What Is Embodiment?

Welcome everyone! This is my inaugural post on my new Embodiment and Healing (E&H) blog. I’ve established this blog as a platform for presenting some of the ideas in my forthcoming book, Healing the Embodied Self, Understanding Our Innate Ability to Heal due out in June, 2014. I will use this blog in equal measure to comment on new research in areas such as biomedicine, epigenetics, and neurology from the point of view of cultural analysis and the Embodied Self model of health, illness, and healing presented in my book. I’m going to begin by explaining a little bit about the process of embodiment.

My definition of embodiment draws on those used in several fields, primarily anthropology, but also embodied cognition and neurology. I specifically ground embodiment, however, in the material substrate of the human body to help people understand that cultural beliefs and practices, symbols and metaphors, also have a material existence in our bodies. Most people understand that components in the environment, such as foods and toxins, impact anatomy and physiology. Fewer realize, I think, that meanings are also stored in our sinews, tissues, and biochemical processes.

I define Embodiment as a universal, dynamic process that blends experience, context, and time together and embeds them in human biology. Embodiment is how experience ‘gets under our skins’ and shapes anatomy and physiology. Embodiment happens because most of the structures and functions in our bodies are malleable, they have plasticity, which means they alter naturally in response to our experiences. We are thus equally the products of both nature and nurture, biology and culture.

The embodiment paradigm as I use it in my research undermines the mind-body dualism, psychology-biology divide, and other dichotomies that structure the biomedical disease model still so prevalent in Western contexts, and which is spreading rapidly into non-Western contexts. Embodiment is not about somatization or psychosomatic illness, because the cultural model of ‘the mind’ so prevalent in the Western philosophical tradition is made obsolete. Instead, the self, as the totality of everything we are, physically, psychologically, culturally, socially, and environmentally is fully embodied, inseparable from the body, and an emergent property of the human organism as a complex system. The self, is our self-organizing principle, implicated in everything from homeostasis to sense of self to self-representation. In fact, we cannot exist as human beings minus the self and its organizing functions. The self struggles for coherence and integrity even when embodied in pathological physiological/anatomical states.

Focusing on the embodied self radically alters the way we can conceive of disease, illness, and healing. It posits the self as an organic entity and implicates the self in all forms of pathologies, whether we commonly consider them physical or mental. In fact, in this model there is no distinction between the two. Diseases are embodied and correspond with dissonances in the self. All diseases are also what anthropologists refer to as ‘culture-bound syndromes’, varying in mode, progression, symptoms, and therapeutic response with socio-cultural context. Since how the self is embodied varies both individually, and in space and time, so does the expression of disease. Herein lies a clue to how the self is implicated in innate healing. More to come…

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