I Move...Therefore I Am

It's time to jettison antiquated ideas about the relationship between mindand body. Your body "thinks" just as much as your mind.

By Jay A. Seitz, published March 1, 1993 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

It's time to jettison antiquated ideas about the relationship between mindand body. Your body "thinks" just as much as your mind

Imagine the following scenario. You have lost the keys to your car, probably quite a common occurrence for many of us.

You are in a hurry to get to the store and pick up some groceries for dinner. Only you seem to have misplaced your car keys and just can't remember where you put them earlier in the day. You scratch your head. Then you unfurl your fingers, one by one, using them as external memory prompts to enumerate the places you've been and rule out where you may have left them. You visualize the rooms where you spent the better part of the afternoon and then literally retrace your steps, looking atop and underneath chairs and tables.

Your facial muscles register frustration as you ask a family member for help, using your motor articulatory apparatus - that is, your vocal tract - to wonder aloud, "Now where did I leave those keys?" At some point, you throw up your hands in disgust as you recognize the futility of your search. Finally it dawns on you that you probably left your keys in the car. You saunter outside, delighted to retrieve them.

In every case, movement or action of the body ran parallel with thought and emotion. You scratched your head while thinking, calculated with your fingers as a kind of bodily abacus, followed your thoughts on foot from room to room, expressed your feelings through facial and bodily gestures and vocal intonation, and communicated your thoughts through your voice. Activity or motion always accompanied thought and emotion. Is this just a happy coincidence? Or do we really think with the body?

Ordinarily we consider the thinking process a purely mental activity. As our 17th century philosopher friend Rene Descartes declared, "I think, therefore I am" just a mind separate from my body. Almost all of us still believe this is the way things work, and take it for granted that mind and body are totally different things. Our popular ways of speaking even signify this. We refer to athletes as "dumb jocks." We denigrate thinking types as "nerds" or "eggheads." We regard these two realms as separate and unequal.

We are caught up in the persistent Cartesian dualism that we are comprised of two fundamentally different things - an extended substance (body) and an unextended substance (mind). But what if the mind and the body are really two different aspects of the same thing? What if the brain systems for movement and the brain systems for thought and emotion are intimately connected to each other so that we are literally a "thinking (and feeling) body?"

As it turns out, there are indeed extensive neural connections in the brain from those parts that oversee movement, equilibrium, and balance of the body to those parts that direct - thought and emotion. This suggests a novel hypothesis. Our brain doesn't simply manage or regulate the body in the way that a chief executive manages a corporation. The brain doesn't direct the body and the body follows slavishly. What the brain communicates to the body depends on what information the body has imparted to the brain and vice-versa. The two are in an indissoluble union. The implication is that we literally think with our bodies, that is, we think kinesically.

Thinking Kinesically

Consider some ways we think with the body in everyday experience:

o Athletes and dancers think through their bodies in returning a tennis serve, for example, or in completing a complicated dance step. They can capture these "thoughts" on paper using a kinesic language. The coach records the diverse positions of players on a team and their organized movements in a playbook. The choreographer chronicles the steps and body motions in dance notation.

o We "reason" with our hands when we are playing or improvising at the piano or any other instrument. The idea is suggestively captured in the advertisement that says, "Let your fingers do the walking."

o Similarly, when we "speak" with our hands we are using a gestural language. Gesture often accompanies speech - but it also substitutes for it. When deaf persons communicate with each other through sign language, they articulate their thoughts and feelings through movement and gesture in place of vocalizations.

o We also use "body language" in interacting with others, whole-body movements expressed through posture. in America, for example, men communicate power and status by standing obliquely to one another during conversation. Women strive for interpersonal connection and are more inclined to face one another. Without even being aware of it perhaps, they are using the body to disclose intention.

o Moreover, the voice carries important emotional information in the way we intone what we say. The vocal sounds and their inflections are, of course, a part of the body; they originate in the larynx and are products of our motor articulatory apparatus. We can be sarcastic or surprised; both are conveyed by tone of voice. Such vocal prosody operates like an emotional subcarrier signal, much the way the FM signal is transmitted to our radios. Clearly, we express our thoughts and feelings through the tone of our voice.

