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  • February 3, 2011
  • 01:59 AM
  • 2,032 views

The Social Functions of Blushing

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice



It's happened to all of us. The poorly timed remark, tripping over an uneven sidewalk, a torn seam or an open button or zipper, or even the dreaded toilet paper stuck to the bottom of a shoe—embarrassment can strike at any time.

It's easy to feel as though embarrassing things happen only to you. (We tend to over-emphasize embarrassing events, but I'll let it slide if you want to pretend that you're socially savvy.) In fact, earlier this week, I came close to falling flat on my back twice—in boots that were snow and slush appropriate no less—thanks to the slippery conditions that seem to have settled in the northeast. On my way into the office, I lost my footing on a slight downhill slope and felt my feet start to slide. Before I could catch myself, someone grabbed my arm and righted me. When I stepped out for lunch, I nearly fell again: I walked right over a large patch of ice and felt my feet start to slide out from under me. Once more, a quick thinking stranger with awesome reflexes appeared at my side to keep me from connecting with the sidewalk.

Though I thanked my saviors profusely, I could feel my face flush with that telltale sign of embarrassment: the blush. I was really glad that these folks were kind enough to act. But I was also embarrassed. I've been walking for almost three decades—you'd think I would have gotten the hang of bipedalism by now. But feeling embarrassed is fine. Why do others need to know that I'm embarrassed? Why does embarrassment produce visible signals? Do they serve a purpose?

On a list of things to be embarrassed about, I'm sure that my lack of coordination ranks fairly low. Yet, the things that cause embarrassment are highly personal. And a lot of what embarrasses us depends on the responses of others. What does it mean to be embarrassed? It's an emotion involving feelings of guilt and shame, and possibly modesty. It also is marked by some pretty clear signs, one of which is blushing. We'll work with the following definition:
Embarrassment is the acute state of awkward and flustered abashment and chagrin that follows events that produce a threat of unwanted evaluations from real or imagined audiences (1).So you may think those dance moves you've been practicing in front of the mirror are going to make you the hottest thing on the dance floor. And they very well may. But if you're the center of attention because everyone is pointing and laughing or mimicking, then what you're faced with is embarrassment. If the floor doesn't open and swallow you—as it very rarely does when you need it to—you'll likely find that you're blushing, possibly furiously if you're sensitive enough and/or fair skinned.

Blushing intrigued our good friend Darwin, so much so that it got an entire chapter in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). It is "the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions," he wrote (2). Darwin documented examples to show that blushing affects a range of ages and races, both the sexes, and individuals with disabilities and varying faculties, leading him to conclude that:
The facts now given are sufficient to show that blushing, whether or not there is any change of colour, is common to most, probably all, of the races of man (3).Of course, he also drew conclusions that were rather interesting: For example, he proposes that when English women blush, the farthest the color extends is the top of the chest (4). He makes this claim despite noting that there are exceptional cases to suggest that blushing responses may vary between individuals. But he also hits upon the connection between blushing and social awareness, noting that a sense of guilt or a feeling of having breached social etiquette can prompt one to blush. He frames these arguments within a fixation on appearance, stating:
Men and women, and especially the young, have always valued, in a high degree their personal appearance; and have likewise regarded the appearance of others. The face has been the chief object of attention, though, when man aboriginally went naked, the whole surface of his body would have been attended to. Our self-attention is excited almost exclusively by the opinion of others, for no person living in absolute solitude would care about his appearance. Every one feels blame more acutely than praise. Now, whenever we know, or suppose, that others are depreciating our personal appearance, our attention is strongly drawn towards ourselves, more especially to our faces (5).Still, Darwin finds little adaptive purpose for blushing. He does suggest that it is inherited, in that we all have the ability to blush, but maintains that it is a habit, in that it is the result of a consciousness that we learn—after all, babies do not blush.

But blushing may serve a regulatory role. It's possible that blushing helps smooth out incidents that could spark potential social conflicts. It appears to be our signal that we know we've committed some transgression. Embarrassment does follow from the fear that we are being judged—that our identities are compromised. Darwin was right that we care about how others perceive us. It doesn't matter whether we have a relationship with members of the witnessing public or not, embarrassment springs from the belief that others are aware of a shortcoming. Blushing may help mitigate what are believed to be examples of social ineptness. Researchers have suggested that individuals who display visible signs of embarrassment are more likely to be treated kindly by witnesses, who are more likely offer words of support and sympathy in these cases than when individuals don't demonstrate remorse (6).

Embarrassment is a difficult experience:
It is uncomfortable and upsetting. Blushing may cause an individual to feel warmer than normal, and the sense of self is challenged—your identity is challenged. Some individuals may also experience extreme blushing conditions, accompanied by tingling and burning sensations in the face, ears, and neck (7).
It is punishable—adolescents tend to tease others who demonstrate signs that they are embarrassed.
Embarrassed individuals often believe the transgression is worse than it is, leading to subsequent feelings of anxiety, and possibly social avoidance.
Embarrassing events can suggest to the witnessing public that the individual doesn't fit with with the social order. The responses to embarrassment, which include a number of recognized behaviors in addition to blushing, are meant to shift the individual away from this moment of marginalization (even if it is self-imposed). The responses tell both the individual and the witness that a mistake has occurred and allows both parties to take steps to repair the relationship. Blushing is set apart from other conciliatory actions, such as gaze aversion, self-touching or grooming, and downward head movements, because it is largely involuntary, and thus viewed as a trustworthy signal of a person's emotional state (8, 9).

In fact, blushing may have worked so well as a conciliatory signal that it may be deployed in other social interactions. To avoid embarrassment, for example, an individual may deploy gaze aversion and other such actions, which may lead to blushing, before an embarrassing event actually occurs. So in an instance of social awkwardness, displaying signs of embarrassment may prompt conciliatory actions on part of... Read more »

Keltner, D., & Anderson, C. (2000) Saving Face for Darwin: The Functions and Uses of Embarrassment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(6), 187-192. DOI: 10.1111/1467-8721.00091  

Miller, Rowland S. (2001) On the Primacy of Embarrassment in Social Life. Psychological Inquiry, 12(1), 30-33. info:/

NICOLAOU, M., PAES, T., & WAKELIN, S. (2006) Blushing: an embarrassing condition, but treatable. The Lancet, 367(9519), 1297-1299. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(06)68554-1  

  • February 2, 2011
  • 02:08 AM
  • 833 views

Divergence and gene flow – what is a paleogenetic model

by Jörg Friedrich in Reading Nature

With the technical advances in gene sequencing, the possibilities of their use are growing rapidly. Totally new scientific disciplines evolve – eg the paleogenetics. Gene sequences are produced from bones thousands of years old, and these are compared with each … Continue reading →... Read more »

Reich D, Green RE, Kircher M, Krause J, Patterson N, Durand EY, Viola B, Briggs AW, Stenzel U, Johnson PL.... (2010) Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Nature, 468(7327), 1053-60. PMID: 21179161  

  • February 1, 2011
  • 04:00 AM
  • 990 views

How to navigate a Viking longboat with a king, some bees and a DC-8

by Alun in AlunSalt

Jo Marchant has reported on a new paper, On the trail of Vikings with polarized skylight: experimental study of the atmospheric optical prerequisites allowing polarimetric navigation by Viking seafarers, for Nature news. She also adds more on her own blog including the link to the paper that you can access for free. The research is [...]... Read more »

