Body Image: the slave driver of behavior, the mediator of perception

Biographical Sketch (The man behind the article)

Charles D. Laughlin is one of the pioneers of the theory of biogenetic structuralism in neuroanthropology. In 1966 he completed his anthropology B.A. at San Francisco State College. Unlike the youth of today (myself included) who take a leisurely year off after college, Dr. Laughlin spent one postgraduate year as a senior fellow for the Institute of Neurological Sciences at UPenn. He earned a M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Oregon in 1968 and 1972, respectively. For over twenty-five years, Dr. Laughlin taught anthropology at Carleton University located in Ottawa, Canada. He retired in 2001, gaining that ever so coveted emeritus status in Anthropology and Religion.  He has not, however, retired from talking about interesting topics.  He has a blog and a website!  On his website he provides a glossary of terms that prove to be very helpful in understanding this article.

In the 1997 article “Body, Brain, and Behavior: The Neuroanthropology of the Body Image,” Dr. Laughlin takes a biogenetic structuralist approach in understanding human body image.


Body image develops out of the genetically prescribed organization of the prenatal and perinatal nervous system. Body image is essentially born before we are, in our neurognostic structures.

Before I exited the womb, I had a developing body image!  Even before I was born I was a Demon Deacon! This initiated my behavior of getting at B.A. from Wake Forest University in 2012.
Before I exited the womb, I had a developing body image! Even before I was born I was a Demon Deacon! This initiated my behavior of getting at B.A. from Wake Forest University in 2012.

Development (Growing into your body…image)

Body image develops under the influence of genetic and sociocultural factors. The organism has to respond to the demands of the environment in which it is placed. Therefore, the organism must actively produce and preserve the self-organization that is adapted to said environment.   I view this idea as the equivalent of niche construction in the cognized environment.

Environment (If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?)

A complex series of models are produced during this cycle of self-promotion which tell us how to experience both our bodies and the outside world. These models combine to form the cognized environment. The operational environment is a transcendental reality and is separate from our knowledge of the world and our soma.

The trees represent our operational environment which transcendental from our cognized environment represented here as the path we walk.
The trees represent our operational environment which is transcendental from our cognized environment, represented here as the path we walk.

What is Body Image?

Body image is an integral part of the cognized environment. Psychologically, body image is a conglomeration of models that dictate how we experience our body. Physically, body image is a system of synchronized networks known as neural entrainments. While these entrainments are born out of neurognostic structures that are “hard-wired,” this origin does not preclude our body image from being neurally plastic. It is important to note that multiple entrainments work together to produce body image. Some of the associated entrainments are cognitive, affective, and somatic.


There are many properties of images and Laughlin modifies the list of characteristics found in Morris and Hampson’s (1983) classification. These include abstraction, penetration, inspection and scanning, system limitations, reverberation, image transformation, memory induced transformation, transformation of part or whole, perception and imagination, and vividness. These properties underlie the tenuous connection between sense and perception. Sensorial events may occur internally, in the absence of any external perception as is the case with imagery produced by dreams or hallucinations.

Images also come in many forms: memory images, imagination images, after-images, dream images, hallucinations, hypnagogic/hypnopompic images, and eidetic images. For Laughlin, the images most pertinent to our discussion of body image are those that are produced by memory, perception, or a combination of both. Here he enters in an interesting conversation on brain hemisphere dominance. I appreciated this little reprieve in the middle of the article because it is a topic that I am more familiar with. Leaving the meta philosophy behind for a second, Laughlin breaks down hemispheric differences in regard to processing and remembering nonverbal imagery. I find this to be a more complex and nuanced presentation of the colloquial understanding that the right hemisphere is creative and the left is analytic. I do feel that this section lacks the depth of knowledge found in other sections. This might be a product of my slightly increased understanding of hemisphere dominance (or lack thereof). The rest of the article is a little above my pay grade, so to speak. Or, maybe the research just isn’t there yet.

Behavior’s Role (“Behave yourself!” to control perception)

Neural models demand investment and upkeep like a well-landscaped front lawn. Laughlin describes entrainments as “living models” that are “ever-changing.” Models associated with body image are constantly evoked, fulfilled, and expressed through behavior that involves perception and entrains networks.

The Powers model states that all behavior functions in a cybernetic, negative feedback loop. When applied to body image, this means that behavior is directed by the organism to manage perception. Body perception must approximate body expectations as put forth by the organism’s body image.

