How does an animal body achieve a sense of where it is and where it’s going? Today’s announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine recognizes foundational scientific brain research in proprioception. This term in psychology may not be a familiar one, but perception (a more familiar “ception” word) wouldn’t be possible without proprioception, which is the central nervous system’s monitoring of the body’s relationship–in part and in whole–to its surroundings.
Awareness means slightly different things in different situations. We become aware of a pattern or change in our immediate surroundings, via sensory cognition. We become aware of patterns or changes over time through an interaction among sensory experience, emotional experience, and memory. And we become aware of abstract notions and imagined possibilities through mindful experiences: dreams, sudden awareness of dramatic fears or comic surprises, or learned, disciplined introspection. All of these forms of awareness involve our central nervous systems amping up physiological and cognitive activity in response to (external or internal) stimulus. But we usually don’t think about these diverse awareness processes together … let alone how they might interact with one another to shape more complex, hard-to-grasp phenomena like consciousness.
Those interactions among awareness processes are probably VERY SIGNIFICANTLY recursive for us. Awareness of intestinal discomfort or simply heightened awareness gained from greater oxygenation with a faster heartbeat and vasodilation could come from a sudden exciting memory, from an extrasomatic stimulus, or from a learned association between the perceived environmental feature and the constructed memory. In turn, the sustained awareness committed to introspection and decision-making can mediate bodily discomfort or excitement, leading to less agitation and more efficient interaction with the extrasomatic environment in the future. It may also have a cascading effect on associations with anxiety-related memories, altering how we related to our past, how we associate learning with earlier experiences. Continue reading Stories Without Words
Or, The Anthropology and Psychology of Doing Nothing … and Then Doing
In our recursive, never-ending engagement with the world (and thus, with each other … and with ourselves), we humans generally create our own resolve about how that world is supposed to be.
And we do that by convincing ourselves that we can heroically make clear sense of muddled situations.
Should I add another spoonful of sugar to my tea? Or should I turn my concern for health and longevity into fast principle? Should I give into small desires, or should I always moderate? Objectively, reasonable people can provide arguments that on the balance, it’s better to treat yourself, at least once in a while … but maybe, it’s actually better not to, it’s actually better to develop stronger mind-body discipline.
In other words, this is a simple case–as professors so often say, encouraging their students to dare to pose critical questions–of there being “no one right answer.”
To be sure, most of us find that in the real-time emotional experience of moments–those seconds and minutes under which we maintain acute cognitive attention on a given situation–we may strongly resolve to act according to one answer or the other. Making that embodied decision through action makes us feel good.
The Material Process of Being in–and through–the Symbolic Matrix
This post is the next-to-last in my five-part series on Anthropology and Philosophy. Of course, the general theme of how these two disciplines have and may interconnect is rather open-ended. I’ve chosen to focus on particular issues that really strike me as highlighting:
- parallel trends between disciplinary specializations and between the disciplines that could productively be drawn together–e.g., insights into the open-endedness and consequent, inevitable logical inconsistencies of both formal and everyday logical representation systems;
- issues and insights from anthropological research that can benefit philosophical inquiry–e.g., Rappaport’s (1979) argument that in complex self-regulating systems, the most relevant Aristotelian level of causality is that of formal cause, underscoring the relationships among the system components; and
- how the theme of biocultural connections can further contribute to a broader, interdisciplinary understanding of human existence and experience.
This post deals partly with the second theme. This is really a post about how the late British anthropologist Alfred Gell (1998) elegantly clarified and expanded the applicability of philosopher C.S. Peirce’s ideas to understanding human interaction with and agency in the world. Yet, this is more than just a summary of Gell’s own ideas, as they also inspire a more profound biocultural synthesis. Thus, this post also covers the more general–and admittedly ambitious–third theme, which is also the focus of a manuscript that I’m preparing for submission to a special issue of the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology, dealing with “the future of embodied cognition.”
The main point of this post is that human linguistic communication is not only richer in embodied experience than we usually acknowledge, but it is also more thoroughly shaped and constrained by symbols and their indexical interconnections than scientific accounts of human social interaction usually assume.
What to make of our ancestors and distant relatives, separated from us in time and space? Do we emphasize our connections, symbolically tying us to something bigger–and even potentially boundariless, conceptually defying the impossibility of the close contact from which we build our daily relationships with loved ones and friends? Or do we see those only distantly related to us as an unambiguous–and unambiguously negative–counterpoint to our selves and our locations? … As in, “Thank heavens we’re us and not them, here and not there!” Or, “At least we’re not freaks like them.”