The Bidirectional Relationship Between the Brain and Behavior

Memory and Medicine

Cameron Hay is a cultural anthropologist who specializes in medical and psychological anthropology. Her research endeavors revolve around understanding, experiencing, and coping with illness and disease from the perspective of patients, family members, and health care providers. The goal of her research is to facilitate mutual understanding between patients, physicians, and public health experts in order to allow for enhanced communication, ultimately leading to better health outcomes. Specifically, she hones in on the social distribution of medical knowledge, health disparities, health literacy, empathetic communication, healer-patient communication, health care decision making, experiencing chronic illness, and psycho social stress and health. Hays is currently a professor and the chair of the department of Anthropology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She also serves as the director of the Global Health Research Innovation Center and the coordinator of the Global Health Minor at Miami. Her secondary position is at the University of California in Los Angeles where she works as a researcher at the Center for Culture and Health at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

Hays conducts ethnographic research in Lombok, Indonesia. Her case study titled, “Memory and Medicine”, that was featured in the book, “The Encultured Brain”, is a comparative study of the memory systems of Sasak healers and American physicians. This chapter is an analysis of contrasting medical practices of rural traditional Indonesian healers from the island of Lombok and urban biomedical doctors from California. Knowledge, memory, and memorization are the three key concepts that are employed in both healing systems. However, the extent to which each of these is deferentially used is crucial to understanding how medical information is socially and neurologically organized. Hays believes that different medical traditions utilize different types of memory systems which bolster the neurological memory processes in different ways. Three key arguments that shape her research are that memory and medicine co-evolve within local contexts, the co-evolution of these processes are not only evident in the analysis of medicine, and in order to understand her argument, we have to mend the gap between biological science, social sciences, and humanities.

Hays believes that the reason why neurological differences exist between these two types of healers is not because one practitioner is more intelligent than the other, but rather the neurological processes elicited in the memory encoding, organization and retrieval processes are intertwined with social, technological, and institutional traditions specific to that culture. In order to heal, the Sasak use jampi, or memorized formulas that are solely orally transmitted to selected individuals. Anxiety invoked during memorization is believed to enhance the memory encoding process. In America, formal training consisting of learning through evidence based scientifically published articles. In contrast to the Sasak, emotional anxiety is discouraged and viewed as a breech of clinical objectivity. Sasak medical tradition utilizes episodic memory which elicits the use of the hippocampal associative systems and is bolstered by emotional reactivity of the amygdala. American medical tradition utilizes a combination of episodic memory, semantic memory and procedural memory. The integration of medical knowledge is facilitated by the hippocampus but once schemas, or representative models are formed, schemas can be accessed independently of the hippocampus. Overall, Hay’s main argument is that any knowledge set is biocultural and influenced by differences in local assumptions, information distribution, learning and remembering processes, and the strengthening of certain neural pathways.

This article reminds me of several articles that I have read about fire walkers. Fire walkers are oftentimes able to recall specific details about their experience during this rite of passage.  This enhancement in memory is because the event was emotionally significant, causing their amygdala to become highly active, which assists with memory storage. Similarly, better memorization of a jambi formula may be due to the anxiety invoked when slapped on the arm. The ability to recall particular details about one’s fire walking practice or a specific jambi line is associated with the consolidation of episodic memories. This article also reminds me of the idea of synaptic pruning and the brains remarkable plasticity. For example, the brains of blind individuals show weakened neural associations within the visual cortex but enhanced neural associations in other brain regions such as those associated with sound.

I enjoyed reading this article but was also hoping she would have included articles in support of her suggestions. I wished there was an accompanying study depicting neurological evidence of a correlation between higher rates of neural activation in certain brain regions and specific health care providers. She mentions that the bridging of disciplines in order to enhance biocultural understanding is valuable, however, she fails to display this transdisciplinary and collaborative research essence in her own work. I also recognize that she may have other studies that do exactly what she proposes. What I did not fully see in her article is the applicability of her research. I understand why it is important that the brain is able to shift and differentially allocate resources to certain regions but other readers may wonder why it is important to know that some healers predominately use a specific type of memory. How is this research valuable and applicable to us? Most grant proposals and published articles require an explanation of the “bigger picture”. What I did not grasp as well was this “bigger picture” and exactly what her research contributes to the field of neuroanthropology.

