by Moe Prince
In “Holistic Humor: Coping with Breast Cancer” Kathryn Bouskill discusses how humor is used within breast cancer survivor support groups as a method of coping. She does a great job of addressing how this tactic is used socially, cognitively, linguistically, and neurologically. This was done through an ethnographic study of a support center located next to the public hospital where many of the survivors were treated. This included semi-structured interviews and participant observation. The support center studied held both planned and unplanned group sessions where often times the group of women who participated would be laughing and cracking jokes about their situations for the entirety of the meeting. Since this was done in an urban area, she also was able to collect testimonies from women of different races, ages, backgrounds, and socioeconomic statuses. Though they were all different, humor helped them band together in the face of an extremely stressful situation.
Though breast cancer is an extremely well broadcasted disease today, it used to be highly stigmatized. Through the work of political, feminist, and corporate groups awareness skyrocketed and has given many women more control over their treatment and provided them with large amounts of public support. Though this push has taken away most of the shame associated with a breast cancer diagnosis, it hasn’t done much with providing a way for survivors to cope or give them an outlet to openly discuss the difficulties they face. Support centers have been instrumental in giving just that. Bouskill used the term ”cancer world” to describe the new experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer. When someone is knew to “cancer world”, other survivors are instrumental in helping them understand these new transitions and how to deal with the stress. That’s where humor comes in. These women use humor to bond over the non-life threatening aspect of their new lives like loosing their femininity. It creates stronger social bonds because they all understand what one another is going through since they’ve been through it themselves.
Cognitively, humor is used to separate oneself from the stresses of breast cancer. By making jokes about their situation, they are in a scary situation and taking back control. Humor allows them to acknowledge the hardships and decide that they don’t define them. They can use it as a type of defiance for the situation they were forced in to. In a neurological setting, survivors describe humor as a mental break, even though something of the opposite is actually occurring. Humor is “identifiable within neurological centers of positive emotion that allow the mind to perceive an emotional reward” (Bouskill, 228). Women who use humor to cope have showed signs of lower blood pressure and the social support they gain is associated with lower concentrations of cortisol. Complaining about their situation, on the other hand, is associated with high levels of cortisol.
Linguistically, humor provides survivors with the opportunity to share their experience and help new comers to the “cancer world” do the same. They teach each other coping mechanisms and provide support that doesn’t limit itself to the support center. Many women are able to build lifelong friendships and support systems through this process. Humor can also be a bit exclusive as many people who have not experienced having breast cancer feel like it would be inappropriate for them to laugh at the struggles faced and can feel very uncomfortable when the jokes are made.
Bouskill did a wonderful job of looking at a variety of aspects and influences when it comes to humor. She believes that it’s a disservice to focus on just one without the others since it’s a very complex web leading to a multitude of results. Some questions that I did have while reading this article dealt with the cultural aspect. Humor worked really well in the setting studied, but if this study were applied to a different culture or was conducted in another country, would humor still be as effective? Bouskill described how only some parts of the disease were found humorous, whereas subjects like death and the possibility of passing on genes to loved ones were not. How are these subjects addressed and coped with? For survivors who don’t find their situations humorous, how do they cope?
by Zach Obaji
Chapter 5 in the Encultured Brain discusses Memory and Medicine, and memory plays a crucial role in medical decision making. Author Cameron Hay proposes a “neurological model of knowledge that compares how sociocultural traditions and neurological processes co-create distinctive possibilities for remembering (Hay, 142). After conducting fieldwork on coping and the medical traditions of the Sasak people in Indonesia, Hay conducted research in Southern California and to study the different neurological basis of memory in the American medical tradition compared to the Sasaks. The bicultural studies of medical traditions in America and Indonesia reveal significantly different practices in patient care, and both traditions have completely different neurological processes that work differently within the context of memory and healing. The chapter also discusses the four important memory systems along with their neural structures that correlate to the specific type of memory used in medical traditions.
The four memory systems that are important to medical traditions are episodic, semantic, procedural, and working memory. Episodic memories are memories of autobiographical events that can be explicitly stated or conjured. A physician who remembers examining his patient would be an example of episodic memory (Hay, 146). Secondly, semantic memory consists of general facts and knowledge such as the fact that acetaminophen is an analgesic. Episodic and semantic memories are both explicit and declarative, which enables content knowledge (Hay, 146). The third important memory system involves the memory of learned motor behaviors and skills that are unconscious—procedural memory. Imagine a surgeon who performs an appendectomy. The surgeon is likely using procedural memory, removing this vestigial organ is a smooth operation that the surgeon has likely performed hundreds of times. Lastly, working memory “involves allocating attention and linguistic resources for second or minutes to address problems at hand [that] may be relevant in both healers’ conscious efforts to address unfamiliar illnesses (Hay, 147).