o Facial muscles, too, carry a tremendous amount of information about our emotional life and what we may be thinking. Surprise on the face in response to a joke suggests that we understand its intellectual content at the same moment we apprehend its emotional dissonance. We appreciate the wisecrack through our body's reaction to it.

o Rhythm is similarly tied to the body. Music, exercise, making love, and even our understanding of time is a consequence of our body's natural rhythm - more exactly, our inner biological clock. This natural rhythmic pulse shapes our conception of music, as composer Aaron Copland informed us, as well as our self expressed through physicality.

o The act of drawing or the execution of a painting captures more than just visual qualities of people, objects, and scenes. It is also an expression of the body - hand, limb, and whole body movements - in depicting action as well as stasis, or the weight and "feel" of objects. A three-year-old drawing a circle will use the whole arm to render it. Depiction, one could say, occurs through extensions of bodily activity. In rendering the human form through drawing, an artist captures the "fullness" of the human figure by using her sense of her own body.

o In fact, thinking kinesically can be viewed as the use of our sense of touch in understanding the texture, size, and "feel" of objects. The world-renowned developmental psychologist Jean Piaget described a young child opening and closing her mouth in attempting to "figure out" how to get an object out of a closed matchbox. Children first learn to count using hands and fingers, and begin to enumerate their world using pointing gestures to make a one-on-one correspondence between objects and people. This natural learning mode has made its way into education as hands-on learning. When actual objects are used to demonstrate numerical concepts such as fractions, hands-on learning can be highly effective. When we construct something with our hands, knit or sew, build a tower with blocks or bricks and mortar, fix something around the house like an appliance or car engine, are we not thinking with our body? These suggest that mechanical skills underlie the development of technology and of civilizations.

Manipulating Ideas

Imagine the brain as an apple. The fleshy part of the apple is the thinking part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, the most evolutionarily advanced. The core of the apple is where the emotions and primitive memory functions reside, the subcortex. Researchers have shown that there are neural connections from the cerebellar cortex, in the back of the brain, to the frontal part of the cerebral cortex.

The cerebellar cortex is involved in the coordination of voluntary muscular movement as well as our capacity to maintain balance and equilibrium. The frontal cortex is the meeting place of our emotional life and our thinking part. That's where affective dispatches from the subcortex join information received from the rest of the cerebral cortex. It is where, neuroscientists now believe, our sense of self resides, not to mention our capacity to make decisions and think logically.

The connections between the cerebellar cortex and the frontal cortex suggest a novel hypothesis. A trio of neuroscientists - Henrietta and Alan Leiner, and Robert Dowchallenge the assumption that motor functions such as walking or raising your hand are under exclusive control of the motor part of the cerebral cortex. They believe the neural pathways from cerebellar to frontal cortex also enable the "skilled manipulation of ideas."

Our brain doesn't simply "manage" or "execute" what particular activity our body is engaged in at the moment; it appears that we literally "think" with our body. What we desire, believe, and feel is expressed entirely through our body's actions and movements - that is, we express thoughts and feelings kinesically. We can choose to wave to a friend or not. The skeletal muscles that carry out this task are under voluntary control. And if voluntary muscles are directed by our will, our thought, then they function as an organ of the mind.

"Moving" Experiences

The power to think with our body, then, should also affect our very personality, as it is conveyed through facial expression, gesture, posture, as well as vocal inflection.

Through this means, connection between the mind and the body turns out to be central to our core sense of self and our relationship to others. We know that facial expressivity, controlled by underlying musculature, is the chief conduit of emotions and underlies our ability to read social cues in others. It helps us establish social contact, convey thoughts and feelings, as well as understand another person's inner mental states.

William James, philosopher and psychologist, proposed that bodily changes affect our emotional states. That is, we label our emotional states based on our ability to interpret bodily experiences.

People who suffer from gross loss of bodily sensations, as in spinal cord lesions that disrupt visceral responses, report less intense emotional experiences. Indeed, Robert Zajonc, Ph.D., head of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, has evidence that simply by making the facial expression you abet development of the feeling. Forcing a smile actually puts you in a better mood.

