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Science of Creativity Moves Into the Body

5 "movers and shakers" to watch in the field of embodied creativity

By Paul Chamnankit

Why do new ideas and solutions surface to awareness when we’re away from the studio and instead gardening or fixing a fence or stacking wood or walking or running? There's more to explaining the dance between the body's movement and the mind's lights than saying the brain's executive planning network is relaxed and that the frontal cortex's brain wave patterns have shifted from beta to alpha.

We know now, I hope, that being creative consistently—from ideation to block-busting to execution to launch & ship—involves much more than sitting and thinking. The body is not merely a shell.

"The artist takes the body with her," Maurice Merleau-Ponty noted a few decades ago. The rest of the body—movement, gesture, musculature, autonomic functions—shapes how thought happens. At least that’s what some scientists are tracking. The implications could be significant for how we learn, create, and work.

Here are five big “embodied creativity” ideas and their trackers to watch:

1. The Embodied Idea: Mind extends to body and environment.

The tracker: Andy Clark. Professor of logic and metaphysics in the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at Edinburgh University, Author of Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again (MIT Press, 1997) and Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (Oxford University Press, 2008).

In his occasional Opinionator blog pieces Clark writes for The New York Times, he furthers the case that mind is not contained within the gray matter.

The implications for creatives: We can apply how movement affects mood and how physical atmosphere is part of thinking to educational, training, and creativity situations.

For the record: Read Zen poetry or Taoist books or listen to Meredith Monk’s sound pieces or to any classical trained Indian raga musician, and you’ll find records and results of people who for centuries have been creating out of this reality.

2. The Embodied Idea: Gestures induce imagery and facilitate language.

The tracker: David McNeill. He posits this idea in his book Gesture and Thought (University of Chicago Press, 2005). McNeill of The University of Chicago founded the McNeill Lab: Center for Gesture and Speech Research to pursue this line of thinking and learning.

Implications: We can learn how physical movements can stimulate the imagination and language for learning, problem-solving, and creative work.

3. The Embodied Idea: Hand gestures facilitate knowledge and new learning. Take three groups of third and fourth graders. Give them math problems. Show one group a set of physical gestures to facilitate idea-processing. Let the second group use their hands however they wish. Restrict the third group from using their hands. The results? Group 1 outperformed group 2 who outperformed group 3.

The trackers: Sara C. Broaders of Northwestern University, Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago, and team. Goldin-Meadow has a lab with her name, too, at the University of Chicago devoted to cognition, linguistics, and education.

Her TEDx Talk “What Our Hands Can Tell Us About Our Minds” is a brilliant primer. My favorite lines: “Our hands indicate who is ready to learn” and “Our gestures can change our minds.”

The implications for creatives: From the study abstract: “The findings suggest that body movements are involved not only in processing old ideas, but also in creating new ones.”

For the record: Rudolf Steiner advanced comparable ideas for developing the whole child with movement and touch in the early 20th century.

4. The Embodied Idea: Emotions are perceptions of changes in the body. This idea challenges some neuroscientists’ stakes that emotions are 100 percent cognitive.

The tracker: Jesse J. Prinz, Distinguished Professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, Graduate Center and member of the Experimental Philosophers Band at Psychology Today. Prinz’s book Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion aims to mediate between the extremes of where emotions originate.

The implications for creatives: Can we each discover how movements, musculature, and respiration affect our emotions on behalf of how we learn, create, and work? The adage of “listen to your body” might be useful for increasing emotional intelligence and self-awareness.

For the record: A lot of people engaged in creative work describe their motivation for doing what they do as seeking a feeling. It’s the feelings they have while creating that motivates them.

5. The Embodied Idea: Our animal intelligence, embodied and sensual, could restore our connection to earth.

The tracker: Renegade David Abrams. Abrams is a cultural ecologist and author of Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology and The Spell of the Sensuous (Pantheon/Vintage).

With a background in phenomenology and as a sleight-of-hand magician plus as a trained shaman in Indonesia, it’s hard to categorize Abrams in academic categories But to keep up with one of the foremost living embodiments of this track of inquiry, follow Abrams.

Implications: For all of the talk about creatives “being inspired by nature,” Abrams’ insights might give creatives ways to create that makes them participants with instead of observers of the natural world.

A Personal Coda:
Ever since learning how to move my body in sync with my attention retrieved my writer’s concentration, broke open my imagination, ripped off my emotional armor, and gave me fire to persist as any challenge came my way, I’ve been fascinated with how the rest of the body besides the brain influences how thought happens.

To follow this fascination, I’ve turned for twelve years to studies in neuroscience and psychology on one hand and to books & practices in Eastern traditions on the other. The true pragmatic yogis and Buddhists and Taoists, not clouded by dogma, have been experimenting with the mind’s inner workings for centuries. Some traditions have a complex lexicon for the mind’s caves and crannies that make Dante’s Inferno look like a children’s introduction to psychology.

If we're going to track the most seminal emotional experience we humans are capable of, we need to track its potential place in the body. I want to present in future articles more ideas, questions, and resources to further our conversation and tracking.

But as one scientist said to another about the body (at least as quoted by writer Margaret Atwood):

"It's dark in there."


Creatives: How is intentional movement, respiration, gesturing, or environment an integral part of how you create (from ideation to launch)?

Scholars: Did I miss the mark anywhere? Misrepresent anything? What trackers should we add to this list?

See you in the woods,

Jeffrey Davis is a creativity consultant, book-shaper, speaker, and author of The Journey from the Center to the Page (Penguin 2004; Monkfish 2008). He shows artists, social change-makers, and scholars how to thrive and catalyze their ideas into art, books, and businesses. He teaches as a mentor in Western Connecticut State University’s low-residency MFA in Professional & Creative Writing Program. He writes about the role of emotions, environment, systems, and physicality in helping people create art and enterprises that matter.

Find out more at

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