Home >  BODY, BRAIN AND BEHAVIOR: THE NEUROANTHROPOLOGY OF THE BODY IMAGE by Charles D. Laughlin*1 Abstract: The author presents a biogeneti

BODY, BRAIN AND BEHAVIOR: THE NEUROANTHROPOLOGY OF THE BODY IMAGE by Charles D. Laughlin*1 Abstract: The author presents a biogeneti





Charles D. Laughlin*1 

Abstract: The author presents a biogenetic structural theory of the body image in human beings.  The theory accounts for both the universal principles and the variance in body image cross-culturally.  All humans develop a neurocognitive model of their body which combines information about the body obtained via both the internal and external sensory systems.  Their experience of themselves is mediated in part by this model.  The initial model of the body is "hard-wired" and already present and active in the cognitively and perceptually competent pre- and perinatal human being, and develops as a consequence of both genetically imposed and socioculturally influenced processes of growth.  The role of behavior in this process is shown to be the control of perception such that the body image experienced in perception approximates that anticipated by the cognized self.  The theory accounts for the use of the body-as-symbol and the distortion of the body image for communicative purposes.  The neurophysiology of imagery is reviewed and suggestions are made for possible clinical methods that might be used to effect therapeutic changes in pathological body imagery.



By means of perpetual alterations in position we are always building up unwittingly a model of ourselves, which is constantly changing.  Every new posture or movement is registered on this plastic schema and the activity of the cortex brings into relation with it each fresh group of afferent impulses, evoked by a change in the position of the body.  The psychical act of postural recognition follows, as soon as this relation is completed on levels that are not associated with consciousness. 

                              Sir Henry Head, Aphasia and Kindred

                                    Disorders of Speech 

                  For the error bred in the bone

                  Of each woman and each man

                  Craves what it cannot have,

                  Not universal love

                  But to be loved alone. 

                              W.H. Auden 


      Anthropologists have encountered a dazzling array of cross-cultural variance in body image, and have occasionally realized the importance of the body image and its symbolic modification in our understanding of culture (Turner 1971, Seeger 1975, Blacking 1977, Scheper-Hughes 1989, Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987).  For instance, what is considered attractive about the body of the opposite sex will differ among cultures (Hallinan 1988).  Moreover, the meaning of the body may vary widely even among individual members of any particular society.  As clinicians can attest, many perplexing psychological problems (like anosognosia, phantom limb, unilateral neglect, anorexia and bulimia) manifest as distortions of the body image and behavior relative to the body image (see e.g., Critchley 1965).  Also, the semiotic aspect of the body image is central to the world view of many peoples.  Indeed, there is evidence that shamanic cultures everywhere place the human body at the center of the cosmos, a motif that George MacDonald et al. (1989) have called the "somatocentricity" of cosmology.  It is important to note that, so far as I am aware, there does not exist a society anywhere on the planet among whom members do not transform either the male or female body (or both) in a symbolic manner.  In other words, the interpretation of the body as symbolically meaningful is universal.

      Following in the tradition of Sir Henry Head (1920, 1926), I wish to present a neuroanthropological theory of the body image that will account for both its variety and its universal aspects.1  In the discussion that follows, I will support the following three premises that I feel to be requisite to a full explanation of the clinical and ethnological significance of the body image:

    1.  The body image is a construct of the nervous system.  An individual's experience of their body is produced by neurocognitive models that develop from initial pre- and perinatal neural structures (primarily proprioceptive, interoceptive, intentional, and object perceptual neural networks) and that come to incorporate sensory perception, affect, input from skeletal muscles, memories of past bodily states, etc., into a more or less dynamic body image. 

    2.  The real body is always a transcendental object relative to the body image.  That is, the real body is always more complex and transformative than can ever be modeled by the nervous system.  Moreover, there is always far more occurring within an individual's body image than can be brought to consciousness at any moment.  In other words, intentionality relative to the body image always excludes more information than it includes.

    3.  Behavior functions to control perception so that the body perceived matches that expected based upon the body image.  Behavior is part of a cybernetic, neurophysiological, negative feedback loop that operates to produce and maintain the perceptions desired, anticipated and expected by neural models.  The models producing an individual's body image may be evoked by external stimuli penetrating as symbols, or may initiate internal operations and behavior to fulfill their own expectations about the body.

      In the discussion that follows I will offer a general description of how the human nervous system models its environment and its own organism.  I will then incorporate what is known about the neuropsychology of imagery and generate a working theory of the body image.  I will close the discussion by addressing some of the problems related to the body image that are of interest to anthropologists and clinicians, and will suggest some techniques for changing the body images of individuals seeking clinical assistance.