So you can "think" yourself happier by changing the expression on your face, which in turn changes how you feel. Zajonc contends that the relaxing and tightening of facial muscles alters the temperature of the blood reaching the brain, which influences brain areas that regulate emotion.

Kidding Around

The relation between emotions and physical actions begins very early in life. I have been investigating how children first express themselves aesthetically through their bodies; through facial expression, gesture, and posture. I am trying to determine what kinds of skills are involved and how they develop.

A child's first movements dearly have emotional connotations; the sensory receptors that signal movement are directly connected to that part of the brain that generates emotion. From observation, we know that at around age two, even depictive gestures, such as learning to bow, or ritual gestures, performed in religious and other ceremonies, have emotional overtones.

By three to four years, children become sensitive to the increased dynamic properties of movement, such as direction, force, rhythm enclosure, and balance. They can also balance themselves on a small chair and sustain the correct rhythm to a simple dance. They are learning to "think" with their bodies - they can distinguish left-right and up-down movements, soft gliding from strong explosive movements. They perceive that their body is a physical object in a "container" - it has clear boundaries - that takes up space.

By six they know that movements have psychological overtones. They can express sadness through the gesture of a downturned head, or represent a man thinking by placing their hand under their chin. Educators argue that teaching dance movement to preschoolers is important because it aids the child in developing socially and acquiring the ability to organize and communicate thoughts and feelings.

Social and cognitive development is intimately connected with the body from the earliest stages of life. University of Miami psychologist Tiffany Field has demonstrated the power of touch with tiny preterm infants. Those preemies who receive extensive touching from caretakers show measurably better social and intellectual development later in infancy and in the preschool years than infants who receive minimal handling.

Body English

The fundamental importance of the body in the development of our intellect and social nature, and in the expression of the personality is seen in the role that posture and gesture play in human social interaction. To think is to communicate with ourselves and others through gesture and posture.

Instrumental gestures such as pointing and reaching are enactions of the two central functions of language - to declare (point) or request (reach for) something or someone.

Before infants can speak they express their needs through gesture. In their first year, they point to objects they find attractive or moving; they hold up their arms when they want to be picked up. And as adults, we use iconic gestures to visually represent objects - a motion of the hand to denote a hammer - or symbolic gestures to signify a feeling or idea - a "V" of our fingers to denote freedom, a downturned head for sadness. Gesture and posture enable us to organize and communicate concepts, feelings, and events through movement. Our very personalities, that is, self-expression, are constituted through bodily movement and activity.

Awareness Via The Senses

And if we stop to think about what we are expressing at the moment, we become self-aware or -conscious of what we are doing. Consciousness has been traditionally conceived, primarily by philosophers, as a mental act, a property of mind. But self-awareness is an act of the body. We receive information about the external world through our five senses, and about internal bodily states through our kinesthetic sense. We know what and where things are through the pressure, position, and stretch of muscles and tendons. If something is hard to lift, we are aware that it is heavy. If it is an apple or a pear, we recognize it by shape. Consciousness is really awareness of ourselves through our bodies' reactions to the world around us.

If we are a thinking body that figures prominently in self-expression, self-awareness, and communicating with others, then the body must have a central role in problem-solving. Psychologists have been toying for some time with the idea that our body has its own "intelligence."

Piaget argued that sensorimotor experience is the primary way in which the infant gains knowledge of the world. When a 14-month-old infant tugs on a blanket to pull her rattle closer, she is demonstrating her ability to use one object to obtain another-so-called instrumental intelligence, or means-ends knowledge. More recently, Howard Gardner, the creativity expert working at Harvard University, has suggested that we have a separate bodily-kinesthetic intelligence with two key aspects. One is masterful coordination of our bodily movements, the other is the ability to manipulate objects in a skilled manner.

We Are The World

Many thinkers, including the philosopher Mark Johnson and psychologist Seymour Fisher, have advanced the idea that bodily experience provides the framework for the very way we structure our concepts of the world. Right and left, up and down, in and on, front and back-these are concepts acquired through experience of the body and generalized to surrounding space; we first learn these (and as adults still navigate by them) by experiencing them with our hands and bodies.

Whatever else bodily experiences contributes to, it certainly figures prominently in the development of our mental scheme of our bodies, or body image. According to Fisher, professor of psychology at the State University of New York Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, the relationship is clearly dramatized in people with certain extreme forms of pathology that distort the body image in "extravagant ways."

