Category Archives: personal

Running On


I began running in the form of track in the eighth grade.  I, unfortunately, was sick on the day of sign ups and was automatically put in the two mile race where no one wanted to be and where there was plenty of space for me.  Initially I hated the “long distance” (only considered long distance in the context of track & field) but in the fall of my eighth grade year I somehow found myself surrounded by a bunch of sleepy eyed cross country runners.  I wasn’t good.  I finally improved enough by the end of middle school to justify trying out for the sport in high school and I wasn’t good at any other sport anyways.  However, when I arrived for tryouts I found that really there was no such thing.  Running was a place where people go when they are either made for running or aren’t made for anything else and so we had no tryouts.  What we did have was an abundance of runners at various levels.  I was a slow freshman.  We worked out very early, often before the sun rose.  My coach was very skilled at her job and I credit her to this day for helping me to learn how to run better.  I slowly improved and by the end of my first high school season I was actually enjoying the sport, my team, and making vast improvements in race time.  Running is something I came to love very much.  My favorite races ended up being the mile in track because of the swiftness of it and how you can also feel your competition at your heels and the half marathon or long trail runs.  Unfortunately, during my freshman year at college in a fit of youthful over zealousness I ran a succession of half marathons (maybe 2 or 3) then a 16 mile trail run all within a month or two of each other and ended up injuring myself.  At the present moment I cannot run much or far but it is a long term goal of mine to recover and enjoy running again.

To explain my running in Tinbergen’s terms:

  1. Historical (Evolutionary): I believe this is somewhat straight forward.  Humans adapted bipedal motion and then running so that they could better hunt prey for survival and reproduction.  We don’t have to run to hunt now but we are able to run for incredibly long distances.  I believe ultra-marathoners run more than 100 miles at a time illustrating that we could run for very long distances if needed.
  2. Proximal: I had to join a sport or take a physical education class in the state and city where I lived and I was loathe to take P.E. in high school.  That is why I decided to run track and cross country.  I knew I would never be good enough to make it in high school volley ball and basketball which are relatively competitive in my area.  So I joined the reject sport and it turned out alright.
  3. Developmental:  Joining the team also served a social purpose in my life.  It makes sense to me that the school practically forces kids into organized sports, band, or something else.  Being part of a team certainly was important to my high school experience and was probably the best part of it.
  4. Functional (physiological):  Need I say it? Runners high!  I’m actually not sure what this sensation is supposed to feel like because I’m not sure if I’ve ever experienced it.  I can say that after waking up at 5am and running we all certainly felt better.  We were happier than most people are at 5, 6 or 7 in the morning.  Our metabolisms seemed to be good and our appetites were certainly stronger.

    I won’t be running this fall but I will be enjoying Bama football!

It’s Not O.K. to Hit

I'm number 1, literally.
I’m number 1, literally.

I was raised in a physical family. Happy, sad, or angry my life has always been a tactile one. I grew up channeling this into sports and theater, not very well I might add. I am known among my circle of friends as the hitter, especially if I’ve imbibed. People put up with it because they like my personality and because I assume that everything else about be is fairly up to snuff. This is just a quirk that must be tolerated in order to get to the good stuff. However, in my junior year I found rugby. A sport that relishes in the clash of bodies, broken bones, and a bit of blood. In my first season I hurt my hips, I my second I was hospitalized for a lower leg injury. I was punched in the face, thrown to the ground, and bruised and bloody on the regular. And I loved it. There is only one thing more satisfying than showing off an injury from a good hit. And that is telling all your friends how you elbowed a girl twice your size so hard in the throat that she cried. Actually it’s probably the look on their faces after you tell them with such gusto that really does it. My history definately factors in here, as in noted earlier. On a proximal level I hit when I am hit. Developementally I am of an age where I feel the need to seek out a social group that meets my needs. And functionally speaking, I have an evolutionary drive to engage in physical activity, which probably stems from an increased fight response as opposed to flight. Frankly I enjoy the roughness and rugby facilitates that. It is simply a place where it is finally ok to hit.

Shooting the Breeze

This picture was taken during a regatta.
This picture was taken during a regatta.


