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How We Know Ourselves: b. Bodily

The tender pragmatisms of flesh have poetries no enigma--human or divine--can diminish or demean. Indeed, it can only cause them, and then walk out. John Fowles

There is much that we know with and through our bodies that we do not know that we know, or desperately try to pretend otherwise. But there is nothing that we know that is not known by using our bodies, our brains and nervous systems. What we know may include a lot of other things, and other people, but our bodies are always there, we are always incarnate, embodied, and located, res extensa, until and unless we turn to dust, and are no more. Run me over with a street grader and I am a splotch on the pavement, and I no longer have sensory experience, memory, knowledge, or awareness of anything at all, because the means by which I was able to do these things can no longer do so. I may live on in the consequences of my actions, in the memories of others, and the artifacts and information I have contributed to the world, the effects I have had on others, on individuals, on families and communities, and on institutions. But without a body, and the consciousness it makes possible, there is nothing there to accumulate new experiences, new memory, or new knowledge. Unfortunately, many of the more troubling aspects of our contemporary world are about disconnection, dissociation, fragmentation, and even disembodiment. Nevertheless, these troubles themselves are only experienced with real bodies, having real feelings and experiences in the world, however degraded by our delusions, our illusions, and our real attempts to hide these things from others and from ourselves. This may produce dysfunctions and failures in the very bodies that make anything that we do or experience in the world possible. In his book The Science of Evil, Simon Baron-Cohen shows the failures in emotional empathy which are behind our capacities for cruelty. Not only are such failures magnified by the attenuations of electronic communication, but by a plethora of beliefs and practices which encourage us to treat ourselves as disembodied. It always delights me to remember Willem Drees’s dedication of Religion, Science and Naturalism to his wife Zwanet: “I believe that her love and support is not less real for being embodied.” I believe that the love and support we give each other is less real when it is not embodied, the sin referred to by Gabriel Marcel as desincarne. There is no such thing as disembodied love, as Thomas Mann wrote in The Magic Mountain “...love cannot be disembodied even in its most sanctified forms, nor is it without sanctity even at its most fleshly.”

Giving Up the Ghost

That there is more to who we are than a physical body does not mean that there is some kind of soul or ghost that can come and go, nothing that has any causal powers separable from or unmediated by our bodies and nervous systems. We need not be “nothing but” our bodies to be “necessarily also” fully dependent on them. Even contemporary arguments for “nonreductive physicalism” (Brown, Murphy, and Maloney), or a more robust notion of “emergent properties” (Clayton and Davies 2006) make no claim for the emergence of a mind independent of body and brain. Even contemporary theological views of the human person do not assume or require a separation of body and mind. At the beginning of the semester, I used to ask students in my seminar of “Brain, Mind, and Spirit,” how many of them believed they had a soul that could leave their bodies when they died and go somewhere else. Normally about 80% would say they believed this. After a semester of trying to give not only scientific and philosophical reasons, but even religious ones, why this belief didn’t make any sense, and even produced more problems than it solved, I would ask the question again. That the number only dropped to 70% is interesting, and says something about the persistence of this belief (which may also have all sorts of psychological reasons, rooted in a denial of death, which may be of central importance in a species which can anticipate its own finitude), but they almost invariably would agree that there were a lot of good reasons why they might need to come up with better answers to the questions which their dualism was an attempt to answer. Since the last blog already made a case about the empirical failure of introspection as an avenue to self-knowledge, we should look at the history of the ghostly view, and its residual influence in contemporary cognitive science.

