Tag Archives: neuroanthropology

Feeling Like a Man and Behind Blue Eyes: No one knows what it’s like to feel these feelings…..

Benjamin Campbell

Campell is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He obtained a B.A. in Biology and an M.A. in Zoology from Indiana University in 1982 and 1983, respectively. Campbell then went on to earn an M.A. in Anthropology and a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from Harvard University. Studying both humans and non-human primates, Campbell has an impressive list of publications involving the brain, hormones, and human life history. His work has been mainly in African populations, including adolescent males in Zimbabwe, and the Turkana and Ariaal pastorals.




Embodiment and Vitality

Embodiment is defined in several different ways in this article. In terms of anthropology, embodiment used to mean “the non-physiological experience of the body.”  Now, however, the focus is less on a mind-body dualism, as the mechanism describing how physiological information is transmitted to the right anterior insula was discovered by Bud Craig. Campbell uses embodiment as a term to “represent the neurophysiological experience of fundamental bodily processes centered around ‘well-being.’” From my understanding, embodiment in this context refers to how one is feeling and thinking related to how well his/her body is doing. Vitality can be defined as the energy resulting from a feeling of well-being.



Over the past few decades, studies have shown that an increase in testosterone in hypogonadal men (men with low testosterone) lead to feeling better, increased bodily functionality, and having better sex. Men in industrialized societies tend to have high baseline testosterone levels after adolescence that drop significantly after its peak in their twenties. On the other hand, men in less industrialized societies usually have lower baseline testosterone that stays relatively consistent over the course of their life. While men in Western cultures tend have lowering testosterone levels over the course of their lives, men in subsistence cultures tend to have testosterone levels that fluctuate on a weekly or even day to day basis.

The Experiment

Campbell chose to study men because of the differences in behavior that can be seen by the prescence of different sex steroids (hormones). He also chose to study a group of pastoral nomads in Kenya known as the Ariaal because they have high levels of physical activity, low energy intake, and high disease burdens when compared to men in western cultures. Campbell predicted that higher levels of testosterone would correlate with higher libido, higher energy levels, and a greater sense of well-being among Ariaal men.

Campbell used the World Health Organization’s Quality of Life questionnaire to determine the subjective feelings of the Ariaal men in terms of satisfaction with sex, energy levels, and positive emotions. Campbell then obtained saliva samples for over one hundred nomadic and settled men. After controlling for genetic factors that could interfere with the effects of testosterone levels (DRD2 dopamine receptors), Campbell analyzed the results and determined that his prediction was correct: there is a relationship between levels of testosterone in males and their self-reported well-being.


Interesting Cultural Beliefs about Male Vitality

One of the most interesting parts of this article is examining the beliefs about masculinity and embodiment cross-culturally. Campbell notes that from da Vinci to the Turkana in Kenya, there is an often occurring linkage culturally between males’ head, spine, and semen. The Sambia of New Guinea, the Greeks, and the Celts all had/have cultural practices involving the transfer of masculine energy via semen or the head of a slain enemy. This linkage reflects how men see their bodies, but also how their bodies work.

For example, some evidence seems to suggest that the function of the brain and the spine are dependent on androgen in males. Men who don’t have working androgen receptors have testosterone that does not function properly later in life, which causes spinal problems and malfunctions in the spinal bulbar muscles (which are responsible for erections).

Why is this really cool?

If a genetically male fetus is not exposed to or is insensitive to androgen, it will not develop male genitalia. Androgen is responsible for male genitalia.


The way certain cultures connect the spine, brain, and male genitalia has a scientific basis! This is awesome!




Campbell studied how men’s level of testosterone affected their subjective well-being and vitality. In both industrialized populations and pastoral populations, higher levels of testosterone led to higher feelings of well-being in men. Science is still cool.





Behind Blue Eyes: No one knows what it’s like to feel these feelings…..

Recently I read an article by Carol Worthman of Emory University entitled “Emotions: You can feel the difference.” The article can be found as a chapter in the book “Biocultural approaches to the Emotions” which was published in 1999 and edited by Alexander Laban Hinton. As I read the article I was taken back to my first year as an undergraduate student sitting in a psychology class concerned with child development. In that class I was first exposed to the work of Jerome Kagan on temperament in infants and the work of Mary Ainsworth involving various types of attachment of children to their caregivers. The more recent work by Carol Worthman builds on these ideas and outlines a process in which an individual’s relationship to the environment is mediated by emotions and how the appraisal of this relationship has an effect on the individual’s mental and physical health. Ultimately, Worthman argues that emotions have a role in cognition and physical well-being.