      Reality as we come to know it is a cognitive and perceptual construction produced by the nervous system, and is formally constrained in its nature by the internal structures of the perceiving organism.  Both the external world and the experiencing organism, as we know them, are essentially produced by the activities of neural models.2  These models exist within and as a part of the immensely intricate organization of the fibers comprising our nervous system, especially those fibers comprising the cerebral cortex.3 

Neurognosis and the Roots of the Body Image

      The course by which the nervous system comes to know about the organism of which it is a part, and the environment within which the organism is ensconced, is a well ordered one from beginning to end.  The neural networks comprising our knowledge and experience have their developmental origin in initial neurognostic4 structures that are present before, at, or just after birth, and that manifest an organization which is largely genetically determined.  There are several neurognostic structures that form in early pre- and perinatal life and that participate in forming the initial organization of an individual's body image.  These include:  (1)  the neonatal perceptual system which is neurognostically structured to apprehend and explore objects (Burnham 1987, Streri and Spelke 1988);  (2)  the bilateral asymmetry of cerebral functions, which is already present in the anatomy of the fetal brain, and which produces an alternation between the rudimentary conceptual and temporal planning associations subserved by the left hemisphere and the imaginal-metaphorical and atemporal gestalt associations subserved by the right hemisphere;  (3)  the intentional processes subserved by the prefrontal cortex that select objects of interest and disattend objects of no interest;  (4)  proprioceptive (input from muscles, tendons and joints, as well as vestibular organs) systems that are present and operating in the fetus and that provide spatial, motion and balance information to postural schema (cognitive map of the body's posture) in the somaesthetic cortex; and  (5)  interoceptive (input from the internal organs of the body) systems that provide sensory inputs pertaining to hunger, thirst, pain, nausea, etc. to the sensorium.

      Although there is remarkable selectivity in the developmental reorganization of these early structures, development of all neural structures is neurognostically regulated.  Some potential organizations deteriorate, others become active, and still others remain relatively latent and undeveloped (see Changeux 1985, Edelman 1987, Varela 1979).  This selectivity is one reason why there is such remarkable variation in cognitive adaptation to the essentially turbulent and evolving nature of the organism and the world. 

The Cognized Environment and the Body Image

      The organism and its environment are inextricably linked in an intricate dance, coupled for a lifetime in an increasingly complex process of mutual adaptation.5  In the process of its self-cognization, the organism becomes a relative abstraction to itself, and will involve to some extent a conceptual and imaginal abstraction of its self from the matrix of its environment.  The organism develops a model of itself which comes to be defined through the emerging complexity of its own internal organization.  The principal attribute of the organism's model of itself is the production and conservation of this self-organization while addressing the demands of adaptation to events in its environment (Varela 1979, Maturana and Varela 1980).  From a complex system of such models we erect a cognized environment.  The cognized environment is how we know and experience our organism and our world, and yet the system of neurological transformations that produce the cognized environment is part of the very world within which we are embedded and to which we must adapt in order to survive.  Both the world and our organism, as they really are apart from our knowledge of them, comprise our operational environment,6 and can be considered transcendental relative to our cognized environment.  That is, there is always more to learn about the operational environment, or any form within it, than can be cognized (see Martin 1981:102 on this issue).

The Body Image as a System of Entrainments

      The internally constructed models which comprise our cognized environment are to the operational environment as maps are to a landscape.  The models comprising our cognized environment include those that model our organism, and among these are the models that mediate our experience of our body, or physical self.  These latter I will call collectively our body image.7  Our body image may thus be considered an organization that is comprised of neural networks that are nested within other networks whose content is composed of symbolic transformations of meaning at various levels of organization from primitive arousal, vestibular, postural, metabolic interoception and affect to more advanced conceptual and imaginal functions.  These transformations have their material reality in neural coordinations, or entrainments,8 whose initial forms are neurognostic, whose eventual developmental complexity will be variable and whose evocation may or may not be environmentally triggered.  What we understand about ourselves is the function of an organization of models that become developmentally stabilized. It is a major function of the body image to differentiate aspects of the organism in order that the organism may adapt to its very transcendental nature.

Intentionality and the Body Image

      As with consciousness generally, the ongoing, moment-by-moment operation of a person's body image is essentially intentional in organization; that is, neural networks producing that body image tend to organize themselves about the phenomenal attributes of the body.  The phenomenal attributes of the body are themselves produced in experience by neural models in the sensorium and are, for the moment, the central focus of conceptual, imaginal, affective, metabolic and motor operations of the organism towards itself (Neisser 1976: 20ff).  For example, if you look at yourself in the mirror, the visual image of your exterior body may become the intentional locus of thoughts ("I have to get a haircut"), feelings ("God, I'm too fat!"), behaviors (shaving, brushing teeth), etc.

      It is crucial to understand that the intentional processes that construct and constellate experience upon one's body image are cybernetic and largely cortical in organization.  Intentionality derives primarily from a neurognostically patterned dialogue between the prefrontal cortex (Fuster 1980, Stuss and Benson 1986) and the sensorial cortex of the brain (Laughlin 1988).  Constituent structures entrained to the body image as a consequence of the dialogue between prefrontal and sensorial processes may be located over a wide expanse of cortical (eg., frontal somaesthetic structures, parietal visual attention structures, right lobe imaginal structures, left lobe language and conceptual structures), subcortical (eg., hippocampal recognition structures, autonomic postural structures, brain stem arousal structures, limbic emotional structures) and endocrinal (eg., hypothalamic and pituitary structures) tissues.

      Experience9 of the body is a function of this intentional dialogue, and involves the constitution of a phenomenal body within the networks of cells comprising the sensorium, to which are entrained the cognitive processes that associate meaning and form in a more or less unitary frame (see Johnson 1987).  The sensory and the cognitive-intentional aspects of the "lived experience of the body-self" (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1978) are never passive.  Rather, they are active products of neurological functioning, and are exquisitely ordered in the service of abstract pattern recognition, both in moment-by-moment adult experience (Gibson 1969), and in development from the earliest periods of pre- and perinatal consciousness (Chamberlain in Verny 1987, Laughlin 1990a, Parmalee and Sigman 1983). 

