From the archives: Neuroanthropolgy and the synergy of sport
Greg Downey is a lecturer in anthropology at Macquarie University. As part of the Encultured Brain session, he gave the presentation A Comparative Neuroanthropology of Equilibrium in Sports and Dance. His abstract goes:
Retaining one’s balance, especially given bipedalism, is a complex sensorimotor challenge. Some theorists, such as philosopher Jerry Fodor, have suggested that the extraordinary speed and facility of human equilibrium suggest it is a mental “module,” a domain specific, automatic, encapsulated neural tool. This presentation examines the claim that equilibrium is a mental module in light of comparative ethnographic and psychological data, and proposes a more complex “nodular” neural system of equilibrium that is subject to enculturation. This nodular system model is more consistent with neurological imaging and other research, including successful efforts to compensate for damaged vestibular systems using prostheses to the sense of touch.
In fact, balance is not so much “a sense” as a shifting synthesis of motor responses and multiple sensory streams — including the vestibular system, vision, and certain key proprioceptive regions. The system typically operates without conscious awareness, but training in physical disciplines such as sports can lead individuals to develop new ways of achieving equilibrium in demanding situations, such as while spinning and leaping, grappling, colliding with others, or even standing on one’s hands.
Ethnographic research on the acrobatic Afro-Brazilian martial art, capoeira, and the presenter’s practical experience as a dance instructor and athlete, suggest how variations in training can affect an individual’s “senses” of balance, practically, phenomenologically and neurologically. For example, because vision can compensate when the vestibular system is unable to function normally (for example, when spinning, inverted, or moving violently), so strategies of looking can directly impact how people successfully balance.