Questions to Consider

  1. How can we benefit from this newly learned knowledge about the influence of cultural practice on neural pathways and the recollection of memories?
  2. What type of hypothetical research project could we propose to test the validity of the idea that health care traditions strengthen certain specific neural pathways?
  3. How can you use the “use it or lose it” phenomena to explain why certain neural pathways are augmented in healers cross-culturally?

Body, Brain, and Behavior: The Neuroanthropology of the Body Image

Charles D. Laughlin is currently a professor of religion at the University of Ottawa and is a professor emeritus of the Carleton University in Ontario, Canada where he previously taught anthropology and religion. Laughlin is interested in a theory that he and his friends, Eugene G. d’Aquili and John McManus, developed during the 1970s and 80s. The theory of biogenetic structuralism is a type of neuroanthropology that incorporates the brain, consciousness, and culture. Laughlin has devoted a large part of his career to collecting ethnographic data in Northeastern Uganda. Later, his interests in consciousness and the ways in which societies structure and interpret alternative states of consciousness led him to live in various Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and India.

Lauglin’s article titled, “Body, Brain, and Behavior: The Neuroanthropology of the Body Image”, focuses on how an individual’s neurocognitive model of his or her body is comprised of a combination of internal and external sensory systems. He defines body image as, “a dynamic set of models within their cognized environment that integrates currently anticipated and remembered perceptions of their body, as well as all other habitually entrained neural networks producing affect, cognitions, and habitual motor patterns related to their body”. He proposes that the model of the body is already present within each individual upon birth but develops and takes shape through genetic predispositions and subsequent sociocultural influences. Prior to explaining his position, Lauglin provides the reader with a list of traits associated with the neuroanthropological theory of body image. He states that the body image is a construct of the nervous system, the body is transcendental relative to body image, and behavior controls perception so that the body perceived matches what is expected. This means that the ability to acknowledge one’s body is innate, developing prenatally, the actual physical body is much more complex than the nervous system’s model of it, and lastly, behavior provides a negative feedback loop so that individuals act in accordance with their desired body image.

Lauglin describes how the nervous system models the environment within the body by explaining the neural networks that are involved with body image development. He lists the different types of memory images and indicates that eidetic imagery, or images that occur vividly but are not perceived as real, may be used to change one’s body image. Lauglin also explains how the multiple representation model, or the belief that verbal and imaginal systems are distinct and independent modes of representation, is the most widely believed model, as opposed to collapsing both systems. He breaks down this model by explaining how the right hemisphere predominantly processes nonverbal imagery while the left hemisphere processes verbal symbolism. Lastly, Lauglin discusses how body image may be changed by using clinical methods that utilize ritualized visualizations and guided imagery may prove to be therapeutic and help change negative body image.

I enjoyed reading this article because body image is such a fascinating topic and a very salient topic as well, especially on a college campus. This article reminds me of the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) to help alter maladaptive thought patterns. Lauglin’s article also relates to other articles I have read that discuss how facial and physical symmetry are one of the few characteristics that are seen as attractive and desired features of a prospective mate cross-culturally. I believe that from an evolutionary anthropology perspective, physical and facial symmetry are subconscious indicators of health and fertility. Symmetry may be an indicator of superb genes and people may subconsciously seek more symmetrical mates in order to reproduce with an individual who is more fertile and more likely to yield healthier offspring.

