Bodies: A Digital Companion

Mind-Body Dualism

 The Oenophile

He’d always been a trouble maker. Wild. Ungovernable. Unpredictable. Complicated in that his power was great, yet wasted on frivolity, on song and dance and revelry. His home was tangled and overgrown, rank with weeds and shoots. His friends half-beast. Dionysus was chaos incarnate - a symbol of confusion and complexity.


To the ancient Greeks, Apollo was a more fitting god. Plato and Socrates, particularly, were fans. A god of order, symmetry, division and compartmentalization. A symbol of organization and reason.


Nietzsche would write about this contrasting duality, using an analysis of Dionysus and Apollo and the way they defined Greek tragedy to delve into ideas of order versus disorder, rationale versus chaos. The world of defined ideas versus the abyss.


Many cultural concepts and institutions; art, medicine, government, philosophy, and economics can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Not only that, but conceptual frameworks, such as ideas of order and disorder, also have roots in the classical tradition. In particular, one of the clearest institutions that rest upon the Grecian traditions is education. And within education, both that inherited from the Greeks but also many of the inherent structures developed since ancient times, there is a prevailing emphasis on rigor, order, delineation, and compartmentalization - the stuff of Apollo’s rule.


Apollo and Dionysus are helpful allegorical characters to use to help unravel the messy knot of how humans think. Using these two symbolic characters as a springboard, we can ask big questions that bear on education. What is the mind? What is consciousness? And how is it that we can be self aware, imagine other worlds, and use our intellect to wield tools, communicate, and build complex societies?


How, exactly, do we learn?


For much of western history since the ancient Greeks, one of the central ideas underpinning much of philosophy has been that there is a separation between mind and body - that reason and rational thinking exist as abstract universals. Descartes is the one this faulty dualistic view is pinned on and rightly so - it was the Cartesian duality of mind/body that fueled many of the ideas of the Enlightenment. It’s only been over the past century or so that this Cartesian worldview of the disembodied mind has been largely overturned. Especially in the past few decades, a much more complicated and interesting picture of how the mind works in conjunction with the body has arisen through empirical findings in cognitive science.


This new way of looking at human consciousness and behavior- the principles that unify our mind and body -  is called embodied cognition.


Put simply, embodied cognition is the conglomeration of a number of fields of study that posit that thought - including abstract ideas, reason, and rational analysis - are not disembodied universals but rather deeply embedded in our very flesh and bone. Embodied cognition research supports the idea that feelings and emotions are not obstacles to the process of rational thought, but part of it, inextricably intertwined.


In a way, this can feel self-evident. For example, we often make decisions by ‘going with our gut.’ This embodied metaphor is a way of obliquely addressing the body's role in making complex choices. And the reality is that all of our decisions are ‘gut’ decisions - the are formed, informed, and carried out by the body and mind in tandem. Particularly in education, decision making of this nature  becomes the daily act of learning. By teasing out the ramifications of embodied cognition, it becomes apparent that the way education is structured, and the way we think about teaching and learning, is deeply affected by this emerging science.


Bodies intends to outline a practical approach to thinking about the relationship between our embodied experience and the inaccurate mind/body dualistic worldview. Take education for example. What we do on a daily basis, how we interact with our students and professors, the very buildings and spaces we teach in - all of these components of education can be addressed through recent findings in cognitive science and evaluated in terms of their relationship to embodied cognition.


However, in order to unravel the tangled story of why education is structured the way it is, why teachers teach the way they do, and what our conception of knowledge is and how that affects our ability to learn, we need to look at the historical and conceptual underpinnings that frame those daily interactions. And it’s within this intersection between what we do as educators and students and the ideological history of education that we find the powerful undercurrent of the Apollonian ideal, the Dionysian opposite, and the real work that is to be done to take the hypothetical implications of an educational approach rooted in embodied cognition to the fore.


