What is the body?

What do somatic trainers talk about on a week-end get together? One hot topic was exploring what the body might be. We had a brainstorm on that topic one evening and selected our best one-liners for broadcast.

This playful exercise suggests that there are many bodies. That sounds unintuitive; surely I have just one body! But if that’s so, which of the definitions above best describes that one body? Conscious complexity? Sculpted experience? A possibility for partnership? History and future solidified? A locus of divine intervention? The body is all that and far more, but does that mean we have several bodies?

Our physical body – the complex cellular system enclosed within our skin – is so moulded by society that it makes sense to talk about at least two bodies, the physical and the social (Douglas, 1973). But this blog contends that the body extends beyond the skin-bag, so maybe Douglas’s two bodies are actually one – or three!

There’s an Indian parable about a group of men  in a dark cave with an elephant. They’re trying to work out what’s in the cave with them, but disagree because each can only reach one part. “It’s clearly a horse”, claims the one touching the tail. “Nonsense! It’s a snake!” Exclaims the one nearest the trunk. “Fools!” Says a third man, feeling a huge leg. “It’s just a tree”.

The body is like the elephant: it is physical, social, gendered, “an extended field”, “a cellular adventure” and of course, “Well clever!”

“An interconnected whole”

Dr. Dan Siegel’s conclusions about the mind support the core theme of this blog: Mind is extended. But Siegel emphasises the importance of human relationships: 
“Mind is shared between people. It isn’t something you own; we are profoundly interconnected. We need to make maps of we because we is what me is!” (2010).

A rowing boat on a loch with mountains and forest background

Siegel is developing a new area of cognitive science called interpersonal neurobiology that’s focused on understanding the mind and mental health. Siegel’s ideas seem to me to be both intuitively true and radical. For example, he claims that “relationships, mind and brain aren’t different domains of reality—they are each about energy and information flow” (2010). That means that our relationships are an integral part of the bodymind.

To some extent this recaps what many others have already said – the mind “cannot be separated from the entire organism”  or the “outside environment” (Varela, 1999, authors emphasis), but Siegel develops this understanding and applies it to our mental health.

Although I very much like his emphasis on human relationships, we need to remember the other than human world. What do Siegel’s insights mean for our relationship with animals, forests, mountains and the rest? As Siegel himself says, “‘We’ are indeed a part of an interconnected whole”(2010).

Green spaces create healthy communities

The latest research confirms that green spaces are essential for our psychological well-being. Frances “Ming” Kuo (University of Illinois) has studied a wide range of research from the last decade. She concludes that in areas with good access to green spaces “people are more generous and more sociable. We find stronger neighborhood social ties and greater sense of community, more mutual trust and willingness to help others”.

Being in the natural environment provides many other benefits, including:

  • better cognitive functioning
  • more self-discipline
  • improved immune system.

Conversely, people living in areas where there isn’t much natural space suffer in all kinds of ways. There’s

  • more attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • higher rates of anxiety
  • higher rates of clinical depression.

Of course deprived areas with less green space suffer poorer health for lots of reasons. Researchers have accounted for those factors and it’s very clear that access to green space is fundamental to community health.

All this bears out the underlying theme of this blog: Many of our cognitive processes are intimately bound up where we are. Understanding the importance of the bodymind isn’t enough; we must consider the intricate system that is the situated bodymind.