The three critical neural structures that are important to these memories involve the hippocampus, basolateral amygdala, and the basal ganglia. The hippocampus is found in the medial temporal lobe, and it is essential for episodic memory. Also located within the medial temporal lobe, the basolateral amygdala is an important structure that makes up important nuclei. Stress responses stimulate these nuclei, and the amygdala plays an important role in “episodic and effortful semantic memory recall” (Hay, 147). The basal ganglia is important to procedural memory, which catalyzes memory processes independent of the hippocampus.
Hay compares and contrasts the American medical traditions to the those of the Sasak people in Indonesia. The Sasak medical tradition revolves around memory precision that is central to their medical practice; these potent “memorized formulate” are almost always retained from oral knowledge and are passed down from ritualized distribution. The knowledge retained by the Sasak are “primarily tightly constrained, episodic learning dependent on the hippocampus, medial temporal lobes, and the prefrontal cortex (Hay, 155). The knowledge within the American medical tradition differs greatly from that of the Sasak. American medical knowledge is obtained through not only through a scientific basis, but are also further refined from clinical experience. Hay describes the American medical knowledge as “encoded semantically, episodically, and procedurally and over time reconsolidated into schemas that can be accessed through the hippocampus as well as through the basal ganglia (155). As we can see, the Sasak medical tradition differs significantly from that of the American tradition. However, neither system is wrong, just extremely different.
by Madi Moore
In Chapter 6 of The Encultured Brain, Downey uses two forms of inverted balancing in different settings to explore the cultural adoptions of sensory systems, including equilibrium systems. The first act of balancing Downey describes is the Capoeira bananeira. A bananeira is essentially a dynamic, highly mobile, and responsive handstand technique within the dance-like martial art form known as Capoeira. Capoeira originated in Brazil, specifically from slaves who were taken from Africa and brought to Brazil. Downey also describes in this chapter a second form of inverted balancing: a static, symmetrical, and rigid handstand as seen in Olympic gymnastics.
Our sense of balance and equilibrium system are both extremely complex. The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and includes semicircular canals and otoliths. In general, sensations from the inner ear organs help humans with body positioning, including while stationary and during movements. In addition to the equilibrium system, other sensory systems, including vision, proprioception, and pressure perception, aid in body positioning and balance. Downey defines our sense of balance as being essentially a “synthesis of diverse afferences and often-unconscious compensatory behavior” (p 174).
The brain comes into conversation in Chapter 6 when discussing the plasticity of the equilibrium system in reference to the two types of balancing techniques introduced in the beginning of the chapter. This plasticity allows the brain system to be malleable and to have the ability to change or adapt, depending on many external and internal variables. The regular handstand and the bananeira both require intensive practice and skill, but when comparing the two, one is able to see the many differences in external and internal factors that allow performers of each handstand technique to successfully maintain different types inverted balances. In a sense, bananeira practitioners and gymnasts have completely different “acquired” equilibrium systems that allow for different highly skilled sensory and perceptual processes. These “acquired” equilibrium systems are a result of vestibular conditioning in different cultural contexts.
To successfully maintain balance in an inverted position, one must train equilibrium systems. An example of a training technique that is used with performers who vigorously spin around includes “spotting”. The “spotting” technique includes “holding one’s head steady and visually fixing on a point” in space every so often (p 180). Initially, spotting is a very conscious task that is learned. Eventually, spotting becomes automatic. What are the underlying mechanisms for how this happens? In some spinning capoeira techniques, practitioners do not use the “spotting” technique. This example demonstrates the implementation of other balance-related techniques that are acquired through cultural factors, in addition to the brain’s plasticity.
When discussing chapter 6, specifically as performers and practitioners increase their handstand skill levels, it is important to question how external factors become integrated and ingrained by the human body in not only an anthropological sense, but also in a biological sense. How do those external factors become embodied in a more physiological sense? In chapter 6, Downey seamlessly unites the cultural anthropological side with the biological neuroscience side of neuroanthropology by using two culturally and biomechanically different forms of handstands. Finally, Downey states that “as neuroanthropology develops, cultural sites of training will be ideal settings in which to study enculturation” (p 188). What other aspects will be useful to study enculturation as the field of neuroanthropology grows? What other aspects will be useful to study capacities for enculturation?