Combining a) the idea of body image and its entrainments as “living” and b) the theory of cybernetic behavior, it is easy to see how c) fulfillment mode works. Laughlin states that body image “‘desires’ its object” (59). Entrainments are activated and produce the perception of the desire which, sometimes, leads to behavior. Here, the model is reinforced by activating its entrainments thereby further increasing its neural robusticity. Fulfillment can be perception based or imagination based.

Body imagery can also be evocative, a process which Laughlin notes could be described as backwards fulfillment. Perception is stimulated either externally or driven by some inward desire. Perception then high-fives models associated with body image (the models respond with a “hey, that reminds me of this image”). The awakened image becomes a spider weaving webs of intentional cognitive associations. Lastly, body imagery may be expressive, which is specifically behavioral (communicative behavior, or transformations of outward appearance of the soma).

Practical Uses of Body Image Knowledge (The “So What?”)

My favorite part of this article is the “Visualization and the Body” section. Here, we learn how we might be able to harness the mechanisms and properties behind body image to promote healthy models. Health disorders associated with body image involve models that have, as Laughlin describes it, “become maladaptively disentrained to perception” (62). If these models that mediate body image are not part of a functioning feedback system, the perceived body image and the expected body image as set up by the models are found to be increasingly at odds. This lead to extreme behavior aimed at controlling perception (anorexic behavior, for example).

Utilizing eidetic imagery, specifically visualization techniques, we can produce important changes in body and body image. These “treatments” are utilized in midwifery and obstetrics, Jungian psychology, and the new field of psychoneuroimmunology.

Eidetic imagery does not come natural to most of us. But, not to worry! You can practice “mental imagery cultivation” and increase your ability to produce images in “the mind’s eye.”

“How Fat is Too Fat?” (A plug for Eileen Anderson-Fye’s research)

Dr. Anderson-Fye reverently gave a talk at the University of Alabama on her research regarding fat stigma in different cultural contexts. Her research highlights the culturally variable nature of body image. As Laughlin notes, our body image is a system of models that tell us how to experience our body and that it desires an object. What this desire is as well as the magnitude of the desire is culturally determined. Dr. Anderson-Fye pointed out that it is unknown how much stigmas affect people’s behaviors. From a neuroanthropological point of view, I would suggest that the obesity stigma does not directly affect behavior but instead targets body image models by altering desire. This altered desire (what the ideal body type is) is culturally based (a normal BMI classification in the US would be considered overweight in Japan) and influences perception of the body which, in turn, initiates behavior.  As Laughlin states, “behavior that transforms the symbolic form of the body is behavior intended to produce a desired perception of the body…and my behavior, especially in public, would tend to be geared in part to maintaining my own and others’ desired perceptions of me” (54).

As Laughlin states, "behavior that transforms the symbolic form of the body is behavior intended to produce a desired perception of the body...and my behavior, especially in public, would tend to be geared in part to maintaining my own and others' desired perceptions of me" (54).
I strike a model’s pose and distort my body for the camera.
Psych Table ratings for the article in question.
Psych Table ratings for the article in question.

Biographical information gleaned from:

Laughlin, C. (2005, September 20). Something About Charlie. Retrieved September 23, 2014, from

16 thoughts on “Body Image: the slave driver of behavior, the mediator of perception”

  1. I also liked the section on using guided imagery to address body image problems. Have you heard of Amy Cuddy’s work on “Power Posing” to increase testosterone and decrease cortisol before entering into stressful situations, like a job interview? Seems fitting and neuroanthropological. I like how spell check does not recognize “neuroanthropological”

  2. First and simply: It’s really interesting to consider how shaped we and our perceptions of self are by our environment. It’s something you’re cognizant of but hardly stop to think about. How the way you view yourself, see yourself, is heavily influenced by the world around you. It’s also interesting to remember how much your body symbolizes to the world.

    More what’s on my mind: After reading all about the different processes of body image and self-interpretation, the wildest part to me is how easy it is to fool ourselves. On basic shallow level, we can fool ourselves into seeing someone more unattractive or more brave or whatever we wish/don’t wish to see. But more impressive is on a physical level. For example, with amputees: one of the treatments for Phantom Limb Pain is to use a mirror box or a prosthetic to trick bodies into thinking that limb is still there. A part of our body can be physically severed and removed — but as long as the brain “sees” it’s “still there”, it shuts down the pain response. Another example is shock — we can continue on pain-free through injury … until we see the injury. Kids won’t be fazed until they see blood, then it’s a freaking tragedy. I once sliced open my knee sliding down a rainy hill and thought it was really funny til the rain mixed with water and it looked like I was gushing blood — then the pain came. Brain scans show that taking placebo pills activates nearly identical areas of the brain as taking the actual drug. With all the levels of consciousness and all the neurological wiring, we can skip levels or manipulate levels into tricking ourselves. And that blows my mind.