The standard, Western “religious” view of a ghost in the machine neither originates in any of the Abrahamic traditions, nor is necessary to modern theological formulations. It is a biologically natural “folk belief,” which may follow from our evolved tendency to promiscuously detect agents and attribute intentions to them but describe other physical events in terms of mechanics or design (Gazzaniga, Human). As a result it is not only common to theologically untutored religious belief, it is also common amongst unbelievers, scientific and otherwise (though there are plenty of scientists who are religious).The proto-orthodox Christian view is actually readily attributable to educated Christian thinkers of the early Common Era, who tended to be Platonists or Neoplatonists. A Platonic and dualist view is solidified by the early church father Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), responsible for the “turn inward” of our self-understanding (Philip Cary 2000). As a Neoplatonist he believed that physical objects, like our bodies, were but shadows of ideal Forms. The truest and most lasting form of a person must therefore be nonmaterial. Hence, knowing oneself was like contemplating the inner garden of the mind. Long before this inner space became a “black box” with the Enlightenment, it was, for Augustine, illuminated by the light of God. Even the Latin motto of the College at which I taught for most of my career reflects this: Deus Lux et Veritas. Never mind that, for the intellectual father of the Roman Catholic church, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), while retaining some of the Church’s early Platonism, believed with Aristotle, and Ibn Sina (or Avicenna), that one couldn’t have a Form without something material, like a body, for it to be a form of. So it is with Aquinas, early in the second millenium, that the resurrection of the body is re-asserted as a central dogma of the Church, as one can’t really have a functional mind (or psyche, or soul, or self) without a body, so our time after the death of the body and before resurrection is a problem. Never mind Martin Luther chalking hoc est corpus meum on his kitchen table during a debate about transubstantiation. Where do you think “hocus pocus” comes from? That’s what it’s all about.

Forgetting for the moment that the “thinking thing” (res cogitans) which Cartesian dualism separates from a body taking up space (res extensa), was restricted by Descartes to self-consciousness, free will, and language (themselves the focus of plenty of research on the neural correlates of consciousness). Descartes thought that things like perception, computation, and even memory could be understood as machine functions of a body, animal or human. This is why Descartes is accused of the heresy of Averroism, which suggested, with Aristotle (and Ibn Rush, or Averroes), that whatever might be immortal about a soul, it was universal, not personal, and the heresy of Alexandrism, which, since the power to perceive, remember, and think could be attributable to the matter of the brain, denied the immortality of a personal soul, essentially all that stuff that our belief in ghosts was supposed to enable us to retain. This includes an “inwardness” of the self or soul which makes it possible for religiousness to become understood as private, individual, and subjective experience, protecting the emerging physical science of the scientific revolution, but making a separation of Church and State less than straightforward, especially as the scientific lens was turned to the “inner” phenomena of psychology and neuroscience. It also includes the Gnostic view that the body is but a corrupt physical vessel for an inner self, not unrelated to religious moral disgust with the “flesh of my flesh” that so delighted Adam, with the very bodily sexuality that makes it possible to “be fruitful and multiply.” Descartes concluded “I think, therefore I am,” because of the indubitable experience of his own subjective thought. Since he could not imagine that rational thought could be done by a body, there had to be a non-material, disembodied “substance” which could. During a generation of teaching, I never tired of telling students, whose defense against some idea was “I can’t imagine that…”, that perhaps the difficulty was not with the idea, but with their imagination. I suppose one can forgive the imagination of a thinker from the early 17th century, but then, it is also a contemporary defense that thinking couldn’t possibly be done by a “meat machine,” even among acknowledging that it couldn’t be done without one.

The Cartesian dualism of mind and body has become a non-starter, and everyone’s whipping boy, as most scientists agree that neural processes are necessary for thought. Nevertheless, there lurks what Daniel Dennett (1991) calls Cartesian Materialism, replacing a mind/body dualism with a brain/body dualism which understands the brain as an inner processor of abstract information functionally separable from the body, which provides the sensory encoding and motor decoding of abstract representations. The brain is often thought of as an inner computer, in the decades-dominant paradigm of “computational functionalism,” which takes computation upon mental representation as nigh-definitive of all cognition. Such a view is committed to both individualism and internalism in the claim that cognition is supervenient on the neurophysiology of the individual cognizer. But it also makes the simplifying assumption that real knowledge consists in brain-based mental representations, the “meat” around which the “classical sandwich model” would put the “bread” of sensory input and motor output. The disembodiment thesis, that cognitive processing is not only restricted to the central nervous system, modularized and specialized, computationally context-independent, and independent of motor planning an execution has been called into question by two decades of research on embodied experience. It certainly helped cement my intuition to see a photo taken by my old college roomate, of three Grand Prix motorcyclists (whose reaction times are only fast enough under about the age of 25, so these guys are young), cornering in that way that they lean a padded knee down to about an inch from the pavement, dicing for position in the rain. Have none of the Cartesian Materialists ever ridden a bicycle or gone skiing? It doesn’t take much to realize that the connections between sensory processes, brain function, and motor output has to be a lot more seamless than the disembodiment thesis would make possible.