  • January 31, 2011
  • 03:40 PM
  • 1,095 views

Iron-deficiency is not something you get just for being a lady

by Kate Clancy in Laboratory for Evolutionary Endocrinology

This post uses literature review, my own empirical research, and a new paper to demonstrate that menstrual cycling does not impact iron status in women. This goes against a major, prevailing medical notion and inhibits appropriate diagnosis in anemic women.... Read more »

  • January 31, 2011
  • 03:40 PM
  • 1,029 views

Iron-deficiency is not something you get just for being a lady

by Kate Clancy in Context & Variation

This post uses literature review, my own empirical research, and a new paper to demonstrate that menstrual cycling does not impact iron status in women. This goes against a major, prevailing medical notion and inhibits appropriate diagnosis in anemic women.... Read more »

  • January 31, 2011
  • 11:16 AM
  • 1,386 views

Do all cities have neighborhoods?

by Michael Smith in Wide Urban World

It's hard to imagine a modern city that does not have neighborhoods. What would residential areas in such a city look like? Is this even possible? Given the prominence of neighborhoods in social science research on life in cities today, I would guess that all modern cities do have neighborhoods. If a sociologist or planner, for example, identified a city that lacked neighborhoods, I'm sure they would study the situation and publicize it for being so strange.For premodern cities whose housing and living conditions are described in historical documents, all or nearly all published examples have neighborhood organization (I haven't found a neighborhood-less city yet, and I haven't given up searching yet). As for cities only knowable through archaeology, my own specialty, neighborhoods are more difficult to identify but some progress is being made (Smith 2010). It seems that any time an archaeologist decides to look into housing and residential zones at an ancient city, the result is the identification of neighborhoods. My article on this is posted here.What do I mean by neighborhood?  These are the working definitions I used in the article:"A neighborhood is a residential zone that has considerable face to face interaction and is distinctive on the basis of physical and/or social characteristics" (Smith 2010:139)."A district is a residential zone that has some kind of administrative or social identity within a city." (p. 140)In the article I give some examples of premodern and nonwestern cities that have numerous small neighborhoods and a smaller number of (larger) administrative districts. The Hindu city of Bhaktapur in Nepal is an example (see Smith 2010 for details and citations). Although it may be difficult to distinguish neighborhoods and districts empirically, these concepts are important because they point to two of the major kinds of social dynamics that define and shape neighborhoods. On the one hand are bottom-up processes arising from social interaction among neighbors, and on the other are top-down processes of administration and control by city or state authorities. Much of what happens in urban neighborhoods is a result of the interaction of these bottom-up and top-down processes within a given built environment.So far, we are batting 1,000. Whether one looks at modern cities, historically documented premodern cities, or archaeologically excavated ancient cities, all have neighborhood organization. But that's not all. Some large village settlements (e.g., prehistoric pueblo socieites in the U.S. Southwest) are divided into housing clusters or zones that resemble neighborhoods. And rapidly urbanizing sites, such as squatters settlements in the developing world, tend to have neighborhood organization. Even Black Rock City, the temporary city that is the site of the Burning Man festival each year, has neighborhood organization (generated by both bottom-up and top-down forces).If neighborhoods are truly a universal aspect of urban organization, two questions are worth exploring: (1) why is this the case? and (2) what are the implications for modern cities and urban policy? Stay tuned, we don't have the answers yet. In the meantime, you can find out about a transdisciplinary research project on urban neighborhoods and open spaces.References:Smith, M. (2010). The archaeological study of neighborhoods and districts in ancient cities Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 29 (2), 137-154 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2010.01.001... Read more »

  • January 31, 2011
  • 09:05 AM
  • 1,085 views

Kadiskos the symbols of Zeus Ktesios

by Nikolaos Markoulakis in Tropaion

I would like to start a series of brief posts that will present in detail the ancient Greek household worship and religious practice. One, major, problem that exists when a research is been conducted for the ancient Greek world and especially the ancient Greek religion is generalization. As it has been identified by a great number of scholars for every aspect of ancient Greek religious practice, generalization is in fact an error which has been occurred as soon as omissions and over-simplifications entered the falsification of facts. It is even more difficult to produce a generalized opinion for the ancient Greek household religion or household cults. Another issue that must be addressed is that the private religious practice that includes the household of the ancient Greeks has not been described in any detail in literature. Why? As it is the fact today, any family prayers, even if still they remain in some households, are obsolete. Therefore modern household household piety, if recorded, leaves a great deal of details out, which then required the future researcher to fill the gap with cross referencing from other sources, using even his imagination. Something similar it needs to be said for the ancient Greek household religious practices. My purpose, therefore, is to minimize the methodological difficulties mentioned above, by pointing out the sources, date and possible region or community for which the household practice is presented.... Read more »

Nilsson, M., P. (1940) Greek Popular Religion. Lectures on the history of religions. n.s. info:other/608793

Rose, H.J. (1957) The religion of a Greek household. Euphrosyne, 95-116. info:/

  • January 30, 2011
  • 03:52 PM
  • 1,169 views

Smoking and the Slave Trade

by Dirk Hanson in Addiction Inbox


To Africa and back again.

[Queen Nzinga (smoking a pipe) with Her Entourage, Kingdom of Kongo, 1670s]--------->

In the 17th Century, tobacco, the prototypical New World stimulant, was introduced to Africa by European traders. By 1607, tobacco was being cultivated in Sierra Leone, and in 1611 a Swiss doctor commented on how the soldiers of the “Kingdom of Kongo” fought hunger by grinding up tobacco leaves and setting them on fire, “so that a strong smoke is produced, which they inhale.”

It did not take long for the true motivations behind this botanical boon to be revealed. Tobacco served two crucial functions for the slave traders of the Middle Passage: Once Africans had acquired the smoking habit, tobacco could be used in lieu of cash as payment for purchasing slaves. In addition, tobacco was frequently handed out to slaves during the horrific Atlantic voyage. This was not done out of altruism, or common decency, of course. In an article for Slavery and Abolition Journal, Jerome S. Handler writes: “European slavers apparently believed that such measures were useful in their efforts to control their ‘cargo’ and avoid or minimize social unrest and revolts—or even put the enslaved in a better mood prior to their being sold or transshipped from one American port to another."

How did the slaves smoke the tobacco enroute? With clay pipes supplied by the slave traders. The Europeans had introduced an easily grown, highly addictive plant drug, so it was inevitable that white traders would use that addictive property to their advantage. And they were happy to create an additional market in paraphernalia.

Handler, writing in the African Diaspora Archaeology Network Newsletter, notes that, while Africans produced their own pipes, “white clay pipes of Europeans manufacture, particularly English and Dutch, were commonly used to purchase slaves…. In general it appears that European pipes were often preferred to African ones.” The pipes came in long and short versions, the long “elbow bend” pipes being preferred on shore, with the short pipe being preferred for use onboard. Jean Barbot, an agent for the French Royal African Company, reported that the slaves onboard were occasionally given “short pipes and tobacco to smoak upon deck by turns.”

However humane the practice might sound, the motivations of the traders “were the same as those which prompted them to distribute beads and allow African board games aboard the ships, that is, an attempt to mollify or placate the captives in situations that were always fraught with tension and possibilities of insurrection.” Presumably, it also diminished hunger and helped keep the slaves on their feet during auction in the New World.