      But we must be cautious in implying that all neural processes entrained within intentionality are conscious, for this is far from the case.  Active neural processes may or may not be experienced within the intentional frame.  As Henry Head (1920:606) noted, most of the structures that may subserve the conscious experience of the body are themselves operating outside of consciousness, as is usually the case of the schema retaining knowledge of posture and position of the body in space.  For example, as the literature in cognitive therapy has shown, unconscious "automatic thoughts" (or cognitions) about an object of consciousness may intervene between perception of and feelings about that object (see Beck 1967, Beck and Emery 1985).  And the object may well be one's own body image.  It may well prove to be unconscious and "automatic" cognitions that account for some clinically significant distortions of the body image.   The body image may be evoked either externally via the sensory apparatus of the sensorium (e.g., I perceive my hand "out there"), or internally via either the imaginal structures of the sensorium (e.g., I dream that my body falls down a tunnel), or the internal sensing apparatus (e.g., I feel achy or hungry; or I sense I am sitting in a chair). 

The Role of Behavior in the Control of Body Perception

      One of the most important issues I must address relative to the cognized environment, and its constituent body image, is the role of behavior as a phase in the cognitive-intentional control of perception.10  William T. Powers (1973) in his book, Behavior: The Control of Perception, has gone a long way toward modelling the function of behavior relative to perception.  His thesis is as simple as it is controversial, and is worth considering at length, for it is it is the failure to understanding the internal cybernetic function of behavior that has thwarted the production of a general theory of the body image sufficient to account for both the cross-cultural and the clinical variance in body image.

      According to Powers, behavior is never an end in itself, but is always a phase in a greater neurocognitive loop by which an object of interest is brought before the perceiving subject and kept there as long as desired, despite disturbances produced by other competing objects.  Behavior is thus negative feedback (ibid:54) which operates to perpetuate the goal of perception and to control responses to disturbances that might otherwise detract from that goal.  Behavior is an exercise of motor control over change of state by the perceiving organism (ibid:47-48, 50).  For example, driving a car from point A to point B requires a series of moments of consciousness during which behavior continues to produce the perception of "staying on the road" -- moreover, "staying on the right road." 

      Applying the Powers model to the body image, we can see that behavior that transforms the symbolic form of the body is behavior intended to produce a desired perception of the body.  The perception desired may be visual, olfactory, somaesthetic, interoceptive, or a combination of these senses.  Thus I may act to dress my body, to have a barber cut my hair, to apply chemicals, to use certain intonations of speech, etc. so as to produce the experience of my body that I desire, or that I perceive is desired by others.  I may eat or refuse to eat, exercise or not exercise, wear body-altering "foundation" garments, etc., all to the purpose of appearing to myself and others as desired.  Depending upon gender and cultural circumstances, I might go so far as to apply (or have applied to me) paint, scarification, tattooing, surgery, ornamentation, a wig, etc., in order to effect this end.  And my behavior, especially in public, would tend to be geared in part to maintaining my own and others' desired perceptions of me. 

      It is of significance, especially to the understanding of clinical syndromes, that desire may be unconscious to the actor.  That is, unconscious complexes may determine the body image desired while the consciousness merely remains a witness or rationalizer for the perception-fulfilling behavior.  This would seem to be operating in at least some cases of anorexia and bulimia. 

Evocation, Fulfillment and Expression of the Body Image

      Because neural models are living systems, causality involving their activity is both complex and reciprocal (see Blalock 1969 and Ackoff and Emery 1972 on reciprocal causality in living systems).  Any model within the cognized environment either may be evoked by events outside of itself, or may seek fulfillment in those events.  These processes are operating with respect to the body image as well.  For example, hunger sensations arising through interoceptive input may make me aware of my body and its needs (this is the evocative mode of the body image), or I may seek the perception of my form in a mirror "to check out my appearance" (the fulfilling mode of the body image).  In addition, the body image may be manipulated for the purpose of expressing some aspect of the cognized self.  For example, I may wear certain clothes to a party in order make a particular impression (the expressive mode of the body image).  In other words, my body image is not a passive entity, but rather is an active agent in either initiating behavior or operations that fulfill or express itself, or in reacting to evocative stimuli that penetrate to perception and thence to its entrained networks.  If I imagine cutting my finger, my body schema may well react as if my finger had actually been cut.  The image of the lesion penetrates into the structures of the body image and evokes appropriate responses.  Alternatively, my body experiences hunger and initiates fulfilling behavior that will produce the perception of food and eating, or expressive behavior that communicates this need to someone else. 

      Again, as Henry Head repeatedly emphasized, the process of behavioral control -- and the fulfilling, evocative and expressive modes of this control system -- need not be conscious.  A distinction should be made between perception and conscious perception, for behavior may operate purposively to keep an object before perception without an individual being aware of the operation (Powers 1973:35).  This distinction is important, for much of the behavior we notice relative to the body image may be unconscious to the actor.  For example, my postural behavior may be determined by a largely unconscious desire to attract and hold the attention of another individual. 


