Department of Anthropology

Academic Staff - Greg Downey


Associate Professor Greg DowneyOffice: W6A/606
Phone: (61 2) 9850 8079

Academic Profile

For more than two decades I have been conducting research on the perceptual, phenomenological, and physiological effects of long-term physical training, especially sports and dance. I first turned to these topics to better understand the socialization of boys into men across cultures. While doing my masters and doctorate at the University of Chicago, my research led to an apprenticeship in the Afro-Brazilian martial art, capoeira, and several years of field research in Brazil.

After completing my PhD in 1998, working briefly as a design consultant, and doing a postdoc at Columbia University's Society of Fellows in the Humanities, I took a position at the University of Notre Dame in 2000. I taught there until the end of 2005, convening courses on research methods, anthropological theory, Latin America, applied anthropology, and music of the African Diaspora. I developed an innovative curriculum to integrate service-learning experience into student's academic lives that also resulted in the 'Bringing the Learning Home' curriculum for supplementing study abroad experience (supported by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, now the Office of Learning and Teaching). In 2005, I decided for personal reasons to move to Australia.


Since arriving at Macquarie in 2006, I have taught on human rights and culture, ethnographic research methods, and economic anthropology and global poverty. Currently, I teach about human rights, but have added new courses on human evolution and diversity and psychological anthropology. I received the Vice Chancellor's commendation for Excellence in Teaching in 2013 and also created Macquarie's first Massive Online Open Course (MOOC), 'Becoming Human: Anthropology,' with Open Universities Australia. I am currently involved in designing a new PACE unit for Anthropology, which we hope to offer in winter break of 2015.

In my teaching, I strive very hard to help students develop anthropological skills in research, analysis and writing that they can apply in a range of settings and professions. I currently serve as Head of Department in Anthropology and am available for consultation by graduate students interested in research design and ethics compliance.

Areas of Expertise

  • Neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, and research combining cognitive science and anthropology
  • Brazil, Latin America, and the United States
  • Sport, ethnomusicology, and dance
  • Human rights, economic anthropology, and development studies
  • Mixed methods research design, biocultural theory, evolutionary theory, and phenomenology

Research Profile

My research focuses on studying the effects of skill acquisition, especially on cognitive and sensory learning, from a biocultural and neuroanthropological perspective. I have significant secondary research projects in areas like service-based learning, human rights, and evolutionary theory.

My interest in the neuroanthropology of learning arose first in research on the Afro-Brazilian dance and martial art, capoeira, a project that resulted in a number of publications including the book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art ( Oxford, 2005) (see below for other publications). Throughout this project, I grappled with practitioners' claims that the art changed their perceptions, bodies, and dispositions toward the world. Research in the neurosciences, the psychology of perception, and sports physiology suggested that their accounts of training affecting perception could be explained by the pattern of enculturation of the body and brain at a variety of levels: physiological, neurological, behavioural and interpretive. More simply, capoeira changed practitioners, including me, so much that I began to explore the neurological consequences of diverse training regimens; sports were a great laboratory to study neuroanthropologically the extremes of human potential.

To understand the neurological and physiological consequences of training, and how that might provide a model of what culture does more generally, I draw on a wide range of research, theory, and analytical techniques, including quantitative methods. But my central technique is close ethnography, including becoming an apprentice in many cases. I believe that it is possible to study cultural variation in cognition, perception, and even brain development from a wide variety of perspectives, and that anthropology is an essential partner for disciplines like cultural neuroscience and cross-cultural psychology that are trying to understand human variation. For me, physical disciplines across cultures provide 'natural experiments' that explore the envelope of human self-induced change: in my case, this has led to research on capoeira and mixed martial arts, echolocation in the blind, metabolic change in free divers, and cognitive skills in rugby and other sports.

I've written widely about my research and other anthropological interests on the weblog, PLOS Neuroanthropology (and its predecessor, An up-to-date list of publications, with many off-prints or pre-print drafts can be found at my site.


I have supervised research projects at the Masters and Doctoral level on a range of subjects, but am especially suited to help early-career researchers interested in neuroanthropology and cognitive and psychological anthropology, in topics like skill acquisition, perceptual learning, training, phenomenology, sports, performance, childhood, and dance. I have ongoing area interests in Latin American (especially Brazil), the US, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific.



  • 2013. Co-edited with Daniel H. Lende. The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • 2012. Co-authored with Tonia L. Gray and Jan Gothard. Bringing the Learning Home: Learning and Teaching Resources for Study Abroad. Department of Education, Australia. (Teaching modules and support materials available here.) []
  • 2006. Co-edited with Melissa Fisher. Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • 2005. Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art. New York: Oxford University Press.