Returning the Body to the Mind

Embodied cognitive science has gone on to develop a wider understanding of cognition including dynamic interactions between neural and non-neural tissue, without clear boundaries between cognition, emotion, bodily function, and real-life situations, and necessarily characterized on the scale of and in terms of bodily action in the world. Events beyond (though necessarily inclusive of) central cognitive processes might be required to explain cognition. Neural aspects of motor control, and even non-neural aspects of body and environment might not only have causal effects upon such cognitive processes, but be necessarily coupled with, or even be component parts of them. Our bodies are controlled by our brains, and there is much in our thinking that may use the same cortical circuitry used in accomplishing tasks not learned by a disembodied mind, but one housed in and dependent on a body, both for learning and maintaining knowledge, implicit or explicit. Sian Bielock, a University of Chicago psychologist with doctorates in both psychology and kinesiology, has written a very accessible introduction to research on embodied cognition, How the Body Knows the Mind (2015). She addresses the role of gesture in memory retrieval and posture in attitude and alertness, and suggests that the brain itself doesn’t distinguish between body and mind. Our bodies may actually hack our minds, our movements affecting our thoughts, decisions, and preferences. We use our bodies as learning tools, and the body and its immediate environment shape our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Taking a walk in the woods can improve concentration skills, Botox can reduce depression, and fit children do better in school. Even just pacing back and forth can improve creativity. Sitting in my conference chair in a heated discussion with several colleagues, I had to stand up and walk around to develop my argument.

However ubiquitous and quotidian the involvement of our bodies in our very thinking, there are even more profound implications. The clinical literature on the effects of trauma, particularly the profound trauma associated with abuse in childhood, which produces effects tied to the very structure of our personalities, has recently been turning to the body. Bessel van der Kolk’s lifetime of work suggests that The Body Keeps the Score. Regardless of our knowledge or awareness of the sources, how our bodies move and how they respond emotionally to sometimes unintegrated stimuli, betray layers of bodily action and interaction with a world of others. There really is a hell for children in the inescapable concentration camp of an abusive domestic situation, where a child cannot learn to trust with adults upon whose nurturance they cannot rely. Happily, there is a growing body of therapeutic attention directed to the body, whose responses must be reconditioned before there is enough safety to attend to how one’s very sense of self is consciously represented. For those with psychotherapeutic interests, Pat Ogden, Kekuni Minton, and Clare Pain’s Trauma and the Body is a valuable reference. Only then can a victim begin to tell the meaningful stories without which much of the world, including their own bodily action, simply does not make sense, as shown in Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam.

Even the most abstract of ideas can often be understood as beginning with metaphors of bodily action. Mark Johnson, in The Meaning of the Body, points out that even the concept of time is understood in terms of bodily movement. Time passes, slows down or drags, rushes by or flies. Events in the past are behind us, and we look forward, or shrink in fear, from those ahead. For Antonio Damasio, in The Feeling of What Happens, we think of our experiences and even our thinking as our own because we experience them bodily. It may be that a core self may include the mainly unconscious functioning of one’s body acting in the world, but even a narrative self may be constituted primarily by our history of bodily interactions with the world. If I had a different body, I would have a different mind. I know this one is mine because I experience it with this body. “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” Wittgenstein.