      So far I have been speaking of the body image in general biogenetic structural terms; that is, of the entire system of models that produce an individual's meaningful experience of their body -- models that subserve sensorial, conceptual, memory, imaginal, affective, and behavioral functions.  I now wish to focus upon the imaginal aspect of the body image in more detail.  The neuropsychology of imagery is, itself, a complex matter, and one that I need to synthesize with our theory before I can proceed to a more precise working theory of the body image.

      Among other things, I must be clear what I mean by "image," for there are actually many types of images, and what we normally mean by "body image" incorporates features of several of these types.  In one of the best books written on the psychology of imagery, Peter Morris and Peter Hampson (1983: 65) discuss a number of types -- primarily of visual images11 -- including memory images (those that are aroused from memory of past events), imagination images (those that may include material from memory, but that are newly constructed without reference to past events), after-images (those produced after staring at an object and then closing the eyes or looking at a neutral surface), dream images (those occurring during sleep), hallucinations (those projected "out there" and perceived as real), hypnagogic/hypnopompic images (those that occur during the onset of sleep, or while waking up), and eidetic images (those that occur very vividly, but are not perceived as real). 

      Of these various types of imagery, we are primarily concerned here with imagery that derives from the combination of memory and perception, for this is the type most directly involved in operations and experiences of the body image.  We are secondarily concerned with eidetic imagery which may be used to transform a body image of the former sort.12

Properties of Images.

      After reviewing the wealth of research material available on the psychology of imagery, Morris and Hampson (1983: 202-203) summarize the general properties of images.  I will reproduce their list of properties here, adding our own headings for each property to make their list more succinct:

    1.  Abstraction.  The information from which images are constructed is represented in long-term memory in an organized and interpreted abstract format. 

      2.  Penetration.  Depictive and descriptive information can be used to generate visual images, a process which will take time, with more complex images taking longer to construct than less complex [images]. 

        3   Inspection and Scanning.  Once it has been generated, the surface image can be scanned and inspected.  The longer the distance scanned the longer it will take, and the larger the property to be detected the quicker it will be spotted. 

          4.  System Limitations.  The processing capacity of the imagery system in general and its ability to display conscious images in particular is limited.  [Processing may involve the expenditure of effort.] 

            5.  Reverberation.  Surface images need to be regenerated continuously to sustain them.  Scanning the surface image may help in its maintenance by revealing which parts need to be refreshed. 

              6.  Image Transformation.  Images can be transformed in a continuous fashion, by operating directly on the display as in mental rotation or scanning.

              7.  Memory Induced Transformation.  On the other hand, images can be modified by activating different parts of the long-term data base.... 

                8.  Transformation of Part or Whole.  Transformations of the surface image can be applied to the whole [field] or part ...of the image display. 

                  9.  Perception and Imagination.  Images tap the perceptual processing system at many levels including those that cannot be consciously monitored.... 

                    10.  Vividness.  Often, the more vivid the subjective image the stronger are its percept-equivalent effects.  ...images can act as the inputs to, as well as the outputs of perceptual processes.

                  It is well to note that all types of imagery are produced at least in part by sensorial structures, and that all types hold at least some of these structures in common with perception (Kosslyn 1980, 1983).  The implication here is that intentionality may fulfill itself in sensorial events without the necessity of external perception.  In other words, an image may complete the process of fulfillment of a neural model without reference to external events (e.g., in dream imagery and hallucinations).

                  The Neuropsychology of Imagery.

                        A controversy of long standing rages in the psychology of imagery.  On one side of the debate are those like Pylyshyn (1984) who hold that verbal and nonverbal symbolism are but epiphenomena of the tacit computational processes of cognition.  On the other side are researchers like Kosslyn (1980, 1983) and Paivio (1971, 1986) who argue that verbal and imaginal systems are two distinct and sometimes independent modes of representation.  Fortunately for our purposes, nearly all of the neuropsychology available comes down on the side of the latter view, the multiple representation model (see Bogen 1969, Bogen et al. 1972, Geschwind and Galaburda 1984, Sperry 1982, Ley 1983, Bryden 1982, Gazzaniga 1970, Gazzaniga and LeDoux 1978, Paivio 1986). 

                        Neuropsychological data suggest that the cortex of the human brain is organized into distinct and interacting functional areas that process information differently depending upon the adaptively appropriate, abstract qualities being extracted by each area.  The sensorium is a part of the neocortex and is itself divided into distinct functional areas, as well as areas that specialize in combining multimodal information within unitary models of objects and events in the world (we can recognize a person by the sound of their voice or by the form of their face).  Abstract qualities produced in, and abstracted from, raw sensation (such as color, line, form, etc. for vision, or frequency, direction and distance for audition) define the parameters of recognition and cognitive, affective and motor association.

                        There appears to be an asymmetrical predominance of right hemisphere processing of nonverbal imagery, and of left hemisphere processing of verbal symbolism.  But caution must be exercised in attributing all imaginal processing to the right hemisphere, for, as Paivio (1986: 260) notes, predominance of one hemisphere over the other may be accentuated with more abstract meaning and disappear with more concrete meaning.  For example, recognition of common, concrete objects presented visually seems to be distributed equally in both hemispheres.  The left hemisphere does seem to demonstrate a dominance for visual recognition of language text, and auditory recognition of spoken words, but Paivio (1986: 260-261) suggests that this dominance may apply only to words representing abstract concepts and may disappear with words representing common objects.  And the right hemisphere seems to specialize in associating faces with emotions (Hughlings-Jackson 1879, Galin 1974, LeDoux and Hirst 1986:294), and in recognizing of melodies and the nonverbal sounds made by common objects (Kimura 1973, Bryden 1982). 

