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.
Image via HolisticHealth.blog.
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.
A familiar example to most of us- Native American tattoos to signal status or fertility. Image via http://www.enjoythemomentrituals.com/.
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:
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.
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?
- Biocultural approaches to the emotions. Carol Worthman, Alexander Hinton – Cambridge University Press – 1999
- The Embodied Cognition of the Baseball Outfielder. Andrew Wilson – https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cognition-without-borders/201207/the-embodied-cognition-the-baseball-outfielder
- Embodied Cognition: What It Is & Why It’s Important. Jeff Thompson – https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beyond-words/201202/embodied-cognition-what-it-is-why-its-important