Simulated Bodily Action

At first pass, to know myself is to remember, to simulate, my bodily interactions with the world. Even what seem to be “off-line,” interior, non-active processes of rumination include and are perhaps constituted by sensory-motor simulation. Even with my sitzfleish in front of a computer screen, I am imagining bodily experiences, recalling visual, auditory, and tactile experiences and remembering the bodily feedback of my interactions. Smell and taste may be more problematic, since they are hard to voluntarily produce, even if, as for the rest of the mammalian world, our most basic self-representation is olfactory, and subcortical (Freeman 2001). For the rich intelligence of human thought, much of what we experience involves simulated speech acts, simulating conversations with others, formulating possible constructions for an audience or potential readers; even the act of writing includes auditory experience, in the sound of one’s own voice or that of others. Even private thoughts can be simulations of what I might say or do, and others’ responses. The “inner self” of my experience may be as much an inner dialogue, a rehearsal of past conversations or potential future ones of an embodied agent. It is likely to be our own motor simulations of other’s behavior that constitutes our understanding of it, and what it might be like to engage in it. Mirror neurons in our pre-motor cortex respond the same way when viewing the behavior of another as when planning our own. So understanding another’s actions involves modeling them with our own, even if these are not actually enacted. To know myself is to know by simulating the actions of others, and rehearsing my own.

Empirical evidence for embodied cognition is accumulating so rapidly that I had to amass the literature on a CD when I did a review five years ago, and it has accumulated precipitously since. But there are examples from every domain of “higher cognitive processing.” We falsely remember anticipated motion. Perceiving an object involves anticipated grasping which can affect responses on an unrelated task, even without actual grasping. Being tired from a run makes a hill look steeper; carrying a heavy pack makes a path look longer. Averting one’s gaze disengages the environment and facilitates memory. The neural pattern of studying a face reappears with its memory. Visual rotation is accompanied by motor area simulation. The gestures accompanying speech have cognitive functions, including helping speakers retrieve related words and helping listeners comprehend. Not only do people use spatial metaphors to reason about time, one’s actual spatial trajectory can influence the interpretation of sentences like “Next Wednesday’s meeting has been moved forward by two days.” If you are walking, you believe the meeting is now on Friday; if sitting, Monday. Someone’s memory for the location of objects in a room is almost as good as their vision when blindfolded and rotated in their seats, but drops precipitously if they only imagine the rotation, despite being blindfolded in both cases. Number processing involves the circuits for hand motions, and finger differentiation is a valuable predictor of mathematical ability. Most importantly, the pervasiveness of the system of mirror neurons is behind the “theory of mind,” our understanding of the minds of others through their simulation, perceiving intentions, mimicking actions, and making inferences about mental states. It is readily apparent that ethical practices and traditions which underpin bodily engagement and intersubjectivity may be important to the development of moral capacities, as well as to healing social relationships and institutions. Sadly, these are the very capacities likely to be retarded by extensive, and especially developmental usage of text-based electronic communication.

Cognition in the Flesh

The power of human language is that we can think about objects and events far distant in time and space, from the origins of the universe to our own births, over the course of our lives, and to what comes at our deaths and beyond. In a sense, especially since our access to most of our episodic memory is via language, much of our experience, and most of our memory is mediated through language. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to “be here now” often enough to ground this experience, our presence in the world, and our relationships with other human beings. And none of this has any necessary implications for how much of this is in the brain, or even in the nervous system, to say nothing of the rest of our non-neural bodily tissue, or even our technical and symbolic prosthetics. Cognition is considered “embodied” when it is dependent on features of an agent’s body which are beyond the brain, but have reciprocal and causal relationships with it. The brain is still necessary, if not sufficient. This means that the body has a role in realizing or constituting the cognitions themselves, extending from morphological computation, to direct uses of body parts, like counting on fingers, to further uses of external material, like doing multi-digit computation (or thinking) on paper, or with a computer. A tighter coupling of brain-based guidance is required by activities for which split-second timing is crucial, and the body is integral to feedback-driven online control, like in balancing a motorcycle and negotiating a turn, under rain-slick conditions, among racing competitors.