While embodied cognition is a relatively concise concept - thinking occurs in the body as well as the brain, and ‘mind’ is really just a word we use to describe the interactions between body, brain, and environment - it is also an incredibly diverse chunk of research with many rich veins that bear on education and how we learn. As a way of offering a few preliminary examples of the sorts of ways embodied cognition could affect our schools, we’ll touch on a few bits of research that have the potential to have direct, practical impacts on the way we think about schools, teaching, and learning.


Where You’re At


Proprioception. Most of us don’t have to think about where are bodies are. We just know. Writing this in the local Barnes & Noble near my home, I just know that my legs are under the table, my left arm braced against the table top, my head canted towards the legal pad upon which I write. I know my spine is bent - “slumped” is probably a more accurate term. I know this because I can see my appendages. But if I close my eyes, I still know it. I know where I am in space, and where my limbs are in relation to each other. I can scratch my beard with my eyes closed without fear of accidentally scratching my armpit instead. This seems simple to the point of inanity - of course you know where your limbs are. However, there are rare cases of people losing their sense of proprioception; losing the ability to know their orientation is space and the placement of their body in relation to itself. But for most of us, it’s such ‘second nature’ that it’s a given.  Almost all of us have this ability to perceive our body in space, but how do we do it? It’s not conscious, or something you think about. It’s not abstract, rational, or reasoned thought. You just know. This is one single aspect of embodied cognition - the way this ability is nothing short of amazing and not separate from higher levels of thought or executive functions like decision making, but actually part of those cognitive processes. The only time we get even a taste of how crucial the sense of proprioception is is when our limbs fall asleep on us. Not just a tingly foot at the movies, but those times when we sleep on an arm funny and we wake up with the absence of a limb, and we have to lift up the limp, sensationless arm, and experience the totally weird and freaky nothingness of a part of our body until the blood flows again and our arm electrifies itself back to life. That bizarre moment where we can’t feel our arm is just the tiniest taste of what a full, systemic loss of proprioception might entail (I say might because I’m completely in the land of conjecture here, never having experienced it myself) and strongly suggests how vital this sense is.


How You’re Feeling


Interoception. Whereas proprioception allows us to understand our bodies orientation in our environment, interoception is our sense of what’s going on inside us. When people ask a sick person, ‘how’re you feeling?’ they’re calling, in part, on the individual's ability to express interoceptive capacity. During a class I teach on our bodies response to external stimuli in the form of stress, I use a tried and true meditation technique usually referred to as a ‘body scan.’ A body scan prompts individuals to ‘check in’ with various parts of their bodies and see how they’re feeling. Twisted? Sore? Out of joint, heavy, or imbalanced? Bilious? Achey? Interoception is our bodies ability, through a complicated communication between multiple players like our nervous, digestive, vestibular, and other systems, to assess where we’re at on the inside. Of the many movement oriented traditions that engage our interoceptive (and proprioceptive) senses, tai chi and yoga are excellent examples. Again, here we have something that, on the surface, seems bullet-proof simple. Of course you know when your internal viscera is out of whack - you feel crappy. But how do you “know” this? It isn’t intellectual knowing, or rational understanding. You “know” it in an embodied way. You’re interlocking systems know it together - your brain is just one of many switchboards, a communicative hub among many. When we begin to develop our interoceptive abilities, one of the things we quickly realize is that the amount of sleep we get; our blood sugar; interactions we’ve had with other people in the recent past; the time of day; the season; and whether we’re indoors or outdoors (among many other factors) affect us deeply (this doesn’t stop me from chowing Ben & Jerry’s while watching Game of Thrones past midnight, however).


Dance Dance Revolution


Corporoception. I devised this term to describe a specific kind of proprioception - the embodied understanding of our bodies relationship to other bodies. Looking through the research, it seems clear that this concept is one that is empirically testable. Corporoception is our ability to perceive our configuration relative to the orientation of other bodies around us. This is where fascinating research in proxemics comes into play. A part of how close and in what arrangement we place our bodies with others is dependent on cultural norms and traditions but also on corporoception, which is our bodies sense of other bodies. The most obvious example is dancers who are so ‘in tune’ with one another that their moves seem harmonized beyond human conception. This facet of embodied cognition becomes particularly important to consider when we hypothesize what the effects might be of an entire generation of children who grow up digitally playing video games rather than physically wrestling and tumbling with other bodies.


