All posts by kbeidler1

Understanding Embodiment: A Many Faced Coin.

What is Embodiment?

How cognition, emotion, body, and culture affect onto one another. It’s a constant question that’s been around as long as people have studied human behavior. There have been many iterations of this theory- from Albert Bandura’s theory of reciprocal determinism in the early 1960’s, to the field of Epigenetics in the present day. The current catch-all for this is the theory, expanded, of embodiment. It’s a simple concept with not-so-simple facets. Embodiment is the expression of how culture, mental processes, and the body affect onto one another. More simply put, that our behavior comes from more than jour brains alone. The idea, to us, seems like a no-brainer. The body and the fluctuations of mind exist in synchrony. The delicate rhythms of human response and perception have shaped our reactions in the past, and will continue to in the present and future. The conventional wisdom of Embodiment is something I’ve heard referred to as the “mind, body, spirit” connection.

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Image via

While not something wholly scientific, I think it’s a good way of saying that the body works with cognition and emotion in tandem, not in separate measure. It’s a lot to take in on a molecular level, and perhaps even more difficult to daisy-chain all the processes that allow emotion to circulate and surface.

Untangling the web: What composes embodiment?

Anthropologist Carol Worthman manages to cover many of these complex facets in her 1999 article on the subject. She says that emotion is an important survival tool, serving a myriad purposes. From mitigating trauma on a molecular level, to helping us navigate social interaction. She critically examines the often posed false dichotomy between emotion and “rational” or “instinctual” cognition. She proposes a dual model of embodiment, where local biology and cultural/biological ontogeny feed into each other. A good deal of the terminology in this article sent me running to some sort of Rosetta stone in a desperate plea for deciphering. I’m going to try to bluntly dissect them throughout this post. In layman’s terms, this is how biological factors weigh against individual development, and, on a more macro level, development within a culture.

The second major cultural dichotomy to examine here is ethos versus eidos. Ethos is probably a term most are familiar with. It is, simply,  a distinctive aspect of a certain culture, displayed in social beliefs and systems. It’s almost the spirit of a culture, shown through values. Eidos, on the other hand, is the rational paradigms and physical practices of a culture. It is how physical practices are implemented within it, such as diet and body modification.

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A familiar example to most of us- Native American tattoos to signal status or fertility. Image via

Ethos, Eidos, and the weighing of emotion

If you’re like me, your original thought was probably to see these, at most, as vaguely interconnected on opposite ends of a similar spectrum. I honestly think this is a symptom of trying to believe that rational thought, act, or instinct is diametrically opposed to feeling and emotion. Ethos, the spirit of a people, seems far less concrete than the physical practices of a culture. On another project I’m working on, we talk about how people tend to see things as a dichotomy instead of a spectrum of continuum.  The truth of the matter is much more tangled to grapple with- ethos and eidos may be dissimilar, but they shape behavior in equal measure.

This is equally true when we examine cognition itself. For many years, people thought emotion and rational thinking were so dissimilar, they each had their own side of the brain, and these sides did not interact. We even now hear colloquially that someone is more “right brained” or “left brained” if we feel they are more emotional or rational. Worthman says emotions do have a “home” in the brain, but it is not on one side. Moreover, it is in the limbic system, thalamus, and amygdala- parts of the brain crucial to dealing with preconscious processing, and store visceral memory. She gives this figure to explain the connection:


via Worthman, 1999.

Which, to me, echoes the “iceberg model” of behavior quite neatly:

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via Gai Foskett. This is a simple model of what affects observable behavior on a subconscious level.

Both models state that emotion is crucial in the process of both reaction and storage. It is a tool that allows us to cope, and fosters things such as creativity and self-value. And it works in tandem with instinct and cognition, not opposed to it.

Problems with studying embodiment: Development, Ontogeny, and measurable value.

Worthman states that a central problem with regards to embodiment is how adult-centered the field of anthropology tends to be. She postulates in order to study the holistic model, we must also examine the developmental stages of an individual- on both a macro and micro level. A large problem, in general, with embodiment, is we have no measurable way to quantify emotion, or weigh individualism against cultural value / expectation. She asserts culture can, however, influence the form and function of the body. I question this. Does is suggest the individuals self believed purpose or their culturally dictated purpose more affecting? This also, again, does not account for individualism. The keystone here, I think, is that culture can dictate -when- an individual experiences a certain thing, or at least increase the likelihood of it. Many cultures have ritualistic rites, concrete or abstract, that individuals go through after a certain life event, or to prove a certain social status.