Even if brain states are the minimal substrate for conscious experience, neural contents and conscious experience are incommensurable, which is the source of frustration with fully reductive claims. Experiential content has a point of view, is active and intentional, and can be revealed and explored via movements of head and body. Alva Noe argues, in Action in Perception, that the sense of our conscious experience depends on our mastery of sensorimotor contingencies, a pattern of skilled activity, something we do rather than something we contain. The neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio, in The Feeling of What Happens, presents systematic evidence that our consciousness consists in somatic marking, in our very bodily sensations. No body means no consciousness, as there would be nothing to have the constituting sensations. If non-neural substrates are necessary for the enactment of a conscious state, then consciousness is bodily distributed, even if the same mental state could be “multiply realized” by different brain states, say by different sets of neurons firing in the same pattern (just as a computer function can be realized by multiple and sometimes quite different machine platforms). It also means that the same brain states could “multiply constitute” different mental states in different contexts, just as a particular light left on in your house might signal to your neighbor that you are home, or that you are not, depending on prior arrangement (see Nancey Murphy’s wonderful chapter on nonreductive physicalism, in Brown, Murphy, and Maloney’s Whatever Happened to the Soul). In either case, a brain without a body (“a brain in a vat”) could not have such conscious experience, produced by the skill of an agent whose temporally extended movements of eyes, head, and body are part of the experience, necessary to direct attention to world. So much for the methodological solipsism of computing from representations. The sensorimotor coupling with the environment is crucial, providing the kinesthetic and proprioceptive feedback that marks the experience as mine, the neural signature of our bodily self-consciousness. Motor awareness and motor control share the same neuroanatomy, the neural correlates of experiencing oneself versus another person as the cause of an action.

Emotion is similarly embodied. The evidence suggests that perceiving and thinking about emotion involves re-experiencing perceptual, somatovisceral, and motoric responses. Our ubiquitous but often subliminal mimicry of facial expressions enables us to share feelings and to understand what someone else is experiencing, unavailable in text-based communication. This mimicry has been documented to have bodily effects even when the ability to consciously identify a person or their particular emotion has been masked by subsequent stimuli. Mimicry helps interlocutors to establish rapport, empathy, and cooperation; adult rapport is also tied to postural synchrony. There is even a new paradigm suggesting that there are all sorts of cognitions which are constituted within social interaction rather than merely dependent upon the cognitive mechanisms of individuals, and that engagement is a complex but measurable co-regulated pattern. Jonathan Haidt’s research from The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion suggests that moral judgement is driven by bodily affect, the rational tail being wagged by the emotional dog, as people will often judge harmless actions which produce strong emotion as morally wrong, and then provide justifications based on nonexistent harms after the fact. Haidt provides scenarios brilliantly designed to obviate rational moral objections, which can still produce emotional revulsion and are thereby judged immoral. Interestingly such a scenario describing a consensual, fully protected, single episode sexual experiment between a brother and a sister produces revulsion and moral outrage only in subjects who have opposite-sex siblings. Disgust induced by exposure to a bad smell or a dirty room can make moral judgments more severe, and subjects who instead experience a cleanliness manipulation find some immoral actions to be less wrong.

Whether a religious tradition refers to the resurrection of the body or its reincarnation, the belief from the book of Job that “in my flesh I shall see God” receives direct empirical support from research on embodied cognition; without my flesh I cannot see anything at all. While flesh alone may be insufficient to see God, it is a necessary mediator. How the body constrains, regulates, and distributes cognitive function is the focus of much research, and raises the prospect that cognition, the mind itself, may be neither bounded by the brain, or even the skin. Cognitive function, mental events, our “minds” may even step beyond the individual body, and emerge from the interaction between person and the world. About the latter “externalist” possibility, that the brain and the body itself may be a proper part of the mind, I will devote an entire blog, and suggest that cognition, the mind itself, may also be rooted in social relationships, and history, despite this era’s fragmentation, severance, and alienation.

Copyright: John A. Teske, 2018

Whether a religious tradition refers to the resurrection of the body or its reincarnation, the belief from the book of Job that “in my flesh I shall see God” receives direct empirical support from research on embodied cognition; without my flesh I cannot see anything at all. While flesh alone may be insufficient to see God, it is a necessary mediator. How the body constrains, regulates, and distributes cognitive function is the focus of much research, and raises the prospect that cognition, the mind itself may be neither bounded by the brain, or even the skin. Cognitive function, mental events, our “minds” themselves may even step beyond the individual body, and emerge from the interaction between person and the world. About the latter “externalist” possibility, that the brain and the body itself may be a proper part of the mind, I will devote an entire blog, and suggest that cognition, the mind itself, may also be rooted in social relationships, and history, despite this era’s fragmentation, severance, and alienation.

Copyright: John A. Teske, 2018