Weird enough for you yet?: A neuroanthropological response to Heine and Iacoboni

Greg Downey, PhD, Senior Lec­turer, Depart­ment of Anthro­pol­ogy, Mac­quarie Uni­ver­sity, Syd­ney, Aus­tralia   Web­site  |  Pub­li­ca­tions  |  PLoS Neu­roan­thro­pol­ogy Blog  |  Abstract & Bio  |  @GregDowney1

Abstract: Hen­rich, Heine, and Noren­za­yan offered one of the most per­sua­sive and com­pre­hen­sive argu­ments in recent mem­ory for the impor­tance of a com­par­a­tive approach in brain, psy­cho­log­i­cal and cul­tural sci­ences, and Iacoboni has been a leader in help­ing us to under­stand the mech­a­nisms through which brains can become encul­tured. But their inter­ven­tion also presents us with a strate­gic ques­tion: Just how broadly are we ready to embrace human vari­abil­ity? I will argue, along­side the sug­ges­tions of our other two pan­elists, that we could use a robust revival of eth­nol­ogy, the neglected com­par­a­tive dimen­sion of the anthro­po­log­i­cal tra­di­tion, and a renewed inter­est in the exotic and strange (how­ever out of intel­lec­tual fash­ion), to coun­ter­act biases toward the “WEIRD.” This broad-as-possible cultural-brain sci­ence – what some of us are call­ing neu­roan­thro­pol­ogy – will priv­i­lege the enve­lope of human pos­si­bil­ity, to actively com­bat the regression-to-the-mean of WEIRD research biases. In addi­tion, the broad-as-possible cultural-brain sci­ence will take seri­ously oth­ers’ experience-near per­spec­tives about liv­ing in alter­na­tive real­i­ties. Other accounts offer prima facie evi­dence that war­rants seri­ous inves­ti­ga­tion, even if this requires method­olog­i­cal eclec­ti­cism. As case stud­ies, this response to the pre­vi­ous pre­sen­ta­tions will also cite ongo­ing research on human echolo­ca­tion and cul­tural dif­fer­ences in pain perception.

Bio: Greg Downey is Senior Lec­turer in Anthro­pol­ogy at Mac­quarie Uni­ver­sity in Syd­ney and a Research Fel­low in the Mac­quarie Cen­tre for Cog­ni­tive Sci­ence. He is also a co-contributor to Neu­roan­thro­pol­ogy, a PLoS blog he founded with con­fer­ence “Stress and Resilience” ses­sion chair Daniel Lende, as well as co-editor (with Daniel Lende) of The Encul­tured Brain: An Intro­duc­tion to Neu­roan­thro­pol­ogy (MIT, 2012). Greg trained in cul­tural anthro­pol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago, work­ing pri­mar­ily in Brazil and the United States before mov­ing to Aus­tralia. His prin­ci­pal research inter­ests are in sports, dance, and skill acqui­si­tion, where he tries to bring together research from anthro­pol­ogy and the brain sci­ences with evo­lu­tion­ary the­ory, psy­chol­ogy, and sports science.

His first book, Learn­ing Capoeira: Lessons in Cun­ning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005), based on mul­ti­ple years of field research and appren­tice­ship, explores how the mar­tial art and dance, capoeira, affects prac­ti­tion­ers.  His arti­cles and com­men­tary have appeared in Amer­i­can Anthro­pol­o­gist, Behav­ioral and Brain Sci­ences, Eth­no­mu­si­col­ogy, The Jour­nal of the Royal Anthro­po­log­i­cal Insti­tute, and Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, among oth­ers.  He is cur­rently work­ing on a new mono­graph, Super Human: Sport and Human Poten­tial, using evi­dence from both sports sci­ence and anthro­po­log­i­cal research to sketch out the lim­its of the human body’s potential.

Greg has started a new research project with the Aus­tralian Rugby Union.  The research team seeks to doc­u­ment and bet­ter under­stand behav­ioral, per­cep­tual, and cog­ni­tive diver­sity in sport, focus­ing on how play­ers from dif­fer­ent play­ing and train­ing tra­di­tions might use diverse cog­ni­tive and sen­sory strate­gies to play in the same posi­tions. Ini­tial research is being con­ducted with Anglo-Australian, Abo­rig­i­nal, and Pacific Islander ath­letes in Syd­ney, but the team hopes to expand the project to New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa in the com­ing years, as these small pop­u­la­tions per­form dis­pro­por­tion­ately well in inter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions, sug­gest­ing that they pos­sess strong local sys­tems for devel­op­ing expertise.