Worthman begins with a description concerning what exactly emotions are and what they do. Emotions are involved in processing sensory information. Emotions influence the detection of stimuli and the amount of attention given to stimuli. Emotions are involved in learning, memory, and cognitive integration. Emotions also influence the cognitive drive of an individual, affecting motivation, organization, prioritization, and recruitment of cognitive structures. Emotions are also a signal to the self and to others. Emotions affect communication, relations, and self- representations.

Emotion and the brain

Worthman introduces the ideas of Gregory Bateson, formed in 1958, concerning ethos and eidos. Ethos can be described as the affective-emotional landscape characterizing members of a culture. Contrary to this, eidos concerns the cognitive-propositional landscape characterizing working cultural logic of members of a culture. These ideas reflect a Western view of feeling and thinking being dichotomous or Cartesian. In this model, the two realms are mutually exclusive; as emotion increases cognition decreases, and as emotion decreases cognition increases. Worthman suggests that in addition to operating in this manner, there may also be a synergy between thinking and feeling. She suggests that emotions are crucial to preconscious processing wherein they direct attention, and are also involved in memory construction and retrieval.

Emotion influences what is remembered, how it is remembered, modulates the retrieval of information, and ultimately forms a “bridge to the unconscious.” Indeed, most processing of sensory information, including emotions, occurs in the unconscious and is therefore embodied outside of awareness.

Conscious vs. subconscious thinking

Worthman suggests that what becomes conscious is selective and it is emotion that shapes the selection. Consciousness is finite; the brain determines what to pay attention to and what to ignore or place in the background. Emotion plays a key role in selecting attention and prioritizing cognition. Emotions are integral to information processing. And finally both conscious and pre or unconscious information is embodied.

Worthman proposes a “dual embodiment schema” in which culture or the social context has an influence on the body through the process of embodiment and in return the body has an influence on the culture or social context leading again to various forms of embodiment. As Worthman states, “as culture shapes persons, persons shape culture.” The process of this embodiment depends on individual motivation, perception, behavior, and physical attributes. It is the individual’s interpretation of events, not the facts themselves, which constitutes lived experience.

Individual differences in emotional valence and interpretation of emotion can be described as the individual’s temperament. Jerome Kagan was a pioneer in the idea of temperament and described how reactive-inhibited infants are more easily excited, difficult to soothe, and less readily habituated.

Jerome Kagan on temperament

This has also been shown to be true in primates, particularly rhesus monkeys. In research conducted by Suomi (1991) high-reactive rhesus monkey infants were found to be more influenced by rearing conditions than low-reactive infants. High-reactive infants raised by “average mothers” were socially avoidant and low in dominance. Contrarily, low-reactive infants assumed immediate status no matter what were their rearing conditions. It has also been found that rearing conditions exert enduring effects on hormonal stress patterns (Higley et al. 1992).

In conclusion, individual reactivity can be a product of genetic inheritance or of early experience. Long-term effects of early experience may be exhibited only in certain situations. Effects of early experience depend on individual temperament through the interaction of reactivity and the environment. Variation in affective responsiveness influences how information is perceived, evaluated, and acted upon. These ideas constitute a psycho behavioral and biological link. They also illustrate the importance of the individual’s personal makeup and the context or social environment. A person’s inherited genetic biology influences temperament, which in turn influences emotion and how the individual interacts with the environment, which in turn influences mental and physical health, with all aspects combining in a circular feedback loop. I have included a chart created by Worthman below, which was created a few years after the article under discussion. In my opinion, the chart goes a long way towards illustrating these ideas in a visual format.


Greg Batchelder

Holistic Humor: Coping With Breast Cancer

About the Author

Kathryn Bouskill holds both a  BA and MA in Anthropology from Notre Dame and Emory respectively. She is currently  completing a Ph.D. in Anthropology and a M.P.H. in Epidemiology at Emory. She maintains an interest in the topic of breast cancer though her current focus has shifted from ethnographic research on coping mechanisms to the globalization of typically American breast cancer awareness campaigns and their social implications in new contexts, specifically in Austria.

The Author, Kathryn Bouskill
The Author, Kathryn Bouskill

The Big Idea

Kathryn Bouskill decided to take a slightly different look at humor and illness. Traditional interest centers around humor as therapy, the idea that laughter can be a form of medicine, and/or the physiological implications of humor. However, Bouskill preferred to explore how humor was utilized in order to cognitively augment a sociocultural reality through social connection and understanding among survivors. While the fear was an unavoidable constant, by focusing on the comedic aspects of the non-lethal aspects of breast cancer sufferers were able to regain a sense of control while navigating their new role. This presented as true across age, race, and SES.

