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.

14 thoughts on “The Equilibrium System: Our Malleable Mental Module”

  1. Your question about viewing biological systems as influenced by culture and whether that will contribute to greater categorization is interesting. People love to put things into boxes. I would hope that the scientific community would not try to create these boxes as they would be unnecessary and likely only do harm. I think people within the field would understand that cultural influence on biological systems is not an indicator that people should be seen as distinct, different, or separate. It rather just shows how much variability there is within the human population. That these differences are cultural and just depend on cultural practices and are not innate. There should be no more emphasis on vestibular systems than on skin color. I would hope that people would not use these systems that are influenced by culture to further argue for division among people. It still would be culturally constructed. We are still trying to spread the fact that race is culturally constructed into the general population as plenty of people still see it as biological. I am not even sure the general public would take interest in the idea of cultural influence on the vestibular system, but we as people within the field should be careful to watch our language and not mislead.

    1. This class discussion was exciting and made me realize what poor balance I have (as I fell during yoga). I am also prone very rarely to bouts of vertigo and this class made me think more about how odd vertigo is. I have a better understanding of the vestibular system because of this class which made me think more about how interesting it is that it can be impacted culturally. It is such a small system with big impacts. I personally would have never thought culture could influence such a system even though it makes sense that it would.

  2. I thought this was an interesting article to read. I also thought that there should have been more information on the neuroscience behind the research that Downey did to determine the differences in vestibular systems from culture to culture. In other articles that we’ve read for this course there have been more of an emphasis on the neuroscience and less on ethnography. This article was a nice change of pace that in my opinion was more targeted towards cultural anthropologists rather than neuroscientists.

  3. I like your breakdown of how the word “neuoranthropology” describes the focus on nature-nurture and I also felt Downey’s case study was a good example of the field. In particular, I liked some of the phrases he used throughout the chapter to describe the nature-nurture relationship and saved them as possible quotes to include in my own work because I thought they very clearly and eloquently described ideas in the field. In class, we’ve talked about neuroanthropology as a brand and so coming up with “taglines” can be an important part of building that brand. Here are a few that stood out to me starting with my favorite: “transforming our biographies into our biology” (p. 188), “just because they are not symbolic does not mean they are not cultural” (p. 188), “neuroanthropological analysis of the ways in which cultures induce patterns of neural variation” (p. 171). Of course this still begs the question we’ve discussed all semester, are these ideas unique enough to ‘neuroanthropology’ to warrant a new brand?

    1. I find myself still wondering about neuroanthropology as a field or brand. While I still think the quotes above are very useful in guiding my thinking about research, I am not sure that they are necessarily different ideas than those found in other fields. For instance, biocultural anthropology looks at “transforming our biographies into our biology” and psychologists also conduct “neuroanthropological analysis of the ways in which cultures induce patterns of neural variation.”

  4. I am really stuck on your first question. My papaw, like many others who tend to talk in idioms, often says “Only two things in life are certain: death and taxes.” Though this is just a proverb, and obviously has no base in science, many people regard it as true, but now, after reading this, I question its validity. Obviously taxes are not universal, as this is not a practice used in all countries and cultures. And though the occurrence of death itself is universal, the means, timing, customs, and beliefs regarding it could not be further from devoid of culture. If even these things that we have always been taught as constants can be proven malleable, can we trust that anything is actually independent of culture? Personally, I think not. The devil’s advocate in me wants to say that of course there exist things that are , including the laws of physics, evolution, or Crick’s central dogma of molecular biology. Though the facts and occurrence of these things may be universal, their mere existence is shrouded in doubt in many cultures and belief systems. Even primal emotions and reactions, previously thought to be universal, like the fight/flight response are now seen to be dependent on and influenced by culture. The laws of Mendelian Inheritance are another biological phenomenon that was previously accepted as culturally universal, though now are subject to question with the discovery of penetrance, genetic linkage, epigenetic inheritance, and other non-Mendelian inheritance strategies (all dependent on culture), though some argue that these are just complexities of Mendelian inheritance, not true exceptions. Perhaps this is why we typically don’t think of there being as many “laws” in biology as in physics for instance. Maybe it is because biology is so highly entangled in culture that it becomes near impossible to say that anything is truly universal or void of cultural influence.

  5. What Downey is describing in this chapter is the proprioception and balance systems operating differently in different settings. What I’m still unclear about is the argument for how these systems are “cultural.” In all cases, the systems are keeping the body in balance and aware of its orientation in space, which is what the systems do. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence, in this piece, of how these systems operate differently in different cultural settings; that is, is culture actually affecting the function or physiology of these systems. One way to explore this would be akin to your 3rd question, and examine exactly how the systems themselves might be different or affected by cultural settings, rather than just doing the same thing but in different settings. I’m not sure whether I’m being clear on what I’m trying to say here, the distinction is a subtle one I suppose, but it still seems meaningful to me.

    1. I still think that in many of the papers that we read the authors are using neuroanthropology without being super clear regarding what they mean by it. It’s been used to cover a lot of theoretical, methodological, and disciplinary ground, which is fine, but I still wonder about the utility of neuroanthropology as a brand vs. a subdiscipline. What is the broader goal of neuroanth? After all the readings of the course it’s still a little unclear.

  6. I think the last question is interesting. I think, outside of the academic community, things like culture and race seems to be viewed as interchangeable. I think that this could possibly be used as something to categorize and box people into groups. I also am still confused on the actual cultural differences in this biological system.

    1. I thought the bit about the Muller Lyer Illusion test was very interesting. It seems to show a real cultural difference in our visual perception and processing. Essentially, people from different cultures are selecting, organizing, and processing these pieces of visual information differently based on the visual stimuli they are most exposed to. In the 1966 paper, The Influence on Culture and Perception, they observed, “European and American city dwellers have a much higher percentage of rectangularity in their environments than non-Europeans and so are more susceptible to that illusion.”
      This is a phenomenon that I think can extend beyond sight too. For example, taste.

  7. I’d argue that the mechanisms of evolution are completely devoid of culture. Culture can certainly shape how we view and utilize evolutionary forces (I’m thinking specifically of gene shift and mutation here), but it cannot predict how or when these will occur. It’s like the theorem I sometimes reference of monkeys writing Shakespeare on a typewriter. While given infinite time, the theorem states that the chance of a primate transcribing a Shakespeare play is more than zero, so is indeed possible, especially within Infinite string theory. However, the problem with this is that we look for patterns of what we’re studying. If we’re playing the role of evolution in this equation, we still can’t predict what we are going to see. Evolution can’t be predicted, just like we ourselves can’t predict our own ability to write great plays.

  8. I’ve been thinking a lot more about how I balance in my day to day life. I love to ice skate, granted I’m not very good and I can’t do any tricks but at least I don’t fall down. I went roller skating the other day and I was thinking about how skating on the old school quad skates required a different kind of balance than skating with in line skates. You stress slightly different muscles and tendons in your ankles and some people are better at one than the other. I was watching my friends try to skate and some were able to balance easily and some weren’t able to avoid falling every couple of minutes. I felt like a nerd the whole time because I kept thinking about their individual vestibular systems and how everyone’s system had been trained to keep them upright in different ways. I talked to a friend who used to skate to play ice hockey yet she couldn’t stay upright on quad roller skates. I just thought the whole night was interesting and I never realized how tricky balance and the vestibular system could be.

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