Commentary on Håkan Larsson & Inger Karlefors (2015) Physical education cultures in Sweden: fitness, sports, dancing … learning?, Sport, Education and Society, 20:5, 573-587
by Jennifer Fortunato
In this paper, Larsson and Karlefors investigate physical education and how it plays into movement culture. The authors define movement culture by quoting an earlier paper on movement culture by Crum (1993), “[Movement culture] is how a social group deals with the need and desire for movement beyond labor or maintaining life.” To understand what movement culture can assist in understanding how it can be applied to physical education.
There is initial discussion of how physical education is lacking by going over what element are lacking in the physical education system. The authors state that there is a lack of time dedicated to the content of the course, the physical exercises are decontextualized, and that teacher have a lack of understanding of each of the sports that they are supposed to be teaching the students. There is an assertion within the paper for physical education to be a planned introduction and have lasting participation in movement culture. This assertion is where the authors come in to state their objective of identifying of how this assertion relates to physical education in Swedish schools.
Larsson and Karlefors then introduce how movement culture is identified in physical education. The authors extend movement culture to the logic of practice, which is what people do in social settings according to previous rules where the actions make sense. This is alternative to how many researchers analyze physical activities (identifying motivation of individuals and the function of an activity) and looks at movement culture as an individual deciding what to do from a set of historical and socially cultivated norms. Larsson and Karlefors also define the different movement cultures that are within physical activity as sport logic, sport-technique logic, keep-fit logic, and dance logic.
The authors then go on to investigate the physical education movement culture in Swedish schools by identifying the different logics and how they are pursued/changed within a lesson. They do so by taking videos of 30 physical education lessons. Then reviewing the videos for structure, communication of purpose and how attention is directed towards the activity. The authors identified a pattern from the videos as a ‘looks-like’ pattern. This pattern is where the activities look similar to what they are supposed to but when taking a closer observation is not actually the activity.
Larsson and Karlefors discuss three different looks-like movement cultures through the eyes of sport logic, keep-fit logic and dance logic. Overall, their finding are that the learning objectives for the lesson are vague and that there is little time dedicated to learning a specific activity overall which is similar to their discussion earlier of the shortcomings of physical education system. The authors also identify that students are left to figure most things out on their own which diminishes the learning aspect of physical education.
I think that this paper is a good example of taking movement culture and identifying how it is not only a social aspect of our lives but also how to learn movement culture. Physical education in schools is a primary way for many to learn about movement culture. The authors provide a better understanding of how to integrate learning into physical education rather than just as a training session.
by Elisabeth Nations
In Chapter 7 of The Encultured Brain, Dr. Pettinen presents a case study on Taijutsu, a form of Japanese martial arts that is explicitly focused on perception rather than bodily movement and muscle memory. Taijutsu emphasizes the synchronization of the body and mind so that a person moves in relation to another person in the most efficient and seamless way possible. Taijutsu is based on an epistemology of the body that is very different from the general epistemological understanding of the body in North America, and this is best illustrated by the practice of sakki, an activity tests the practitioner’s ability to stay concentrated and relaxed while judging a very small amount of physical stimulus to determine when to react. Overall, sakki proves Taijutsu’s emphasis on feeling rather than doing or seeing. This is very different from our North American reliance on visual cues and muscle memory – while muscle memory might help the practitioner roll out from under the sword cut, sakki is much more about being able to perceive the movement of the sword.
Taijutsu practitioners do practice repetitive movements as a way of learning the sport, but this is not the focus. Instead, the person being attacked must maintain the most focus on perceiving their environment. As one advanced Taijutsu practitioner described, “It’s not about the repetition. You have to learn the feeling of it” (Pettinen 206).
Pettinen argues that because Taijutsu is so much about perception, an fMRI might reveal that expert Taijutsu practitioners actually have a reduction in brain activity compared to novice practitioners because they may have less neural scaffolding than in a novice focused on obtaining muscle memory. I very much disagree with this, as it seems to me that there is far more brain activity involved in observing, measuring, and evaluating a hundred minute aspects of one’s environment and then picking the correct form of muscle memory than in just relying on muscle memory based on the observation of less stimuli.
In her conclusion, Pettinen suggests that sensation is much more important in having physical skill than in muscle memory and motor skills. She argues that motor skills are only useful when there are used as an extension of what we perceive. I think her assertions are true in part. In certain activities, like martial arts, perception is much more important than just repetition because one is engaging with another person and responding to their actions. In other scenarios, I believe motor skills may be much more important than sensation, like when weight-lifting. Picking up a bar and engaging your muscles to lift it doesn’t require much perception at all, but it still demonstrates a great depth of physical skill. I think that most of the time people must maintain a balance between muscle memory and perception when engaging in physical activity. In ballet, a dancer must perform the movements she’s spent hours committing to memory, but she must also vary her movements to complement the music and the other dancers. In a much more basic example, when we walk every day, the act of walking is based on muscle memory, but we must adapt that movement according to changes in our environment, like a steep hill, an incoming crowd of people, etc.