Growing up on the coast of Mobile Bay, I was always intrigued by the water. It wasn’t until I moved to Tuscaloosa until I truly realized how much I would come to miss living on the coast. I wanted to entitle this post as “Shooting the Breeze” because it does not only relate to my sailing activities, but it describes my life interests thus far in many ways. I enjoy exploring. I want to focus on exploring in this assignment, with a concentration on the particular hobby of sailing.  The term “shooting the breeze” is actually a quite common saying, and it has its origins in sailing. In fact, in this first picture of me here I believe I am in the process of doing just that. At the beginning of a race, competitors will inch towards the starting line. You simply let go of the sails, and the boat drifts towards the direction in which the wind is stronger. It points to the direction that gives the most power, and when the race gun goes off, you go with that information given to you. Sometimes it’s wrong.  All the boats take off in that direction at one time. It’s overwhelming.  It’s awesome. It’s exhilarating.  In essence, that’s exploring for you. You can’t quite figure out the exact answer of where you are going or how to get there, but you can begin.


Yay pretty sun
Yay pretty sun

Historical: No one in my family has a history of sailing. I guess you could say that their ancestor’s ancestors sailed over to the New World long ago. My Great Grandfather sailed over here from Italy.  My mother in many ways is an explorer: in her career, her love of surfing, and marrying my father (that last one is just meant to be funny, they’re happily married 32 years). My father is an explorer in many ways, too. He’s always trying to understand the world around him, and he loves exploring the wilderness. I think that their combination definitely played a role in getting me to explore the world around me. After all, it was my parents who encouraged me to start summer sailing camp over ten years ago. My parents always challenged me to look for the beauty in the world, and I think this helped mold me to love exploring.
Sailing itself, however, can be traced back for as long as people had access to the resources. Technology has obviously changed, but the concept still remains. Sailing is arguably both one of the greatest achievements and greatest vessels of destruction that mankind has created. Exploring definitely depends on the person doing the exploring. It can be the most invigorating experience, yet it has had and will always have the power to destroy.

Proximal: The distant proximal cause of me sailing: my parents wanted me to partake in a fun camp, and the rest is history and practice. The real proximal cause: I’m too competitive for my own good. I happened to show off in front of the fleet captain one day, and she thought I’d make a great addition to the team. Sweet deal. Years of traveling the Southeast in regattas was great. Every time I go back home I always make it a point to sail. Even if I can’t participate in a regatta per say, I love just getting on a boat and letting the wind take me where it wants. It’s an interesting feeling, sailing: you think that you’re in control of this machine, but in actuality all it takes is one freak gust of wind and you capsize. I’m serious. It happens to the most skilled sailors. But I digress. I’m not too sure where my element of constantly challenging myself comes from. But, when you’re on the water so much that mentality just becomes part of you. Every single day will be a different experience on the water, and you simply have to challenge yourself to get out there or you just won’t get the thrill.

Developmental: Sailing is a great sport for anyone of any age. It’s incredibly versatile. I think that exploring should always be a part of your life. Getting out of your comfort zone is what makes life interesting. I want to see the world. Which, as a 22 year-old college student, is not an uncommon statement.

Functional: Navigation is not something that belongs to humans. In fact, many species of animals have very well-adapted patterns of navigation and migration that have been studied by scientists all over the world. However, humans have a curiosity that, when matched with resource technology, can turn into ingenuity. We wanted to get to meet other people, get better resources, raid for better resources, etc, and had to go somewhere we hadn’t been before. We had to talk with people we hadn’t met before. Overall unfamiliarity with a place or situation, yet pursuing the trip sounds like exploring to me. In a more focused lens, however, sailing is a huge part of coastal life on Mobile Bay. If you’re not doing one water sport, you’re doing another.

Wildebeests migrating in Tanzania. Source: Image Source 

Exploring the world is, simply put, my favorite past time. The best way to explore, in my opinion, is to get out on the water and sail. There’s so much out there. The horizon is my only limit.

In many ways, the open sky is like the open sea. This hike was incredible. At such high altitude, you seem to see more clearly and you feel like you can reach the sky. That may have been the coca leaves talking, though. Taken in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Peru




Road Trips

Ever since I passed my driving exam and got my driver’s license, I have enjoyed driving.  This has been especially true of me when it comes to road trips.  Every time I have the opportunity to, I like to take road trips, whether by myself or with friends.  This past Christmas, my family all met up in Cleveland, Ohio to spend Christmas together, and even though my younger sister, who also lives in Tuscaloosa, decided she would fly up there, I packed up my things and my dog and road tripped the both of us to Cleveland, stopping at historical sites and museums along the way.  When I came to college from my parent’s house in the Bay Area of California, my parents flew one of my friends out to California and we road tripped from there to Huntsville, Alabama.  We spent a week travelling in my MINI Cooper and visiting sites such as the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest.  I find that taking road trips in a weird way gives me a sense of tranquility.  Driving has a calming affect on me, which is why I will sometimes just get in my car and drive when I need to calm down or have something to really think about.