The Embodied Self


It is not that we need to develop both the body and the mind. We need to do both because they are the same thing, interwoven parts of one system. There’s nothing particularly earth-shattering about this - Waldorf and Montessori schools, to name just two, have valued ‘hands on learning’ for decades, and one of the dons of educational philosophy, John Dewey, was a proponent of just this kind of experiential learning. What has changed is our understanding of the empirical evidence behind the notion of learning through the body.


Research from Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golunka from Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK puts it thus: “Our behavior emerges from the real time interplay of task-specific resources distributed across the brain, body, and environment, coupled together via our perceptual systems.” This suggests that while we assume that something like ‘decision making’ is a purely mind-related concept, in actuality making judgements about complicated intellectual and moral problems are embodied, and the interconnected systems of our bodies replace the need for “complex internal mental representations.”


How do we have a sense of Self - an understanding of our individuality in the world? This is a complex philosophical question. Descartes answered by suggesting that, because he could think, he existed. Other essayists, psychologists, and scientists have tried to define this elusive idea of ‘selfhood’ and ‘the mind’ discover it’s roots. But if we explore the idea of self from an embodied cognition perspective, the picture snaps into focus. Olivier Gapenne from the Université de Technologie de Compiegne in France writes that proprioception, that felt sense of the orientation of the body in relation to the environment, is a key to understanding how we conceive of ‘Self;’

“When one wishes to account for the constitution of the distinction between the self and the world there is a necessity for the acting agent to make a distinction between two sources of variation in the sensory signals that affect it: those that are related to its own activity, and those that arise from the environment.”


This quote suggests that our concept of self, the very way we identify as an individual, and the reason we assume any personal meaning at all is due to our bodies orientation in space and the fact that it knows it’s orientation in space.


Another way to think about this is to consider that cognition isn’t something occurring in some imaginary space that doesn’t exist. ‘She’s in her head’ is a phrase we use to describe people experiencing deep thought or reverie, but it’s inaccurate in the extreme. Not only are our thoughts affected by our embodied experiences, they may be defined by our experiences as well.


How did embodied cognition come about? Is it a recent evolutionary development or something hardwired? A researcher named Aaron Stutz believes that the development of a cognition that is embodied and human’s ability to think abstractly were linked through the same evolutionary circumstances:

“Human capacities for symbolic mental representation, symbolic communication, and social cooperation emerged over the past ca. 5-7 million years through dynamic co-evolution with embodied cognition and environmental interactions.”


The impact these new developments within cognitive science could have on education is profound. For the past few hundred years, the very idea of learning has been bound up in the Cartesian duality of mind/body. Learning has been seen as an activity of the mind; the strengthening of some abstract understanding of reason and purely rational process. But through embodied cognition, this concept gets turned on its head. Rather than the Apollonian distinction of pure reason versus the more tangled, corporeal stuff of the body, cognitive science is forcing educators to rethink the way teaching works.


The way embodied cognition interacts with our definition and experience of education and learning can be roughly broken into a handful of categories; movement, feelings, thinking, meaning, and reason. What follows is a brief introduction to each of these concepts with the aim of looking at how these aspects play a role in both traditional educational practices as well as learning based in embodied cognition.


I like to move it, move it


Guy Claxton has written widely about education. In a recent book titled Intelligence in the Flesh, Claxton distills the way embodied cognition impacts education in the following statement; “we are fundamentally built for action.” And by action, what we can infer is that the way traditional school keeps students sedentary, indoors, and inhibits movement, may be diametrically opposed to the way cognition and learning work.


