Head on over to our Podcasts page and stream the episode or download it for a mind bending journey through the worlds of psychedelics and hallucinogenics, the effects of music on the brain, the human drive for engaging in altered states of consciousness and more with our special guest Ben Gebo!
Check out Ben’s awesome photography at Bengebo.com
Join This Anthro Life for another mind-bending conversation as we ‘turn on, tune out, and drop in’ the conversation with returning guest Ben Gebo. With Ben’s help we will further explore the world of consciousness, altered states, the use of hallucinogenics throughout evolutionary history, the effects of music on the brain and more!
Altered States part two 3/4/14 at 1 pm WBUR 100.1 FM and wbur.org. Podcast available after the show.
Also check out Ben’s photos on his website! (bengebo.com)
Hey y’all – we had a great show today and would love for you to check it out and hear what you think! Continuing some of the themes we’ve been building over the course of season two, we’ve traveled from beer, to locomotion, then to sleep, dreams, and now our first part on altered states. Join us as we explore the human propensity to alter our consciousness, belong to something larger than ourselves, feel creative, moral and ethical taboos, and more!
We’ll be back next week with a returning guest Ben Gebo to round out part 2 of our conversation on altered states including Terrence McKenna’s ‘Stoned Ape Theory’, psychotropic use in humans and animals, and much more!
Tune in tomorrow at 1 pm Eastern Standard Time for the next episode of This Anthropological Life! In the last two episodes we went from the dynamics of sleep, both biological and social, to dreams and how our dreams influence our lives. Now, we enter the realm of altered states from public perceptions on intoxicants, socially acceptable roles for altered experiences, and the lines between legal and illegal substances. Be sure to catch this episode!
a nice thinking through of why public anthropologists don’t appear so public, or as public as some of us would like.
Our latest episode (2/11/14) is streaming and available for download today! Join Aneil and Adam as they explore the world of dreams, from cultural, psychoanalytic and scientific interpretations of dreams, to existential needs we have for feeling a sense of control in our lives, to the power of altered states of consciousness and collective identity – this was a great conversation and we’d love you to check it out and know what you think!
Beginning a two-part series on sleep and dreams, today we will focus on anthropological perspectives on sleep and resting. From 9,000 year old stone pillows (yes, really), to different forms of sleeping – segmented, 8 hour marathon – to what the heck sleep actually does for your brain, your ability to learn, how you look, and even your sex drive, this is going to be one program you don’t want to sleep through!
Tune in at 1pm (Eastern) on 100.1 FM or wbrs.org, or catch the podcast after the show airs on thisanthrolife.com
Tune in tomorrow at 1pm Eastern, or catch the podcast of This Anthro Life! This week we cover part 2 of Transportation and Locomotion: Commuting.
Almost universally detested (right?) commuting has become an important factor in urban to suburban movements, fast food culture, farm to market sales, and even long-distance business trips and labor migration. Join us as we dive into this fascinating (and often frustrating) topic. Hey at least it beats sitting in traffic!
Tuesday at 1 pm (Eastern) 100.1 FM or wbrs.org
Podcast available after the show
Tweet questions to @thisanthrolife or email email@example.com
As the New Year has rolled in, so have visuals, concepts, and price tags for next year’s new car models. 2015 marks a big year for many car dealers, as they tend to introduce redesigned models, new models, and visionary concepts for the future. In this, we can read a tradition that has stemmed forth from the early part of the 20th century. Our means of getting from A to B have changed dramatically. Yet, in some ways remain incredibly the same. In the fossil record, the traditional means to identify a human ancestor remain largely focused on the whether or not remains indicate bipedal locomotion. What did this shift do for us? In what ways have changes in our means of getting from A to B altered our experience and understanding of the world around us? How do we envision the future, and just where do we want to go and why? In this post I will briefly address each of these questions and drive at visionary, restless, and even practical threads that connect people, past, present, and future, in a shared human experience.
“Since the dawn of time,” a phrase that echoes ungrounded sincerity of knowledge in times beyond experience is fitting only when directed at a particular thread that seems connected to the present. Lo and behold, upright bipedal walking (or locomotion) appears to remain that thread (at least for now) in determining a sense of when the hominid (modern humans and our ancestral cousins) experience began. Prior to upright walking our furrier cousins had a tendency to brachiate, meaning swing from tree branch to tree branch in thick forests of vegetation. At least so the hypotheses seem to suggest for now.
