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Self: How are you?

April 29, 2010

As a part time English language teacher as well as a movement educator, I’m endlessly fascinated by the relationship between the words we conventionally use and our sense of self. Take the title of this post, for example. In the land of Oz, the common informal greeting is “How are you going?” (variations include “How’s it going?”, “How are you?”, and the formal British form “How do you do?”). Of all the ‘question’ words in English (what – when we want to know about a thing, where – when we want to know about a place, when – when we want to know about a time, why – when we want to know a reason, who – when we want to know which person, how – when we want to know about a process) we choose how to ask about a person’s state. Embedded in English language is an acknowledgement that self, (or being, or existence) is a process. Yet so much of Western culture inculcates us with a tendency to view ourselves as things. The crucial difference between process and thing, is that process inheres movement (change over time and/or space) whereas thing does not. To change a thing, you need an external agent to impose that movement.

Four articles have caught my attention recently. Each is fascinating on its own, but considered together they have something very important to say about Western culture’s approach to the embodied self.

” ‘I’ve had three toes shortened — a portion of bone removed between the joints and fixed together with metal rods. I like to wear Jimmy Choos, three-inch heels with a pointy toe.’ Foot X-ray. Toe reduction surgery. Kristina Widmer, 36. New York, U.S.A.”

First, I invite you to take some time to look through this wonderful photography, video and visual journalism article from the New York Times:

Bodies Altered in Pursuit of Beauty


The images in this thought provoking collection by Zed Nelson present a spectrum of body image interventions, from extreme to apparently innocuous. The camera naturally presents its subject as an object (things) for view, but for me the marvellous thing about these images is that they also present the act of the object consciously viewing itself as a thing. Baldly, simply – the spare text accompanying each image invites us to examine our reaction, be it judgement, pity, horror, admiration, bemusement, or something else entirely.

Now consider the following pair of articles, which are interrelated on a number of counts. Both articles present recent research by Daniel Casasanto and others on embodied cognition. Currently gaining a body (pun intended) of supporting evidence, embodied cognition proposes that we think and feel emotion because we have bodies which move. Sensation, emotion, movement and thought are inseperable, even when the subject of thought is in the abstract realm.As it happens, this is a concept that Dr Feldenkrais put (lacking the current scientific evidence) some 60 years ago, and is a foundation of the Feldenkrais Method.

The first article focuses on the link between movement in space (orientation) and abstract thought. Put simply, when you think about adding, or ‘more’, your eyes are likely to move to your right, or up. When you think about subtracting, or ‘less’, your eyes are likely to move left, or down. Right-left and up-down directions are also recruited for good-bad judgements (this is reflected in English language metaphors – examples from the article include “right-hand man”, “two left feet”, “down in the dumps”).

Mind over matter? How your body does your thinking

24 March 2010 by Anil Ananthaswamy in New Scientist

The second article examines the link between bodily movement directions, memory, and emotions. The research suggests that movement may actually influence how we think, with participants more likely to recall positive memories when engaged in an upward movement activity, and conversely more likely to recall a negative memory when engaged in a downward movement activity.

Bodily motions influence memory and emotions

from the great Neurophilosophy blog.

Finally the last article, also from Neurophilosophy, examines recent and not-so-recent research into the connection between expression of emotion (eg frowning when sad) and comprehension of emotion (eg reading a sentence with sad content). The research explored movement of facial muscles involved in expression of emotion, and found that preventing such muscular movements impaired comprehension of emotion.

Botox may diminish the experience of emotion

Pulling all these strands together, how you move is likely to influence not only how you feel, but how you think. One wonders how the subjects of Zed Nelson’s collection move – and more specifically, how much and how accurately they sense their own movement.

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