A picture of my current car with snow at Christmas!
A picture of my current car with snow at Christmas!

Historical: Leading a lifestyle in which one frequently travels is very reflective of many people historically.  Historians believe that the people who initially settled this continent were nomads, as well as many others who lived before them and after them.  Native Americans were often forced into a nomadic lifestyle because they were constantly hunting the buffalo and would move based on where the buffalo were going.

Proximal: My outside causes are very often my family.  If I want to see them during the holidays, I have to travel to where they are, and, if possible, my preferred method of travelling to them is by driving.  Sometimes I am forced to fly, but most often these days, we are meeting in places that allow me to drive and road trip with my dog.

My dog, Dobby, and I stopped at Abraham Lincoln's birthplace!
My dog, Dobby, and I stopped at Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace!

Developmental: When in college, most people like to travel and explore as many new places as they can.  This usually manifests itself in study abroad programs or Spring break vacations.  As I am usually working during Spring break and I will not get the opportunity to study abroad for financial reasons, my desire to explore new places manifests itself in my road trips.  Often times, I will stop somewhere just because I saw a sign for it somewhere or I extensively plan the spots I want to stop at because I know already that there is something interesting there.

Functional: Driving is something that requires a lot of coordination on the part of the individual.  Such coordination is definitely an evolved behavior.  Much of it is also learned.  There is a reason why you have to be a certain age in order to apply for a driver’s license, and I think a lot of that has to do with a person’s ability to perform the tasks necessary to drive.

Me at the Grand Canyon!
Me at the Grand Canyon!

Ich Kann Klettern.

As I stood on a cliff face looking down to the ground a whopping 30 meters below, past which was another 200 meter drop, I wondered, again, what the hell I was doing with my life. The answer was easy: I was rock climbing in Croatia. The more difficult question was why. On the surface, I shouldn’t have been: I unfortunately inherited much of my father’s fear of heights, I was never one of those kids climbing trees or jungle gyms or fences or anything, and I had never had an interest. But here I was on yet another climbing trip, and I was loving it.


Two years ago I started dating my boyfriend, a climber and an employee of UA’s Outdoor Recreation program, leading climbing trips and working the indoor rock walls. He spent months trying to convince me to climb with him, but I resisted up and down. It had no appeal for me, it wasn’t my thing, I didn’t want to try to learn something he was so good at, just no. But when I moved to Austria in January for a semester he pushed harder: “You’re in one of the climbing capitals of the world and one of the birthplaces of climbing as we know it. If you ever decide to climb later in life, you’ll regret it. You should really learn there.” I still wasn’t convinced, but when the first real friend I made in Austria, Gemma, invited me to indoor climb with her my very first week in Austria, I took it as a sign and said yes. Indoor climbing – and this was actually bouldering, which is a little different – was so much more than I thought it would be. Though still an important component, it’s so much less about the physical aspects, as I had assumed; it exercises the mind, and that happens to be one of my favorite things to work. Quickly I was hooked on both climbing and this new girl and over the semester both our friendship and our climbing blossomed. We’d hit the walls twice a week or more. As soon as the weather was nice enough, we joined some friends for my first ever trip outdoor climbing. I didn’t know a damn thing but they harnessed me up and let me give it a go. When I topped out (made it to the top) on my first climb. I was hooked. I came back down but couldn’t wait for my chance for that physical and metaphorical high again. My family couldn’t believe me when I told them – this girl who hated heights was scaling 10, 15, 30 meter walls. But it’s not so tough to believe when looked at from Tinbergen’s behavioral concepts.

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Historically, there were no ladders and roads and neatly trimmed hiking trails in Mother Nature. Our human ancestors climbed when they had needed to. They climbed cliffs, rocks, trees, whatever they needed to do. Rock climbing started out of necessity, but by the Victorian age was becoming a part of the sport of mountaineering, and by the late 1800’s was beginning to be seen as a sport. Going back even further, apes are climbers. Not as extensively as monkeys or other primates, but they still climb. It makes sense that all humans still have that instinct and that ability within them. And on a related note, that fear of heights I have – not a true phobia, nothing paralyzing – is just a rational aversion to dangerous situations evolved from this very skill: Climbing is okay, as long as you’re careful. Functionally, we’re designed to be decent climbers. Not great, and certainly not nearly as good as other animals, but we still have some basic adaptations for it. Notably, our hands and opposable thumbs which we can use for grasping. Our legs are (on some of us, anyway) flexible enough to manage stepping up some pretty big distances. We have enough strength to support our bodies via even tiny ledges, whether it be by standing on it or by holding onto it. And finally, we’ve got the complex thinking capacity to figure out routes (and the capacity to figure out alternate routes when those first ones don’t work out).