Not every ship’s captain went along with the pipes. A French slave ship captain wrote that “for fear of fire, tobacco should be grated and given as a powder.”  Handler, a Senior Scholar at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, notes that “there are no data on whether the enslaved were allowed to keep the pipes they received aboard the slave ships. “

Probably not. “Chances are that pipes were collected by the ship’s crew after each use to be re-used at another time,” according to Handler. But it is likely enough that at least some pipes were successfully smuggled ashore. And while most of the white clay pipes found in African descendant archaeological sites in America were probably local in origin, “it may be that an occasional pipe was brought by some enslaved African via the Middle Passage.”

Handler, J. (2009). The Middle Passage and the Material Culture of Captive Africans Slavery and Abolition, 30 (1), 1-26 DOI: 10.1080/01440390802673773

Graphics Credit: Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library,
www.slaveryimages.org.... Read more »

  • January 30, 2011
  • 04:00 AM
  • 1,128 views

Paleolithic Diet More Satisfying Than Mediterranean-Style

by Steve Parker, M.D. in Advanced Mediterranean Diet

Swedish researchers reported recently that a Paleolithic diet was more satiating than a Mediterranean-style diet, when compared on a calorie-for-calorie basis in heart patients.  Both groups of study subjects reported equal degrees of satiety, but the paleo dieters ended up eating 24% fewer calories over the 12-week study.
The main differences in the diets were that [...]... Read more »

  • January 30, 2011
  • 12:57 AM
  • 1,002 views

Egypt Week – Spiteful versus Altruistic Punishment

by Jon Wilkins in Lost in Transcription

So, welcome to the first Egypt Week edition of Lost in Transcription. We're going to kick it off with an anthropology paper that uses a cross-cultural approach to study the origins of human punishment and cooperation.

If you're not familiar with this vein of research, let me set the stage for you. The "problem" of cooperation when people talk about it in anthropology, biology, and economics is this. If you take a super naive view of natural selection, it would say that we should have evolved to ruthlessly pursue our own self interest. In particular, if we have an opportunity to cheat and get away with it, the logic of self interest suggests that we should. From this perspective, the whole idea of successfully engaging in collective action seems absurd.

Contrary to this naive expectation, we observe that people do forego opportunities to pursue their own narrow self interest, and the history of civilization is one of successful collective action on an enormous scale.
Read more »

... Read more »

Marlowe, F., Berbesque, J., Barrett, C., Bolyanatz, A., Gurven, M., & Tracer, D. (2010) The 'spiteful' origins of human cooperation. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.2342  

  • January 28, 2011
  • 11:32 AM
  • 922 views

Bonding, Biophilia, and Biosynergy--oh my!

by Serious Monkey Business in This is Serious Monkey Business

Growing up, I never gave so much of a guenon's dung for primates. But after one class and some research, I think about the effects of bonding with primates and what effects that has on the environment.... Read more »

  • January 28, 2011
  • 01:16 AM
  • 841 views

Science Online 2011: Underrepresentation hurts us all

by Kate Clancy in Context & Variation

In my second year of graduate school, I was in a study group with a few other grad students: in particular I remember a white female student and an Asian-American female student. Somehow we got on the topic of admissions, where we all admitted, jokingly, to feeling like impostors. Then the white female student stated that she didn't believe in affirmative action, and expressed her view with quite a bit of anger. "Besides," she finished, "I just don't see race."I was completely paralyzed, and felt like I had no way to articulate what was wrong with what she just said. She happened to leave the room shortly after her statement. I turned to my Asian-American friend."Doesn't see race?" She almost shouted. Tears sprang to her eyes. "When she says that, she doesn't see ME." I looked at her, mute, wanting to cry myself for the shame of not knowing how to be a better friend.* * *I haven't always been the best ally. At times, I probably haven't been an ally at all. The story I related above was the only one I dared share where I could sufficiently pseudonymize the characters. It was not the first, nor was it the last, time I was struck dumb by racism.I did learn to speak up and interrupt racism, and slowly have figured out ways to make the elimination of racism and sexism priorities in my life. But I have a long way to go.The MLK, Jr Memorial panel at Science Online 2011, like the women scienceblogging panel, was up against some stiff competition: Defending Science Online, Standing out: Marketing yourself in science, Blogging networks and the emerging science communications ecosystem and Not All Marketing is Evil: Getting Life Science Companies to Support Science Online. I'll admit to sitting near the back with the thought I might divide my time between this session and one other. Yet within the first few minutes I sat there, I knew I was in the right place. David Kroll, who you know all over the internet because of his great blogs Terra Sigillata and Take as Directed, opened by playing the guitar and singing Bob Marley. Within a few bars, about a third of the audience was singing along with him. I was too busy trying not to cry to join in.I was emotional for a number of reasons... because of the wonderful contradiction of David sitting up there and singing, because of the warmth of the room, where it felt like we had a shared mission. David contradicted the paralysis a lot of allies face, because we are so afraid of doing it wrong, of making the mistake that exposes the racism and privilege we are working so hard to cover up.In addition to discussing Martin Luther King, Jr's history in Durham and the surrounding area, David shared with us the following quote from Irving Epstein (which it turns out David wrote about a year ago here):In 2005, more than two-thirds of the American scientific workforce was composed of white males. But by 2050, white males will make up less than one-fourth of the population. If the pipeline fails to produce qualified nonwhite scientists, we will, in effect, be competing against the rest of the world with one hand tied behind our backs.Danielle Lee of Urban Science Adventures, and Alberto Roca of Minority Postdoc, were also panelists. Danielle was engaging and smart: she talked about issues of underrepresentation in science, as well as access and trust of science in minority communities. Alberto, who I had also heard speak as an audience member at a few other panels, also talked about underrepresentation issues in science, the invisibility and isolation of being a person of color in science, and how to operate against that isolation. Here are a few of their broader points (any butchered or incomplete thoughts are my fault only):People of color and from underrepresented groups often have to pass in order to survive in science.People have to be mentored all the way up the chain: several stories were mentioned where women and people of color were not adequately prepared or professionalized for their jobs and suffered for it.Impostor syndrome is universal.You act like a role model when you have a voice, so if you aren't speaking up you aren't a role model. Also, if you are invisible or are ignored/underappreciated, you will have a harder time being an effective role model. So the knife cuts both ways.As Danielle says, science needs a new PR campaign. The African American community has serious trust issues with science and with good reason: this community has been exploited, undervalued, ignored.Related to the above, there was some discussion of issues of religion and science; namely, that it is a mistake to completely discount or scoff at those with religion. Religion, faith, and religious practices have an important cultural component for many minority communities in the United States and beyond, and to write off their beliefs is to write them off as people. Even if that's not what is intended, that is certainly what is heard.The entire session was moving -- all three panelists were so thoughtful and kind to one another, they answered audience questions so well, and the audience was committed to the issue of underrepresentation in science. I have a few last thoughts of my own that I'd like to share, as a way to extend the conversation about women scienceblogging to be more inclusive.First, I don't think white people or people with privilege should shy away from conversations about underrepresentation, race, or ethnicity. It is time to just be comfortable with the fact that we are going to make mistakes. If we are well-meaning and want to eliminate racism and other oppressions, then the mistakes we are going to make will not be as bad as the worst ones faced by those to whom we're trying to be allies. Those of us in this community who are academics tend to encourage our students to make mistakes, because we know they will learn from them. But the stakes feel so high in this situation that we are paralyzed. Guess what? Being paralyzed is actually worse than making a mistake. You can apologize for a mistake. There isn't much you can do to fix things if you stay out of an important fight.Second, you know the isolation we talk about as women scientists and science writers? Multiply that times a million and you probably have the isolation of being a person of color in the sciences. There are some different ways in which sexism and racism play out in the public sphere, at least in the US: people might be a bit more willing to make sexist comments than racist ones. However, the impact of racism is at least as harmful, probably more harmful in most ways, because it leads to social disparities in education, health, salaries, living conditions. There are people out there who study the effects of social disparities and internalized racism on health, and folks, it's not good. For instance, the mortality rates of blacks are significantly higher than for whites in heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, flu and pneumonia, HIV, cirrhosis and homicide (Williams 1999). Measures of internalized racism are correlated with a higher waist circumference, abdominal obesity and insulin resistance (Tull et al 1999, Chambers et al 2004). Issues of acculturation plague immigrant women, especially second-generation women, who experience more explicit instances of racism in their lives through acculturation (Viruell-Fuentes 2007).Finally, science will be a richer, more interesting topic when there is more diversity. And I don't just mean it in the Small World sense: I mean that while I love the scientific method, I know the process of science to be strongly biased by who performs it, and so it is absolutely necessary that we have many different people doing and thinking about science in order to have the best possible perspective on it.Back when I was a union organizer in grad school, my organizer and mentor told me that graduate school doesn't weed out the weak, it weeds out the strong: it weeds out those with strong senses of self who don't want to be exploited, who realize there are other things to do in the world and other ways to live a meaningful life. I think that is true for a lot of people who leave academia and science, and unfortunately most of the ones I know who left were women and people of color.Here's the problem. I want them back, I miss them: they were my dear friends. Those are the kinds of people we need to lead science, do science, communicate science, encourage and excite young people to be scientists.Reach out for people. Be an ally. Interrupt racism and sexism. Implement changes where you work to better recruit and retain people of color. Put people of color in positions of power: they probably know how to fix this mess much better than you do. Risk making mistakes; say you're sorry once you realize it.But whatever you do, don't just sit there.References... Read more »

