Review of Encultured Brain Chapter 9: Embodiment and Male Vitality in Subsistence Societies (Benjamin Campbell)
by Daniel (Josh) Quillen
Chapter 9 of The Encultured Brain is written by Benjamin Campbell and explores the role of physiological status in human embodiment. Campbell starts by defining embodiment not as the non-physiological experiences of the mind and body, but as the neurophysiological experiences one feels via bodily functions centered around a person’s well-being. He explains that basic bodily sensations like arousal, thirst, hunger and temperature travel through the spinal cord to the thalamus, then the right anterior insula, which also receives input from the amygdala, the emotional expressor of the brain. Therefore, he posits the neuronal expression of the Insula reflects the feeling of a bodily status. Because these inputs are based mostly on environmental factors, he believes that people across cultures will experience a similar type of embodiment. In order to study this connection between physiological status and human embodiment he looks at the relationship between testosterone, vitality and feeling of well-being among men.
Campbell establishes that there is a clear link between testosterone levels and feelings of vitality, wellbeing and libido in men. While the neurological basis for the link is unclear, he posits it could be do to the extraneous effects testosterone has on peripheral tissues like promoting blood flow, oxygen intake and overall bodily function. Effects which would be represented in the insula as a feeling of well-being.
In order to test if the effects of testosterone are consistent cross culturally Campbell looks at how men in subsistence societies have a different curve of testosterone levels throughout life then men in industrialized societies. A case study on nomadic Ariaal men in Kenya looks at the connection between these varying levels of testosterone across cultures and its affects on the men’s perceived satisfaction of energy, sex and positive emotions. The findings support the relationship between testosterone and wellbeing found in industrialized societies. This relationship between testosterone and wellbeing promotes the need to look beyond solely cultural ideology surrounding male masculinity and consider the neurophysiological experience men’s bodies undergo as well.
In order to illustrate this point Campbell uses the example of Muelos. A belief throughout the world that semen is connected through the spine to the brain. Across a litany of cultures and time periods there are documented beliefs that this unit of spine-brain-semen represents male vitality and can be transferred between people. These beliefs can be explained via embodied cognition. Feelings of vitality libido and well being are based upon reenactments of memories. Testosterone levels change during periods of physical activity, sex and participates in memory recall. These changes in testosterone can bind the feelings of energy and wellbeing with the feeling and physical sensation of sex. This integrated connection involves the spine, brain and semen as one experience. Campbell illustrates that testosterone is not the direct cause of the experience of male vitality, but the effects testosterone on the body and the brain in conjunction environmental experience and stimuli.
Campbell poses many questions to further this understanding of male vitality. Because testosterone has been shown to have a clear affect upon on levels of male embodiment in both the mind and body, He believes the most pressing question is are these elaborate beliefs like Muelos surrounding male vitality due to the physiological experiences of the body, or a common cultural ideology among societies with similar life styles? While Campbell does not address female embodiment in order to simplify his study it is an important question to follow through with. How do varying testosterone levels affect female wellbeing and how is this different the men? Are there other physiological factors with more or less influence on both or either men or women in respect to embodiment? Despite these understandable omissions his studies illustrate beautifully the connection between neurophysiological factors and their influence in sociocultural events. These connections are exactly what neuroanthropology is looking for and pushes neuroanthropologists to ask what other sociocultural experiences are influenced so strongly by neurophysiological factors? How do these experiences influence the neurophysiological factor’s expression and importance?