Blind Judo, Worship and Smiling Babies

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?


Filed under In the News, Research

6 responses to “Blind Judo, Worship and Smiling Babies

  1. Arno

    Oh Bruce, now you are getting in some interesting areas!
    Hm. I believe you have a point when talking about the expanding posture that seems universal in humans. But I have my doubts that that is true in worship. With the sporters it could simply because when under the effect of testosterone, we will display signals of power. Raising your posture and appearing larger than you are, is a common method of intimidation, both among humans and animals.
    The phenomenon of raising your posture could therefore be a simple effect of testosterone mixed with the arousal of victory or ecstacy (the latter of which you would expect during a concert, especially when people are dancing or use mood enhancing drugs).

    When it comes to religion, I believe there is some universality, but that it is culturally influenced by how the followers relate to their deity.

    In most religions where the worshippers humble themselves before the icon of worship, people tend to show the classic groveling posture. Christians bow their heads and drop their shoulders, those who believe in the Islam (which translates as “submission”) get on their knees and stay face down during their prayers. In such religions, the ones often stretching and making wide gestures (and standing on a heightened platform) are the leaders of the ceremony; those that represent god on earth.

    The humble postures are the exact opposite to those of, well, for example native African tribes or black evangelics. These indeed will raise their bodies and hands up in worship, but often under the effect of arousing music and due to their belief that worshipping a deity should be a feast to the deity.

    So I agree about the connection between a raised posture among Olympic winners and concert goers and universal behaviour, but in the case of religion, it requires a little tad of culture as well to define the relationship. But that is just my thought.

  2. brucehood

    No doubt some of my critics (you know who you are!) will interpret this post as again another argument for innate religiousity. I am not saying that – it is as innate as rock adulation for Led Zeppelin (or the Clash in my case)

    I just thought it was interesting how these behaviors have become recruited for emotional displays in different circumstances

    Whilst we are at it, why is God above us (hence we cower) yet the Devil dwells down below us?

    Any thoughts bloggers? I have my own suggestions.

  3. Arno

    Bruce, I am not saying anything about innate religiousity and I agree with your general idea about behavior. I just like to add some caveats 😉

    Now for the next of your questions…
    “why is God above us (hence we cower) yet the Devil dwells down below us?”

    I’d say because we associate benevolent deities with purity, physical beauty and pureness (think of how Jesus is depicted these days and the psychological halo effect), whereas evil deities are considered dirty, blood-splattered, ugly etc.
    So good gods go to clean places and evil gods go to dirty places.

    And then there is the matter of what the deity represents. God is something we consider to be not just clean and pure, but also to be immortal. The devil is considered to be a much more material entity, involved in richness (Mammon), sexual pleasure, and ultimately with death. There is a reason why Hebrew mystics when they created the Kabballah linked the hell to the stages of the Qliphoth; the empty and dead “shells” of the living Sephirah, through which the living light of Yehova flows.

    Now, a funny thing is how richness and death usually go hand in hand in many deities: fertility gods such as Osiris serve as rulers of the realms of the dead, while deities linked to matter itself tend to be automatically linked to its destruction: Pluto, the god of death among the Romans was called “the wealthy” because he was also the deity of gems and precious metals, all found underground. Kali, the goddess of destruction of the Hindus is also the goddess of matter, which caused the popular belief that she gave wealth to her followers.

    That this link of earth, death and matter can apply to satan is easily found in the concept of Gehenna, the hell of the Hebrews that was in origin a huge garbage pile just outside Jerusalem where, among things, the corpses of animals and executed criminals were dumped. Along with that is Satan known to seduce humans by promises of wealth, sexual favours, knowledge and other ‘earthly delights’.

    So, in short: because we associate matter to dirt and filthy stuff and impurity, we like to link filthy and impure satan to a big clump of matter, whereas we believe that our pure, infallible creator deity is so perfect that he cannot reside in this world and needs a plane above us so he can look down at us.
    ..and of course, god needs to know everything and created the whole world to begin with, so he claimed the best seats.

  4. Katie

    This particular entry has mostly sailed over my head too much for me to comment (but it’s absolutely fascinating, as is the analysis PDF!) – but I have a question regarding the issue of ‘God above, Devil below’.

    Is there a physiological reason why our eyes roll back in our head – as in upwards – when we faint? Why not downward? When I look at the anatomy of the eye it *seems* to be ‘wired up’ (that’s medical terminology, I’m sure 😉 equally around the back of the eyeball.

    I’m just thinking of the induced hysteria of Islamic breathing methods, intended to induce ecstasy. Their eyes roll back in their heads – naturally in the same way as someone fainting from lack of oxygen.

  5. Katie

    And Led Zep totally beat the Clash any day, Bruce. Did you not see the mighty Page at the Olympics closing ceremony??

  6. brucehood

    Over your head…. you mean above??? (and not below).

    Didn’t you know that Led Zeppelin where Satan’s disciples?
    It’s true… I have heard it with my own ears

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