Review of Children Creating Core Properties of Language: Evidence from an Emerging Sign Language in Nicaragua
by Brian Rivera
In this paper the authors present evidence of how a group of deaf children in Nicaragua have adapted sign language to create new expressions and meanings not present in the language beforehand.
As the authors report, Nicaragua didn’t have an educational system that allowed deaf individuals to interact. Because of this, individuals only developed “home signs” to communicate with family members through gestures which were specific to each individual. The introduction of an educational program for the deaf from elementary school through a vocational school allowed for continual contact between deaf students. This changed allowed students to interact both formally in educational setting and also informally outside of class. This newfound space provided a fertile ground for adapting and reshaping the language students used.
To better look at the specific adaptation of the Nicaraguan Sign Language, the paper contrasts narrative descriptions from a Spanish speaker to that of Nicaragua Sign Language Signers. The comparison shows signers using sequential descriptions with multiple distinguishable gestures that contrast with the Spanish speaker’s uniform and holistic gestures. The authors state that this discrete and combinatorial approach to language might have allowed a gain in communicative power for the signers. Additionally, the pieces the signers use as discrete units reveals the primitives understood as grammatical units.
This paper and this cohort of student is an example of the range of cognitive and neurological processes that can thrive and adapt under different circumstances. It is an example of how the brain, and even language, is not a one-size-fits-all tool but rather more like a Swiss army knife with many flexible tools for adaptation.
Senghas, A., Kita, S., & Özyürek, A. (2004). Children creating core properties of language: Evidence from
an emerging sign language in Nicaragua. Science, 305(5691), 1779-1782.
Review: Embodiment theory and education: The foundations of cognition in perception and action (Markus Kiefer & Natalie M. Trumpp)
by Kaitlyn May
Embodiment is currently a ‘hot topic’ within the field of education, and so I was thrilled for it to be a part of this week’s discussions. Although this article takes more of a cognitive science/neuroscience approach rather than anthropological, it places this week’s topic, embodiment, into a cultural environment that we are all well familiar with: school. For this reason, I felt this article would be fruitful for discussion.
In essence, cognitive psychology and neuroscience are beginning to understand the value of experience to learning. The authors begin with an example that even non-educators can easily dissect: a teacher can introduce an unfamiliar instrument by 1) lecturing on the instrument and its characteristics; 2) showing a video of the instrument; or 3) taking the students to an orchestra to physically observe, touch, and hear the instrument. Though each method will support learning, each will do it differently and produce different effects. With each progression, the instruction places more of an emphasis on engaging the students’ senses. The question then becomes, which method supports learning most effectively? For this reason, there is a current debate about whether cognition is embodied: is cognition grounded in our senses, and our actions grounded in our environment? In this way, education is beginning to consider the same topics as neuroanthropology, namely the role of the cultural environment in cognition and the need for viewing the brain as embedded in its environment.
I would like to highlight Box 1 of the article, where the authors discuss methods for testing embodied cognition. Though not a part of the main narrative of the article, the authors briefly discuss methodologies, and this discussion parallels those we have had in class. The authors discuss using traditional neuroscience methodologies—functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalogram (EEG), primarily— in a traditional lab setting as a first step in assessing the validity of embodied cognition theory. Rather than take the methods directly into the environment, the authors propose to instead remain in the laboratory. Participants will complete various cognitive tasks and analytic focus will be given to whether sensory and motor areas of the brain are activated in the task. If the sensory and motor areas are activated, this points to an importance of the environment in guiding cognition. If they do not, it would appear that the need for embodied learning is less critical. To me, this methodology seems neuroanthropological. Though they do not take the research directly into the environment, they use a logical argument to make a first small step towards studying the brain in the wild, while minimizing the issues with taking a neural methodology outside of the lab (i.e. cumbersome equipment, need to control external variables to obtain a strong signal, lack of theoretical knowledge of obtaining a signal outside of a lab).
The authors begin with a discussion of the embodiment of reading and writing. Though reading is typically thought to be purely perceptual, recent research indicates that reading is heavily influenced by writing techniques; the sensory-motor regions activated during writing are also activated during reading. The authors discuss how writing environments have changed through the years; an increasing reliance on technology makes writing on computers and mobile devices much more common even in childhood. Because of this change in environment, the authors propose a need for further research in the embodiment of writing and reading. They present a few recent studies which suggest the importance of handwriting to reading and suggest that the deep reliance on sensory-motor systems in handwriting point to the embodied nature of reading and writing.
