Head Above Water

When I came to UA as a freshmen, the first club I joined was the Alabama Kayak Club.  I have always loved kayaking, and growing up I would often drag my kayak across the street to a channel leading into the Back Bay (I’m from Biloxi, MS, which is on the coast).  However, I soon learned that the club’s kayaking has nothing in common with my own experiences.  We do white water kayaking here. White water, which means going down a narrow river with tons of waves and currents that are just waiting to flip you over and drag you over the underwater rocks.  Meanwhile, the bay that I am used to paddling in is so tranquil that it appears more like a lake than part of the ocean.

I had always loved adventure and the outdoors and wanted to go white water kayaking, so this was a challenge that I was ready to face.  Through club practices, I slowly began to learn how to navigate the waters and roll up if I flipped over.  Soon, the dread terror I felt looking down a river became a bubbling of excitement as I prepared to soar down the churning water. AKC became like a family to me here.

AKC at one of the Locust Fork races.
AKC at one of the Locust Fork races.

We saw each other every week, had parties at the AKC house, and went on camping trips to the races (which sometimes got a little bit rowdy).  Kayakers across the state would come to these races, as I was introduced to the kayak culture.  The kayakers are usually men (and interestingly enough, almost all the members of AKC are male engineers) who love being outdoors, enjoy the rush of adrenaline from going down a particularly challenging rapid, are friendly, and prefer camping and kayaking to going to the beach.

What was I thinking, choosing a hobby that is so inherently dangerous?  The potential of accidents in the river, the discomfort of camping, and the prospect of being on the water while it was literally snowing were not enough to defer me from the adrenaline, comradeship, and beauty of kayaking, but why?  Here are the answer to Tinbergen’s 4 “why questions” that explain animal behavior.

Historical:  Kayaking is not a modern invention.  Throughout the ages, humans have seen different expanses of water and crafted suitable vessels that would allow them to cross.  The kayak itself was first used by the Inuit around 8000 years ago.  That’s a lot of time for this skill to evolve and be passed along.  For the Inuits, being able to kayak meant being able to provide food for your family and a quick method of travel.  These invaluable skills, and the processes that come along with them, would have been inherited through the generations.  While I do not have any Inuit in me, I do have Native American, and though Native Americans used canoes, most of the concept is the same.  I might have inherited a propensity to be on the water due to my Cherokee ancestors.

I practiced safety while swimming in rapids by diving into the Coosa river.
I practiced safety while swimming in rapids by diving into the Coosa river.

Additionally, scientists have found several genes that are linked to risk-taking behavior, such as white water kayaking.  As Americans, we have conquered the environmental dangers and stresses that still plague underdeveloped nations, so we have found other ways to express these risk-taking genes, including extreme sports like white water kayaking.  Most of America is composed of immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, who were more inclined to risky behavior as they had to leave the life the knew to come to an unknown land.  These risk-taking genes were probably passed on throughout the generations.

Proximal:  I’ve always been someone to go for adventurous, outdoorsy experiences in my travels, from hiking to skiing to scuba diving.  Something I had always wanted to learn how to do was white water kayak, but there was no where around for me to learn.  The thought of coursing down a river with the water rushing around me, not having to actually paddle to go anywhere (unlike flat water kayaking, which makes the arms extremely sore) seemed so thrilling to me.  When I was presented with the opportunity where I would not only be taught how to navigate the waters but also have an instant group of people who would go with me and act as a safety net, I jumped at the chance.  If I had not had a group of experts who were willing to teach me and go on rivers with me, I never would have been a white water kayaker.

A joint house-warming party for the president and the AKC awards.
A joint house-warming party for the president and the AKC awards.

Developmental:  This one is fairly straightforward.  I was new in Tuscaloosa, did not know many people, and was looking for acceptance from a peer group.  Humans are extremely social creatures, and college-age students in particular place an emphasis on friends and peer groups.

Part of the culture of college is forging connections with different people and being introduced to new ideas.  AKC provided me with an instant group of similarly minded students, and provided me with a means of relaxation after all the stresses of my studies.  I couldn’t do schoolwork 24/7, and kayaking each week was a welcome break.