  3. I think this is an interesting article, and it feel as if the data presented could be very important for survivors of trauma like rape and abuse. Victims can some times have a very distorted body image after trauma incidents and I think understanding these models could help return their body image to something more realistic and healthy.

    1. Another recent experiment could have a huge impact on survivors of trauma who have a distorted body image. Scientists are able to selectively erase memories in mice. They are hoping to use this to treat PTSD in the future, to simply erase the traumatic event from the mind of the victim. The implications are so much more than that. One of the core parts of our sense of body image includes our memories and feelings. If scientists are able to manipulate our memories, we could lose not only our body image but our sense of self. I may be just a little paranoid, but I could see people using this capability to control other people, turn them into whatever they want. Without our memories, we would not have any body image.

  4. I thought this article was pretty interesting, particularly since I myself have struggled with my body image, as I’m sure most people have, as well. I liked that you plugged in the talk recently given here because I was unable to attend, but wanted to know more information about that. I think the most interesting thing about this for me was the part about the environment. I don’t really ever actively think about my body in terms of what is surrounding me, although I’m sure that that has some affect on how I perceive my body image on any given day.

  5. To me, body image was always something that was just there. It was the way we perceive ourselves. I have never thought to break down the concept of body image into neurological terms before. Granted, some of the description got a little heavy for me. Despite this, I thought this was a great example of how we can take an idea that all of us are innately aware of, such as our body image, and examine it in different ways. Personally, the visualization method where a mother attempts to contact her fetus seems a little outlandish.

  6. I came across an article by Palmeira et al. (2010) that discussed body image’s relationship with obesity. Titled “Change in body image and psychological well-being during behavioral obesity treatment: Associations with weight loss and maintenance,” It was proposed that psychological variables are active in the completion of body image models. This follows Powers model of behavior as a negative feedback loop. Specifically, they explored how short-term alterations in body image and psychological well-being are associated with lasting weight change. A 16 month University-based study was completed using a sample size of 142 female participants female participants with BMIs between 25-40 kg/m2. The main intervention occurred in the first 4 month and consisted of mainly 15 meetings per week. Each meeting was approximately 120 minutes long with 83% attendance on average. Participants were instructed on exercise, diet, behavior, and behavior modification. These meetings were led by graduate students (2 Ph.D. and 6 M.S.) with various specialties including exercise physiologists, psychologists, and dieticians. The participants were then broken into 3 groups. One group went to monthly meetings. A second group attended monthly meetings and bimonthly weekend exercise sessions. The third group was the control group and received no further intervention.

    Body image was measured using 3 questionnaires: the BIA, BSQ, and the PSPP. Psychological well-being was measured using RSES, POMS, and BDI assessments. Body weight fluctuation was characterized with three measurements ( taken at the beginning of the study as well as at the end of months 4 and 16). Short-term weight loss positively affected patient psychology. Alterations in body size dissatisfaction, total mood disturbance, and self-esteem were found to correlate with long-term success in weight loss. Indeed, these qualities might been predictive of long-term weight loss but causation is hard to prove. Firstly, I was struck by the fact that only 96 participants made it to the end of the 16 months. That’s a lot of missing data. Secondly, I think this study could have benefited from the addition of biogenetic structural theory. Using this approach, we could relate behavior (i.e. weight loss) with changes in psychological models such as body image.

  7. When I was reading over your review on how behavior that transforms the symbolic form of the body, is behavior intended to produce a desired perception of the body, I thought, could the same concept be applied to a desired perception of the mind as well? What I mean is, one of my biggest fears, is public speaking. I’m always scared about what others are going to think about me when I open my mouth. And I know that public speaking is a big fear for a lot of people, especially in the academic world. Could the concept of altered desire (what is ideal mind type is), be culturally based, and could it also influence perception of the mind, meaning, how a person thinks and being able to speak intelligently about a subject, initiates behavior as well?

  8. I thought that the possible clinical implications this research could have with the eidetic imagery techniques was very interesting. They mention the possibility of using visualization with pregnancy and body image issues. I wonder since body image issues and related illnesses tend to cross over into psychiatric issues if the technique could be utilized or is utilized to some capacity in treating those illnesses.