Leaning from our modern brachiating cousins, Chimpanzees and Bonobos, we know that brachiating doesn’t restrict movement to trees and vegetated areas. Chimps and bonobos will walk on all fours and even upright for relatively short distances. Just because they walk upright doesn’t make them human. The difference here lies in the habitual experience of locomotion. Early hominids were habitual upright walkers, meaning that they walked upright above all other forms of locomotion. When the transition from relatively full time brachiation to relatively full time upright walking took place is loosely indicated in fossil remains like that of Sahelanthropus Tchadensis (circa 7 million years ago or MYA), Orrorin Tugensis (circa 6.5 MYA), Ardipithecus Ramidus (circa 4.4 MYA), and Australopithecus Afarensis (circa 3.9 to 3.3 MYA). These early fossils seem to coincide with the genetic evidence suggesting the split between the species that would eventually become modern humans and modern chimpanzees and bonobos occurred around 6 MYA.
Walking. We take it for granted today. We by shoes to make walking comfortable and make social statements. We walk in groups, to get from A to B, and even with fury companions. The world today, from roads, to commercial products, health concerns is in some way adapted to facilitate human walking. The problem is, that when walking came into being among our human ancestors, the world was not conditioned for it. Although the notion of standing upright can allow us to conjure images of human ancestors looking over a savanna plain or freeing up arms to carry fruits from a successful foraging, it wasn’t particularly conducive to alluding prey. The fossil record is particularly keen in reminding us of this point. Skeletons of Australopithecines are often found in South African caves with K-9 tooth perforations in the skull, likely coming from ancient saber cats. To escape such a fate, you didn’t necessarily have to be fast but you did need stamina.
When we think of our early ancestors, walking is the connecting thread. Running, however, paints a more enduring image. Likely beginning with the genus Homo (though, like walking, the shift has left evidence in the skeletal remains in species such as Australopithecus Sediba), running produced a wealth of selective benefits. Members of the Homo genus are adept long distance runners, meaning they can run great distances for days, chasing down herds of animals until they collapse from exhaustion. In this context running should not be confused with sprinting. Cheetahs are excellent sprinters, reaching beyond a max speed of 70 miles and hour. Though such a speed can only be sustained for about 90 seconds. The genus Homo, on the other hand, can run at a steady 6 miles an hour for many hours or even days at a time. What this means, is that with running a new ecological niche was opened up bringing with it a diversity of foods, resources, and environments. With running, the genus Homo spread rapidly through Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and Europe, potentially as a result of following herds among other social factors.
It may be interesting to consider different herds and different paths through the landscape like different car models. This one will keep you warm but has lower gas millage. This one model is electric, environment friendly and efficient, but needs to be plugged in regularly. What I’m driving at is, how we get from A to B affects our experience of the world as much as A and B does as destinations. To that end, swimming is another form of locomotion that also gets looked over. Though humans are swimmers, we aren’t really good at it or fast at it. What swimming does do for us is again open up new ecological niches. Whether this happens in the form of catching mussels, fishing, or moving past a body of water to a new landscape, swimming is a form of locomotion that has also intrinsically shaped the human experience.
Why is it important to get from A to B? Have people always thought of the advantages to be gained from occupying a new area? What about latent dangers in the unknown? What lengths will we go through to reach new areas? There are several factors, answers, and explanations for these questions. However, humans are excellent innovators when driven by a particular task. If the distance is too great to swim, make a canoe. If the waters are too rough build a larger boat. If the waters are to great and the distance too long, build an even larger boat. Better yet, build something that can fly. You might be thinking all of this is great but to what end? Why keep making things to get us to take us longer distances in shorter periods of time?
Distance is worth crossing for resources. As mentioned earlier, the evolutionary advantage to different forms of locomotion is materially recognizable in that new ecological niches are opened. We co-evolve with our environments and the recourses in them. More than simply going to new places, but actually gaining passage to new areas will change the embodied experience of the world, often for ecological gain and often for political means. This is especially evident in history, as many cultures and societies the world over have in part defined themselves, and been identified by, a form of locomotion which was used to constitute a sense of political authority.
Running and swimming, in modern contexts, may be considered specialty forms of locomotion, meaning that endurance is built up, mussels are trained, and skills are developed over time. These forms of locomotion are acquired. Some cultures throughout history have honed such skills to become symbols. Among New World societies, the Aztec, Inca, and (most likely) Maya had communication systems centered on running from the state center to territorial borders and trade outposts beyond them. The reason for getting from A to B in these situations were for the purposes of political administration. This is key to take note of, as new world civilizations lacked pack animals that could be used for traversing long distances quickly. By nature of distance, political centers in the new world needed to develop means of communications across their territories that could keep connections to border territories firm.
By contrast, Ancient Greece took full advantage of the horse as a means to get from A to B and supplement political authority. More than having the arcane symbol of the Trojan horse, the Greeks also had myth on their sides. The concept of the centaur, a half man half horse warrior, came into being from skilled archers who rode horseback. These archers were so skilled that they could ride horses with leg strength alone, freeing up their arms to shoot arrows in combat.
