilibrium in Capoeira,” found in the 2012 book, “The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology”. Downey coauthored this book and also wrote a book in 2005 titled, “Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art”. Downey currently works in the department of anthropology at Macquarie University in Australia and teaches a variety of topics including human rights, ethnographic research methods, economic anthropology, and global poverty. He conducts fieldwork in Brazil, the United States, and the Pacific and studies practices such as mixed martial arts, echolocation in the blind, cognitive skills in sports, and metabolic changes in free divers.

Downey’s chapter narrows in on the neurological enculturation of the human sensory systems; specifically, those associated with equilibrium. By contrasting Afro-Brazilian capoeira practices with gymnastics techniques, Downey depicts the pliability of the human equilibrium system. Through this comparison he demonstrates how cultural patterns are responsible for differences in physical balancing skills. Proprioception is a multisensory system that functions in our periphery without conscious monitoring, until something goes wrong and our sense of balance is disturbed. The vestibular system is located in the inner ear where the semicircular canals and the otoliths (tiny ear bones) reside. These bones detect linear motion while the semicircular canals detect angular motion. Downey explains how this complex multisensory system consists of a feedback loop that allows individuals to detect their body positioning, correct for error, and anticipate future adjustments in order to maintain balance. While this function was previously thought of as a fixed neurological system, research shows that it is highly flexible and able to be refined via conditioning and training.

Gymnastics, ballet, martial arts, figure skating, and space travel are a few instances in which this vestibular system may be trained to perform in distinct ways. Superb balance after spinning in circles and the ability to mitigate motion sickness are a couple of examples of the plasticity of this system and how with practice, humans are able to acquire these unique abilities. Downey explains how differences in training and practice between gymnasts and capoeira practitioners allow for the strengthening of specific, but divergent vestibular skills. For example, gymnasts maintain a forward-facing gaze during hand stands while capoeira practitioners are not permitted to even look at the floor. Furthermore, gymnast movements are tightly controlled while capoeira movements are dynamic and mobile. Downey’s purpose in this comparison highlights how different cultural practices subsequently elicit and strengthen different neurological proprioceptive and motor skill sets.

This chapter reminds me of almost everything we’ve read in this class and the ongoing discussion about the bidirectional feedback loop and dynamic interaction between biology and culture. I am starting to associate the term “neuroanthropology” with the phrase “nature – nurture”. If we break down the term into “neuro” and “anthropology,” we are easily able to associate “neuro” with “nature” or “biology” and “anthropology” with “nurture” or “culture”.

I thoroughly enjoyed this reading. I enjoyed the organization of Downey’s thoughts and how not only did he strategically unfold his argument, but in order to further ones understanding of this phenomenon, he used examples from two disciplines that utilize the same sensory system in different ways and explained how this utilization yields diverse outcomes. I do wish, however, that a more neuroscientific explanation was provided for this phenomenon. As I was reading, I wondered specifically what mechanisms do scientists think are responsible for this mental modulation?

This chapter reminds me of the chapter titled, “Memory and Medicine,” by M. Cameron Hay. Similar to how memory systems can be reinforced by specific memorization practices found in different cultures, the equilibrium system may also be scaffolded and strengthened in a particular way. I see it as such: specific memorization techniques (culture/nurture) lead to the strengthening of specific neural pathways associated with memorization (biology/nature), which in turn, lead to specific memorization behaviors during memory recollection (culture/nurture/the individual). Analogous to this explanation is the following: specific balancing techniques (culture/nurture) lead to the strengthening of specific neural pathways associated with balance (biology/nature), which in turn lead to specific balancing behaviors during balancing practices (culture/nurture/the individual).

This chapter also reminded me that not only can sensation be culturally patterned but so can perception. Individuals living in different cultures may be culturally patterned to select, organize, process, and interpret information in different ways. Studies conducted by Segall, Campbell, and Herskovits (1963), using the Muller-Lyer Illusion test, reveal that there are cultural effects on the visual perception of optical illusions. Furthermore, another study conducted in 2009 by Ishi, et. al., researchers showed Japanese and American students images of familiar objects as wholes and as fragmented parts to determine if there are differences in analytical versus holistic perception. Findings show that American students were better able to identify the objects in the fragmented conditions when compared to the Japanese students. Researchers believe that this may be a reflection of American “individualistic” culture versus Japanese “holistic” or “collective” culture. These findings also coincide with what Downey presented in this chapter. It is important to acknowledge that visual perception is not natural, but rather cultural. Similarly, proprioception is also culturally mediated.

Questions to Ponder:

  1. Can you think of anything that is completely void of culture or not modulated by culture?
  2. What are some other examples of biological systems that were previously thought to be devoid of cultural influence?
  3. Can you think of a neurological study we can conduct to determine neurological similarities and differences between different culture’s vestibular dispositions?
  4. While understanding how culture impacts nature and vice versa, what dangers could we face when we begin to place cultural emphasis on differences?
  5. Can viewing biological systems in light of cultural influence cause for an increase in the categorization of people into groups, thereby creating harmful cultural constructions like race?

 

Further Reading:

Hay, M. Cameron. “Memory and Medicine.” In The Encultured Brain, D. Lende and G.   Downey, eds. (2012): 141-168. Cambridge: MIT.

Ishii, Keiko, Takafumi Tsukasaki, and Shinobu Kitayama. “Culture and visual perception: Does perceptual inference depend on  culture?” Japanese Psychological Research 51,2 (2009): 103-109.

Segall, Marshall H., Donald T. Campbell, and Melville J. Herskovits. “Cultural differences in the perception of geometric illusions.” Science 139,3556 (1963): 769-771.