Functional:   White water kayaking is a very physically and mentally demanding sport.  The mind has to be adaptable and able to make quick judgments in order to navigate rivers.  Depending on the speed of the rapids, there might only be seconds to properly set up the boat and hit the right line on the river to avoid flipping or running into rocks/fallen logs.

Besides mental capabilities, the evolution of the human body have allowed us the reflexes and physicality to stay upright on the river.  Muscle coordination is used to paddle.  In a sense the paddle becomes an extension of the arms, and you have to be aware of exactly where and how it is hitting the water.

A sense of balance, developed in the ear, is crucial, for the boats are extremely unstable and without proper adjustments of the body and weight in response to the current, a kayak will be immediately flipped.  Humans have a need to survive, and this survival instinct has helped me.  When I flipped over a huge expanse of rocks, the adrenaline kept me from panicking as I calmly put my body through the motions necessary to roll.  That was a huge accomplishment for me, and gave me a tremendous amount of confidence.  If I can remain calm while my head is being slammed by rocks and I am trapped upside down in the freezing water, I can do anything.

I flipped while attempting the slalom race at Mulberry; I couldn't roll at the time so I had to swim down the rapids
I flipped while attempting the slalom race at Mulberry; I couldn’t roll at the time so I had to swim down the rapids

The thrill of whitewater chill

Ever since I first went out with the old neighborhood crew back in the day to the pool on the weekends to “boat it out I’ve always loved to hit the water, especially on these dog days of summer and this fixation reaches Uncle Miltie proportions when it comes to whitewater rafting. To me, its fatal attractions lie in the ensembles of teamwork and the affixing personalities of the river. Despite all the dangers of it and how needless it may be it is an exhilarating catharsis and escape from confining in the safe monotony of the every day hustle and bustle. More often than not, it features obvious ex fraternities who accentuate this. They’ll go about their river guide jobs as if its a perpetual party times on the river times. They’ll engage in prank competitions where each wagers and vies to have the best showmanship on each pass. Hilarity always ensues from such bets as you’ll have guides having to Marco Polo it with crews who do not speak fluent English. Which I imagine is perhaps similar to the constant on the fly thinking Polynesian cultures had to adjust to in order to “island hop” effectively. So, to me the drive behind this has its deeper roots and never seems to be about wanting to be the very best or to find the path of least resistance on the river, but rather how the team fares under it all. In that regard, whitewater rafting is an ever enduring multifaceted team sport / activity that is all about what makes up the total experience of the journey rather than the destination.

From Chattaw to the Occoee and beyond I always find the narrative of all for one and one for all coming back round again. As one guide put it “its all about whats true in the crew.” And when you’re cruising down the river you can naturally assess which crews remain true and which falter. The most effectual guides right off the bat are able to properly drill everyone on the commands and how you remain in sync. Naturally, s/he help each member find their place within the team and uses commands that resonate well with them. It seems to me that virtually all of them unconsciously gauge a crew based on some form of the theory of weakest ties.  I’ve always been fascinated by the interplay between a crew and their guide. So much so that every time I go I make it a point to ask the guide about all of it when we coast it to the shoaled banks of the river in the doldrums (IE the calm breaks in the river) Typically the questions are always along the lines of: “So how long have you been doing this and what have been your best experiences?” and “Have you ever had a Benedict Arnold or do you run a tight ship?” then I open it up from there and ask “What do you think makes the perfect crew?”  and “Do  you think a crew of guides would necessarily always out the wisdom of the crowd in a crew of standard folks?”

Another dimension of this trip I always like is the aftermath perspectives. The corroboration of groups in mix matching narratives  into an altogether newly woven story is as American as apple pie. As would be made clear to anyone who reads Mark Twain who I still think depicts American river going culture best. In total, my take away from it has been that we as a species have worked best throughout our history and evolution when a license of wants and abandons give way to a unifying purpose of necessity.


My Love for Art

A piece of my artwork
A piece of my artwork

Art to me is a way to disassociate myself, or disconnect from all the madness around me, and just breathe. With all the pressures of everyday life, sometimes I just need a place to hide. Whether it’s creating art, or looking at it. It’s my release from my worries. Art for our ancient ancestors could have started the same way, a release from the constant struggles of trying to stay alive.