  • January 28, 2011
  • 12:48 AM
  • 1,289 views

Brand Anthropology: New and Improved, with Extra Diversity!

by gregdowney in Neuroanthropology

Since graduating from high school, I’ve several times worked as a salesman, first flogging reference books door-to-door over summers while an undergraduate and later, while writing my dissertation, getting involved in the ‘design consulting’ business where I helped sell something a lot less tangible.  Sales was a great training ground for an anthropologist: nothing prepares you for quickly manufacturing social relations like slogging around door-to-door with a sample case, and a large lecture room of first-year students is a lot easier to sell than a skeptical dairy farmer in Wisconsin.
Marquesan tattooing (rear), by Von de Steinen.
I’ve often given anthropological colleagues advice that could have been taken verbatim from my stints in sales school — they would probably be mortified if I knew about the dual purposing.  At times, I worry about my colleagues because I think that a whole series of situations in academia actually resemble sales situations: job interviewing, ‘open day’ for prospective students, grant writing, and even the first few lectures in an introductory class, when you’d be well served if you could persuade the assembled students that you’ve got something to say worth hearing.  
Anthropologists sometimes don’t seem terribly good at selling what they do. If you couldn’t convince a starving man to eat a sandwich, how can we persuade diverse audiences to pay attention to anthropology?
After my previous post on the ‘Vital topics forum,’ reader Jason Antrosio asked my opinion about Ulf Hannerz’s article from the same American Anthropologist: ‘Diversity is Our Business.’  Since I had been banging on about anthropology promoting itself as the study of human diversity, Jason probably assumed, quite reasonably, that I had already read Hannerz’s piece.  Alas, I hadn’t.  One of the many downsides of being laid up at home is that I only read the forum online and hadn’t really browsed the contents of the latest AA because my hard copy is likely still sitting in my office mailbox.
Hannerz’s piece, ‘Diversity is Our Business,’ is well worth the read not just because he explores how the field is misrepresented in the public eye; Hannerz asks what we might do as a field to counter-act anthro-bashing.  He wades into water that I prefer to plunge into neck deep here: what kind of brand is ‘Anthropology,’ how do we tell people about what we do, and do we need to perform a bit of brand management?
Perhaps provocatively, in drawing on a characteristic current vocabulary, I would argue that anthropology needs to cultivate a strong brand. Those who feel ill at ease with that term, thinking that in its crassness it sullies their noble scholarly pursuits, can perhaps just as well continue to call it “public image” or even just “identity,” but in times of not just neoliberal thought but also of media saturation and short attention spans, it may be that “brand” is a useful root metaphor, a word to think with in the world we live in. (These days, too, not only corporations or consumer goods are linked to brands but also for example cities and countries.) Brands should attract outsiders: customers, visitors, members of the public. At the same time, they should preferably offer a fully acceptable identity for whoever may count as insiders to reflect on and be inspired by. (Hannerz 2010: 543)
Hell, yeah, we should think about Anthropology as a brand! With no trace of irony, I’d argue that we get serious about our collective self-promotion as a discipline.  Hannerz gets off to a good start, but I think we could even step up the campaign a bit, making use of the traditional strengths of our discipline to promote our intellectual and research potential.  And I’m going to take this opportunity, as well, to reply to some of the issues Daniel outlined in his piece, Anthropology and Publicity, something I’ve been meaning to do for a while.

Anthropology bashing
Hannerz begins his discussion with a reflection on Pres. Barack Obama’s use of ‘anthropological’ to describe when, during his campaign, Obama apologized for sounding out of touch.  Obama said he was sorry that he sounded as if he was ‘talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters.’ As Hannerz explains, Obama’s assumptions embedded in this apology grate for anthropologists because he takes for granted a public stereotype so at odds with our self-conception (and so ironic given that Obama’s late mother was an anthropologist):
Here it seems to me, then, that the candidate Obama assigns a stereotypically distant view, lacking in empathy, to anthropology—and then proceeds to sketch, as its opposite, precisely the sort of close, contextualizing understanding that we as anthropologists are much more likely to claim for ourselves. And from this particular source, we may find the stereotype so much more surprising because we might have thought this candidate should have got his anthropology right—but more about that later. In any case, here is an instance of a recurrent phenomenon that we might call “anthropology bashing.”  (Hannerz 2010: 541)
According to Hannerz, ‘anthropology bashing’ comes in four basic flavours:

Anthropologists are portrayed as cold and distant observers, ‘at worst, as someone who uses his skills to manipulate situations in ways which are detrimental to the human beings about which he has built up an expertise’ (Hannerz 2010: 541).  This image is of the ‘handmaiden’ of colonialism, a superior-feeling expert at manipulating natives, depriving them of their patrimony, and speaking in place of the cultures that we study.
Anthropologists, in contradiction, are depicted as ‘bumbling, incompetent observer who does not get even obvious realities right,’ as Hannerz puts it, less capable of ‘getting it’ than locals or even amateur observers.  This image is the anthropologist as dowdy professor-type who is ill-suited for life beyond the Ivory Tower but utterly oblivious to this fact.
As part of academia, Hannerz also worries that we are ‘easy target for a kind of populism that proclaims that research in and about far-away places is useless and that money devoted to it is therefore not well-spent.’  Here, Hannerz suggests that anthropologists are particularly prone to populist abuse, such as the ‘Golden Fleece Awards’ given by US Senator William Proxmire, often to projects that receive federal funding but have the bad luck to possess titles that Sen. Proxmire finds easy to mock.
Finally, Hannerz argues that anthropologists are bashed as being anachronistic and slightly out of date, pictured in pith helmets and safari suits with a mirthful chuckle that our field even still exists.  Ironically, I believe that one of the senior administrators at my own university had a giggle at our expense for this very reason, as if it was comical to think that anthropologists still were out there, wandering around, doing this funny old anthropology thing we do.