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Proximally, I wanted social acceptance. I wanted to befriend this Gemma girl who seemed like someone I could like (man oh man I did). I wanted my boyfriend to quit bugging me (now he just bugs me to climb with him). I wanted to be able to belong to and hang out with another group – the occasionally douchey but prevalently accepting and encouraging group that is Climbers. Climbing is an intrinsically social activity – outdoor climbing requires at least one other person to belay you (unless you’re one of those sort of weird people who prefer climbing alone via setting up automatic belayers – I’m looking at you, random dude I met in Croatia). It’s an excellent bonding experience. When you let someone else belay you, you are literally entrusting your life into their hands. Beyond that, most climbs require some hikes and some help and those all beg for talking and bonding. Beyond that social acceptance, I maybe wanted some acceptance from myself: I wanted to prove to myself that I could overcome a fear and push myself to do something like that. Developmentally, this need for social acceptance and self-growth are both appropriate for a 20-something college student. I wanted to fit into a social group as well as expand my social connections. This is a prime time for humans to explore who they are and hone their hobbies. I am young enough that I will take more risks than someone more settled in life with a family and children to worry about. I am in prime physical condition for such a sport. (Though all the little kids/monkeys are way better climbers. Hmph.) I was in the right place and time in both the world and developmentally to pick up a brand new hobby and I’m so glad I did.

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The Road

One of my greatest hobbies is traveling. With my dad’s family in Oklahoma and my mom’s in Missouri, we make eleven hour drives every Fourth of July and Christmas to both states. When I was around 8 or 9 we made a three day long road trip to Arizona in a RV.

Main Street in Heidelberg.
Main Street in Heidelberg.

Because of all this, my love for travel started pretty early on in life. I’ve continued that in my adult life by going on road trips with friends. I’ve been to every southern state, a few in the Northeast and Nevada, Texas, and Arizona in the Southwest. The most recent trip was in the spring when my sister, a friend and I drove to Austin, Texas. On our way home, we stopped in Galveston and New Orleans to visit friends and have a quick drink. By the time we finally got back to Huntsville, we had been driving for around twenty four hours from our beginning point in Austin. I’ve also been to New Jersey and New York City. My international travels aren’t nearly extensive, but I played soccer in Australia and visited a friend in Germany after my senior year of high school.

Historical: Moving around has always been a part of human history and ancestry. Our ancestors were nomadic, and this movement ultimately resulted in our species’ global distribution. Many species have seasonal migration patterns, and even humans mimic this behavior. Like the snowbirds in Florida, my Missourian grandparents decided to spend their winters in a much milder climate, so they now live semi-permanently in Arizona.

My friends and I in Time Square. It was 37 degrees and I couldn’t feel my toes.

Proximal: This one is pretty easy. UNA, UAH and UA pretty much always have the same week off for spring break. This allows my friend from UNA, who is equally as down to drive long distances, to plan road trips. All of the spring breaks lining up also means every college aged human being will be flooding the beaches of Gulf Shores and PCB to party and get hellish sunburns. We try to avoid this while still having fun, so we travel to more non-conventional locations. My friends and I in Time Square. New York City was an interesting destination, but I’m not really looking to spend another spring break in freezing rain and snow. Money also plays a huge role because it controls where we can go. We usually end up staying with someone’s family.

Downtown in Austin, TX.
My favorite part about Austin, TX was the fact that they had three different Urban Outfitters downtown.

Developmental: A great part of travel is about going to new bars and parties. But another (smaller) part is about experiencing life in other places. As humans, we spend a lot of time learning self-identity and finding out who we are. Getting away from the known allows us to experience something new, learn what we like and don’t like. I don’t plan on living in Alabama forever, and I always travel to places that I would eventually consider living in. It’s also really interesting to be a part of another city’s culture and every day activities. Being part of something new is so refreshing when I’ve fallen into a routine of stress and schoolwork. When I’m in a new place with no real worries, I can look back to my real life and see what’s important to me and what I want to change without pressure to perform skewing my perspective.

Functional: A good sense of sight is necessary to be able to drive and travel. The hugely developed depth perception is also necessary.  Driving also takes a good bit of hand, foot, and eye coordination. We also use a good bit of cultural knowledge to help navigate, such as street signs, maps, and GPS systems.

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 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Rob Mieremet (ANEFO) (Ga het na (Nationaal Archief, The Netherlands)) [CC-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.