Photo: Shaun Gallagher
How Yoga Works: Posture and Human Potential
The author of How the Body Shapes the Mind discusses position, movement and the sense we make of the world
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Book Review How the Body Shapes the Mind
If you have any interest in setting yourself free to think clearly about the valor of the body in yoga and meditation, Shaun Gallagher is your man. I’m in good company when I suggest this: the Dalai Lama thinks so too. Dr. Gallagher was invited to discuss his work with the Dalai Lama during the Mind and Life Dialogues between modern science and contemplative traditions at Dharamasala in 2009.
Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Sciences Senior Research Faculty, Institute of Simulation and Training University of Central Florida, Gallagher is also editor in chief of the journal Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences.
Among his additional distinguished appointments he is currently Research Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science University of Hertfordshire, and Honorary Professor of Philosophy University of Copenhagen. In 2011, he will assume the Moss Chair of Excellence in Philosophy, University of Memphis.
Sit back, tune in and read slowly. You’ll want to return to this unique Conversation again and again for validation of the efficacy of the body and postural practice.
Susan Maier-Moul Shaun, one of the things I love about your book How the Body Shapes the Mind is how effectively you explain our current understanding of embodiment – to put it plainly – what being this particular body as a human is really about.
People who teach and practice yoga often talk about the body with language and concepts of a body as a something like a container, with things going on inside and outside of it.
Additionally, there’s a sense that our attitudes shape our perceptions, and a focus on managing how we think about things.
In your work you explain how the body we have is deeply involved with the sense we make of the world. What you’ve written about provides an extraordinary foundation for understanding why yoga is effective.
Shaun Gallagher In How the Body Shapes the Mind I was concerned to show that embodied processes have certain effects on experience and cognition.
Most generally the kind of body that humans have, in contrast to other species, allows us to have the kind of experiences that we do have, and allows us to reflect and think the way we do.
I think that this implies, in more specific terms, that our bodily practices – I mean things like exercising, eating, getting sufficient sleep, and so on – in some degree affect our conscious life, our cognitive abilities, our emotional experiences, and so on.
I cite experimental evidence to show that even the posture we take has very specific implications for perception, judgment, and evaluation.
For example, experiments by Cacioppo, Priester & Bernston (1993) show that how we move or posture ourselves (e.g., if we are pushing something rather than pulling something) will affect our evaluations of target objects.
Cacioppo, J. T., Priester, J. R., & Berntson, G. G. (1993). Rudimentary determinants of attitudes. II: Arm flexion and extension have differential effects on attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 5-17
The feeling of toward and away
Susan You’re saying just the simple act of interacting with something that requires us to push it makes us think of it differently than if we had to pull it? Even if the “work” that gets done, the outcome of our action is the same?
Shaun Right, So, if you present subjects [study participants] with objects and ask them to evaluate them, for example, whether they are attractive or not, while they are pulling on a joystick, they evaluate the object more positively than if the same object is presented while they push the joystick away.
The direction (bringing something toward oneself vs. pushing something away) seems to bias our judgment about how much we like it.
Susan Something like attitude or reactivity, then, is evoked not just by what happens, but our own actual physical movement.
Shaun As I mention in the book, there are a number of studies that show how body posture affects attention and perceptual judgment. And as a recent book on body consciousness by Richard Shusterman shows, the right kind of attention to posture (or body-schematic processes) can translate into long-term improved performance and health.
Shusterman, R. (2008). Body Consciousness: A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Being a body before knowing
Postural and motor adjustments of the body schema, as prenoetic, tend to remain “behind the scene”, operating a tergo. When I perceive, I do not perceive my body making the schematic adjustments that both enable and shape perceiving.
Susan Your discussion of prenoetic functioning is terrifically interesting. You state, for example, “Perception and attention cannot be uncoupled from the body’s postural attitudes.”
If I understand this, you’re saying what we actually observe (as well as what we don’t), and the sense we make of it is influenced by the position and movement of our bodies, even before any kind of consciousness about it?
Shaun Yes, I coin this term, ‘prenoetic’ to signify processes that take place in the body without our being aware of them, and yet have an effect on our consciousness of the world around us.
The original word is ‘noetic’, which comes from the Greek term ‘noesis’, meaning something like thought or knowledge. So the idea is that before we know it, bodily processes are shaping the way that we perceive the world.
This doesn’t mean that we cannot work on these processes.
Susan Are you saying that even without some kind of evaluation, since these processes happen before consciousness, we can still shape how our body processes work?
Shaun Just as pathological bodily processes may bias our perception or our emotional state in a negative way, so improved bodily functioning (that results from various kinds of bodily practices, including yoga) may improve or bias our perception or emotional state in a positive way.
Yoga teaches us that taking the right posture (for example, your video about sitting up) can do some good things for us. This shows that what science is telling us is something that ancient traditions have known for a long time.
And these practices often find their way into our commonsense understanding. So I certainly remember my teachers in grade school reminding us to sit up straight and pay attention. There is an implicit sense of how our sitting posture may have something to do with attention.
Commonsense can also be an incorrect bias
Shaun Sometimes, however, our commonsense intuitions about what we should do are wrong.
Susan That makes me think of how hard it is to see how we frame things. We blame ourselves or other people – our kids, spouses, people we read about in the news, or our yoga students! – when actually we’re prejudiced about what we’re looking at. Can you give an example of what you mean?
Do our ideas about what’s good or bad or acceptable keep us from seeing our preconceptions?