                        The best information I have suggests that the more abstract the meaning associated with nonverbal imagery, the more the right hemisphere predominates (Ley 1983, Paivio 1986) in establishing, retaining in memory and processing those cognitive associations.  Moreover, the left hemisphere predominates in the processing of analytical and sequential ordering in knowledge, whereas the right hemisphere predominates in processing synthetic, simultaneous spatial relations.  Imagery evoking emotional associations would also seem to be processed primarily in the right hemisphere.  Thus nonverbal imagery (like that involved in producing the body image) associated with both affective and complex, abstract, multimodal and intuitive cognitive associations will tend to be produced by networks largely (but not exclusively) located in the right hemisphere. 

                        Yet the brain works as a unit and the hemispheres are intimately interconnected across the corpus callosum and other commissures.  Complex meaning primarily associated with nonverbal imagery and produced primarily by right hemisphere tissues may become associated with left hemisphere conceptual structures and be expressed via left hemisphere language functions (e.g., written scores of melodies, mythic stories).  Likewise, cross-talk between the hemispheres may result in left hemisphere conceptual knowledge being expressed via right hemisphere imagery (e.g., illustrations, metaphors).  However, early associations between imagery and emotion may become, as it were, encysted and relatively unaccessible to left hemisphere mediated rational faculties that develop later.  This would appear to be what is happening with emotional-imaginal complexes resulting from early trauma and producing neurotic symptoms later in life.

                  Eidetic Imagery

                        Let us turn now to a brief look at eidetic imagery -- that is, the ability to wilfully construct a vivid image in the mind's eye.  First of all, the data suggest that, among North American subjects at least, the ability to produce eidetic images is rare (10% - 15% in children; Morris and Hampson 1983: 88).  This is not a skill encouraged in our culture by either informal enculturation or formal education, with the exception of the relatively recent "new age" holistic health movement.  Second, maintenance (or perseverance) of an image usually requires conscious effort, whereas other kinds of imagery, such as fantasy, hypnagogic and dream imagery may occur spontaneously and even unconsciously (Gorman 1969:5).  Third, eidetic images tend to be more static within the mind's eye than other types of images which may involve a great deal of motion or rapid transformation.  Fourth, intensive concentration upon eidetic imagery may lead to the spontaneous occurrence of other types of imagery (e.g., dreams, visions, hallucinations, etc.).  In other respects eidetic imagery is much the same as the other types of imagery described above. 


                        There are a number of definitions of the body image floating about the literature (see Shontz 1969 for a review).  Some of the earlier ones gave the impression that an individual's body image is a discrete psychological entity, almost as though "it" were located in some fold of neural tissue just waiting to be discovered.  Others, although restricted in their definitions, were aware of the time-binding and dynamic aspect of the body image.  For example, Gorman (1969:6) equated the body image with a "concept of ones' own body, based on present and past perceptions."  And Schilder (1935:11) wrote, "The image of the human body means the picture of our own body which we form in our mind, that is to say, the way in which the body appears to ourselves."  It is actually quite difficult to pin down the body image to anything like a discrete psychic entity, picture, concept, or even a single type of image.  "Even if one were to take the term 'percept' in its widest ...sense and even if one were to concede a crucial significance to those psychological functions termed perception, there still would have to be full recognition that various other psychophysiological functions, such as motor action, affect and emotion, conception, abstract thought and symbolization, and even unconscious physiological processes, are to different degrees at different times involved in the formation of one's body as a psychobiological entity" (Werner 1965:3).

                        Consonant with the views of Henry Head about the "body schemata" (1920), I view a person's body image as a more or less 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 (e.g., feelings, emotions), cognitions (e.g., thoughts about the body, automatic thoughts), and habitual motor patterns (e.g., posture, location in space, motion and expression) related to their body.  Perceptions and perceptual memories comprising the body image are multimodal (Critchley 1950, Gorman 1969:6-7) and, along with the other neural processes, will be configured around a central, dynamic image much like iron filings become clustered around a magnet.  The body image is an ever-changing field of neural entrainments that is operating under the twin demands of situational contingencies and the maintenance of organizational integrity (see Merleau-Ponty 1962:100).

                  Body Imagery in Its Fulfilling Mode.

                        The entire network of multiple entrainments (cognitive, affective, somatic and other structures) producing an individual's body image may fulfill itself within the sensorium by seeking a desired perception as the object of its intentionality (see Kosslyn 1980 for a consonant view).  The body image model (being after all living tissue) "desires" its object and produces the object it "desires" through a network of entrainments culminating in perception, and perhaps behavior.  This is a special case of the more general principle of "projection" in Jungian psychology.  The body image "sees" (i.e., apperceives) what it desires in the perceptions it initiates, and this "seeing" fulfills the complete entrainment of the model in that moment of consciousness. 

                        The Powers model is important here, for part of fulfillment may involve behavior in the world that produces and maintains the desired perception.  Behavior may produce technological changes in the external world so as to fulfill the anticipated form and thus complete the loop.  An example of technological change would be alterations of the body surface (make-up, tattoo, scarification, fasting to lose weight, etc.) so as to produce a desired image in a mirror.