  Symbolism is a form of art. For our ancestors, and even in today’s world, it has always been a way for people to communicate their ideas, beliefs, or actions. Our ancestors used places like cave walls to express themselves. Or created stone tablets to interact and translate their ideas, or beliefs with others around them. Except now, symbols are created digitally, on a computer, and seen on a global scale.

Art is thought to be a form of language. Language is translated by the use or combination of symbols. The more we develop mentally with age, the more we learn and understand new ideas. The more we learn, the better we are at communicating, creating  ideas, and making connections.

Being able to understand and develop languages from the use of symbols I’m sure has insured a person’s survival and reproduction from time to time. For instance, knowing what the word, or symbol, for biohazard means, or radioactive.

Form an evolutionary standpoint, the human brain continues to grow because of the accelerate rate of communication and problems solving between humans. As a human being’s culture and language abilities grow, the human brain will continue to thrive.














The Neuroanthropology of You & Me (aka, Us)

To get us started on this blog thing, I want to give everyone a short practice assignment that will give you the opportunity to play with the bells & whistles of WordPress & for us all to get to know a little bit more about each other.

This assignment is due by midnight this coming Tuesday. That way we’ll have the time to read about each other before our next class. By the way, when you start seeing everyone else’s posts, be sure to subscribe to them, so you get our witticisms delivered post haste directly to your inbox.

I want you to put a little effort into this assignment but not a lot. It should take you longer than 15 minutes but not more than a few hours, depending on how define “little effort.” You’ll see what I mean below.

Here’s the assignment:

By Rob Mieremet (ANEFO) (Ga het na (Nationaal Archief, The Netherlands)) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Rob Mieremet (ANEFO) (Ga het na (Nationaal Archief, The Netherlands)) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Remember Tinbergen’s 4 “Why” questions I mentioned in class? Niko Tinbergen was a Nobel Prize-winning biologist who made immense contributions to the field of “ethology” or behavioral science. Ethology is the observation of behaviors “in nature,” as it were. Specifically, animals don’t do much talking, so the best we can really do to understand their behavior is to sit & watch them. A lot. For a long time. Zoo animals are all fucked up & high on psychopharmaceuticals (which makes them actually pretty good analogs for a lot of us, though maybe better analogs for minimum security prisoners–think of them the inmates from Orange is the New Black, which, according to my father-in-law, who used to run the commissary in a minimum security prison in New York, is actually a pretty accurate representation), so understanding evolved behaviors is best done in a natural environment. You can do this with humans too, but it’s called being a creepy stalker. I assign students the task of being creepy stalkers in some of my classes, & it’s quite fun.

The last time I was at the Memphis Zoo, this guy was on Prozac to deal with the anxiety around females resulting from developmental isolation. "Contemplating" by Frank. Licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.
The last time I was at the Memphis Zoo, this guy was on Prozac to deal with the anxiety around females resulting from developmental isolation. “Contemplating” by Frank. Licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Anyway, Tinbergen recognized that there are four different biological explanation for any behavior or four different answers for “why” an organism does something.

  1. Historical (evolutionary or phylogenetic): The ancestors of the organism did that, which it inherited.
  2. Proximal (cause/effect): An outside cause triggers that behavior.
  3. Developmental (ontogenetic): It is a developmentally appropriate thing to do at the age of the organism.
  4. Functional (physiological): There are internal biological “mechanisms” or the evolved capacity to do the behavior.

I want you to apply the 4 why questions to a hobby you have or something you do besides this school thing that you’re proud of & is reflective of the inner you AND to tell us about the cultural basis of the hobby. It can be current or past, but it should be something that gives us some insight into your personality. Oh, & post a photo of yourself that’s better (or at least different) than the one I already. In fact, post a photo of you doing the thing you’re proud of.

Photo from the early days at The Beat in Port Chester, NY. Taken by my friend Randy.
Photo from the early days at The Beat in Port Chester, NY. Taken by my friend Randy.