The authors then move into a discussion on the embodiment of memory. Because this is something that we have already discussed in class, I will not unpack the logical argument for the embodiment of memory, but instead present the authors’ argument for the importance of considering the embodiment of memory within instructional practice. Within the context of education, understanding the embodiment of memory is important in order to understand best practices to support learning. Research suggests that learning and memory are best supported by action; doing something is more memorable than simply reading something, or even observing somebody else doing something. Because of this, understanding embodiment is critical to educational practice.
The article then transitions into a discussion of the embodiment of conceptual memory for objects. Concepts held in semantic long-term memory include our sensory-motor experiences with the environment. Much like memory for events, conceptual memory for objects appears to deeply rely on sensory-motor experiences. The authors discuss various neuroscience studies pointing to activation of sensory-motor areas during conceptual tasks, such as word learning, language processing, and concept processing. Moreover, the authors point out that conceptual and perceptual processing overlaps in the sensory regions of the brain, both functionally and neuroanatomically. In other words, activation is seen in similar places for both types of processing. The authors conclude this section with evidence from experience-dependent expertise, and the affect this has on the brain. This brief discussion parallels the textbook’s discussion of Capoeira and Taijutsu. The authors provide an example within music. Professional musicians activate auditory association cortex when processing conceptual knowledge about musical instruments, whereas musical novices do not. Further expertise studies confirm this point; repeated interaction with an experience to the level of an expert affects the brain.
The last section of the article discusses the embodiment of conceptual memory for numbers. Because accessing number magnitudes (i.e., the size of the number) relies on a mental number line, there is a visuo-spatial component to numerical cognition. A common example suggesting the embodied nature of numerical cognition is the frequency with which children count with their fingers, and the established importance of this practice to learning. Moreover, these finger counting habits differ by culture and as a product of the language used to describe numbers. In other words, which fingers people use, which hand or hands people use, when finger counting differs as a product of both the geographic location and language—both elements of culture. Though numerical concepts are fairly abstract, they appear to be embodied in perception and action.
Education is beginning to realize that cognition is embodied, a combination of external stimuli and internal states. Kiefer and Trumpp (2012) provide a comprehensive overview of embodiment research within education, exploring topics such as memory, reading, writing, and number concepts. Within the field of education, research on embodiment demonstrates a need to consider the criticality of sensory and motor experiences, but also a need for educators to consider the bidirectional relationship between internal and external states and the individualities of students.
1. Do you find the authors’ proposed methods to be neuroanthropological? Do you see their method as a good first step towards building the field of neuroanthropology, or as disregarding the importance of anthropological methods?
2. What can research of embodiment within the cultural environment of school suggest to us about embodiment in other environments?
3. How does this paper inform neuroanthropology?
Review of Encultured Brain Chapter 9: Embodiment and Male Vitality in Subsistence Societies (Benjamin Campbell)
by Daniel (Josh) Quillen
Chapter 9 of The Encultured Brain is written by Benjamin Campbell and explores the role of physiological status in human embodiment. Campbell starts by defining embodiment not as the non-physiological experiences of the mind and body, but as the neurophysiological experiences one feels via bodily functions centered around a person’s well-being. He explains that basic bodily sensations like arousal, thirst, hunger and temperature travel through the spinal cord to the thalamus, then the right anterior insula, which also receives input from the amygdala, the emotional expressor of the brain. Therefore, he posits the neuronal expression of the Insula reflects the feeling of a bodily status. Because these inputs are based mostly on environmental factors, he believes that people across cultures will experience a similar type of embodiment. In order to study this connection between physiological status and human embodiment he looks at the relationship between testosterone, vitality and feeling of well-being among men.
Campbell establishes that there is a clear link between testosterone levels and feelings of vitality, wellbeing and libido in men. While the neurological basis for the link is unclear, he posits it could be do to the extraneous effects testosterone has on peripheral tissues like promoting blood flow, oxygen intake and overall bodily function. Effects which would be represented in the insula as a feeling of well-being.
In order to test if the effects of testosterone are consistent cross culturally Campbell looks at how men in subsistence societies have a different curve of testosterone levels throughout life then men in industrialized societies. A case study on nomadic Ariaal men in Kenya looks at the connection between these varying levels of testosterone across cultures and its affects on the men’s perceived satisfaction of energy, sex and positive emotions. The findings support the relationship between testosterone and wellbeing found in industrialized societies. This relationship between testosterone and wellbeing promotes the need to look beyond solely cultural ideology surrounding male masculinity and consider the neurophysiological experience men’s bodies undergo as well.