I could fiddle with this classification, but I think the list is quite good on the whole and demonstrates the key problem: not a single critique, but a lack of control over how we are perceived. Anthropologists need to invest more in getting our version of what we do before the public eye rather than let ourselves be defined by others.
If we look closer, what we find in a lot of the critiques are caricatures of us put forward by other people: indigenous ‘advocates’ who attack anthropologists, cultural studies scholars who try to make game of us, and the out-of-touch who assume that, if they don’t know what’s happening, there must not be anything happening in our field.  We often don’t take strong stands against these caricatures, or we take nuanced opposition to them that doesn’t do much to abate the more powerful rhetorical thrust of the criticism.
For example, when criticized for being complicit in colonialism, most cultural anthropologists will tend to roll over and go along with the criticism, conceding that, in fact, anthropologists have given indirect assistance and even philosophical justification for colonialism.  I think that this is a losing strategy in the public sphere.
Cui Yin Mok at the Open Anthropology Cooperative similarly argues that anthropologists have sort of lost their mojo as they’re going too self-critical ‘baggage’ that stops them from better describing their field to the public.
Anthropology’s troubled past and its roots in colonialism might... Read more »

Hannerz, U. (2010) Diversity Is Our Business. American Anthropologist, 112(4), 539-551. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01274.x  

  • January 28, 2011
  • 12:48 AM
  • 1,163 views

Brand Anthropology: New and Improved, with Extra Diversity!

by Daniel Lende in Neuroanthropology PLoS

Since graduating from high school, I’ve several times worked as a salesman, first flogging reference books door-to-door over summers while an undergraduate and later, while writing my dissertation, getting involved in the ‘design consulting’ business where I helped sell something a lot less tangible.  Sales was a great training ground for an anthropologist: nothing prepares you for quickly manufacturing social relations like slogging around door-to-door with a sample case, and a large lecture room of first-year students is a lot easier to sell than a skeptical dairy farmer in Wisconsin.
Marquesan tattooing (rear), by Von de Steinen.
I’ve often given anthropological colleagues advice that could have been taken verbatim from my stints in sales school — they would probably be mortified if I knew about the dual purposing.  At times, I worry about my colleagues because I think that a whole series of situations in academia actually resemble sales situations: job interviewing, ‘open day’ for prospective students, grant writing, and even the first few lectures in an introductory class, when you’d be well served if you could persuade the assembled students that you’ve got something to say worth hearing.  
Anthropologists sometimes don’t seem terribly good at selling what they do. If you couldn’t convince a starving man to eat a sandwich, how can we persuade diverse audiences to pay attention to anthropology?
After my previous post on the ‘Vital topics forum,’ reader Jason Antrosio asked my opinion about Ulf Hannerz’s article from the same American Anthropologist: ‘Diversity is Our Business.’  Since I had been banging on about anthropology promoting itself as the study of human diversity, Jason probably assumed, quite reasonably, that I had already read Hannerz’s piece.  Alas, I hadn’t.  One of the many downsides of being laid up at home is that I only read the forum online and hadn’t really browsed the contents of the latest AA because my hard copy is likely still sitting in my office mailbox.
Hannerz’s piece, ‘Diversity is Our Business,’ is well worth the read not just because he explores how the field is misrepresented in the public eye; Hannerz asks what we might do as a field to counter-act anthro-bashing.  He wades into water that I prefer to plunge into neck deep here: what kind of brand is ‘Anthropology,’ how do we tell people about what we do, and do we need to perform a bit of brand management?
Perhaps provocatively, in drawing on a characteristic current vocabulary, I would argue that anthropology needs to cultivate a strong brand. Those who feel ill at ease with that term, thinking that in its crassness it sullies their noble scholarly pursuits, can perhaps just as well continue to call it “public image” or even just “identity,” but in times of not just neoliberal thought but also of media saturation and short attention spans, it may be that “brand” is a useful root metaphor, a word to think with in the world we live in. (These days, too, not only corporations or consumer goods are linked to brands but also for example cities and countries.) Brands should attract outsiders: customers, visitors, members of the public. At the same time, they should preferably offer a fully acceptable identity for whoever may count as insiders to reflect on and be inspired by. (Hannerz 2010: 543)
Hell, yeah, we should think about Anthropology as a brand! With no trace of irony, I’d argue that we get serious about our collective self-promotion as a discipline.  Hannerz gets off to a good start, but I think we could even step up the campaign a bit, making use of the traditional strengths of our discipline to promote our intellectual and research potential.  And I’m going to take this opportunity, as well, to reply to some of the issues Daniel outlined in his piece, Anthropology and Publicity, something I’ve been meaning to do for a while.

Anthropology bashing
Hannerz begins his discussion with a reflection on Pres. Barack Obama’s use of ‘anthropological’ to describe when, during his campaign, Obama apologized for sounding out of touch.  Obama said he was sorry that he sounded as if he was ‘talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters.’ As Hannerz explains, Obama’s assumptions embedded in this apology grate for anthropologists because he takes for granted a public stereotype so at odds with our self-conception (and so ironic given that Obama’s late mother was an anthropologist):
Here it seems to me, then, that the candidate Obama assigns a stereotypically distant view, lacking in empathy, to anthropology—and then proceeds to sketch, as its opposite, precisely the sort of close, contextualizing understanding that we as anthropologists are much more likely to claim for ourselves. And from this particular source, we may find the stereotype so much more surprising because we might have thought this candidate should have got his anthropology right—but more about that later. In any case, here is an instance of a recurrent phenomenon that we might call “anthropology bashing.”  (Hannerz 2010: 541)
According to Hannerz, ‘anthropology bashing’ comes in four basic flavours:

Anthropologists are portrayed as cold and distant observers, ‘at worst, as someone who uses his skills to manipulate situations in ways which are detrimental to the human beings about which he has built up an expertise’ (Hannerz 2010: 541).  This image is of the ‘handmaiden’ of colonialism, a superior-feeling expert at manipulating natives, depriving them of their patrimony, and speaking in place of the cultures that we study.
Anthropologists, in contradiction, are depicted as ‘bumbling, incompetent observer who does not get even obvious realities right,’ as Hannerz puts it, less capable of ‘getting it’ than locals or even amateur observers.  This image is the anthropologist as dowdy professor-type who is ill-suited for life beyond the Ivory Tower but utterly oblivious to this fact.
As part of academia, Hannerz also worries that we are ‘easy target for a kind of populism that proclaims that research in and about far-away places is useless and that money devoted to it is therefore not well-spent.’  Here, Hannerz suggests that anthropologists are particularly prone to populist abuse, such as the ‘Golden Fleece Awards’ given by US Senator William Proxmire, often to projects that receive federal funding but have the bad luck to possess titles that Sen. Proxmire finds easy to mock.
Finally, Hannerz argues that anthropologists are bashed as being anachronistic and slightly out of date, pictured in pith helmets and safari suits with a mirthful chuckle that our field even still exists.  Ironically, I believe that one of the senior administrators at my own university had a giggle at our expense for this very reason, as if it was comical to think that anthropologists still were out there, wandering around, doing this funny old anthropology thing we do.