  9. Great review. I wish the article had further discussed the genetic component to maladaptive body image. Most every physical component that determines an individual’s body image is heritable, but most would agree that development of, say, an eating disorder is a result of cultural pressures. Are these changes brought on by cultural pressures epigenetic, and therefore heritable?

  10. After taking about body image in class, I came across an article that I found interesting. “You are less Beautiful Than you Think,” which was published by Scientific American and was written by Ozgun Atasoy. According to Atasoy, psychological research suggests that we tend to think of our appearance in ways that are more flattering then are warranted, meaning, better than we actually are-not just physically but in every way. Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago and Erin Whitchurch of the University of Virginia conducted studies that showed we see ourselves as better looking than we actually are, according to the article. The experiment goes as follows, Atasoy explains; Epley and Whitchurch took pictures, using a computerized procedure, of participants and then produced a more attractive and less attractive versions of those pictures. Participants were told that they would be presented with a series of images including their original and images modified from that picture. Then participants were asked to identify the unmodified picture. Participants tended to select the attractively enhanced one. Proofing, according to Atasoy, that people see themselves through rose colored glasses. Epley and Whitchurch also discovered, according to the article, that people display bias for themselves but not for strangers. Participants were asked to meet complete strangers three weeks earlier and then selected the unmodified picture of the stranger. Atasoy explains that inflated perceptions of one’s physical appearance is a manifestation of a general phenomenon psychologists call self –enhancement. Researchers have shown that people overestimate the likelihood that they would engage in a desirable behavior, but are remarkably accurate when predicting the behavior of a stranger, according to Atasoy. The article goes on to say that most people believe that they are above average. The above average effects, as they called, are common. For example, Atasoy claims, of college professors, 94% say that they do above-average work. The article asks a question at the end; why do we have positively enhanced self-views? And that the adaptive nature of self-enhancement might be the answer. Ozgun Atasoy suggests that conveying the information that one has desirable characteristics is beneficial in a social environment.
    I thought this article was a good example of how an organism has to respond to the demands of the environment, or social environment, in which it is placed, referring to the blog. This concept, I believe, is a catch 22. Because we are forced into social norms of body image, and yet we see ourselves as being “better” then what we really are. But how can we be “better” or “original” if we programed to be the social norm.

  11. The part of our class discussion on this topic that I found the most interesting was how this could help those that had suffered from losing a part of their body. It’s very interesting to me that veterans and others that have lost a limb still suffer from pain in that area after it’s gone. I’m wondering if there are other things that could help them rather than what is commonly accepted as therapy now, such as the mirror technique or stabbing their prostheses if they have one. I’m wondering if there is some way that they could alter their body image in their mind that could eliminate such pains from their life, as I think that they have to be entirely constructed in the mind because it has trouble accepting that that part of the body is no longer there.

  12. When speaking of PTSD and mental illnesses, the class pointed out that the cultural environment effects how people afflicted experience their illness. Culture’s view of these disorders are reflected back onto the person and become internalized and incorporated into body image. When it comes to retraining body image, visualization is a particularly useful technique. I know visualization has been used with PTSD victims experiencing phantom limb symptoms. Visualization has also allowed these individuals to go back in time and view an experience differently. Much the same could be said about those with mental illness. Still, while visualization might improve how people see themselves the real problem seems to be the high standards of American society. Rather than viewing these individuals as maladaptive to society’s standards, I view these standards as maladaptive to society at large. Perhaps neuroanthropological research could be used to change public perception. Should we deviate from medicalizing these conditions? Still, making mental illnesses medical disorders does give us a way to treat the symptoms. It does make me wonder if what we call “symptoms” are only symptoms in the sense that some plants are weeds and others are not.

  13. This concept of distorted body image reminds me of something I read about goals. When people thought of the goals they had for themselves, they used a different part of their brain than when they thought of themselves. This phenomenon says a great deal about why people may not be able to achieve goals set for themselves. I wonder how this plays into how people view their goals. Also, I think it would be interesting to see how culture mediates the way people view their goals in relation to themselves.

  14. Looking back on this article, I find it fascinating that our environment and cultural experiences play such a huge role in the way that we view our body. I wonder if the entrainment that is observed in situations of formulating body image can be re-routed in people who struggle with body image. It would shed a lot of light into the way therapy is conducted or could teach people how to re-think their approach to their surroundings. A bigger question that comes to my mind, though, is what is it about culture in the United States that is making it so conducive to negative body image? Furthermore, what can we do to change it? What can we learn from other cultures’ views of body image that we can apply to our own?

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