by Molly Jaworski
Have you ever tried standing still with your eyes closed and feel your body sway back and forth? Or participate in a sport that requires balance? In this chapter Downey discusses the enculturation of the human sensory system utilizing human physiology and neurology in combination with cultural training practices. Downey argues that skill formation such as balance equilibrium can affect the nonconscious motor systems through analysis of Capoeira as well as gymnastics. Tim Ingold, as stated by Downey, points out that attempts to understand embodiment in anthropology typically overlook “organic dimensions of enculturation” such as neurological adaption, indicating a need for recognition of biology in cultural anthropology (Location 3730).
Downey views the equilibrium system as a primary subject in the study of enculturation of the brain because it is a multifaceted system and it is a prime example of the plasticity of the human brain. The equilibrium system, though typically and unconscious or only semiconscious motor system, is something that can be ‘taught’ or ‘molded’ in order to adapt to certain cultural contexts. Balance is the topic of focus in this chapter and balance can be taught, improved, or changed according not only to physiological changes but cultural changes as well. The human equilibrium system has the ability to find multiple solutions for balance problems physiologically; for example heightened sense of hearing in the blind; as well as taught culturally like the heightened sense of balance in gymnasts and participants of Capoeira.
What I found most interesting about this chapter is the how complex balance truly is. Downey states “standing upright is like balancing an inherently unstable inverted pendulum” and that in order to find that sense of equilibrium and balance, the human body is constantly shifting to counteract the natural sway of the ‘pendulum’ (location 3742). Balancing in itself is complex naturally but this equilibrium system can change according to natural adaptions as well as what we ‘teach our bodies to do’. Participants in sports such as gymnastics and Capoeira have found ways to train their bodies to respond accordingly to balance changes. There is no one way to respond to balance and so the equilibrium system utilizes a multitude of pathways to respond to such changes that, in turn, can become ‘reflexive’ and normal to an individual. It’s interesting that a system that is inherently unconscious, or only semiconscious can be influenced to the point of a response being reflexive and ‘natural’ to an individual.
Lende, Daniel H.; Downey, Greg (2012-08-24). The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (Kindle locations 3694- 4204). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.