Wednesday, January 21, 2015


I am going to go off on a bit of a tangent from the last post. This week I started reading a book about embodied cognition by a psychologist at the University of Chicago named Sian Beilock called How the Body Knows Its Mind. I am by no means a psychologist but I am a well read guy and have always been a psychology enthusiast. I am very much enjoying the book. I am not even going to try to summarize her research, you should read the book, but just know that the scientific evidence is mounting that there is a strong connection between body and mind and that we learn more effectively by doing. This notion is particularly interesting to me for two reasons. First, as a child I attended a school based on the principles of progressive education and learning by doing. Second, both of the major health incidents, brain surgery and MS, have affected movement for me in one way or another.  Those incidents have made me reflect deeply on the mind/body connection.  

I attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools from 3rd-12th grade. The school was founded in 1896 by John Dewey. Dewey is considered the father of progressive education in America. The whole idea of experiential learning is central to Dewey's philosophy. Later in life I came to read Dewey and found that he also rejected dualism in favor of the idea of a unified whole. This is a slightly different kind of dualism than I talked about in a previous post but philosophically similar. The dualist idea in this case is that the mind controls the body and the the body is merely the machine that transports the mind. This model has been the prominent for a very long time, still is today, and draws its lineage back to Descartes and earlier. Dewey felt the opposite. He felt it was important to treat the mind/body as a unified whole. When I read this I was a blown away. I had always had a deep down feeling that the mind and body operated as a whole but I didn't realize until I actually read it that that was one of the philosophies that guided my education. The other ideas that have really stuck with me are critical thinking and collaboration. I'll go into those more later.

It is very interesting applying this idea of a mind/body connection when there is an electrical break in the connection. Even when we think of the mind and body as connected we are still looking at series of mechanical systems all working together... or are we? As I said earlier, there have been several instances in my life where this connection has been mechanically severed. I'll focus on two here.  

First. In the case of my brain surgery the resection of the acoustic neuroma resulted in several nerves being disturbed or severed. The first was the one that controlled hearing in my right ear.  It was severed and I lost hearing in that ear. I tell kids when they ask how I lost my hearing that "they had to cut the wire". The nerves that control blinking, tear production, and muscle control on the right side of my face were disturbed. Basically the right side of my face was paralyzed and my eye didn't completely close.  The nerves regenerated though not quite to where they were before the surgery. I still have to use eye drops because my eye no longer produces tears, my right eye closes slower than my left, and my smile is crooked.

Second. There have been several incidences where Multiple Sclerosis has caused movement issues. First a quick and dirty overview of MS. In one of the earlier sections I talked about myelin cells that surround the nerve. These cells aid in the transmission of electrical signals in the nerves. MS is an autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks these myelin cells. The problem is that once these cells are damaged the electric signals are slowed down or stopped. All kind of things can happen from mobility issues to memory to mood. Nerve signals are the link from the brain to the body. In my case the two biggies were an incident where I temporarily lost control of the lower part of my left leg and the other was seizure type episodes called tonic spasms where my body would lock up. In both of these cases the signals my brain was sending were not making it to my muscles to tell them to either relax or contract.

I know. The initial reaction upon reading this is "how horrible that must have been.".  I'm not going to lie. There are things I'd rather have done for sure. But I also don't want sympathy. The whole idea of the fluid normal is being in the moment whatever it may be. If you can have your ego take a back seat and observe nonjudgmentally, every moment has something to show you. I tried to look at it from a non-dualist perspective.  The gambit creates the human experience.

So how does this relate to embodied cognition? Since I'm not terribly knowledgable on the topic I'm not going to speak to it directly. I do however know a few things that might relate. I've always been aware that the mind/body connection is strong. When we apply this to my concept of a fluid normal though it becomes apparent that since "normal" is ever changing for everyone the connection is not how effectively the mind and body are connected in a quantitative, qualitative, and electrical sense. It is acknowledgment of the mind/body as a whole. You. You don't just exist couple inches behind your eyes. The examples I gave above from my life are extreme but we all have to deal with days where the connection on a mechanical level isn't as strong. But, you see, "strong" is a qualitative judgment and is dualist. Strong/weak. Lose judgment. Lose dualism. What's left? Being human. The mind/body connection must not just be electrical.

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