The cultural divide between physically complex and sophisticated abilities and intellectually complicated tasks is vast. The idea of ‘the dumb jock’ is pervasive in entertainment and education. But the reality is far more nuanced. It is not that skater kids who can bust a switch kickflip down a ten stair are less intelligent than the studious AP calculus pupil, it’s simply that we’ve engineered a society that favors non-physical expressions of cognition - something that Claxton calls “the hegemony of intellect.” Movement is so central to learning and cognition that the two are really the same thing; it’s not that learning has the opportunity to occur through movement, it’s the idea that learning is movement. As Maxine Sheets-Johnson puts it; “we literally discover ourselves in movement.” In fact, not only can we come to know ourselves, or even our ‘Self’ through movement, but moving our bodies is inextricably tied to understanding complex ideas. Philosopher Mark Johnson puts it this way; “what we call abstract concepts are defined by systematic mappings from body-based, sensorimotor source domains onto abstract target domains.” Or, put more simply, we understand complex ideas better through movement.


Reasonable People Can Disagree


Logic and reason are the twin pillars that hold up much of western philosophy. From the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans through the enlightenment, reason is often thought of as human’s finest achievement, the very thing that makes us human. Reason was predominantly seen in the abstract, meaning it was viewed as as set of universal laws, governing some clockwork-like logic upon which the axis of existence turned. Reason was seen much the way go is often viewed in the Judeo-Christian world - as the structural organizing principle of the universe.


Turns out that cognitive science has been able to take reason out of the airy halls of abstracted philosophy and embody it in our lumpy, hirsute, imperfect forms. Mark Johnson - mentioned earlier - wrote a book with another philosopher named George Lakoff called Philosophy in the Flesh that provides convincing evidence of this concept of our faculty for reason being bound up in our bodies, from the roots of our hair to our toes. The authors claim that reason “is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies” as well as the “specifics of our everyday functioning in the world.” Reason doesn’t exist on some mathematical, astral plane: it’s in our very bones. We reason through and with our bodies, not in spite of them. This is a key shift, particularly for teachers. In the most basic sense, if we are not engaging students physically,  in their own bodies, and stretching and strengthening and engaging them with the world around them, we are robbing them of the chance to fully use and explore the capacities of their embodied reasoning. We are limiting their learning.


The Embodied Classroom


Rather than just theorize, let’s jump into how embodied cognition might look if it was incorporated into the daily life of an elementary school student. But to do so, we need to first comprehend the way embodiment informs the way we think.


Johnson and Lakoff - the philosophers mentioned earlier - argue that all reason and abstract thinking are metaphorical, and that most metaphors are embodied, meaning based in our physical selves and our relation to the world around us.


Think, for a moment, of how I started this particular section. I wrote that we could “jump into” ideas about embodied cognition. Our very understanding and conception of beginning to learn is best described in an embodied metaphor - it is, after all, our bodies that jump, and our real physical selves that “get into” things, places, and ideas. This is also about movement. It’s not by accident that we say let’s “jump” into ideas rather than let’s “lay on top of” an idea or “sit” on an idea. We define learning with bodily and exploratory metaphor. The way we perceive progress in learning (even progress can be seen as an embodied metaphor) is as movement towards something.


Back to the classroom, where students are studying math. The Romans took the most literal and direct route possible in mathematics by breaking all numbers down into blocks of ten - something we still do today. The speedometer of your car, for instance, probably reads 10, 20, 30, 40 miles per hour and so on. And the reason, as I’m sure you know, is simple: most of us have ten fingers.


Even in high school, when students will start studying higher mathematics like Algebra, embodiment is woven through everything. The Cartesian grid of X and Y axis is a directional equation; add a Z axis and we’re talking about three dimensional space, or proprioception. And even though we’ve entered the realm of higher math we’re right back where we started - in our bodies.


The teacher in our embodied classroom begins the day with Tai Chi. Students stand, and the teacher leads them through the fluid motions, working with them to focus and hone their proprioceptive and interoceptive senses; fine-tune their vestibular systems. The classroom is filled with the teacher's voice, and the students will, at first, giggle and laugh and struggle and resist the demands of graceful, balanced movement. But that’s the way they respond to any new learning construct.