Pettinen presents a very interesting example of how our understanding of the body affects movement, how movement relates to perception, and how the balance between the two can be seen neurologically. While I don’t agree with some of her statements about how Taijutsu affects the brain, I appreciate how she analyzes and compares the cultural aspects of people’s understanding of the body, even if her evidence for how these epistemologies come into place are somewhat unsubstantiated.
Review of Seligman & Brown, "Theory and method at the intersection of anthropology and cultural neuroscience"
by Vanessa Marshall
“Theory and method at the intersection of anthropology and cultural neuroscience” by Rebecca Seligman and Ryan Brown builds the idea of cultural neuroscience as the marriage of cultural anthropology and neuroscience. The ideas presented are very similar to the ideas that have been discussed in class: combining aspects of anthropology observational research with more scientific experimental methodologies. Anthropologists’ contributions are built around the idea of embodiment – the way that socio-cultural factors influence form, behavior, and subjective experience of human bodies. Social cognitive neuroscientists’ contributions are built around revealing the mechanisms of embodiment by investigating the neural underpinnings and consequences of social experience. Embodiment in culture is recognized as lacking biological and cognitive mechanisms through which to process bodily function and experience via social processes. Biological anthropologists are acknowledged as having made use of sophisticated measurements, but the results are static outcomes of social forces rather than indicators of how physiological systems function dynamically within the realm of social experience.
The authors specifically build on three “interconnected domains of inquiry in which the intersection of neuroscience and anthropology can productively inform our understanding of the relationship between human brains and their socio-cultural contexts: the social construction of emotion, cultural psychiatry, and the embodiment of ritual.” They also advocate the development of field studies that use portable measurement technologies to connect individual patterns of biological response with socio-cultural processes.
by Brian Rivera
On this paper, Nuñez introduces a debate about the nature of mathematics. On one side there is the biological nativist view that argues that ‘mathematical objects’ along with the intuitions of space, time, and quantity are the result of millions of years of evolution. On the other side is the cultural view, which states that number capacities are based on biologically evolved preconditions (BEPs) which are scaffolded by culture to create number and arithmetic (thus them not being biologically inherited but culturally developed).
The main analogy running through the paper is that of snowboarding. Both snowboarding and arithmetic have biologically evolved preconditions: motor-balance for snowboarding and subitizing for arithmetic. These BEP are evolved or were selected for at one point of evolution. However, Nuñez goes on to make the point that although snowboarding’s BEPs have evolved they are not precursors of it. Similarly with number and mathematical abilities, their BEPs have evolved but are not necessarily precursors for them.
One reason Nuñez sees as contributing to the embrace of the nativist view of mathematics is that studies have downplayed data from non-industrialized cultures. Languages from some hunter-gatherer cultures show there can be a complete absence of exact quantifiers. This questions the conclusion that individual humans manifest a specific capacity for number. An additional reason to doubt the nativist view of mathematics according to Nuñez is due to the overextension of conclusions derived from animal studies. These studies hardly resemble the conditions any animal would encounter in its natural habitat and seem ill fitted to drive conclusions about biological capacities.
Furthermore, Nuñez goes on to say that numerical cognition has collapsed the concepts of number, numeral, numerousness, and numerosity. Nuñez proposes making a distinction between quantical and numerical abilities to distinguish the biologically endowed abilities of the former from the learned-cultural ones of the latter.
A criticism that seems relevant is the degree to which snowboarding is a fair analogy to criticize teleological arguments. The way in which some mathematical facts seem transcendental of human notions (i.e. infinity), discovered rather than created, and retrospectively useful have led many to make those claims of numbers being God-given or existing in Plato’s heaven. Although some people might feel this way about snowboarding, it is far from being known as the zenith of human sensory-motor coordination and it is but an example of this capacity. Snowboarding is too concrete of a case to talk about the evolved capacities for balance and motor-coordination. This contrast with mathematics being a widely adapted (possibly universal), unique, and successful abstraction system, it is not just a different type of writing. To have made the analogy to “sports” would have sustained the points about the cultural properties of snowboarding while giving justice to the fact that mathematics is not just a happenstance abstraction system.