I could fiddle with this classification, but I think the list is quite good on the whole and demonstrates the key problem: not a single critique, but a lack of control over how we are perceived. Anthropologists need to invest more in getting our version of what we do before the public eye rather than let ourselves be defined by others.
If we look closer, what we find in a lot of the critiques are caricatures of us put forward by other people: indigenous ‘advocates’ who attack anthropologists, cultural studies scholars who try to make game of us, and the out-of-touch who assume that, if they don’t know what’s happening, there must not be anything happening in our field.  We often don’t take strong stands against these caricatures, or we take nuanced opposition to them that doesn’t do much to abate the more powerful rhetorical thrust of the criticism.
For example, when criticized for being complicit in colonialism, most cultural anthropologists will tend to roll over and go along with the criticism, conceding that, in fact, anthropologists have given indirect assistance and even philosophical justification for colonialism.  I think that this is a losing strategy in the public sphere.
Cui Yin Mok at the Open Anthropology Cooperative similarly argues that anthropologists have sort of lost their mojo as they’re going too self-critical ‘baggage’ that stops them from better describing their field to the public.
Anthropology’s troubled past and its roots in colonialism might... Read more »

Hannerz, U. (2010) Diversity Is Our Business. American Anthropologist, 112(4), 539-551. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01274.x  

  • January 27, 2011
  • 11:05 PM
  • 695 views

A species by any other name...would leave us with the same problem

by zacharoo in Lawn Chair Anthropology

This is a great big week for anthropology coverage. The sequencing of the orangutan (Pongo species) genome made the cover of Nature. It's grant-writing-dissertation-formulating-prelim-studying time for me so I haven't had a chance to read this one yet. Science has a couple paleoanthropology-related stories, including two by Ann Gibbons. The first is about recent research on ancient DNA, and how this informs the debate about 'modern human' origins. But there's also a short blurb on what the eff "species" means.
This is a great effing question! The textbook species definition is that proffered by Ernst Mayr: populations of actually or potentially interbreeding individuals, capable of producing viable (and fertile) offspring. Cool, so a dog and a cat are different species because if they mated (ew) no ungodly animal would come from this monstrous union. Expensive high-tech multivariate Scientific reconstruction simulations show the abomination would probably look like this:
But there are many "good" plant and animal species that do mate and reproduce successfully ('hybridize'). Very often these hybrids are sterile, but then very often they're not. This has led researchers to come up with scores of other ways to define species (Holliday (2003) has a great discussion on the matter).
Worse, there's no way to measure, genetically or morphologically, just how different things should be before they can be called different species. The late Morris Goodman and others (Wildman et al. 2003) argued that humans and chimpanzees are so genetically similar that chimps, now in the genus Pan, should be moved to our genus Homo to denote how similar we are. But any other, non-genetic comparison would put our chimp cousins in a very different group from us. Moreover, the effects of hybridization seem, to me at least, to be fairly unpredictable, at least superficially. That is, the outcome of hybridization is highly contingent on what animals are hybridizing, and on these lineages' own evolutionary histories (this is the intractable problem that made me abandon doing hybrid work for my dissertation. Some day though...).
A major issue relates to what I blogged about yesterday: both 'species' and 'hybrid' are terms we've found ourselves with, but they have no inherent meaning in themselves, other than whatever we give them. So it's funny to read this from Gibbons' story:In the real world, [Jean-Jacques Hublin] says, Mayr's concept doesn't hold up: "There are about 330 closely related species of mammals that interbreed, and at least a third of them can produce fertile hybrids."But is it Mayr's species concept that's flawed, or was it misguided to have put these hybridizers into different species in the first place? Should we delineate species based on our a priori conception about whether two things are different, or should a definition of 'species' determine what we call them? Or does it even matter?
To this end, Gibbons's other story describes the morphologically-unremarkable Denisova fossils as belonging to "a new type of human." Well, now what the eff does that mean? We're back to "The Species Problem" (the title of Gibbons's article), but with a new term. And pretend for a moment that the Denisovan fossils didn't yield DNA: the pinky and tooth probably would not have made headlines. Pretend they did have diagnostic cranial remains - would we have recognized them as being so distinct as their genes indicate?
For that matter, I wonder how many arguably 'modern' human fossils would still retain the modern moniker if we could analyze their genes...
ReferencesGibbons, A. (2011). The Species Problem Science, 331 (6016), 394-394 DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6016.394
Gibbons, A. (2011). A New View Of the Birth of Homo sapiens Science, 331 (6016), 392-394 DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6016.392
Holliday, T. (2003). Species Concepts, Reticulation, and Human Evolution Current Anthropology, 44 (5), 653-673 DOI: 10.1086/377663
Wildman, D. (2003). Implications of natural selection in shaping 99.4% nonsynonymous DNA identity between humans and chimpanzees: Enlarging genus Homo Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100 (12), 7181-7188 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1232172100... Read more »

  • January 27, 2011
  • 10:56 PM
  • 941 views

125 Year Old Hand Axes From Jebel Faya, UAE

by Kambiz Kamrani in Anthropology.net

Hans-Peter Uerpmann of the University of Tubingen has lead a team excavating the Jebel Faya site in the United Arab Emirates, right near the Straits of Hormuz. They’ve found 125,000 year old stone tools that look like early modern human tools … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • January 27, 2011
  • 08:13 PM
  • 1,284 views

Language learning and height

by Ingrid Piller in Language on the Move

Are you tall enough to learn English? Have you ever reflected on the relationship between height and language learning? Well, I haven’t, and I’ve been in language teaching and learning for almost 20 years. So, I assume that most of … Continue reading →... Read more »

Chang, Leslie T. (2009) Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. Spiegel . info:/

  • January 27, 2011
  • 05:27 PM
  • 907 views

The scions of Shem?

by Razib Khan in Gene Expression

The media is reporting rather breathlessly a new find out of Arabia which seems to push much further back the presence of anatomically modern humans in this region (more accurately, the archaeology was so sparse that assessments of human habitation seem to have been made in a vacuum due to absence of evidence). Here is the major objection:
This idea is at odds with a proposal advanced by Richard Klein, a paleoanthropologist at Stanford University, that the emergence of some social or behavioral advantage — like the perfection of the faculty for language — was required for modern humans to overcome the surrounding human groups. Some kind of barrier had to be surmounted, it seems, or modern humans could have walked out of Africa 200,000 years ago.
Dr. Klein said that the Uerpmann team’s case for an earlier out-of-Africa expansion was “provocative, but in the absence of human remains, it’s not compelling.”
The stone tools of this era are all much alike, and it is hard to tell whether early modern humans or Neanderthals made them. At the sites of Skhul and Qafzeh in what is now Israel, early modern humans were present around 100,000 years ago and Neanderthals at 60,000 years, ...... Read more »

Simon J. Armitage, Sabah A. Jasim, Anthony E. Marks, Adrian G. Parker, Vitaly I. Usik, & Hans-Peter Uerpmann. (2011) The Southern Route “Out of Africa”: Evidence for an Early Expansion of Modern Humans into Arabia. Science. info:/10.1126/science.1199113

  • January 27, 2011
  • 04:50 PM
  • 1,014 views

Cortico-thalamic dissociation in Sleep Paralysis

by Daniel Lende in Neuroanthropology PLoS

By Paul Mason
Paul Mason is a PhD student at Macquarie University and frequent contributor to Neuroanthropology.  He is well on his way to finishing his thesis, but occasionally shares his insightful columns on a wide range of topics here.  Please note that the former ‘Fattest Man in the World’ is a different Paul Mason.

