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?