Nuñez brings a critical view on the attempts to describe numerical abilities in terms of evolution. Additionally, Nuñez treats the interaction between culture and biology very seriously. I think this article is a good example of the dynamical view necessary to make sense of the complex history of a modern cognitive skill such as arithmetic.
by Janae Hunter
In this article, Lynn and his colleagues attempt to talk about educating undergraduate students about neuroanthropology. One of the main issues brought up is the oversimplification of certain topics which can sometimes lead to misunderstanding. One example the authors used to illustrate this point is the display of horse evolution. Lynn and his colleagues discuss Holley’s (2009) approach of teaching neuroanthropology with an interdisciplinary approach. They used The Human Behavioral Ecology Research Group (HBERG) here at the University to break down the Holley’s approach. Through the HBERG, Lynn was able to teach student neuroanthropology through a hands on learning experience. The students were able to conduct two research projects: The Religious Ecology Study and the Fireside Relaxation Study. The Religious Ecology Study gave students a chance to combine cultural anthropology and field experience. In this project the students were immersed in the church culture in Tuscaloosa and in Costa Rica in order to better understand how the church functions and how to conduct field studies. In this study the students had to record their findings in workbooks. The Fireside Relaxation Study incorporated more of the neuroscience aspect, by trying to test the relaxing effects of fire. The students monitored the blood pressure, heart rate, skin conductance and prefrontal cortical brain activity of the subject’s while they were presented with different recordings of fire with and without sound. This blend of lab techniques and field studies is important to teaching and understanding the practice of neuroanthropology.
I think this article is great for expressing how to teach undergraduate student neuroanthropology, but it doesn’t really add anything to our understanding of neuroanthropology as a discipline. I loved how the article broke down Holley’s interdisciplinary approach to teaching neuroanthropology, because it involves such a hands on approach. During the reading, I had a few questions:
Review: Neuroanthropology or Simple Anthropology? Going Experimental as Method, as Object of Study, and as Research Aesthetic
by Kaitlyn May
In this article, the authors argue that though neuroanthropology is typically thought of as a new field, in reality it is simply a new way of approaching traditional anthropology. As such, the authors argue that neuroanthropology should not be thought of as separate from traditional anthropology.
Using previous calls for cultural neurophenomenology, “a neural theory of culture and a cultural theory of the brain,” as the backbone of their argument, the authors begin by clearly laying out the importance of understanding human experience and the effect of such experiences on the brain. The authors of this paper argue that because culture is embedded in experience. Furthermore, the interaction of experience, the brain, and culture, cannot be separated, and thus their interaction must be critically examined.
Still, neuroanthropology is challenged by the need to employ traditional neuroscience methods in a naturalistic setting. Traditional neural methods, such as fMRI and EEG, are highly constrained by the lack of mobility of the equipment and of the participant. The cumbersome equipment makes it difficult for these methodologies to be seamlessly blended into a natural environment. This starkly juxtaposes to the aims of anthropology to assimilate into a given environment without changing it in order to achieve an understanding of ‘lived experience’. Thus, the authors argue, the tension between the ideals of method and the realities of research is heightened in neuroanthropology. Still, interaction in between the two fields is critical to the advancement of not just neuroanthropology, but of research as a whole. The authors blame the lack of communication between academic departments as producing the hesitancy to interdisciplinary fields, such as neuroanthropology.
Here, the authors argue for Gallagher’s (2003) notion of front-loading concepts into an experimental design as crucial to facilitating interaction between anthropology and neuroscience. Providing multiple examples of its benefit, the authors suggest that this practice may be necessary to neuroanthropology by providing a framework to an experiment. This may help “personalize” the experimental design so that the value of personal experience is not lost in the quest to obtain scientific data. In other words, the authors argue that front-loading will not let the data be stripped of the unique experiences of the people that it was collected from. The authors conclude by emphasizing the importance of not letting experimental methodologies, like neural imaging, transform subjects into objective data points, and instead let the experiential accounts of these subjects inform the meaning of the data.
The authors end the paper by emphasizing their support of the field of neuroanthropology and arguing for a broader conceptualization of the field. The authors argue that neuroanthropology is not so much a new, hybrid field, but a sequential development of traditional anthropology. Defining neuroanthropology as its own, new field may cause those involved to neglect the knowledge, experience, and teaching that anthropology offers—both practically, in terms of methods, and conceptually, by viewing themselves as unrelated to traditional anthropology. If neuroanthropology strays too far from anthropology, it may be that it develops into a subfield of neuroscience and in doing so loses the emphasis of structuring data by understanding of human experience.
As someone within another interdisciplinary field, Educational Neuroscience, this discussion sounds all too familiar. So often the ideals of neuroscience methodology struggle to match the realities of educational practice. It seems to me that neuroanthropology is experiencing a similar conflict, and I am eager to know your thoughts on it.