Have you ever woken up and not been able to move your body? For those people who have experienced this sensation, it is unnerving, surreal, and often quite stressful. Rest assured though, that this condition is benign, harmless, and your body will wake up after a minute or two. People also report that their body wakes up when someone touches them, or even at the sound of a surprising noise. Despite the temporary sensation of uncanny paralysis upon wakening, you can ride the episode out with the knowledge that it has not been associated with any medical disorders.
This condition, known as sleep paralysis, is rare but not uncommon. Funnily enough, in the last year, three of my friends have asked me about this condition—two of them medical doctors. Sleep paralysis is a parasomnia usually associated with REM sleep. Episodes typically last one to three minutes and disappear spontaneously by themselves or by someone else’s touch. Dreams can potentially superimpose onto reality during this period. However, the condition is usually experienced as a dream state without the dreams. In other words, your body has still turned off control of its muscles as though you are dreaming, but your brain is strangely awake. In medical terms, the condition is considered a dissociated REM state where the motor atonia of REM is present in isolation. That basically means that control of your muscles has been turned off but consciousness has been switched on.
When my friends asked me what I thought about the symptoms they described, I was reminded of my undergraduate study in neuropsychology where I learnt about lesion studies in cats that disrupted areas in the brain to do with sleep, dreaming, and muscle control. In this study, researchers performed lesions to areas of the brain in cats that normally inhibit motor control during sleep. The lesion was performed to the ventral locus coeruleus of the Pons (it’s weird what you remember sometimes). This lesion caused the cats to exhibit strange sleepwalking behaviour that allowed researchers an uncanny little window into Kitty dreams.
I’m not sure, but if you google ‘dream enactment’, then you should find plenty of information on the web. Anyway, my first thought about sleep paralysis was that there must be some kind of delay in switching off the area inhibiting motor control during a hypnopomic or postdormital sleep paralysis episode. I’m not suggesting that sleep paralysis is associated with anatomical problems, merely an occasional physiological hiccup—something as simple as say pins and needles in an otherwise healthy organ. Possibly the hiccup can occur in the Pons… Possibly, as recent research indicates, it could be somewhere else…
Of my friends who shared their symptoms with me and asked me for my thoughts, one was doing shift-work, the other was suffering from severe jet-lag, and the third slept odd hours due to an erratic rotation schedule at her job. I’m not a medical doctor, but the suggestion of sucking a melatonin tablet under the tongue before bed for only a couple of nights worked wonders for my friend with jet-lag. But, you also have to consider that episodes of sleep paralysis are rare, so they probably disappeared by themselves. For my other friends I suggested potassium rich foods such as bananas, which are always yummy to eat anyway, (those friends haven’t told me of any episodes since, but then again that is anecdotal as well).
From scant research reports on the subject, it appears that sleep paralysis occasionally occurs in a familial form, affects females more often than males, and has an X-linked dominant transmission. Talking with my Indonesian friends suggests to me that the condition is not as rare as Western medical practitioners think. But then again, I have lived with Indonesians who have some extremely erratic sleeping schedules.
I am fascinated in the phenomenology and neurophenomenology of sleep paralysis episodes. One of my friends reported a hypnagogic auditory hallucination accompanying an episode of sleep paralysis. Not surprisingly, she is not the only person in her family to occasionally suffer from the condition.
In my own experience, I have had a hypnogogic visual hallucination as a child of five or six years of age. Before my teenage years, I also had an episode of what I now understand to be sleep paralysis. I woke up in the morning and could not for the life of me open my eyes. My eyelids were as heavy as lead (Pb), and then it felt like bees were performing the waggle dance all over my closed eyes. It was an overwhelming experience at the time but I can’t recall if I woke up or went back to sleep afterwards. If I’m not making stories up, I was eventually able to open my eyes, but then I shut them again and went back to sleep.
As a sidenote, the word ‘hypnagogic’ says so much to me about medical practice. A ‘hypnagogic hallucination’ is literally just a hallucination that one experiences just before or just after falling asleep. We don’t actually have an explanation for ‘hypnagogic hallucinations’, but we do have a fancy label with two lovely multi-syllabic words. On numerous occasions, friends have shared private stories about hallucinations with me. If they have been stressed by the episode then calming them simply involved asking if they were in bed at the time, which they have thus far always confirmed, and then I merely say,
“Don’t worry, you just experienced a hypnogogic hallucination. It’s not unusual in the slightest.”
On every occasion, labeling the episode makes a friend happy. I have even seen colleagues in medicine calm other acquaintances using the very same words. It’s fantastic, but it really makes me wonder how much people seek a label and how much people seek an explanation.
In research published in PNAS only in February last year (Magnin et al. 2010), researchers have made headway in describing the physiology underlying hypnagogic hallucinations. Using electrodes implanted into the brains of epileptic patients (a common pre-surgical practice to localise the origins of epileptic seizures), researchers opportunistically—but ethically—used the data to reveal what happens in the deepest parts of the brain during sleep onset. The activity of deep structures in the brain is difficult to image because MRI is too slow and EEG is too superficial. This electrophysiology research revealed a surprising finding:
The thalamus (a small but dense deep brain structure highly interconnected to body and cortical regions and involved in receiving sensory information) goes to sleep some ten minutes before the cortex.
When falling asleep, the thalamus shuts us off from the outside world, but the cortex continues to function which could explain, as the researchers hypothesise, how hallucinations can arise when we fall asleep.
A hypothesis about Sleep paralysis:
The finding that extensive cortical regions remain activated for several minutes after thalamic deactivation at sleep onset might explain forms of insomnia associated with lesions to the thalamus, and it also might be the reason that hypnagogic experiences commonly occur during the wake–sleep transition.
In the thirteen people studied, they did not find desynchronisation of the thalamus and cortex during awakening. But that was only thirteen people. If someone who experienced an episode of sleep paralysis was under observation, would we find that awareness with paralysis upon waking was associated with a desynchronisation of the thalamus and cortex? If the cortex reactivated before the thalamus could sleep paralysis be the result?
An episode of sleep paralysis typically only lasts a few minutes. Knowing that desynchronisation of the thalamus and cortex during sleep onset lasts only several minutes, then it is not implausible to hypothesise that there could be a lapse between the reactivation of the cortex and the reactivation of the thalamus in sleep paralysis that lasts only a few minutes. If the cortex wakes up before the thalamus, people might be lucid but unable to move.
The cessation of sleep paralysis by physical touch might be explained by the idea that touch might be igniting sensory systems that activate the thalamus. As an ostensibly benign condition, and one that occurs rarely and unpredictably, sleep paralysis might not be the most accessible or indeed imperative area of medical research, but as a case of dissociative consciousness it is a deeply fascinating research venture into the awareness of who we are.
References:
... Read more »

Magnin, M., Rey, M., Bastuji, H., Guillemant, P., Mauguiere, F., & Garcia-Larrea, L. (2010) Thalamic deactivation at sleep onset precedes that of the cerebral cortex in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(8), 3829-3833. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0909710107  

  • January 27, 2011
  • 04:50 PM
  • 1,197 views

Cortico-thalamic dissociation in Sleep Paralysis

by gregdowney in Neuroanthropology

By Paul Mason
Paul Mason is a PhD student at Macquarie University and frequent contributor to Neuroanthropology.  He is well on his way to finishing his thesis, but occasionally shares his insightful columns on a wide range of topics here.  Please note that the former ‘Fattest Man in the World’ is a different Paul Mason.

