Embodiment ~ muscle memory, belief and the complexities of the human soul

Embodiment ~ muscle memory, belief and the complexities of the human soul

Ever heard of embodied cognition?

No, me neither till the other day when an article in Church Times caught my eye. Don’t underestimate this paper because of the title. While some of it is inevitably the dull warblings you might expect, they have some very intelligent columnists who turn out some excellent articles. Here’s some snippets from the one I read by Mark Vernon:

But what if faith is not primarily about facts and theories? They may come, but only after time spent exploring a way of life, committing to practise. …[redacted] But surely most people are likely to find faith because one day, perhaps by mistake they walked into a holy place or were helped by a Good Samaritan or were caught by a visceral experience of love or loss. Thinking about what it means is vital, but belief rests on, and stays alive because of the embodied experience.

A new area in science suggests these intuitions are right. It is known as ’embodied cognition’ which roughly translates as: what we think, feel and do depends not only on the brain but also the body. We are not brains in vats. ‘It is not the brain alone that gives rise to consciousness. Consciousness is grounded or contextualised in the body,’ says psychologist Canon Fraser Watts.”

I’d love to reproduce the article in full but there are copyright issues at stake. However, the ideas had chimed with things I’ve been pondering.

As many of my readers may know I have very long hair. It’s long enough to sit on, and I started growing it when I was in my mid teens. For the first year or two while it grew long enough to play with and try out myriad different styles, I used to use a dressing table with winged mirrors that meant I could see the back of my head. Not to style my hair (because that’s incredibly confusing in mirrors) but to view the results. It’s probably thirty years since I did this now. I get asked by folks whether it’s hard to style your own hair and the answer is no, not really, once you have done it a number of times you can see with your fingers. Recently I watched a video http://earthsky.org/human-world/video-re-creating-the-hairstyles-of-the-early-roman-vestal-virgins of how a very ancient hairstyle was probably done. A comment thread developed on Facebook and most people were dubious that the style could be done by the woman herself. It looks incredibly complicated (and it is, fairly) but actually, I feel sure that those Vestal Virgins may well have done it themselves, with perhaps a friend to hold an end from time to time. I know this because when I was about twenty, I recreated a style very similar, to try and imitate the style Roman brides wore (which is pretty much that of the Vestals). I’d intended to perhaps have it for my wedding. But the results were not pleasing and I didn’t go ahead. After many years of French plaiting and other apparently fiddly styles, my hands and my fingers and my senses could perform tasks without being able to see visually what they were doing.

We do not have the five senses we are accustomed to thinking; there are over twenty senses accepted by science, and others less well accepted such as the sense of being stared at (also a book by Rupert Sheldrake, http://www.sheldrake.org/homepage.html whom I met last year http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sense-Being-Stared-At-Extended/dp/0099441535/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1359889760&sr=1-1 )

It would appear that belief is not merely an intellectual thing, but something that becomes viscerally real. Like memory, which it is becoming increasingly clear is not stored exclusively in the spongy matter of the physical brain but also within the muscles and even the guts, belief is lodged deep within the physical matter and the experiential layers of the human being.

If you came this way,

Taking any route, starting from anywhere,

At any time or at any season,

It would always be the same: you would have to put off

Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

This excerpt from T.S Eliot’s Little Gidding (from The Four Quartets) illustrates this well. The act of kneeling in a sacred space creates or recalls embodied experience, links to things deeper and more ancient often than we realise.

Even words, those things were throw around so carelessly, carry this embodied cognition in a way. Check out this article. Brains viewed under MRI scanners have been shown to light up in the same areas when certain words are spoken as light up when the actions those words represent are performed. Thinking the word SMILE, for example creates the same effects in the brain as actually smiling.

I’ve been pondering about the concept of therapeutic literature. That’s to say books or poetry that have a measurably beneficial effect on the reader. I’m not talking about books that are all sweetness and light and which steer clear of dark topics, but rather ones with an indefinable something that triggers a change in the reader. It might be infinitesimally small but cumulative. I’ve always found poetry(not all poetry but some) to do that for me, where the sound of the words is like a balm on sore skin, and some novels have been an authentically beneficial experience. Do you have any books that do this for you? I’d love to find more. I want to explore the experience of letting words take me places but without the imposition of heavy handed directive narrative because embodied cognition is something that takes place in the body, not in the bright, shallow, brittle thought processes. I can talk myself out of benefits of ideas but not out of the feeling of them, and it’s the feeling that speaks longest and loudest when the darkness draws in and intellect falters. 

4 thoughts on “Embodiment ~ muscle memory, belief and the complexities of the human soul

  1. Interesting post, Viv, on a topic which has much to yield. Bodily impressions may be deeper than mind impressions – we store our emotions, feelings, reactions (eg fight or flight) at a deep physical level before they translate to consciousness, awareness or words. Getting past the brain and the verbal can be a key in the way forward – sometimes through body work, sometimes through meditation… xx

  2. Very interesting. This links in with some fascinating insights from Edwin Friedman on leadership theory and the way the brain is thought to ‘in dwell’ the body by scientists now, not just direct it from ‘on high’. ‘If nobody speaks of remarkable things’, by Jon McGregor is one of my ‘lift me higher’ books, along with the poetry of Phillip Larkin.

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