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Example of the above: Satere-Mawe tribesmen of Brazil must withstand the sting of hundreds of bullet ants many times to be considered adults. Image via NoiseBreak.

We’ve long since known that behavior, cognition, and environment tie into one another, each affecting an individual. Not so long ago, this was called reciprocal determinism, and before that, sociocognitive theory. One of the main takeaways from the former was that environment was critically undervalued in its effect on both other factors. Embodiment says this in so many words, with an emphasis on cultural and social environment.

Food for thought:

  • How similar or dissimilar are sociocognitive theory, reciprocal determinism, and embodiment? What is similar or different?
  • How is eidos perceived in comparison to ethos? Is one more important?
  • Emotion is undoubtably worth examining. Why is it hard to do so? How do we do so?
  • How does cultural influence weigh in comparison to individualism on behavior?


Further reading:

  1. Biocultural approaches to the emotions. Carol Worthman, Alexander Hinton – Cambridge University Press – 1999
  2. The Embodied Cognition of the Baseball Outfielder. Andrew Wilson –
  3. Embodied Cognition: What It Is & Why It’s Important. Jeff Thompson –

Art and Neuroscience, or Two Halves Tied

Hi, I’m Kat, and I spend a lot of time thinking about art and sociocognitive theory. I’ve been painting and drawing since I was very, very small. It used to be one of the first things people learned about me, but now it’s one of the last. I see art as intrinsically tied to science, which may be why I took so much of both in college. To me, understanding one helps you understand the other. I like making things that make people feel things. To me, the art in itself is the transmission of feeling the object elicits. Synapses firing gracefully, elevated, as your eyes cross the surface of the painting, studying the peaks and waves. The things I tend to make are a combination of elegant and visceral.  I think about why we’re driven to create things with little purpose except decoration, and perhaps narration. And why I, specifically, am driven to create, and can with some degree of proficiency.

I made this in high school. My professors liked to describe this style as “ugly beauty”.

So, as with everything, we can investigate these quandaries with some degree of modality. Four questions, four answers.

Causation – This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer. Whether talent is heritable is still up in the air amongst most people. It’s interesting, surely. Jeremy Summers of the Genetic Literacy Project postulates, from a few studies, that artistic ability can be linked to a few things. One is the release of serotonin, albeit not necessarily the inherent presence of it. Many artists have been famously depressed, the most famous probably being Vincent Van Gough. This is something else we share. My work, itself, improves when my mood does. Some of Van Gough’s greatest work was done during his stay in the Saint Paul-de-Mausole mental hospital, including Irises, and the one we all know, Starry Night.

Irises was one of the paintings Vincent van Gogh  depicting the grounds of the asylum in Saint-Rémy. See more pictures of van Gogh's paintings.

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Another link to creativity  is, strangely, a shorter bundled strand of fibers in the corpus callosum. The theory here is that it allows for access to both sides of the brain through a shorter path, allowing for a faster and more effective flow of ideas.

Ontogeny– This one is easy enough to answer. As I grew older, I was better exposed to drawings. My mother is extremely creative, and would always shower our house with fresh flowers and coats of paint. She was the first person that taught me to draw. I have had many teachers in my life that have lended me advice and helped to increase my vocabulary of form.

Phylogeny– People make art for many reasons. They make it to hold record, as with Egyptian Hieroglyphics, to record their very presence in this world among many.  They make it to communicate ideas, and make others feel things- at least I do. Some of the oldest pieces of recorded art are hand stencils on the walls of caves in Spain.

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Handprints from the Cueva de las Manos, Spain.

Art has also been used as a plea to the gods, or a ritualistic object. Which brings me into the final question.

Adaptive Value – I couldn’t possibly talk about science and prehistoric art without mentioning Mr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, a Neuroscientist and Art Historian who speaks about a number of artistic principles in relation to human survival and chemistry. In artistic objects as early as the Venus of Willendorf, Ramachandran talks about a “peak shift”- a change in behavioral response through what is deemed necessary for a species’ survival.

Woman Venus of Willendorf

The venus is one of the earliest examples of art in existence, made around 30,000 BCE. Found in the icy mountain ranges of Austria, its exaggerated curvature suggests the ideal female form in an environment of scarce resource. This shift occurred precisely due to what was seen as fertile, and thereby idealized in this way. It was thought to hold importance as an object of fertility.


The same can be said for more modern art, as well. While not in the same realm of magical thinking, exactly, it does play on some sensory skill developed in early human society, such as grouping and perception. Whether an object of religious significance, cultural commentary, or pure, unadulterated aestheticism, I believe it’s important to create. For both audience and viewer. Humans have always created, and I hope they always continue to. Myself included.