Asian cultures seem to understand the inextricable nature of embodied cognition in some intrinsic way the western world - dominated by ideas from the Enlightenment - does not. Aikido, Tai Chi, Zen meditation, Kung Fu, Yoga - all of these traditions have a similar central tenet of being in the body, through movement or breathing, and locating an actual physical point or location within the body; one’s chi or ki, where ‘centeredness’ exists. One wonders what the benefit would be for those students that seem like living pinballs in finding that calm, solid, strong place within themselves from which to act, rather than always reacting to their environment.


The students take forever - maybe days, maybe weeks - to finally get into the swing of things with the Tai Chi or yoga or whatever movement oriented embodied experience the teacher has introduced. But finally they do, and it becomes a part of the routine; focusing on being within their own bodies, honing their sense of embodiment. The usual rationale for such exercises or activities is simply health - movement is good for circulation. Gets the ‘yayas’ out. But it’s actually functioning on a much deeper neurophysical level than that.


Because functional thought is largely metaphoric, and metaphors are mostly embodied, the only way to really understand conceptual ideas is to be in the body - to fully inhabit one’s physical self.


It’s not only that Tai Chi has health benefits and a healthy person can learn better - though that’s true and convincing enough as a reason to pursue an embodied cognition approach to learning - but rather that Tai Chi incorporates fundamental concepts of proprioception and interoception which, in turn, allow for a deeper, more ‘real’ comprehension of abstract thought.


The students finish their Tai Chi and move on to language arts, fresh from their martial art. Now, they are innately in tune with their sensorimotor experience. Sensorimotor experiences are simply the lived relationship between our somatic senses and our bodies movement through the world. In the ensuing lesson, the students achievement is higher because they are now attuned to their bodies, which is the way they process cognitively. The body and brain are both engaged in learning now. In fact, as the teacher introduces complex sentences, or punctuation, or how to create a narrative, the very work of the students in processing language is done from a sensorimotor perspective.


Let’s assume that adjectives are the lesson of the day. Now, if a student had never heard or spelled the word ‘squishy,’ the bodily experience of holding something squishy while learning the word has been shown to increase retention of the word in the students vocabulary as well as the likelihood that they’ll use the word in their own writing. Or, in another scenario that has been proven effective, children who learn a story and then get to act it out retain and comprehend the information more than those who simply read and reread the story. Embodying principles - whether it’s a simple children’s story of the negotiations at the UN - allow students to embody their learning and this embodiment fosters learning.


There are multiple ways embodied cognition can manifest itself. For instance, research has shown that children who stick their tongue out during the processing of affective concepts were able to do so more quickly. How we engage our bodies - down to our very tongues - matters. By and large, these lessons have been ignored by schools, and even the medical community has at times disregarded the importance of embodied experience and movement - to the point where those phenomena are pathologized. There is now “restless leg syndrome,” which is the antsy jostling of the knee, foot, or leg, happens in almost an unconscious way. Perhaps this is simply students trying to filter learning through their very bodies - trying to rhythmically bounce knowledge through their very being.


Apollo is order, Dionysus chaos. It’s a helpful story to frame ideas about learning, but ultimately it’s a simplification. Apollo may have been the god of order, but his temple at Delphi was placed over a steaming volcanic rift in the earth - order masking the chaos within. And while Dionysus may have been disorder incarnate, the god of wine and revelry names music and harmony and cultivation as attributes as well - all of which depend on some form of order.


But while the ancient Greeks may have appreciated the polyphonic complexity of the two gods - and certainly their respective cults are indicative of a robust and varied understanding of the symbolic importance of these deities  - the way these two gods inform institutions today is much more binary. Apollo and the organization-brigade have ruled education for a long time, and Descartes’ separation of mind and body echo through to the current day. With advances in cognitive science, and the new understanding brought about by embodied cognition, it’s time to revisit the wild lessons of Dionysus.


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