Cover art: How The Body Shapes The Mind ©Shannon Fagan. 2010
I am therefore I think
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Shaun Gallagher offers the dedicated reader a cure for the mind/body blues. His book How The Body Shapes The Mind deals with the fundamental question, “How does being a body shape our sense of ourselves and the world?”
Written by a philosopher who has been, among many other honors, a participant with the Dalai Lama in The Mind and Life Institute conferences, How The Body Shapes The Mind is a primer on the study of embodiment. It guides an invaluable inquiry into human sensing and awareness through the perspectives of phenomenology, neuroscience and experimental psychology.
How do we think of ourselves? Gallagher asks. How do we actually do self observation? And does the “how” of being embodied affect what we observe and what meaning we attribute as embodied selves?
The awareness of being a body
In yoga texts we frequently encounter “Self” and “self’ – capitalized and non capitalized variations on concept and noun which allow for subtlety and inquiry into our time-bound relationship to what is ultimate.
We find our reflections situated in the paradox between the feeling of being and the question of who is feeling. Embodiment studies deepen that dialogue by disrupting the presumptive grip of psychology and calling into question the ideas we hold about thinking itself.
The intriguing discussion in the chapter The Earliest Senses of Self and Others, explores theories about the age at which we evolve a sense of self. Gallagher takes a close look at newborns. He explores the question of whether our earliest days are spent doing the work of integrating our senses, or experiencing the world with senses that are born integrated.
It’s the difference, he suggests, between a self that creates complexity as a byproduct of the need to translate the world to itself, and a self born already complexly experiencing the world that exists.
This bears closely on what it is we do when we practice yoga.
When in both philosophical and psychological traditions, the sense of self is conceived as developing in a relatively later time-frame it is frequently discussed in terms that are explicitly related to cognitive development.
Such cognitive models of the self clearly imply that personal identity or a sense of self may be primarily and for the most part a psychological phenomenon.
In contrast, if the sense of self is operative earlier, and specifically, if we can find a sense of self already involved in neonatal behavior, the concept of self starts out closer to an embodied sense than to a cognitive or psychological understanding.
In other words, the whole potential of the physical practices of yoga may have been misunderstood even by medical research because of nineteenth and twentieth century scientific ascribing “self” chiefly to psychological development.
By way of illustration, the peace we feel after some forms of practice may be the result of rediscovering self in physical states of natural integration rather than to “calming the mind” as though ego were floating in us, tethered by neural correlates.
Much of what Gallagher commits to do is explain the up-until-now philosophically traditional theories of how we know ourselves, then contrast these to embodiment concepts that take into account an evolving understanding human development.
For example, though the language and ideas relating to “proprioception” are of great interest to yoga teachers and practitioners, they elude our practical application. The qualities of proprioception are slippery across the disciplines that make use of this concept.
This instability makes it easier to say things that sound interesting about the mind and body and yoga than it is to inform our practice with meaningful understanding.
Proprioception signifies one of the specific areas where the distinction between phenomenal consciousness and physical body gets redefined.
Proprioception, however, is itself a complex phenomenon that is articulated in slightly different ways in different disciplines –
Neuroscientists may treat somatic proprioception as … the unconscious registration in the central nervous system of the body’s own limb position.
On the other hand, psychologists and philosophers sometimes treat somatic proprioception as a form of consciousness.
Thus proprioception can mean either non-conscious information or a form of conscious awareness.
Such conundrums of language are patiently and lucidly resolved in the early chapters of How The Body Shapes The Mind. The time taken by Gallagher pays off in passages where theory becomes subtle but remains trustworthy in its narrative of potential.
Body before senses
If the phrase “non-conscious embodied processes” makes your pulse race, you’re in luck. The entire second half of the book deals exclusively in prenoetic consciousness.
Our bodies are involved in registration before we know they are, says Gallagher, or rather, there are moment-by-moment things happening to us that “do not normally enter into the phenomenal aspect of experience.”
A considerate reading of this section provides an exquisitely detailed understanding of what we regard as “being human” as very much innate to our human bodies.
The establishment of human shape, then, is not neutral with respect to how we perceive the world or how we act in it.
Many bodily systems that operate below the threshold of consciousness in an automatic way are not irrelevant to perception, even if they are not directly involved in the production of perceptual experience.
These questions and investigations lead to a changed understanding of the possibilities of practice, one free of outdated Cartesian constraints that privilege mind/ body polarities. We are already an integrated and highly complex wholeness. We discover that rather than creating union, when we practice we are intent upon revealing it.
From the beginning of life
Embodiment research, by grounding the experience of self as a developmental task of the newborn, allows us to honor the body as the foundation of self experience, not as merely the host of mental refraction that results in a self we debate as illusory or ensouled.
This book is accessible for readers who don’t expect to be able to read about the frontiers of research without slowing down a bit. There are no philosophical knots or fraught deconstructions to cause despair, only a careful attempt to frame accurate questions.
Gallagher’s language is not obscure, but digesting careful distinctions while building up a vocabulary of concepts may require self confidence, active curiosity and a little patience. The reward is an enhanced ability to imagine the true subtle workings of yoga in all its forms as an embodied and profoundly human practice.
Shaun Gallagher is Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Sciences at The University of Central Florida, where he is also a member of the Senior Research Faculty at IST, a research institute focused on simulation and modeling. He serves on the graduate faculty of UCF’s Text and Technology Program, and on the Humanities research faculty at the University of Hertfordshire (UK). He has held visiting positions at the Medical Research Council’s Cognitive and Brain Science Unit at Cambridge University, the Danish National Research Foundation Center for Subjectivity Research at the University of Copenhagen, the Ecole Normale Supériure in Lyon, and (in 2009-2010) the Centre de Recherche en Epistémelogie Appliquée (CREA), Paris. He is Editor of Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, an interdisciplinary journal published by Springer. His research interests include phenomenology and the philosophy of mind, philosophical psychology, embodiment, intersubjectivity, hermeneutics, and the philosophy of time.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.