Take the case of Gerstmann Syndrome. Due to a lesion in the cerebral cortex, afflicted persons have trouble perceiving and identifying parts of their own body. They can't distinguish right from left on their own or another's body. They can't recognize their own fingers, name them, or point out individual digits. Nor can they count, reflecting the fact that fingers figure prominently in the development of arithmetical operations early in life.

If movement is action directed toward a goal, then it is problem-solving in the bodily sense. It is means-ends knowledge through our bodies.

How To Boogie

According to renowned psychologist Jerome Bruner, before we move we first represent in our minds a desired goal or intended state. That gives rise to a "hypothesis," a working idea about how to fulfill the goal - say, execute a dance step - under given conditions - in rhythm with certain music, for example. We check the results in a match-mismatch process, and correct our movements when they don't match what we intended.

Through this process, small acts of skill are incorporated into larger motor routines or movement sequences. You learned to ride a bicycle by integrating various movements required of your legs (pedaling), head ( fixing on a course), and trunk (balancing). Kinesthetic thinking lies in orchestrating a sequence of motor skills, integrating your multi-sensory, emotional, and intellectual experiences, and selecting and executing appropriate movements.

Even the simple act of drawing requires not solely depicting the visual properties of people, objects, and scenes; we also incorporate our body's experience of these objects, or physiognomic perception. According to Rudolf Arnheim, the psychologist of art, and Ernst Gombrich, the chronicler of artistry, we perceive the "solidity" and "strength" of a building, the "aliveness" of a landscape and the "warmth" of a color by interpreting what we know through our bodily experiences of such conditions.

The Logic of A Toss

The problem-solving capacity of the body is manifest in myriad ways. Martha Graham, the genius of modern dance, maintains that the body has its very own logic, motor logic. Certain movements come naturally because they logically follow from the plan of the movement - a baseball throw or a somersault.

My own research suggests that there are three core cognitive components of kinesthetic intelligence - motor logic, kinesthetic memory, and kinesthetic awareness. Motor logic encompasses your neuromuscular skill in articulating and ordering movement.

Kinesthetic memory, akin to what researchers of human cognition call procedural knowledge, concerns how to do something - the movement sequences of riding a bicycle. It enables you to think in terms of movement by your ability to mentally reconstruct muscular effort, movement, and position in space. Kinesthetic awareness - which informs you what and where things are by the pressure and stretch of muscles -allows you to consciouly appreciate your body's position and direction in space.

Such abilities are highly developed in dancers, athletes, craftsman, and others who work with their hands and bodies. But it is a mistake to think they are restricted to them. All work involves movement. Work directs movement towards purposes. And means-ends knowledge fosters action.

From the days of the Greeks, movement in Western culture has been concerned with sport, recreation, and the care of the body, without reference to how it infuses thought. Physical education early on was divorced from the development of other subject matters, especially literature. The balance and interrelationship between mind and body were all but forgotten.

Now, however, we are on the verge of correcting this age-old misunderstanding. With new knowledge gained from the social and neurosciences and a deeper understanding achieved through study of the artistic mind, it is now more apropos to say that we think with our bodies not simply inhabit them.







Body therapies. One of the most effective ways to relieve stress, and irrational thoughts and feelings, is through so-called body therapies. Sports and dance are the most common examples. But there are others. The Alexander technique, Feldenkreis method of body awareness, deep muscle massage, and Pilates method all work the body systematically. Try one! If it is not known exactly hoe these types of therapies may work, that's because the deep interconnections between the body and the mind are still largely unexplored.

Activities such as drawing, painting, photography and playing a musical instrument (or singing) involve the thinking body in important ways. They interplay our intellectual and emotional experiences, cultivate our aesthetic sensibilities, and enhance our enjoyment of life. Take up an artistic pursuit, enlist a private tutor or enroll in a college-level course in your community, and develop the aesthetic dimension of the thinking body.

Deploy your mechanical skills. That enhances both your bodily problem-solving abilities and your enjoyment. Engage in an action-oriented project such as designing and building something material or repairing an object or appliance.