Tag Archives: body image

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?

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.

Origins

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.

Imagery

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 http://www.biogeneticstructuralism.com/allabout.htm