Week 18: Downey (2016) Sensory Enculturation and Neuroanthropology: The Case of Human Echolocation

This chapter entry from the Oxford handbook series is divided into two halves which come together to make a central point: cultural neuroscience would benefit from moving away from false binaries (individualist versus collectivist, etc.) and examining expertise as a case of neuro-diversity. Greg Downey makes this point by offering the case study of echolocators – blind people who can navigate around their environments by using clicking sounds (most often the palatal click). Downey’s work focuses on Daniel Kish, a blind perceptual navigation instructor. This case study is juxtaposed to a constructive critique of the field of cultural neuroscience and its unfortunate fixation on a spurious East-West dichotomy. Given that I have discussed similar critiques in previous weeks here and here, I will only focus on the case study of echolocation in this review. In particular, I will discuss the following three features: [1] Culture as expertise in skill; [2] the impact of language on a sensory capacity; and [3] epistemic injustice and the blind.


1. Culture as expertise in skill

We previously discussed Downey’s work in neuroanthropology in week 8 as an alternative framework to the problems faced by cultural neuroscience. In this chapter Downey adds to the critiques of others who have emphasised that the field is erroneously orientated around false binaries that are far too coarse-grained to be meaningful, and severely overlook important within-group differences (see pp. 49-52). Downey’s alternative suggestion, following Tim Ingold (2000, p. 416), is to propose that we should understand cultural transmission in terms of “enskillment” rather than as the transference of information or schemas (2016, p. 49). [I must note that I have a reservation here in regards to whether schemas and enskillment are incompatible but this is a debate for another occasion]  This is referred to as the “education of attention” (2016, p. 48). The notion here is that we focus our analysis on the habitual practices by which the nervous system of the agent acquires and master’s a specific set of motor-patterns and behavioural repertories associated with a specific task domain. As the agent becomes expert this will have a significant impact on their neurocognitive profile – both their functional performance and their neurophysiological structures (also see Menary 2014).

One of the outcomes of this approach is that rather than having to seek “exotic” social groups to avoid being fixated on WEIRD participants (see Henrich and colleagues 2010), we can recognise smaller groups – perhaps demarcated by shared sets of patterned practices as recommend by Roepstorff and colleagues (2010) [see week 2 and week 3]. For example, fire-fighters or jazz musicians, etc. As Downey emphasises, this approach recognising the importance of ethnographic fieldwork would result in “multiplying the target populations and questions” (2016, p. 52).


2. The impact of language on a sensory capacity

A second fascinating aspect of the echolocation case study is that it provides an example of how language can have a serious impact on an agent’s sensory capacity. There a multiple examples of this in other sensory domains. For instance, Downey has previously discussed how certain Aslian language users have incredibly precise linguistic terms for certain smells which is correlated to improved performances in olfactory tests – far outstripping the performance of WEIRDs. Another example is the impact of the primary or dominant terms for spatial reference which shapes how agents experience space and alters how they perform in spatial reasoning tasks – including the capacity of some agents, e.g. indigenous Australians speakers of Guugu Yimithirr, to be able to reliably point to the cardinal directions (see week 3  for more details).

In relation to echolocation it is interesting to note the relative youth of the cognitive scientific exploration of this capacity – our understanding of it is in the very early days (see Downey 2016, pp. 43-46 for an overview). One factor of this is that the language that we use to describe this phenomena is very limited. And it is notable that Kish uses visual terminology to describe this capacity. Three possible reasons for this are: [1] because we currently lack a fully fledged terminology for this sensory skill (see below); [2] or because echolocation is phenomenologically very similar to sight; or/and [3] because the cortical regions correlated with echolocation are the visual cortex – and the “neural reuse” of this region for a new function could lead to a carrying across of conceptual baggage (see Anderson 2010 for an overview of neural reuse [also see week Week 9]).

He notes that all people echolocate in a basic manner – it is just that this inherent capacity is more refined in the blind at a basic level. Much of his teaching involves drawing the student’s awareness to their already existing capacity and then helping them to refine this. As was noted in our group discussion of the chapter: although a sensory skill does not need a linguistic accompaniment, and the scaffolding and transmission of a skill certainly involves more than just linguistic instruction and the acquisition of terminology (see Sterelny 2012; Vygotsky 1967); having a linguistic niche is incredibly important for the successful cultural transmission of the skill intergenerationally. For instance, it can facilitate the refinement of the skill by providing the reliable transmission and retention of innovations that build upon previous innovations – what Michael Tomasello (1999) calls “ratcheting“.


3. Epistemic injustice and the blind

A related aspect to the above theoretical interests is a very important socio-political component. In many societies the blind are still massively disadvantaged. As Downey puts it:

“To be blind is not merely to be bereft of sight. To be blind is, in part, to be forced to interact on unequal terms in an environment, created by those with different sensory abilities, that can be more or less hostile to one’s limitations. To be blind is, in part, to engage with people who may be entirely ignorant of your potential, with consequences for the development of your sensory abilities.” (2016, p. 52)

I think that one aspect of this is very reminiscent of what Miranda Fricker calls “hermeneutic injustice” (2007, ch7). This is a special kind of epistemic injustice in which there is a general lack or gap in a particular cultural niche’s hermeneutical resources, which, whilst collective, disadvantages and harms a particular social group. In this case, a general lack of understanding about blindness, and echolocation can severely impact and undermine how blind individuals are able to self-construct their identities and relate to their world. Indeed, the problem is perhaps even worse than this because there is not just a lack but an active repression of many behavioural repertories that are the burgeoning first-forays of echolocation in young blind people. These are often discouraged by sighted parents. For example, the making of palatial clicks and swaying of the head (which helps to triangulate an echo or sound source) are labelled what Kish calls “blind-isms” and discouraged by well-meaning sighted parents who do not want their child to look strange or other (Downey 2016, p. 46).

Speculatively, but positively, work by Kish and other echolocators can help to overturn this currently unjust state of affairs by creating a self-generated space of experience not reliant on the sighted for wayfinding or self-understanding.






Anderson, M. L. (2010) Neural Reuse: A fundamental organizational principle of the brain. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 245-264.

Downey 2016 Sensory Enculturation and Neuroanthropology: The Case of Human Echolocation. (pp. 41-55) in Chiao, Shu-Chen, Seligman & Turner (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Cultural Neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fricker 2007 Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Henrich et al 2010 The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 61-83.

Ingold (2000) The Perception of the Environment – Essays on Livelihood, dwelling and skill. London: Routledge.

Menary 2014 Neural Plasticity, Neuronal Recycling and Niche Construction. Mind and Language 29 (3), 286-303.

Roepstorff et al 2010 Enculturing brains through patterned practices. Neural Networks, 23, 1051–1059.

Sterelny 2012 The Evolved Apprentice: How evolution made humans unique. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tomasello 1999 The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. London: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky 1978 Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Additional links:

Daniel Kish is an inspirational speaker: here is his Ted Talk.

Here is a link to Kish’s organisation World Access for the Blind.

More of Greg Downey’s work can be found on his personal page and over at the Neuroanthropology blog.

Here is a lecture detailing Downey’s work on the neuroanthropological exploration of Capoeira.


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