Bioenergetics and cultural physiology

Stanley Ulijaszek and Caroline Potter

Public interest in the body from medical perspectives has increased dramatically in recent years, partly thanks to the fascinating new technologies for seeing its most delicate interior structures. However, the increase in obesity, one of the most urgent public health challenges of our time, remains stubbornly resistant to official exhortations around exercise and diet. There remains a great gulf between the biomedical language of body management, and the capacity and/or willingness of people to apply it to their everyday lives. This is partly because popular culture is overshadowed by traditional ideas of mind-body separation, which tend to portray the body as something to be transcended, disciplined, or exploited in the search for fulfillment, salvation, pleasure or profit. We contend that a new configuration of the science of bioenergetics, encompassing biochemistry, physiology, evolutionary biology, ecology, and anthropology, offers great potential to promote public understanding of the body as a contested space in the larger economy of consumption. This perspective takes a systemic and integrated view of energy flows in the production and evolution of life, and it is therefore suitable for examining the human body as an integrated, energized entity in its own right: underpinned physiologically and biochemically, but set in social and ecological context.

A new bioenergetics is currently under formulation. It sits at the intersection of a number of sciences, each operating at different levels of biological organization, with as yet few ties. This brief outline shows how a new bioenergetics is conceptualized as the integration of biological and ecological systems. We describe how it might be extended through humanistic investigation, to situate human beings within this nexus of biological relationships and explore their reactions to experimental artistic engagements. In so doing, we seek to enhance people’s autonomy over their lived experiences of being human bodies, and to emphasize that individual body choices are not just corporeal but also play into a much wider ecological system of cultural physiology.

Bioenergetics has a history of around one hundred years, having emerged from the 18th century combustion chemistry of Lavoisier. In this formulation, it is the science that underpins the physiological transactions that fuel all aspects of life. As a branch of physiology, it has informed our understandings of the human body in action and repose, and our need for energy-based nutrition for survival, health and well-being. This latter insight gained its voice as nutritional physiology, which has across the past 75 years yielded improved estimates of human energy requirements for a healthy body at all stages of life. Bioenergetics has offered explanations for the behaviours that people adopt when faced with both short- and long-term starvation, as well as some understanding of why humans can readily over-eat and put on weight but have great difficulty losing it again. Bioenergetics emerged in performance physiology as an approach to understanding the mechanisms through which human bodies consume and transform energy. It remains central to sport and performance science, as a metric of efficiency.

Since many aspects of human social activity involve energy transfer of one sort or another, bioenergetics was adopted in anthropology as an instrument for understanding human subsistence patterns and resilience to hunger, seasonality and climatic unpredictability. By the 1990s it was used to examine the human biological costs of powerlessness and impoverishment, while in human biology, bioenergetics was applied to fundamental questions of human development such as the evolution of large brain size, walking on two legs, finding food and avoiding predation. In the past ten years it has been increasingly used to study the emergence of obesity among the world’s populations.

The 1990s also saw a raised interest in integrated biological systems, from molecular, cellular, and organic through to organismic and population levels. These studies of the components of life, from genes to proteins, organelles, cells and organs, were largely reductionist; while offering more explanation of the pieces, they offered less understanding of the whole. Bioenergetics has been called upon to link the dynamics of biological systems across levels, with metabolism as the common underlying driver of all biological activity. In its current conception, however, bioenergetics cannot adequately measure energy flows between individual and social bodies. Although biological anthropologists have attempted to place its principles within specific ecological contexts, bioenergetics is limited in its ability to explain intra-societal differences in how individuals mobilize energy resources while under particular cultural constraints. Potentially informative social theory, such as Bourdieu’s ‘habitus’ (cultural predisposition towards repeating certain thoughts and actions), is absent from bioenergetics discourse. Energized human bodies do not behave as predictably or mechanistically as a physiological understanding of energy flows might suggest. Instead, energized persons act as creative agents in responding to – and bringing about changes within – societal structures and behavioural conventions. A culturally informed physiology must take account of these social energy exchanges, as well as exchanges between genes, cells and organs.

Settings for bioenergetics research have typically been laboratories or medical clinics, rather than the everyday social fields in which energized persons habitually maneuver. There is great potential in performance based fields such as theatre and dance for innovative and mutually informative interaction with bioenergetics, building on developments such as physical theatre, devised work, and site-specific performance. We propose to undertake bioenergetics investigation and research within public fields, utilizing engagement with the visual and performing arts as a vehicle for understanding multiple uses of bodily energy. Far from being the ‘handmaidens of science’, artistic outputs will be the critical medium through which research questions are framed and novel data are generated. At its core, cultural physiology is an attempt to understand the gamut of energetic states that result from bodily negotiation within specific social fields.

Water as energy - Leonardo da Vinci saw water as energy - the vehicle of nature - as blood is to the human body

Stanley Ulijaszek at the Spoleto Arts Festival, Italy, 2010, speaking to the issue of cultural physiology