Body thinking

If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it - Isadora Duncan

We think with bodies.

In a conclusion emerging from disciplines as different as philosophy, artificial intelligence, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, academia is coming to understand that our thinking, while catalyzed in the brain, is initiated by our bodies. Our bodies are not just transportation for our heads, as Sir Ken Robinson famously said, but the co-conspirator in the sense-making enterprise of human life. No two people, even identical twins, will ever encounter that exact same external stimuli in their lifetimes, which means, among other things, that the first-person experience is unique to each of us.

Where Do Thoughts Occur?

The body’s influence over our perceptions is more than just academic — it could have serious consequences in high-stakes situations, argues Jessica Witt, a psychologist at Colorado State University. She wondered if embodiment could help explain tragic misperceptions such as the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, who was killed by New York police officers who perceived Diallo’s motioning to open his wallet as the brandishing of a gun.

To investigate, Witt and a colleague showed college students photos of people holding different objects and asked them to quickly decide whether what they saw was a gun or some neutral object, like a shoe or a cell phone. 

When participants were themselves holding a plastic toy gun, versus some neutral object, they were about 30 percent more likely to perceive the object in another person’s hand as a gun. Merely seeing a gun nearby had no such effect on their perceptions. 

'We see the world in terms of our ability to act,' Witt concludes. The same object 'can look different, depending on what we’re intending to do and our ability to perform that intended action.'

It also raises questions about how particular kinds of bodies might inform the thinking and experiences of the embodied.

Aesthetically, body thinking may account for some of the skill exhibited by dancers and studio furniture makers alike, who, through the long experience of trial and error can feel their way toward the spectacular.

There are many ways to know.

Stay curious.


Image: Attribution Some rights reserved at ballet dancers