                        The major difference between fulfillment through imagination and fulfillment through perception is simply that in the former case the network intending the object does not produce the object by fully controlling the organs of behavior and external perception (i.e., exteroception) so as to produce external stimulation.  The object (image) is produced entirely within the cognized environment (as in the case of a dreambody), and without direct apprehension of stimuli within the outer operational environment.  The desire producing the imaginal or perceptual fulfillment may, of course, be for a "higher purpose" such as to evoke a religious experience, or to better embody some religious ideal (Corrington 1986).

                  Body Imagery in Its Evocative Mode.

                        As is the case with all forms of dialogue between prefrontal intentional and sensorial processes, the process may be reversed from a fulfilling to an evocative mode of processing.  Perceptions and images may penetrate to and evoke constitutive cognition, affect, autonomic, somaesthetic and other models via body image entrainments.  Perception requires external stimulation, whereas with imagery the initial catalyst for neuronal activity is entirely intrinsic to the organism.  In the absence of exteroceptive stimulation, the image will only arise if it is desired by some network within the nervous system.  This impetus may derive from a cortical network, or it may be driven from proprioceptive-interoceptive stimulation within the body. 

                        However it is initially stimulated, once it has been constituted, the image may then become the object of intentionality and cognitive associations that will constellate about it.  For example, a sexual fantasy may arise and become the object of intentional interest.  The body may become aroused and begin to autonomically and endocrinally respond as if a real sexual encounter were occurring in perception.  As another example, a dream may be the expression of unconscious tensions or disease in the body and become the object of scrutiny.

                  Body Imagery in Its Expressive Mode

                        The expressive mode produces the "social body" described by Scheper-Hughes and Lock (1987:7).  An individual's body image may initiate an expression of itself either through communicative behavior (as with facial expressions or other body motions), or through transformations of the surface body form (as with tattooing, dress, mutilation, etc.).  In this case the intent of the image is communication of some aspect of the self related to the body image such as age, status, gender, need, transcendent nature, group identification, etc.  In the expressive mode, the body image participates in the field of meaning that is culture.

                  CHANGING THE BODY IMAGE

                        As I have emphasized, the body image is not a static homonculus that can be located at some fixed place in the psyche or brain.  Rather, the body image is a dynamic pattern of neural entrainments.  It follows that problems confronting cultures when changes in body image must accompany changes in social status, and those confronting clinicians when body imagery is indicated in psychological suffering, may be alleviated by the skilled use of transformative techniques.  Indeed, traditional societies often embed such techniques in rites of passage in such a way that an initiate transforms their body image into another form appropriate to their new status.  Puberty rites among the now extinct Mandan Indians (Catlin 1841) involved seeking a vision through application of self-mutilation.  Young men hung themselves by skewers through their flesh, a process that both drove internal structures into an altered state of consciousness, and left scars that marked them as having passed through the rite to manhood.  In this case, memories of interoceptive (painful) sensations and imaginative events (visions) became entrained to the new (scarified) surface body form, and thus participated in a symbolic transformation of the entire cognized self.

                        The Mandan case is an example of a change in body image via an actual change in the perception of the external form of the body.  This is very common cross-culturally and is a use of the body as a symbolic field that may signal change of status, stage of maturation, availability for marriage, social class, group identification, or social role.  Another set of techniques involves changing the eidetic imagery associated with the body image, with or without an actual change in the external body form.  For example, Tibetan yogis routinely practice transforming their perceptions of their earthly, physical bodies (nirmanakaya; considered to be a gross illusion) into their essential energy bodies (sambhogakaya; considered to be a more subtle illusion, but closer to the truth) in order to carry out practices that bring about the realization of the true Buddha body (dharmakaya, the embodiment of sunyata, or voidness; see Chang 1963).  Creation of the energy body involves imagining the physical body as a hollow container which is then imaginally filled with a central channel and a system of veins through which energy passes unhindered.  Experiences of the unfettered flow of psychic energy are pleasant and may lead to ecstatic bliss (see Csikskentmihalyi 1975 on flow experiences).

                        Techniques utilizing the production of eidetic imagery require some skill at image production.  The ability to enhance imagery (e.g., increase the latency and vividness of the image) may be learned (Morris and Hampson 1983: 147), and this sort of learning forms an indispensable element in shamanic initiation (Noll 1985: 447) and healing (Dow 1986), as well as in the contemplative traditions like that of the Tibetans.  What this kind of learning -- what Noll (1985) calls "mental imagery cultivation" -- entails is selective augmentation through repeating a ritualized exercise of the neural pathways between prefrontal intentional and sensorial networks, a process that may eventually cause the entrainment of auxiliary structures such as subcortical arousal, autonomic, endocrine, proprioceptive and other structures into a new, or at least alternative body image.

                  Visualization and the Body

                        Visualization techniques for producing transformations in the body and the body image are now being explored in our own culture in a wide variety of disciplines and circumstances.  Robbie Davis-Floyd (1986), an anthropologist and mother of two children, has reported her experiences using guided visualization to communicate with her unborn child and to bring her mind in closer accord with the changes going on in her body.  Similar methods are now being used extensively in some schools of midwifery and obstetrics to bring mother and child into a more intimate communion (Verny 1982, 1987, Chamberlain 1987).  Visualization methods involve guiding a woman through an imaginary journey into their body during which they contact and communicate with their fetus. 