With respect to physical body size, the notion of attractiveness also varies from culture to culture. Some regions in the Middle East and Africa believe that larger body size indicates wealth since they can afford to eat and become large. Furthermore, larger body size may also be indicative of health and reproductive capacity since being undernourished may cause for fetal termination since it may not have enough nutrition to survive to birth. On the other hand, in America, it is believed that those who are thinner are wealthier since they have the means and resources to purchase higher quality foods or can afford to spend their money on gym memberships and their time exercising instead of working. Neither of these “indicators” may actually be true but this article led me to wonder about how body image disorders develop and why.

Questions to Consider

  1. What are some current ways in which body image disorders are currently being treated and how can we improve upon these methods according to Lauglin?
  2. Do you think that certain cultures have an increased incidence or prevalence of body image disorders compared to others? Ie. Do women in America have more rates of anorexia because thinness is portrayed in the media? Or do women in South Africa have more rates of binge eating disorder because being overweight is valued in that culture?
  3. Tying in Hay’s article, do you think that the neural pathways associated with negative body image are strengthened over time while positive body image pathways are weakened? Do you think this impacts one’s memory encoding, organization, and retrieval processes in any way?

16 thoughts on “The Bidirectional Relationship Between the Brain and Behavior”

  1. I do think the part about body image is interesting since it does vary so much from culture to culture. There was an article I read that gave a standard image of a woman to photoshop companies in different nations. They were asked to photoshop the woman to fit the beauty standard for their country. That would be something interesting to look at. I feel like this is innately linked to consciousness since many mental health disorders stem from issues with body image, reinforced by society since childhood.

  2. I thought the idea of anxiety and stress directly affecting memorization was very interesting and the contrast in acceptance in anxiety between the Sasak healers and American doctors was also interesting. In Lauglin’s article I was somewhat surprised to learn that the body model is more complex than what our brains can handle since I think of the brain as this super-computer machine. I enjoyed reading the article on body image and how it varies from culture to culture.

  3. Lot of cool stuff in here. I’ve been enthralled with the concept of neuroplasticity since I learned about it in college. We’ve come such a long way from thinking we only used 10% of our brains, or that we had a certain number of brain cells and that was it, they couldn’t regenerate. I suppose I’m interested in how specific encoding can be. You can train yourself to be more positive, or develop better coping skills, but how likely is it that you can do that in a general vs specific context? People usually seek and study these processes to pinpoint a specific issue- how likely is it that you could change a general outlook?

    This reminds me of the concept of “bushwhacking” we touched on in a previous lecture. Much like a path through the forest, the more we tread down a certain literal trail of thought, the more active it becomes. I wonder what the limitations are of those trails- their strength and their usage, over time.

  4. I was also considering the idea of “use it or lose it” when I finished reading the Hay chapter. I think it’s really interesting to compare these two completely opposite ways of learning style and be able to completely remove any “merit” from them and address these learning styles just on a neural basis. It also raises questions about what other practices can be completely stripped of implications and still measured to gain information. Although I agree that this chapter doesn’t have a typical call to action, I think the implications of learning to strip things down to just a neural basis could be the generalizability.

    The McLaughlin chapter is something that I can now definitely generalize into my own research. Along with eating disorders, there are a number of other abnormal behaviors that are part of the manifestation of body image control (i.e., exercise) that could also be studied further. It could also be beneficial to revisit this concept now that new research is coming out investigating how gut bacteria can have an effect on the brain (Mayer, Knight, Mazmanian, Cryan, & Tillisch, 2014), so diet may play a larger role than was originally accounted for.

    1. I’m still fixating on our in-class discussion about body image. It’s really amazing how hard it is to change our perceptions, even when we’re given physical evidence. Like in the case of Anorexia Nervosa where it is very clear to other people that you are underweight, but for some reason you yourself cannot see it. I’ve done some research on Mindfulness for a research project, but we were looking specifically at trait mindfulness. As much as I want to learn to be a mindful person, mindfulness meditation isn’t for me and I know it wouldn’t be effective, I wonder if that’s just me being reluctant to try that form of treatment, or if there are people who it’s actually just ineffective on? I did enjoy seeing other people relaxed during the music though!

