Embodied Learning

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This is from a blog that I wrote for Vital Human in February. Reading time: 4 minutes

Moshe Feldenkrais was a scientist ahead of his time. Since he wrote Body and Mature Behavior in 1949, the largest share of his theories about movement, the brain, and the nervous system have been verified with the latest findings in neuroscience. 

One idea Feldenkrais postulated was that of “the cybernetic whole,” the notion that thinking, feeling, sensing, moving, and the environment are interactive parts of a larger system. He based his method on this idea, that improvements in movement spread throughout the system, affecting thinking, feeling, and sensing, just as changes in thinking, feeling and sensing affect movement.

Scientists have done much to corroborate Feldenkrais’ ideas, especially in the area of study called Embodied Cognition, which began to emerge in the 1970s. Embodied Cognition also developed similar ideas, that thinking, bodily sensations, and movement are interwoven. George Lakoff, one of the leading researchers in this area, theorizes that because thought and language are the newest functional developments within the human brain, the construction of thought and language is literally built upon bodily sensations and movement, which are controlled by older brain structures. Lakoff has observed that our thinking world is largely metaphorical and these metaphors have orientations in the body. “He couldn’t grasp the idea” is one example. “It was over his head” is another. We might “take a turn for the worse,” “put something behind us,” or “warm up to an idea.” Lakoff and scientist Mark Johnson identified thousands of these metaphors and described them in detail in a book they co-authored, titled Metaphors We Live By

Another scientist, John Bargh, and his colleagues have done some fascinating research related to the phenomenon of “semantic priming.” Two groups of college students were given word puzzles that included lists of words. One group had word lists that included Florida, orange, bald, wrinkle, grey, and bingo, words associated with being older. The students were not made aware of any special significance of the words since they were included among a grouping of many other words. In phase two of the experiment, the researchers observed both groups of students walking down a hall and measured how fast each student walked. Amazingly, the group who received the unconscious priming for words associated with "old" walked significantly more slowly down the hallway than others who did not have those words in their lists. 

To understand even more about the intersection between language and bodily awareness, we have only to look at very young children who have yet to speak or think in words but who are, in fact, thinking. They “think” through their senses when they experience the warmth and eye contact of their mothers or when they react to a loud noise. They “think” by way of touch, taste, smell, seeing, and hearing, and these learned patterns become “embodied,” that is, the thinking is integrated into the child’s knowing and we see evidence of this knowing in his or her behavior. They “put two and two together” experientially through the senses.

As adults, we live in a world where thoughts and words have come to dominate, which presents a problem when it comes to self-knowledge and self-awareness. Words can mean many things and memory is known to be highly inaccurate or unavailable. Again, Feldenkrais was ahead of his time and felt strongly that movement itself is a more tangible and reliable way to learn about ourselves, and that all the patterns of our thoughts and feelings are expressed through our movements, whether we are aware of them or not. Thus, movement provides us the perfect experimental laboratory for the areas we are hoping to change and improve. 

My experience is that each Awareness Through Movement lesson or Functional Integration lesson results in greater ease of movement, which is quite satisfying and quite enough for me. But I experience much more than the ease of movement. I have come to understand that these movement patterns relate to my habitual patterns of thought and feelings. It’s an understanding that is “sensed” in the moment, as a small child might. The beauty is, I find that memory and descriptions are not even important for my understanding. The meaning is in the movement. I do the movements while carefully paying attention and before I know it, the learning is in my body with a minimum of effort. Embodied learning.