                        Similar methods have been used in Jungian psychology (termed "active imagination") to bring the client's conscious mind into symbolic interaction with their unconscious processes.  Jungian methods of guided fantasy are also being used to evoke spiritually significant experiences (see e.g., Halpin 1982).  Guided fantasy works by setting an imaginary stage which invites symbolic completion by unconscious processes or spiritual guides.  For example, a suggestion may be given the client to imagine a box and to ask what they "see" in the box.  The unconscious mind is encouraged to express itself by filling the box with images that are then interpreted by the conscious mind.

                        Visualization techniques are also being used to heal physical disease (Simonton, Simonton and Creighton 1978).  The neuroendocrinological mechanisms by which symbolic activities occurring in the cortex of the brain may produce physiological and biochemical effects in the body are coming to be known.  Symbolic activity has been shown to effect the production of endorphins, the body's natural pain-killers, and there is suspicion that this may be an important factor in shamanic healing rituals (Prince 1982).  Other research has shown that visualized healing activities may increase the number of leucocytes and other healing factors at the cite of a lesion.  This research has led to the new field of psychoneuroimmunology (see Ader 1980, Ganong 1986).

                  Visualization and Change in the Body Image

                        It will be recalled that the origin of the body image is to be found in the neurognostic organization of the nervous system -- in particular in the "hard-wired" division of the senses into interoceptive/proprioceptive input and exteroceptive input.  Many of the body image-related problems encountered in clinical practice stem from a cognitive-perceptual discrepancy between the internal experience of the body (say, "feeling too fat" or "feeling ugly") and the external perception of the body (which may in fact be perceived by others as normal or even too thin).  The body image may prove impervious to perceived changes in the body due to aging.  Pathological behavior may occur when the client attempts to bring the exteroceptive evidence of their body into harmony with their interoceptive/proprioceptive experience of their body -- the latter having developmental primacy, and hence having greater affective power to determine behavior, particularly if established as a consequence of early trauma.  For example, a person may starve themselves to death trying to become thin (as in anorexia), or may continue to dress, style their hair, or wear makeup in a manner appropriate to a much younger person.  What is happening here is that the neural models mediating the body image have become maladaptively disentrained to perception.  The encysted models recurrently operate to fulfill themselves in behavior and perception, but in the absence of the transformative perceptual feedback that tends to modify the organization of more mature and adaptive models.  Also, because the emotionally-loaded body image is mediated primarily (if not entirely) by right hemisphere imaginal cortex, rational therapeutic techniques (subserved by left hemisphere conceptual cortex) may have little effect in changing a pathological configuration.

                        All of this suggests that clinical methods utilizing ritualized visualization might prove effective in evoking therapeutic changes in the body image.  Because imagination combines both perceptual structures and right hemisphere imaginal structures, it might be possible to produce an integration of interoceptive/proprioceptive elements with perceptual ones within a new and more unified body image.  We know from phenomenological data (see Laughlin, McManus and Webber 1984) that ritually evoked eidetic images may eventually "come alive" and take on an autonomous existence within the organization of the nervous system -- that is, take on a "life of their own" independent of conscious intentionality.  And we know from cross-cultural evidence, as well as phenomenology that the body image of normal spiritual practitioners may be changed via ritually evoked imagery (see Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:297-307).  It follows that, at least for those clients capable of disciplined mental work, it would be possible for them to create a new, superordinate body image that integrates the previously disparate models of the body under a new form.

                        A variety of techniques might be developed utilizing eidetic imagery, but they would all have to begin with instruction on producing eidetic imagery -- as I have said, a skill not encouraged in our society.  One method might be for the client to watch how their perceived body image changes when it is internalized.  The client could sit before a mirror and scan their mirror image, and then practice holding that image with the eyes closed.  Once the eidetic image has been stabilized, then the client can passively watch for any patterned changes that occur to that image and its affective associations.  This would inform both the client and the therapist about the nature of the internal discrepancy producing the troublesome symptoms.  The client could then be encouraged to practice the willing of positive transformations in the eidetic image toward a more adaptive and less discrepant view of the body.  Alternatively, the client could be directed to visualize an object that evokes positive affect (say, love of birds, flowers, trees, etc.) and then pair that affect with a visualization of their own body image.  This is an ancient technique utilized in Buddhist meditation to extend the feeling of loving kindness to objects previously unassociated with that feeling.

                        Another method might depend upon a guided visualization that takes the client on some kind of journey relative to the body.  The journey might begin with diagnostic trips back into childhood during which the client is encouraged to imagine the various situations that may have produced trauma related to the body image.  Later, the therapist might lead the client through a series of body transforming experiences that eventually produce a more positive and adaptive view of the body.  Negative ("bad") and positive ("good") body images may be evoked simultaneously in a single imagined scene and then caused to merge and become one in a new and better image.  Again, the guided visualization could be structured so that the journey evokes a sense of positive affect, and then associates that affect with the client's body image.


                        I have shown that the human body image originates developmentally in the neurognostic, "hard-wired" organization of the prenatal and perinatal nervous system.  As it develops, this initial seed grows into a field of multiple entrainments comprised of living models that may be evoked by external events, may initiate their own fulfillment in perception or imagination, and that express themselves in communication and technological transformation.  I have emphasized the crucial importance of conceiving of behavior as a cybernetic phase in intentionality.

