Although the Beijing Olympics have now come to an end, less able-bodied athletes can be seen competing in the Paralympics that begin on Sept 6th. Regrettably, these games attract only a fraction of the audience, which is a sad indictment on our viewing preferences for the perfect body. However, my interest will be drawn to these games following a recent study of congenitally blind athletes.
Researchers published an analysis of postures adopted by winning and losing blind Judo finalists at the last Paralympics in 2004 in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They discovered that winning athletes raised both arms in a victory salute despite being blind from birth and having never seen this gesture. One possibility is that this may be a universal behavior, hard-wired into humans and possibly some primates. Looking at these images I was reminded of religious believers and rock audiences who universally seem to raise their arms skyward at moments of worship . I wonder if that is similarly true for those blind from birth.
Smiling on the other hand is uniquely human. A similar facial gesture in primates is indicative of a threat grimace where the bared teeth are used to signal a warning. Smiling is also hard-wired into humans as there are now classic studies of congenitally blind babies who smile around about the same time that this social behavior emerges in sighted infants at around 2-3 months. Although eager parents (and more often grandparents) often report smiling in newborns it truly takes off in a big way after a couple of months.
Here’s the interesting thing. Blind babies may begin smiling at roughly the same time as sighted babies but this behavior can drop out unless parents or caregivers respond to such signals in a contingent way. So the biological propensity for this particular behavior requires the environmental input for maintenance.
Isn’t this universal behavior curious? I wonder what other propensities have been wired into us, just waiting for the right environment to express them?