Shaun A good example of what we’re talking about concerns the idea that sitting still may bring some benefits. This may be true in some circumstances – as in practicing meditation or yoga. Is it also true in contexts that involve learning things about the world? Maybe not. It may be better to move around.
I don’t mean this as a general rule, but in some cases, and for some individuals, sitting still may not be the right thing to do. For example, as Rapport and colleagues show, for children with ADHD, hyperactivity – their fidgeting about and constant movement – actually helps them to concentrate. Or to be more precise, any attempt to make them “sit still and pay attention” causes them to overly attend to their bodily posture, and this takes away from their ability to attend to anything else.
Rapport, M. D., Kofler, M. J., Alderson, R.M., Timko Jr., T., & DuPaul, G. J. (2009). Variability of Attention Processes in ADHD: Observations from the Classroom. Journal of Attention Disorders, 12, 563-573.
Enactive theory and pragmatism
Perceiving subjects move through space that is already pragmatically organized by the construction, the very shape, of the body.
This space is neither isotropic nor absolute; it is defined relative to the perceiving body. Uexküll (1926) long ago suggested that perceptual systems, and therefore perceived environments vary with body design across species.
The world perceived by the frog is quite different from the world perceived by the human.
Uexküll, J von 1926.Theoretical BiologyNew York: Harcourt Brace.
Shaun There are a number of approaches that come under the heading of embodied cognition. Some of them suggest a minimal contribution of the body, and others are more radical in suggesting that the fact that the human body has its specifically human shape constrains every aspect of cognition.
I tend to fall on the more radical side. This is sometimes called an enactive approach, and a good example of this approach is the idea that our perception of space and of things in the nearby environment is pragmatic in nature.
Susan What do you mean by pragmatic?
Shaun I mean, we see things in terms of whether we can reach them and in terms of what we can do with them.
So we perceive the world in terms of pragmatic possibilities. There is neuroscientific evidence for this. Things in reachable (what’s referred to as “peripersonal”) space are processed differently from things in extra-personal (unreachable) space.
Susan Just to be clear – you don’t mean a conscious attitude about possibility. When you say “processed differently” you’re saying the fact of a thing simply being within our perceived physical reach makes us use a different part of our brain to think about it?
Shaun Yes. So-called ‘cannonical’ neurons in the pre-motor cortex, which are activated when, for example, we actually reach and pick up something like a hammer, are also activated when we simply see a hammer that we can reach, even if we don’t pick it up.
Perception is enactive in this sense – it is guided by possible actions. But it is also clear that what the brain does in this regard is only part of the story.
The way the world seems is because we are what we are
Susan Our brain works the way it does because our bodies are what they are? We see ourselves and the world the way we do because we have this body and not some other?
Shaun Right. Brain activation follows this pattern only because we have hands that are capable of grasping and picking things up. If we didn’t, if our bodies were different in this regard, then our brains would have evolved in a different way.
One of the theories that inform this enactive view is the theory of affordances first outlined by the psychologist J. J. Gibson. He explained that the world presents itself as a set of affordances that are directly linked to the way our body works.
A chair, for example, affords sitting, and we see it as such, but only because we have joints that bend in a certain way. If we had joints that did not bend, or if we had very different bodies entirely, then we would not perceive the chair (or the rock, or whatever affords sitting for bodies like ours) as such.
Our bodies are such that we can sit cross-legged or lie flat on our back. Given what we’ve said about how posture can influence thought and experience, then we can also say that our particular kind of embodiment may afford certain kinds of experience just from taking these kinds of posture.
Susan Because we can and do move in certain ways, we see and experience a world constrained (or opened up) by our use of it, by the ways we can be in it.
The soul as the form of the body
I’m going to pause to quote your wonderful Neo-Aristotelian Neurobiology, the section in which you review Aristotle’s definition of the soul as “the form of the body – ”
where the word “form” is frequently (though not always) a translation of the Greek term morphe, meaning shape. In a most basic sense Aristotle’s understanding of the soul, including its rational abilities, requires that it depend on the shape of the body.
The human soul is essentially tied to the human shape.
You then reference “Erwin Straus’s (1966) remarks on the upright body. He notes that the upright posture is distinctive for the human species, and that this has far-reaching consequences, not only with respect to perceptual abilities, but also in regard to moral values and judgments.”
Strauss, E. 1966. Philosophical Psychology New York: Basic Books.
So in the philosophical, and even in the moral sense, our bodies are not “merely” gross matter, wherein the body is a lesser good, seen in some cases an impediment to enlightenment.
Your explanations are similar to yogic concepts of the “body as chariot” where we read the original suggestion as something explicitly related to praise and gratitude, not translated as “holder.”
I think these ancient phenomenologists were aware of the immense power of embodiment, using terms such as vehicle or instrument wherein the semantic field associated the body with “path,” and being “carried” as far more significant than conveyance.
Shaun Yes, I agree, and as I suggested, ancient traditions, both East and West, offer some profound insights about embodiment and human nature.
Science doesn’t like to talk about the soul, but what they do talk about when they talk about cognition, consciousness, emotion, experience, and so on, certainly adds up to what the ancients called the soul. The Aristotelian idea that the soul is the form of the body makes perfectly good sense in the context of contemporary embodied approaches to cognitive science.
Susan It’s actually a very tantric concept, which puts us close to the heart of where many forms of yoga part paths, both philosophically and in terms of practices of spiritual efficacy.
Tomorrow in part two of The Magazine of Yoga Conversation with Shaun Gallagher, Shaun and Susan talk about practicing yoga in a group versus practicing alone, the effect of practicing with people who are good for you rather than with people who bring you down, and what is “inward gaze.”
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.