Have you ever woken up and not been able to move your body? For those people who have experienced this sensation, it is unnerving, surreal, and often quite stressful. Rest assured though, that this condition is benign, harmless, and your body will wake up after a minute or two. People also report that their body wakes up when someone touches them, or even at the sound of a surprising noise. Despite the temporary sensation of uncanny paralysis upon wakening, you can ride the episode out with the knowledge that it has not been associated with any medical disorders.
This condition, known as sleep paralysis, is rare but not uncommon. Funnily enough, in the last year, three of my friends have asked me about this condition—two of them medical doctors. Sleep paralysis is a parasomnia usually associated with REM sleep. Episodes typically last one to three minutes and disappear spontaneously by themselves or by someone else’s touch. Dreams can potentially superimpose onto reality during this period. However, the condition is usually experienced as a dream state without the dreams. In other words, your body has still turned off control of its muscles as though you are dreaming, but your brain is strangely awake. In medical terms, the condition is considered a dissociated REM state where the motor atonia of REM is present in isolation. That basically means that control of your muscles has been turned off but consciousness has been switched on.
When my friends asked me what I thought about the symptoms they described, I was reminded of my undergraduate study in neuropsychology where I learnt about lesion studies in cats that disrupted areas in the brain to do with sleep, dreaming, and muscle control. In this study, researchers performed lesions to areas of the brain in cats that normally inhibit motor control during sleep. The lesion was performed to the ventral locus coeruleus of the Pons (it’s weird what you remember sometimes). This lesion caused the cats to exhibit strange sleepwalking behaviour that allowed researchers an uncanny little window into Kitty dreams.
I’m not sure, but if you google ‘dream enactment’, then you should find plenty of information on the web. Anyway, my first thought about sleep paralysis was that there must be some kind of delay in switching off the area inhibiting motor control during a hypnopomic or postdormital sleep paralysis episode. I’m not suggesting that sleep paralysis is associated with anatomical problems, merely an occasional physiological hiccup—something as simple as say pins and needles in an otherwise healthy organ. Possibly the hiccup can occur in the Pons… Possibly, as recent research indicates, it could be somewhere else…
Of my friends who shared their symptoms with me and asked me for my thoughts, one was doing shift-work, the other was suffering from severe jet-lag, and the third slept odd hours due to an erratic rotation schedule at her job. I’m not a medical doctor, but the suggestion of sucking a melatonin tablet under the tongue before bed for only a couple of nights worked wonders for my friend with jet-lag. But, you also have to consider that episodes of sleep paralysis are rare, so they probably disappeared by themselves. For my other friends I suggested potassium rich foods such as bananas, which are always yummy to eat anyway, (those friends haven’t told me of any episodes since, but then again that is anecdotal as well).
From scant research reports on the subject, it appears that sleep paralysis occasionally occurs in a familial form, affects females more often than males, and has an X-linked dominant transmission. Talking with my Indonesian friends suggests to me that the condition is not as rare as Western medical practitioners think. But then again, I have lived with Indonesians who have some extremely erratic sleeping schedules.
I am fascinated in the phenomenology and neurophenomenology of sleep paralysis episodes. One of my friends reported a hypnagogic auditory hallucination accompanying an episode of sleep paralysis. Not surprisingly, she is not the only person in her family to occasionally suffer from the condition.
In my own experience, I have had a hypnogogic visual hallucination as a child of five or six years of age. Before my teenage years, I also had an episode of what I now understand to be sleep paralysis. I woke up in the morning and could not for the life of me open my eyes. My eyelids were as heavy as lead (Pb), and then it felt like bees were performing the waggle dance all over my closed eyes. It was an overwhelming experience at the time but I can’t recall if I woke up or went back to sleep afterwards. If I’m not making stories up, I was eventually able to open my eyes, but then I shut them again and went back to sleep.
As a sidenote, the word ‘hypnagogic’ says so much to me about medical practice. A ‘hypnagogic hallucination’ is literally just a hallucination that one experiences just before or just after falling asleep. We don’t actually have an explanation for ‘hypnagogic hallucinations’, but we do have a fancy label with two lovely multi-syllabic words. On numerous occasions, friends have shared private stories about hallucinations with me. If they have been stressed by the episode then calming them simply involved asking if they were in bed at the time, which they have thus far always confirmed, and then I merely say,
“Don’t worry, you just experienced a hypnogogic hallucination. It’s not unusual in the slightest.”
On every occasion, labeling the episode makes a friend happy. I have even seen colleagues in medicine calm other acquaintances using the very same words. It’s fantastic, but it really makes me wonder how much people seek a label and how much people seek an explanation.
In research published in PNAS only in February last year (Magnin et al. 2010), researchers have made headway in describing the physiology underlying hypnagogic hallucinations. Using electrodes implanted into the brains of epileptic patients (a common pre-surgical practice to localise the origins of epileptic seizures), researchers opportunistically—but ethically—used the data to reveal what happens in the deepest parts of the brain during sleep onset. The activity of deep structures in the brain is difficult to image because MRI is too slow and EEG is too superficial. This electrophysiology research revealed a surprising finding:
The thalamus (a small but dense deep brain structure highly interconnected to body and cortical regions and involved in receiving sensory information) goes to sleep some ten minutes before the cortex.
When falling asleep, the thalamus shuts us off from the outside world, but the cortex continues to function which could explain, as the researchers hypothesise, how hallucinations can arise when we fall asleep.
A hypothesis about Sleep paralysis:
The finding that extensive cortical regions remain activated for several minutes after thalamic deactivation at sleep onset might explain forms of insomnia associated with lesions to the thalamus, and it also might be the reason that hypnagogic experiences commonly occur during the wake–sleep transition.
In the thirteen people studied, they did not find desynchronisation of the thalamus and cortex during awakening. But that was only thirteen people. If someone who experienced an episode of sleep paralysis was under observation, would we find that awareness with paralysis upon waking was associated with a desynchronisation of the thalamus and cortex? If the cortex reactivated before the thalamus could sleep paralysis be the result?
An episode of sleep paralysis typically only lasts a few minutes. Knowing that desynchronisation of the thalamus and cortex during sleep onset lasts only several minutes, then it is not implausible to hypothesise that there could be a lapse between the reactivation of the cortex and the reactivation of the thalamus in sleep paralysis that lasts only a few minutes. If the cortex wakes up before the thalamus, people might be lucid but unable to move.
The cessation of sleep paralysis by physical touch might be explained by the idea that touch might be igniting sensory systems that activate the thalamus. As an ostensibly benign condition, and one that occurs rarely and unpredictably, sleep paralysis might not be the most accessible or indeed imperative area of medical research, but as a case of dissociative consciousness it is a deeply fascinating research venture into the awareness of who we are.
References:
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Magnin, M., Rey, M., Bastuji, H., Guillemant, P., Mauguiere, F., & Garcia-Larrea, L. (2010) Thalamic deactivation at sleep onset precedes that of the cerebral cortex in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(8), 3829-3833. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0909710107  

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