Saturday, October 23, 2010

Neuroanthropology - An Interview with Mark Changizi: Culture Harnessing the Brain

Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology, recently interviewed Mark Changizi, the noted cognitive scientist and author of the forthcoming book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man. Here is the introduction to the interview - interesting stuff.

I firmly believe culture shapes our brains and minds as much as our brains create our culture.

An Interview with Mark Changizi: Culture Harnessing the Brain

I’m delighted today to present an interview with Mark Changizi, the noted cognitive scientist and author. Changizi has a forthcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, where he examines how culture can have such an impact on people.

This book represents a broadening of his previous research, which has focused on vision, cognition, and brain complexity.

His research aims to grasp the ultimate foundations underlying why we think, feel and see as we do. Focusing on “why” questions, he has made important discoveries on why we see in color, why we see illusions, why we have forward-facing eyes, why letters are shaped as they are, why the brain is organized as it is, why animals have as many limbs and fingers as they do, and why the dictionary is organized as it is.

Changizi is currently Director of Human Cognition at 2AI Labs, “Researching the mind, what it does, and where it’s headed.” Changizi’s book The Vision Revolution was named one of New Scientist’s Top Science Books of 2009. He provides an excellent (and delightfully succinct) description of it in his post on How to Write a Popular Science Book:

It’s not merely that [these authors] write well, but that they’re making a scientific case for their viewpoint. …and you and I get to watch.

And so that’s what I did in The Vision Revolution, take the reader along as I lay out the case for a radical re-thinking of how we see. Color vision evolved for seeing skin and the underlying emotions, not for finding fruit. Forward-facing eyes evolved for seeing better in forests, not for seeing in depth. Illusions are due to our brain’s attempt to correct for the neural eye-to-brain delay, so as to “perceive the present.” And our ability to read is due to writing having culturally evolved to make written words look like natural objects, just what our illiterate visual system is competent at processing.

Changizi has his own blog, where his last post took on color perception: Is Your Red and My Red the Same? His guest post for PLoS Blogs, I’m Not Only the Red Club President, I’m a Client, extends the red theme, providing a humorous take on research showing that wearing red might increase your attractiveness.

Not enough? Changizi also has a Psychology Today blog, Nature, Brain and Culture. His recent piece Why Humans Are So Smart… And Groovy was what prompted me to get in touch with him, as I wanted to hear more about his ideas about how culture is shaped to the brain:

How, then, is it that we are doing so many strange non-ape-ish things? We carry out all sorts of behaviors you shouldn’t see apes doing not because we apes have been reshaped, but because culture has gone out of its way to shape itself to fit our groovy human self. In particular, culture has shaped itself to be “like nature,” thereby best harnessing our ancient inflexible brains for doing something they weren’t designed for, like successfully ordering coffee.

We conducted this interview over the last few days by email.

Go read the interview.

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