Neuroanthropology:  Joining Humor and Coping

Discovering the presence of breast cancer is a polarizing moment. Life is almost immediately divided in two categories: life before cancer and life with cancer.  Once a lump is discovered the acceleration into the world of cancer is almost exponential. In an exceptionally short amount of time  a woman loses her health and, for many, most of  her defining feminine features. The experience is not only characterized by sickness but by loss of identity, both personal and social.  Any coping mechanism is defined as managing stressors by the cognitive consideration of the situation within the context of the individuals’ life, i.e. their sociocultural  context. Both humor and coping are rooted within such a context, as responding to humor requires social aptitude and understanding. Bouskill notes that humor is instinctual and is a topic that has lacked popularity through the evolutionary-adaptionist lens as it doesn’t have a necessarily affect fitness one way or another. In all actuality the study of  humor presents difficulty through almost any lens, the most glaringly obvious reason being that it is difficult to find in the lab setting.  Humor study has long been a key topic in enthnography as a means of both as a means of social bonding and deviance. Though there is still much to explore what is known it that it creates a discernible distance between an individual and their suffering.

Breast Cancer in the United States: Politics And Pink Ribbons

The U.S breast cancer awareness movement was prompted in response to the shocking stigmatization and victim-blaming that formerly characterized the disease. Breast cancer is now a common concept as noted by how commonplace it is to see anything and everything bedecked in pink ribbon. While these are great strides forward, the disease has also become feminized and all-encompassing. Most male sufferers are overlooked and the attitude towards the disease serves to further define the diagnosed as a cancer suffer before they are seen as anything else

“We Laughed for Hours!”

The interest in this topic was prompted when an inaugural breast cancer support group meeting had an unexpected affect on the participants. Rather than the tales of hardship and frustration, the organizer was met with three hours of laughter. Most of the ethnographic information was taken from the Midwestern support center that hosted that very meeting. Every participant said that they used humor, as defined by each of the survivors, to cope.

Transitioning to “Cancer World”

The transition to the cancer world is as literal as it is metaphoric. It means coming to grips with the realities of suffering from breast cancer, dealing with each and every physical and emotional facet. Survivors from the center and associated biomedical clinic formed deep connections to other sufferers and staff, often communicating outside of scheduled meetings. “Cancer World” becomes a social haven though it continues to be a physical hell. The solidarity is an earmark of their world.  The support center becomes a place where they are no longer required to be the valiant survivor, they can feel their feeling and express them any way they choose. Typically this turns out to be a form of humor that could be considered to the layperson to be morbid, but is simply an expression of their reality. Time also plays a role in the transition, as most sufferers will not be wise cracking about shaving their heads at their first chemotherapy appointment. It is a fluid process of acceptance.

Dealing with “Cancer World”

The psychological stress that accompanies the diagnosis of cancer arises in many forms.  Where does one turn to deal with such an outpouring of change and emotion? Having an outlet along with locale and label assist in modulating such stress responses. Social support leads to lower cortisol levels and overall better quality of life. Humor cultivates the social bonds that lead to these marked physiological and psychological changes. The participants noted that humor allowed them to take their minds off of the negative aspects of the disease, whereas dwelling and complaining only seemed to give is power over their minds in addition to their bodies

Language, Humor, and Meaning

Linguistically, humor alters meaning.  It allows people to joke about the serious as well as the inherently humorous. Within this support center is acted as a mode of changing the minds of those who suffered to a frame of mind that allowed them to accept and cope with their situation. Humor does not remove their stress but it does serve to lessen their anxiety. Though metaphor and idiomatic reference, their orient themselves within their own world as well as the one outside.

Recess and Reward: The Positive  Effects of Humor

Physiologically humor does actually provide physical advantages.  If is looked at as a reward then is can be linked to the  mesolimbic  dipaminergic reward system . It also activates the medial ventral prefrontal cortex,  as seen through fMRI data. Women are seen to experience  greater reward response from the language processing centers than their male counterparts. Additionally coping via humor seems to lower the systolic blood pressure in women. Humor, however, is too complex to be looked at in a purely neurological manner. Activation of neural reward centers is dependent upon social interactions and context. It cannot simply be chalked up to neural reward, as that explanation is far to simplistic.


