Embodied knowledge

‘Dark matter’ is estimated to account for 85% of the matter in the Universe but we can’t see it. Embodied knowledge is a bit like that; although most people have never heard of it and it can’t be put on a page, it’s fundamental to our everyday lives.

Michael Polanyi, a scientist and philosopher, unpacked the difference between what we know explicitly – that Paris is the capital of France, for example – and the ‘know how’ or knack that is tacit knowing. Polanyi pointed out that “we know more than we can tell” (1966) because there’s some things we simply can’t talk about. Riding a bike is a good example, When I ride my bike, I don’t think though every movement. This is especially obvious when I turn a corner: If I were to try to think through each subtle movement as I adjust my balance and turn the handle bars in just the right way, I would fall off! I don’t play golf, but research suggest that when a player ‘chokes’ – fluffs a simple shot because of stress – it’s because they’re thinking too much (Beilock and Carr). At the tacit, embodied level, the pro golfer knows how to make the shot, but if they start trying to think about it, they’ll blow it.

I can give you examples of embodied knowing from fields as diverse as anthropology, business studies, neuroscience, teaching, sport and many more. For now, I’ll offer a few highlights to give you some sense of the power of embodied knowing.

Shoshana Zuboff spoke to workers who’d relied on their embodied knowledge. Until comparatively recently these US paper mill workers would sit alongside the machine, sensing how it behaved as they adjusted the controls. But after computerization they had to work from a remote monitor. Many found this transition really hard. They’d been using a “knowledge that you don’t even know you have” that they called a kind of ‘folk medicine’. They had an embodied understanding of how the machine worked, the sound and feel of it when it was running right. Suddenly they had to learn explicitly how to keep it running properly (Zuboff, 1988).

Hui Niu Wilcox uses her understanding of embodied knowledge in science education and social change (2009). Her approach is explicitly political: “through integrating embodied ways of knowing into our work, we have honed our critique of the Eurocentric and male-dominated system of knowledge production in the Western academy” (2009). The results can be transformative: Students on a Women’s Studies course she taught “spoke passionately about their leap from academic theories of race and white privilege to an embodied understanding of how white Americans unconsciously perform privilege and whiteness”.

Wilcox and her colleagues from the Ananya Dance Theatre also use embodied ways of knowing to help people understand the impact of the climate crisis on marginalised communities.

Embodied knowing plays a vital role in psychotherapy. Daria Halprin, an expressive arts therapist, says the body is “like a treasure chest … full of our life experiences, contained in a deep and accurate way” (2002). Embodied therapy can help us access that treasure and so bring healing to the bodymind.

Embodied ways of knowing are multifaceted, complex and marginalised. Sociologist Ian Burkitt claims that all knowledge is embodied (1999). I’m not sure I’d go that far, but in this short post you’ve read of how embodied ways of knowing can help us tackle racism, understand the climate crisis and nurture our mental health. That’s why I’ve devoted a big chunk of my life to trying to understand the power of embodied ways of knowing.

A graphic map of embodied ways of knowing
Mapping Embodied Ways of Knowing

I recently completed an initial sketch map of different models of embodied knowing. Although I’ve tried to keep it accessible, it isn’t bed time reading! If you’re curious, take a look and do please tell me what you think: Embodied Ways of Knowing: Mapping the Territory.

2 thoughts on “Embodied knowledge

  1. Wow! This is awesome. Non-bedtime reading, yes haha, 😆 but definitely worth exploring, and adding to my list of fantastic things I’ve discovered I must read about this year!! Looking forward to seeing how this develops. 👍

    • Hi Shyron,
      I’m glad this has got you thinking! Lots of mileage here. Next step is a conference next year. That will, I hope, contribute to an edited book I’ve been planning for years: “Embodied Ways of Knowing: Mapping the Territory”. You can see why I keep putting that off until next year … 😉

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