                        I hope that I have shown that any theory of the body image must be grounded in what we know about the development of the nervous system.  There are many types of imagery, and most, if not all of them apply in one way or another to an understanding of the body image.  I concluded this essay by showing that techniques involving concentration upon eidetic images are used cross-culturally and clinically to influence events in the body.  Moreover, I have suggested that clinical techniques might be devised to therapeutically alter maladaptive body images. 


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                  1*Charles Laughlin is with the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, CANADA K1S 5B6.  The author wishes to thank Dr. Robbie Davis-Floyd for the helpful feedback she gave on an earlier draft.  This paper is dedicated to the memory of Sir Henry Head (1920, 1926) who pioneered the neuropsychological study of the body image.

                  1The theoretical perspective we take here is that of biogenetic structuralism (see Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974, Laughlin and Brady 1978, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990, Rubinstein, Laughlin and McManus 1984, d'Aquili, Laughlin and McManus 1979).  This is a neuroanthropological theory of the evolution and development of the hominid brain that integrates both data from the neurosciences and the cross-cultural data on the full range of human experience.  The theory accounts for the universal features of the symbolic function as found in the 4000+ cultures on the planet (see Laughlin, McManus and Stephens 1981).  Thus the biogenetic structural group has been interested in the symbolic features of ritual (d'Aquili, Laughlin and McManus 1979, Laughlin 1989b), masks and dramatic performance (Webber, Stephens and Laughlin 1983, Young-Laughlin and Laughlin 1988), dreaming (McManus, Laughlin and Shearer 1990), intentionality (Laughlin 1988), play (Laughlin and McManus 1982, Laughlin 1990), and meditation (Laughlin 1989a, 1989b, Laughlin, McManus and Shearer 1983, Laughlin, McManus and Webber 1984, Laughlin et al. 1986, Laughlin, Chetelat and Sekar 1985)

                  2When we speak of a model, we do not refer either to an ideal type or a description of a theory.  A model is an actual organization of tissue the function of which is to constitute some aspect or aspects of the world before the mind (see Davis et al. 1988).

                  3The cortex is the phylogenetically newest part of the nervous system and forms a corrugated layer of tissue on the top of the brain.  We agree with Doty (1975) that conscious processing is largely a cortical function.

                  4The concept of neurognosis -- "neural-knowing" -- is complex and refers to the essential genetical component producing universal patterns of neural activity, and the experiential and behavioural concomitants of that activity; see Laughlin and d'Aquili (1974: Chapter 5), Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili (1990: Chapter 2) and d'Aquili et al. (1979: 8ff).

                  5See Varela 1979 on "structural coupling," Piaget 1985 on "adequation," Bateson 1979 on "co-evolution," and van der Hammen 1988 on a structuralist account of evolution for consonant views on the co-evolution of the organism and its environment.  There is a great deal of evidence that the relative richness or poverty of the outer world has a determinant effect upon the complexity and growth of neural networks in ontogenesis (Diamond 1988, Renner and Rosenzweig 1987).

                  6We borrowed the concepts of cognized and operational environments from Rappaport (1968), but have changed their meaning substantially from his usage.  For further elaboration of these concepts, see Laughlin and Brady (1978: 6), d'Aquili et al. (1979: 12ff), Rubinstein et al. (1984: 21ff), and Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili (1990).

                  7Head (1920:605, 1926:435) used the term "body schema," while others have used "body percept" (Werner 1965:3) and "body image" (Merleau-Ponty 1962:98).

                  8"Entrainment" is a technical term in neurophysiology that means the linking of neural systems into larger configurations by way of dendritic-axonic-synaptic and endocrinological interconnections.  Entrainments may be momentary or enduring.  A change in a pattern of entrainment is termed "re-entrainment."

                  9We mean by experience "that which arises before the subject" in consciousness (see Dilthey 1976, Husserl 1977).  This includes perception, thought, imagination, intuition, affect and sensation.

                  10The behavioral (motor) component of the cognized environment operates to control what arises within experience so as to fulfil anticipated events within the internal bounds of tolerance, a feedforward process we have termed the empirical modification cycle, or EMC (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974: 84ff; see also Pribram 1971, Neisser 1976, Arbib 1972, Powers 1973, Gray 1982, and Varela 1979 for consonant views).  This feedforward process is required for simple perception, as well as for learning, and for transformation of models confronting the flux and ultimately incomprehensible complexity of a transcendental world.  The range of perception is expanded through the inherent EMC activity called play which operates to suspend the strictly practical functions of behavior in favor of the exploratory exercise of models evoked by novel stimuli in the external environment (see Laughlin and McManus 1982, Laughlin 1990).

                  11Although most psychological research is directed at visual imagery, images may arise in any and all sensory modalities.  In fact, auditory and other non-visual imagery is often quite important in cosmological ritual and symbolism, and in meditative training cross-culturally (see Sperber 1975 on olfactory symbolism and Tuzin 1984 on auditory symbolism).

                  12Because our interest is quite limited, we will not undertake a review of the literature on imagery (see Paivio 1971, Kosslyn 1980, Morris and Hampson 1983 for reviews).

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