I’ll tell you about me to give you an idea of what I’m looking for. I used to play in bands. I actually worked in music distribution, so it wasn’t so much my hobby as my life. But I got a little turned around in my early 20s because it was supposed to have been a hobby. I got really into music during my first stint in college (I was a college dropout & came back later to anthropology & grad school & all that), moved to NYC, went to school for audio engineering & recording because I didn’t know how else to get more involved in music, & sort of fell into working in record stores & playing in a band. My best friend from high school had moved to NYC & suggested we start a band. I owned a bass that I could barely play, he owned a microphone, & he knew guys who plucked at a guitar & a guy who played jazz drums. So that’s how we started realizing this dream.

Here I am again in my next band, wearing sunglasses at night, the epitome of trying to look cool. They also served the dual purpose of masking the fact that I had to watch my fingers much of the time while I was singing instead of making eye contact with the audience.
Here I am again in my next band, wearing sunglasses at night, the epitome of trying to look cool. They also served the dual purpose of masking the fact that I had to watch my fingers much of the time while I was singing instead of making eye contact with the audience.

I played in garage punk bands, which is a very specific little subculture, with its own fanzines, radio stations, clubs, & look. It’s a very Euro-American cultural development, though there are a lot of Japanese garage punk bands & a few from here & there around the world, but mostly the developed world. I worked in the music industry, wrote for fanzines, collected records, ad nauseum, so it was a fully immersed cultural experience that still resonates with me in interesting ways. I have more or less maintained myself within that cultural model ever since. The tattoos (even the style of the tattoos), the handlebar mustache, the earrings, the grease in my hair–all parts of my style today I would associate with a garage-punk subculture. I still have a physiological response to music that I like, to playing music (one of my bands reunited a few years ago, so I got to relive the thrill), & prefer talking to people from that walk of life. I still listen to the same style of music in my office when I’m composing lectures & collect it (I used to be a vinyl collector but stick with mp3s now). I “come alive” when I’m talking that talk. I can’t say I exactly understand the nature of the feeling, but it’s definitely something different than the ordinary & it’s definitely biologically based. Let me see if I can break it down a little.

Phylogenetically: Well, comparatively speaking, none of our closest living relatives shows signs of playing in garage-punk bands, so we have to step back & think about preadaptations. We see plenty of evidence, especially in birds, of music playing a significant role in communication & genetic signaling. Birds use songs (both the style & pitch) to communicate relevant information about territoriality & such. A little phylogenetically closer, pair-bonded gibbons duet together. Mother’s universally talk to babies in sing-songy voices Dean Falk has referred to as “motherese.”

And playing in a band deserves parsing out, because the music is only part of it. The performance is important too. I’d say I loved practicing with my band most because the social synchronization was almost palpable. To be attuned to other people & able to nonverbally follow their precision behaviors is a powerful thing. By that I mean that, when the drummer slowed down his beat, I (as bass player) could follow along & slow down too (sometimes–other times I honestly might’ve been too drunk to notice). So, yeah, we also did a lot of…other things together, things that induce altered states of consciousness (if you know what I mean) that have been found to break down cognitive boundaries & enable people to take perspectives normal consciousness does not otherwise afford. Sharing novel alterations of consciousness can really bond people, & I have never gotten as close to anyone besides my wife & kids as I did to the 3 guys in my first band & our extended family. Phylogenetically, all social species have intensive experiences that bond them together & lead to trust. Intense experiences with non-kin create bonds that are like those you have with close kin, which have developed because they have seen you in vulnerable states & continue to associate with you, forgive you for them, like you better for them, have shown you their vulnerability, etc.

Finally, being in a band signals something potentially genetic. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller suggests the arts signal an ability to be cognitively flexible, to rise to unique occasions & creatively overcome adversity. This is an attractive feature in a mate that likely has a genetic basis, at least in part. Being in a band may also demonstrate a willingness to put oneself out there. I know that I felt there was a dynamic, exuberant person inside me that most people didn’t see & that I wanted to be able to show. So, onstage, I dressed like a jackass, screamed into the mic (like a jackass), & jumped around (like a jackass). Sometimes I also carried a tune. It was so much fun. And it was so validating when people would say, “you’re like a totally different person up there–it’s rather bizarre to see” because that’s the side that completed me. I knew myself to be what I am every day & that person. Frankly, it is what I miss most about being in a band, though I tend to prowl a classroom somewhat like I am in a garage band again.