  5. One idea that kept coming to my mind while reading the Hay’s chapter was the idea of ‘survival processing’ put forth by Nairne and colleagues. These researchers found that participants were able to recall more words when they had imagined the words in an ancestral survival scenario as compared to a number of other contexts (Nairne, Thompson, & Pandeirada, 2007). Could this effect be related to the way in which anxiety was suggested to increase recall discussed in the chapter?

    In regards to treating body image disorders, I thought it was interesting that Laughlin seems to be recommending a reverse Implicit Association Test (IAT) on pg. 63 when discussing techniques for altering negative perceptions of body image. This made me wonder, could clinicians use an IAT during patient assessments to provide some additional information on unconscious attitudes towards body image?

  6. For both of these readings, I kept thinking back to the article about how neuroanthropology should be a theoretical and methodological approach, emphasizing experimental research designs. Both of these articles were theoretically neuroanthropological, but not methodologically neuroanthropological. They both discuss neurological systems, but don’t include any testing of those systems within their research. In a way, they felt more like cognitive anthropology with the inclusion of neuro theory. Can that be considered neuroanthropology as well? Does it still fit in with the brand?

    1. Even after our class discussion, I don’t think it was clear exactly what the authors were attempting to operationalize in terms of the theoretical concepts they were employing. Body image and memory are obviously prime concepts for neuroanthropology, but it didn’t seem like the authors were clear enough with their definitions and discussion to really follow their arguments. I wonder if methodological changes could have been made to directly measure the parts of the brain that they were discussing in relation to their topics.

  7. I am actually really interested in trying some of the guided meditation that we listened to in class. I’ve had a lot of people talk about how much they enjoy doing this and so I think it is worth trying out.

    1. Guided meditation is very relaxing. You should try. There are tons on the internet. I did one for my wife when she was giving birth to help her relax. Very similar to what is done in hypnosis.

  8. The conversation about body image in class was interesting as it is something most people can relate to. It is definitely something that is reinforced throughout someone’s life and the memories they generate in relation to their body and the perception of it. I also appreciated the videos that explained how the brain formed memories because they made it so much easier to understand. The explanation that neurons fire in a particular pattern in response to certain stimulus and that they can be reinforced is something I understand much better now.

  9. I have to question the effectiveness of retraining the brain to treat eating disorders by creating new neural pathways, in the hopes that with less frequent use, the old ones will become weaker. In many cases of eating disorders, patients may have certain triggers that can cause the harmful thoughts or negative body image, so even though you can train them to see their body in a positive way, it could be difficult to completely eliminate these potential triggers from their environment. I feel as if constantly being exposed to them will constantly reactivate those neural pathways, causing them to relapse and inhibiting the recovery.

  10. I really liked that this lecture talked about processing anxiety in medicine. Monika emphasized how in the East, it is considered a tool, and in the West, it is considered a negative, something to treat. It is hopeful to see that medicine has begin to intersect these dichotomies, however. Holistic medicines and Doctors of Osteopathy are becoming more normalized. I like the concept of treating an individual, medically, as an individual. So many biological and social factors affect us on an individual basis, and I’m grateful for these intersections and our knowledge of them.

  11. We discussed anxiety and body image during this class. Both of which, in my opinion, are major issues that needed to be talked about but no one really wants to have the conversation. It was interested to find out that the Jambi healers use anxiety as a tool for memorization, meaning that anxiety is not seen as a weakness across cultures. I think that is something that should be looked into more and it should be talked about here in the States. I think people who ‘suffer’ from anxiety would be comforted to know that this isn’t a weakness and it could turn out to be helpful in small doses.
    I enjoyed the videos of female and male beauty across the world. I thought that was interesting and refreshing from what our culture considers “beautiful”.

  12. It was so cool that you got to meet her. Thank you for introducing yourself—it makes us both look good and appreciate it when students take what I know to be good advice (not because I thought of it—I am merely passing on what smarter people than me have imparted).

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