For many old world societies, horses provided a quick and usual way to get from A to B quickly in short distances and effectively over long distance. Such a powerful motivator, the horse itself became a locus of entangled innovation. Not only were armors, accessories, and “shoes” developed for the horse, how it was used and what it came to signify changed accordingly as well. Multiple horses often pulled chariots of the ancient world. In doing so, the horse became a unit of measurable power, a standard somewhat held on to today in combustion engines.
Horses were not the only war animals however. Elephants were also rode into battle, notably by Hannibal in the Carthaginian wars. Elephants also became a powerful symbol for similar reasons in the Vijayanagara Empire, where ruin elephant stables can still be seen standing today. Beasts of burden became symbols od authoritative power and the ability to control resources over great distances of land, yet similar power was expressed over waterways.
Whether by the ancient Athenian, British Monarchy, or Norse Ships, control of waterway routes has been a central concern of political navies throughout history. With the advent of the 20th century, the control of passageways was extended in airspace, bringing with it fighter planes, commercial carriers, and recreational novelties, each entailing a set of standards reaching back to political actors.
Not only has moving from A to B changed the social experience of being human by movement, it has affected how we innovate, the means through which we travel (land, sea, air, or space), the social ties we share and with whom, as well as resources that we choose to select for. Control of travel is important here, because what is entailed in getting from A to B is central to human experience today as well as it was in the ancient past. We might envision that when ancient humans were in hunter-gatherer societies, people needed to negotiate territories if they should by chance encroach upon another group’s herd. Such manner of negotiations is central to our concerns today, manifesting in trade agreements, international policies, and the desire to control certain territories.
As this is but an introduction into locomotion and the power dynamics entailed by it, I will keep this brief. Though I would like to comment that our means of travel continue to change as they continue to stay the same. The social dynamics of travel retain threads of commonality. Even with car production today, we use past models (figuratively and literally) to conceptualize the future. Though we may become fixated on the Science Fiction promise of the flying car (something real though viability is dubious), we are content to keep what we know, within a system we have created. If it’s not broke why fix it, is often followed by when stark innovation in times of necessity. So while the 2015 Ford F150 may not have the same carrying capacity as the 1915 model, it does climate conditioned cab, aux port for your iPhone, and a relatively green fuel economy, all testament to travel concerns and conditions of the contemporary world and its outlook to the future. One can only speculate how 10,000 years of driving may affect the selective pressures of the human condition, and what being human will mean then.
Be sure to tune in tomorrow to “This Anthropological Life” on WBRS to hear more!
After hearing an interview with Rosanne Cash, eldest daughter of Johnny Cash, on NPR yesterday about her new album I was inspired to explore more of her work and came across a New York Times opinion piece she wrote in 2008. In the piece she points out her annoyance when an interviewer asks her whether she writes the lyrics or music first for a new song and also to the question of how difficult it must be to reveal so much of oneself through song. Cash points out that music, as a form or art, isn’t subject to fact-checking the same way, say, a news story is. When it comes to writing songs that deal with her childhood or something deeply personal, she’s the only one who who draws from her own experience. And of course, the same event may (and probably does) have different interpretations to other people. She further says that often times lyrics will change in a song so that part of the story is factual event while another part simply works well to move the story forward or syllabically matches the rhymatic cadence. It’s about how to tell the best story and create the most moving composition.
As anthropologists, it is our job to take seriously what our informants and research partners say about their lives, how they describe their experience, events, feelings, and interpretations. While part of our job as social scientists is to distill and translate chunks of information into sharable stories, we don’t “fact-check the soul”, as Cash titles her piece. In this way, I think we have the ability and responsibility to leave in the realm of mystery the creative capacity of humans – to always leave space for inspiration and awe – for our informants and ourselves. There is a mystery in the plurality of the human condition, writes Hannah Arendt. What she is getting at here is the paradox of being human is that we are at once singular individuals with personal identities that we hold to be ourselves and simultaneously are defined and created through our social relations with others. This shared space between ourselves and others is still mysterious. We cannot be reduced to merely neurology or sociology any more than we can be reduced as the sum parts of our history or our potentiality for future action. Cash draws the line through songwriting and differentiates between science and art here. Cash helps explicate science as in the business of fact, of empirically verifiable world views, whereas, she contrasts, art plays with facts, and creates new ones alongside fiction, challenges present ones, and opens up different possibilities and emotive capacities. This isn’t to denigrate or laud science versus art, for both fill important needs in human lives – and help us define ourselves as human. Cash’s point here, however, is that we ought to pay attention to inspiration in our lives – whether that comes from finding, crafting and telling facts through science or artistic endeavor (or somewhere in between like anthropology) – and that how we think about inspiration changes throughout our lives. And for me, this points towards the mystery of the plurality of the human condition.