In order to illustrate this point Campbell uses the example of Muelos. A belief throughout the world that semen is connected through the spine to the brain. Across a litany of cultures and time periods there are documented beliefs that this unit of spine-brain-semen represents male vitality and can be transferred between people. These beliefs can be explained via embodied cognition. Feelings of vitality libido and well being are based upon reenactments of memories. Testosterone levels change during periods of physical activity, sex and participates in memory recall. These changes in testosterone can bind the feelings of energy and wellbeing with the feeling and physical sensation of sex. This integrated connection involves the spine, brain and semen as one experience. Campbell illustrates that testosterone is not the direct cause of the experience of male vitality, but the effects testosterone on the body and the brain in conjunction environmental experience and stimuli.
Campbell poses many questions to further this understanding of male vitality. Because testosterone has been shown to have a clear affect upon on levels of male embodiment in both the mind and body, He believes the most pressing question is are these elaborate beliefs like Muelos surrounding male vitality due to the physiological experiences of the body, or a common cultural ideology among societies with similar life styles? While Campbell does not address female embodiment in order to simplify his study it is an important question to follow through with. How do varying testosterone levels affect female wellbeing and how is this different the men? Are there other physiological factors with more or less influence on both or either men or women in respect to embodiment? Despite these understandable omissions his studies illustrate beautifully the connection between neurophysiological factors and their influence in sociocultural events. These connections are exactly what neuroanthropology is looking for and pushes neuroanthropologists to ask what other sociocultural experiences are influenced so strongly by neurophysiological factors? How do these experiences influence the neurophysiological factor’s expression and importance?
by Brian Rivera
The main theme of this paper is the proper way to understand what we mean by feeling and thinking. Feeling and thinking have usually represented as opposites. However, in this paper Worthman presents evidence of how deeply interconnected feeling and thinking are and argues for acknowledgment of the contribution of emotions to the anthropological understanding of cognition and well being of individuals.
The feeling thinking divide is characterized through the ethos-eidos distinction where ethos is the affective emotional landscape of members of a community (emotional landscape) and eidos is the cognitive-propositional (knowledge structure). This distinction carries Cartesian dualist assumptions characteristic of the Western/Enlightenment tradition that are at odds with some recent findings from neurobiology and neurology. Studies, like those in the work of Antonio Damasio, show that feeling and thinking are deeply intertwined in the nervous system and that in fact it is not clear where one begins and the other one ends. Emotion is thus integral to cognition and serves to mediate or give valence to a landscape of arbitrary information.
Worthman then uses this new conceptualization of the emotion-cognition system to reanalyze the relationship between the individual and the socio cultural landscape. To do this Worthman draws on the concept of embodiment drawing on fields of research that aim to ground theories of human capacity and behavior in the body. Culture shapes the body of the individual and the individual shapes culture through its body. This is what Worthman states is the dual nature of embodiment.
Through the lens of the dual nature of embodiment, the influence of emotion on culture is more easily understood. The biological states influence emotion which influences the individual’s body and experience which in turn influences culture and this influence runs backwards from culture to the individual’s biological states. Worthman then goes on to provide examples of this dual relationship like how temperament affects development in children and rhesus monkeys and how hardship and hostility affect health. From these case studies, five main points are highlighted about dual embodiment biocultural model:
Worthman concludes the chapter by providing examples of how this biocultural model can inform discussion of the role of emotion in psychological anthropology.
The scope and scale of the chapter is impressive. Throughout, we discuss, conscious and unconscious processes from the scale of neurotransmitters to that of a society. A question that emerged while reading the chapter is whether the model makes us more optimistic than we should be, whether such a linear model will make us overlook unknowns yet unknown. While it is possible to draw a link between biological states and social environment, the complexity of such relationship is so massive that one must safeguard against finding a signal in the noise. It is possible for individuals or even cultures as a whole to mischaracterize (or misinterpret) the nature and role of emotions and biological states. The different sources people throughout history have attributed to disease (both physical and mental) speak to this misattribution. Additionally, although easily recognized, “well-being” is difficult to define and measure and thus difficult to attribute to the individual, the culture, or the dynamic between the two. This is not to undermine the usefulness of the model, but simply to highlight that there is a real challenge in moving from the statement “that” biological states have a relation to social environment to describing “how” they relate to each other.