A Balancing Act

About the Author

Greg Downey is a professor and the head of the Anthropology Department at Macquarie University in Australia.  He completed his MA and PhD at the University of Chicago, focusing on how skill acquisition leads to biocultural modifications to the nervous system and body.  He spent several years in Brazil doing field research as an apprentice in capoeira, which led to his book chapter Balancing between Cultures:  Equilibrium in Capoeira.

anth_greg_downey_2014
Greg Downey

What is Capoeira?

Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art form that combines elements of fighting, dancing, rhythm, and music.  It is sometimes played as a game, a ritualized form of combat that is a constant flow of movement between the two opponents as they react to each other.  No matter what the reason, someone training in capoeira must have or develop a good sense of equilibrium, for this fighting form includes a great deal of flips and inverted postures such as a bananeira (handstand).  The dynamic flow of capoeira, where practitioners must focus on their opponent’s face, is in stark contrast to the static forms of gymnastics, where gymnasts use other visual cues to help them hold each pose perfectly.  The training methods used to obtain balance in these different styles highlights how the human equilibrium system can become enculturated.

Sense of Balance

Over the years, scholars have labeled the vestibular system in the inner ear as the organ of balance.  However, equilibrium is really more of a “sensory system” of many other sensations, such as vision, proprioception at ankles and joints, and pressure perception of feet, which helps maintain equilibrium.

My sense of balance is not all that great.  I don't know how many times I fell down while in the mangroves of Florida.
My sense of balance is not all that great. I don’t know how many times I fell down while in the mangroves of Florida.

Just knowing where you are in your environment will make you better balanced. It is an elaborate synthesis of conscious and unconscious perceptions and compensatory behaviors.  My compensatory behaviors aren’t always up to par, though.  I don’t seem to have a very good vestibulo-ocular reflex, because whenever I go jogging my field of vision bounces as I move, making me have to stare at the ground and possibly run into people. While some athletes have amazing equilibrium senses, I have a hard time walking without tripping.

The Brain in Balance

The plasticity of our equilibrium system allows for it to become encultured.  Not only can we find many solutions to a single balance problem, we can adaptively react to novel stimuli, such as the lack of gravity in space or Dr. George Stratton’s inverted glasses.  This plasticity leaves our equilibrium system open and flexible, allowing it to be trained into different arrangements.  However, long term extensive training, along with cultural and unconscious conditioning, are required to change someone’s equilibrium system.  One change that learning causes in the brain is the ability to ignore irrelevant sensory information and focus on what is important.  A gymnast may focus on a visual point, while one trained in capoeira may focus on proprioception.

Training Equilibrium

While training directly changes the body’s physical ability to move, more subtle influencers also occur.  Forms of training for skills involving equilibrium include social and cultural influences like coaching, aesthetic preference, and specific training drills.  Olympic gymnasts on the balance beam who are penalized for extraneous movements use small ankle based righting techniques, while an untrained individual is more likely to use larger hip movements.  In contrast to gymnasts, capoeira practitioners are not restricted by specific technique forms, and so utilize a wide range of righting behaviors such as curling the body or flailing the legs. While these techniques would be abhorrent to any gymnast, in capoeira it enables dynamic movement and different reaction patterns.  Training behaviors can also enable practitioners to cope with disorienting sensations, such as spinning at high speeds.

My brother and I posing at our dance studio back in the day.
My brother and I posing at our dance studio back in the day.

In my dance classes, we used the “spotting” technique, which involves focusing the head on one point while rotating the body.  This was supposed to help me maintain balance by substituting visual orientation for vestibular information. I can attest to this technique being a cultural factor that is not inherently learned, for after years of dance classes I still had trouble with pirouetting in a straight line.  I never quite got the hang of spotting, so my dance career did not go very far.

Inverted Balance

Balancing while inverted is undeniably harder than balancing right side up.  The upper body has to support the physical burden, the inverted form is more unstable, and the neural system has to cope with the head being upside down and closer to the ground.  To keep a handstand steady, gymnasts often focus on a visual anchor, a stable position on the floor in front of their hands.  Capoeira practitioners cannot utilize this technique.  They have to keep their eyes on their moving opponent while in a bananeira or even while flipping.  Instead of visual cues, they use righting behaviors to maintain balance.  The differences in these strategies makes it very hard to transfer balance ability between these two forms.  As a result, the two disciplines have distinct skill sets and perceptual-motor strategies.  The process of acquiring a sense of equilibrium is malleable and culture-specific.  The aesthetic preferences of a culture influences which movement forms are utilized, which then influences neurological development.  The nervous system is always training to best suit our needs.

My Thoughts

After reading this chapter, I would love to try capoeira myself.  I feel like that style of training the equilibrium system might actually be better suited to my predisposed make-up than the formal dance training I have had that relies on visual cues (or I could just be all around clumsy).  I have a bad vestibulo-ocular reflex, a hard time with the “spotting” technique, and to top it all off a horrible sense of vision in general.  One correlation I have to the flowing action-reaction equilibrium system of capoeira is my experience in white water kayaking.  I paddle down rapidly moving rivers, so there is no static visual anchor for me to focus on.  Instead, my body almost automatically responds to the motions of the current as I fight to maintain upright.  When I am inverted in the water, I rely heavily on proprioception so I can get my arms in the proper position to roll up.  In any case, capoeira seems like an amazing showcase of physical prowess.

Here is a video of some of the equilibrium challenges that face the members of the Alabama Kayak Club, courtesy of the Wasser Bruder (Water Brothers).

 

psych table
A section of the psychtable for this article.