Selected Peer Reviewed Articles

  • 2016.  'Being human in cities: Phenotypic bias from urban niche construction.' Current Anthropology. (Pre-publication available online; doi 10.1086/685710.)    
  • 2016.   With Timothy Hall, Tonia Gray, Colin Sheringham, Benjamin Jones, Anne Power, and Son Truong. 'Jafari and Transformation: A model to enhance short-term overseas study tours.' Frontiers: The International Journal of Study Abroad 27(spring): 33-46.
  • 2015.   With Monica Dalidowicz and Paul Mason. 'Apprenticeship as method: Embodied learning in ethnographic practice.' Qualitative Research 15(2): 183-200.
  • 2014.   'All forms of writing.' (Commentary on Reading in the Brain, Dehaene, 2009). Mind & Language 29(3): 304-319.
  • 2014.   'Habitus in extremis: from embodied culture to bio-cultural development.' Body & Society 20(2): 113-117.
  • 2014.   Response to Harvey Whitehouse and Jonathan A. Lanman, 'The Ties that Bind Us: Ritual, Fusion, and Identification.' Current Anthropology 55(6): 10-11.
  • 2014.   (with Rachel Flamenbaum, Manduhai Buyandelger, Orin Starn, Catalina Laserna, Shreeharsh Kelkar, Carolyn Rouse and Tom Looser) 'Vital Topics Forum: Anthropology in/of MOOCs.' American Anthropologist 16(4): 829-838.
  • 2012. With Daniel Lende. "Neuroanthropology and Its Applications." Annals of Anthropological Practice 36(1): 1-25.
  • 2012. "Culture variation in rugby skills: A preliminary neuroanthropological report." Annals of Anthropological Practice 36(1): 26-44.
  • 2010. "'Practice without Theory': A neuroanthropological perspective on embodied learning."  For a special issue "Making Knowledge", Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16(s1): S22-S40. 
  • 2009. With Eric Brymer and Tonia Gray.  "Extreme sports as a precursor to environmental sustainability.'  Journal of Sport & Tourism 14(2): 193-204.
  • 2008. "Scaffolding Imitation in Capoeira: Physical Education and Enculturation in an Afro-Brazilian Art."  American Anthropologist 110(2): 204-213.
  • 2007. "Producing Pain: Techniques and Technologies in No-Holds-Barred Fighting." Social Studies of Science 37(2): 201-226.
  • 2005. "Educating the Eyes: Biocultural Anthropology and Physical Education." Anthropology in Action: Journal for Applied Anthropology in Policy and Practice 12 (2): 56-71.

Selected Book Chapters

  • 2016.   'Sensory enculturation and neuroanthropology: The case of human echolocation.' In Oxford Handbook of Cultural Neuroscience, Volume 1: Cultural Neuroscience and Health. Joan Chiao, Shu-Chen Li, Rebecca Seligman and Robert Turner, eds. Pp. 41-57. Oxford University Press.
  • 2015.   'The importance of repetition: Ritual as a support to mind.' In Cognition, Performance, and the Senses. Jon P. Mitchell and Michael Bull, eds. Pp. 45-63. Berghahn Books.
  • 2015.   'Beneath the Horizon: The Organic Body's Role in Athletic Experience.' In Phenomenology in Anthropology: New Horizons. Kalpana Ram and Christopher Houston, eds. Pp. 114-137. Indiana University Press.
  • 2014.   'Capoeira as an Art of Living: The Aesthetics of a Cunning Existence.' In Fighting: Intellectualising Combat Sports. Keith Gilbert, ed. Pp. 247-265. Common Ground.
  • 2012. With Daniel Lende. "The Encultured Brain: Development, Case Studies, and Method."  In The Encultured Brain: Introduction to Neuroanthropology. Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey, eds. Pp. 3-22. MIT Press.
  • 2012. With Daniel Lende. "Neuroanthropoogy and the Encultured Brain." In The Encultured Brain: Introduction to Neuroanthropology. Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey, eds. Pp. 23-65. MIT Press.
  • 2012. With Daniel Lende. "Evolution and the Brain.' In The Encultured Brain: Introduction to Neuroanthropology. Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey, eds. Pp. 103-137. MIT Press.
  • 2012. "Balancing across cultures: Sensory plasticity."  In The Encultured Brain: Introduction to Neuroanthropology. Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey, eds. Pp. 169-194. MIT Press.
  • 2012. "Neuroanthropology." In Handbook of Social Anthropology. Richard Fardon (chief editor), with John Gledhill, Trevor Marchand, Mark Nuttall, Cris Shore,Veronica Strang and Richard Wilson, eds. Sage.
  • 2011. "Learning the 'banana-tree': Self-modification through movement."  In Redrawing Anthropology: Material, Movements, Lines. Tim Ingold, ed. Pp. 77-90. Abingdon, UK: Ashgate.
  • 2010. "Throwing Like a Brazilian: On Ineptness and a Skill-shaped Body."  In Anthropology of Sport and Human Movement.  Robert Sands, ed.  Pp. 297-326.  Lexington Books (Rowman & Littlefield).
  • 2007. "Seeing with a 'Sideways Glance': Visuomotor 'Knowing' and the Plasticity of Perception."  In Ways of Knowing: New Approaches in the Anthropology of Knowledge and Learning. Mark Harris, ed.  Pp. 222-241.  New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.
  • 2006. With Melissa S. Fisher. "The Anthropology of Capital and the Frontiers of Ethnography." In Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Perspectives on the New Economy. M. S. Fisher and G. Downey, eds. Pp. 1-30. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • 2006. "The Information Economy in No-Holds-Barred Fighting." In Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Perspectives on the New Economy. Melissa S. Fisher and Greg Downey, eds. Pp. 108-132. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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