Humor allows breast cancer suffers a cognitive coping mechanism in three ways: 1.  It is a form of optimism that forces acceptance but also allows mental distance from stress 2. Allows a fluid transition to coping and finally 3. It taps into the human suite of traits that allow for stress relief and social group bonding through its instigation and laughter response.

All three of the above reasons are also challenges to how breast cancer and coping was previously assumed to be understood.

Evolving Brain Stuff, Y’all

The Authors: The article, entitled “Evolution of the Cerebellar Cortex: The Selective Expansion of Prefrontal-Projecting Cerebellar Lobules,” was researched and written by Dr. John Balsters, E. Cussans, Jörn Diedrichsen, Dr. Kathryn A. Phillips, Dr. Todd M. Preuss, Dr. James K. Rilling, and Dr. Narender Ramnani. All of these people have interests in the cerebellum and motor functions.


Hypothesis: The authors predicted that since the prefrontal cortex has evolved to be larger in relation to the motor cortex in humans, there should also be enlargements in the cerebellum, specifically those parts that are associated with the prefrontal cortex, in relation to the lobules of the cerebellum associated with the motor cortex.


This shows where the cerebellum is located. The prefrontal cortex is located at the front of the cerebrum and the motor cortex in about the middle of the cerebrum.


The Experiment: They decided to test their hypothesis by examining three different primate species, humans, chimpanzees, and capuchin monkeys.  They took ten different subjects for each species, five of these were males and five were females.  All of the subjects were of an age where the brain would have reached full maturity.  High-resolution MRI scans were taken of each of the subject’s brains, as well as structural images. Using various programs, the scans and images were oriented in the same direction, and the cerebellum was eventually isolated from the rest of the brain, so that the scientists were left with only images of the part of the brain they were interested in (those lobules that were associated with the motor loop or the prefrontal loop). They then extracted images for the cerebellar lobules using the FSLView program. The volumes of each of the images of the cerebellar lobules were then calculated. The specific parts of the cerebellum they isolated were Lobule V, Lobule VI, Crus I, Crus II, Lobule VIIb, and Lobule VIIIa. After completing the calculations of the volumes of the lobules, they decided to compare the volumes measured against the volume of the whole cerebellum and against the sum of the volumes that had been masked, which are those related to the motor and prefrontal cortex.


A capuchin monkey


Results: In reference to the lobules of the cerebellum when compared to the whole cerebellum, the largest differences across the species came from the comparisons with Crus I and Crus II, in which humans were found to have the greatest proportion, followed by chimpanzees and then the capuchin monkeys.

A chimpanzee


In reference to the lobules of the cerebellum when compared to the masked volumes, it was found that the volumes of the masked lobules occupied the greatest portion of the cerebellum in humans, followed by chimpanzees and then capuchin monkeys respectively. Through this comparison, it was again shown that the greatest differences between species came from the Crus I and Crus II sections.


Difference in size of a human brain (left) and a chimpanzee brain (right).

Discussion: They have shown that the evolution of the cortical lobules is directly related to the evolution of the neocortical areas that are associated with them. Crus I and Crus II specifically are much larger than other lobules associated with the primary motor cortex. It was also discovered that Crus I and Crus II in capuchin monkeys are significantly smaller than Crus I and Crus II in humans and chimpanzees. The enlargements in the cerebellar cortex relate to those of the prefrontal cortex in all of the species. These enlargements in the human brain correlate specifically to its functional specializations.

The scientists compare their data to that of the brains of Old World monkeys and hypothesize that the volumes of Old World monkeys should fall in between those of the chimpanzees and the capuchin monkeys, which upon further examination proves to be accurate in the observation of one macaque monkey.

The allometric trends that could arise due to these differences between the species are an area the scientists think needs more study and that they did not examine specifically.  They do, however, state that humans definitely depart from the isometric trends, which they attribute to the differences in the cerebellum.

The enlargement of the prefrontal cortex in humans had been attributed to white matter expansions as opposed to grey matter.  This study suggests the opposite. It is mentioned that the cerebellum is largely made of white matter, but the lobules that were examined in this study were largely comprised of grey matter, which is the reason for the shift.


My comments: I found this article to be incredibly difficult to understand, which was surprising to me because I do not usually find myself struggling to read articles about research experiments.  That being said, research articles such as this are very often written with a specific audience in mind and are therefore fairly exclusionary to the general public. The problem with this is that laymen can not find materials to read on subjects like this because they are largely unreadable to the public. It can cause a lot of misunderstanding or loss of interest in subjects such as this because most people will not usually try to wrestle with and understand much of the scientific jargon used in the article.