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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Biographical information gleaned from:
Laughlin, C. (2005, September 20). Something About Charlie. Retrieved September 23, 2014, from http://www.biogeneticstructuralism.com/allabout.htm