My wife took this photo, I believe, the night I met her. I was trying to look cool to impress her. Fooled her, didn't I?
My wife took this photo, I believe, the night I met her. I was trying to look cool to impress her. Fooled her, didn’t I?

Proximally: This one is much simpler. Being in a band is cool. I wanted to be cool, so I learned to be in a band. I didn’t learn to play music–I learned to be in a band. I can’t read music. I can’t really pick out tunes. I can write tunes but only on the bass. I couldn’t tell you how to play them. If you can play guitar or something, you can follow along with the songs I invent. My guitar player or drummer would write whole songs, meaning all the parts, & teach me mine. I would write bass parts & lyrics & let the guitar player & drummer come up with their own parts. So I don’t consider myself a musician. I couldn’t “jam” with you. I can only play the songs I learned to play for my bands. But I can manage a band. I can book practice. I can book a tour. I can get a record deal & put together a record. Between the two bands that released recordings, I think I have 5 albums out & one on the way. One whole unreleased album is still sitting in the can. And we put out a whole buncha 7″s & comp tracks. So I know the mechanisms of being in a band, but I’m not a musician; & I learned it because people thought it was cool & I wanted to be cool. Ironically, figuring all that out & being relatively successful at it is what gave me the confidence to go back to school, get a PhD, & become a professor.

This, in my opinion, was our masterpiece (if you could call it that). I'm very proud of it.
This, in my opinion, was our masterpiece (if you could call it that). I’m very proud of it.

Developmental: Wanting to be cool is a developmental stage. Preening for female attention is a developmental stage. It worked. I met my wife by being in my band. She was dating the guy who put our records out, & he hosted a showcase for his bands. Fortunately, he was a forgiving kind of guy & they were only casually dating. Anyway, at a certain point, external validation meant a lot toward my developing ego. Then, as I established myself in life (wife/kids) & career, it has come to mean less. Biologically, we know that the increase in testosterone production in males around puberty propels that desire for external validation, particularly from those who interest us sexually. We also know that having kids & getting older influences a decline in testosterone & increase in oxytocin & vasopressin & things that make us less motivated by ambition & more motivated to bond & nurture. Now, I put my energy & other resources into helping my kids ready themselves for preening. I just picked up a stand-up bass for one of my sons, who has signed up for strings in middle school. I am so excited!

My son, Bailey, & his new bass. I am so excited for him & his brothers, who are taking on alto sax & trumpet.
My son, Bailey, & his new bass. I am so excited for him & his brothers, who are taking on alto sax & trumpet.

Functionally: As humans, we are uniquely capable of the physiological coordination I mentioned earlier, not just to synchronize ourselves musically with conspecifics, but with ourselves. We have the hand-eye-vocal coordination to push down certain strings with one hand, strum a rhythm with another, sing, & jump around. This is not easy to do, & we have to be wired with that capacity. For instance, we cannot move all our toes independent of each other like we can our fingers because our toes are neurologically wired together (go ahead, try to move your second toes without the others moving–can’t do it, can you?). Your pinky is somewhat wired with your ring finger, but other apes don’t have that much dexterity in their hands. We have exquisite fine motor skills in our hands because of a density of neural tissue in the brain dedicated to that digital independence & sensitivity. If you look at the sensorimotor regions of the brain, you can see that the regions in our brains dedicated to those regions are relatively large.

Furthermore, we have a more dynamic vocal range than many other species, &, of course, language gives us special capacities in this regard not shared by any other species. I don’t think the jumping around like a jackass is particularly special, but it is pretty cool when it happens on the beat. If you want to see the quintessence of this, watch this footage of James Brown from the 1960s on the T.A.M.I. show.

Remember I talked about people with God & the Devil battling in them? This is what it looks when it’s been synchronized & outfitted in some badass threads.

Now it’s your turn. If you’ve never done a blog post, do a separate blog post. If you’ve done a blog post before, you can do yours as a comment below mine, unless it doesn’t let you post photos. Sometimes comments don’t allow photos easily. Have fun & email me with any questions.