As a songwriter for over 25 years, Cash recounts her changing perspective over the course of a long engagement with a craft. As a younger songwriter, she would have claimed that the initial inspiration for a song – either lyric or music – was “emotionally superior” to the wrestling with an idea – from fact and fiction – that becomes a song. That is, the initial spark, the ah-ha moment, the touching of a live wire, was more emotionally satisfying than what comes next. But, she says, “as I get older I have found the quality of my attention to be more important, and more rewarding, than the initial inspiration.” Cash puts her finger on a question between what first draws us in versus what attention we give something, or someone, to cultivate that relationship. To me, she is hitting on an important human capacity for sustained and quality attention to ourselves and our relations with others – something perhaps threatened in an (seemingly unending) era of smartphones, constant social media, chronic overproduction of formal education and under valuing of creativity. Or, the anthropologist me in begs me to first question what quality attention do we give and where, and why and how do we sustain it?
Reflecting on her changing views of the creative process, and useful to think about regarding attention, Cash says, “I have found that continual referral back to the original “feeling tone” of the inspiration, the constant re-touching of that hum and cry, more important than the fireworks of its origin. I have learned to be steady in my course of love, or fear, or loneliness, rather than impulsive in its wasting, either lyrically or emotionally.” Social media – the instant message, Facebook post, and tweet, for example are based, it seems to me, on this same firework of origin, of impulse or inspiration. I don’t think it’s too far a metaphor to think of the jolt of excitement we get at the simultaneous lighting up of our phone screen, vibration, and ringtone as perhaps a little firework – the origin and continuation of online connection. But how does this help us think about the paradox of long term engagement with a craft in an era of fireworks? Of being what Cash calls steady? I suppose another way to ask this question from the view of social media is what role do these little fireworks play in our fluctuation between the emotions of inspiration and a long-term steady engagement with something?
Drawing on Thornton Wilder, Cash points out “It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves.” In this way, through slow and steady engagement with something we are able to come to see the larger landscape around us and of which we are a part. We are part of the landscape, but we are not the landscape. Initial glances, first emotions are inspired through the firework of newness, but it is the re-touching of the hum and cry and the tone of inspiration that sustains our connections and begs our attention. Fireworks are instants, exciting, illuminating, loud; but they are disconnected. What Cash is getting at here is this hum and cry, the initial tone that inspired the setting, that helped give context to the landscape – this is what is worth wrestling with, with engaging, with learning to be steady in. These are questions of how to define oneself, of asking what you want to hold on to in life. Of what really matters. Perhaps of the mystery of our singular and collective selves.
Cash muses “Like everything else, given enough time and the long perspective, the opposite of those things that we think define us slowly becomes equally valid, and sometimes more potent.” And perhaps this is the real takeaway. As I’ve written before, anthropology’s strength comes in its patient wisdom of steady engagement with a craft (and anthropology itself is indeed a craft). We cultivate and sustain relationships with the people amongst whom we work for years, drawing on both fireworks of inspiration and wrestling with the hum and cry, with the tone, that follows us through the relationship. But the point, of course, is larger than one discipline. This is what each of us does in our daily lives and over the course of a lifetime since we are defined not only by our personal thoughts of ourselves but also through our engagements with others. Cash reminds us to pay attention to both what inspires us, but also what the tone of that inspiration was – love, fear, loneliness, hope, and to allow ourselves to change. This gets us back to the mystery. We have a ‘solid’ sense of who we are as individuals, but we can and do change over a life time. And as Cash points out, often times things that seem opposite to how we define ourselves at one point may come to be the defining factor at another.
She makes this point by recognizing the particular importance of sustaining a craft for ourselves – whether that be a hobby like rock climbing, painting, or music or in cultivating relationships with others, or in whatever you find enjoyable and inspirational. To look at the landscape around us, not simply as instances of a river, but to recognize that our perspective changes, both of where we are in life and how we interpret ourselves and others. We always draw from a cache (pardon the pun) of fact and fiction to make ourselves, and our notions of self are always in negotiation between fireworks and sustain, between our understandings of who we are and how we treat others in relation to how others see and treat us. What Cash does here is to remind us that the fireworks of inspiration are only one, though important, part of this experience. I, along with Cash, find inspiration in thinking about the tone of that inspiration – connectivity, love, loneliness, whatever, to better understand how we come to relate and emote with others and to think more deeply about that mysterious plurality at the heart of being human.