SEEDS 2008 Proposal: Hunting and Gathering Science

Hunting and Gathering Science: Investigating Somaticized Thought

The following was my research proposal for the SEEDS 2008 arts and ecology festival (Somatic Experiments in Earth, Dance + Science)

The idea: Einstein described his thoughts as having a physical component. “The physical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are…more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined. [Some are] of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a second stage.” —Einstein. Neurologists like to explain this “confusion” of the senses as synasthesia, perhaps a quirk of shared neuronal pathways. Synathesia is considered an anomaly in those who, for example, see sounds or hear colors. What of the “muscular” component which Einstein refers to? Is this synathesia of the proprioceptive sense?

In the movement/somatics disciplines we have uncovered the close relationship between vision and movement through such works as Lisa Nelson’s Single Image score, where (as a byproduct of the practice at any rate) the somatic component of an image is investigated, brought to awareness, and reconnected through experience to the visual component. Vision is reunited consciously with physical experience and it would seem that this connection is not due to a quirk of physiological wiring, but to a natural ecology of the senses described by J.J. Gibson in his works such as An Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.

Maybe Einstein was just more in touch with his soma and able to think more productively than most. Perhaps, just as we can reconnect our vision with proprioceptive sensation, it is possible to bring to awareness our thinking’s connection to proprioceptive sensation as well.

Another example: Language has similar roots connecting it to proprioceptive sensation but these are sublimated and need work to bring back into awareness. Simone Forti’s Logomotion is an example of a current movement/somatics practice that examines this territory. What if there were people on Earth today that spoke a language that was still actively connected to its somatic roots? Such a possibility is described by Keren Everett, a linguist who has devoted her life to studying Pirahã, a language spoken by a remote Amazonian tribe. “This language uses prosody much more than any other language I know of, It’s not the kind of thing that you can write, and capture, and go back to; you have to watch, and you have to feel it. It’s like someone singing a song. You want to watch and listen and try to sing along with them. So I started doing that, and I began noticing things that I never transcribed, and things I never picked up when I listened to a tape of them, and part of it was the performance. So at that point I said, ‘Put the tape recorders and notebooks away, focus on the person, watch them.’ They give a lot of things using prosody that you never would have found otherwise. This has never been documented in any language I know…. I realized, Oh! That’s what the subject-verb looks like, that’s what the pieces of the clause and the time phrase and the object and the other phrases feel like. That was the beginning of the breakthrough for me.” [Italics my emphasis.]

(Recreating an awareness of my own language’s somatic connections will be a starting point for research on this angle, which I plan to do this January at Earthdance in study with Simone Forti.)

Examples from somatic practice: I’ve noticed when I get into a relaxed, meditative state, particularly with the Japanese energy work, Jin Shin Jyutsu, I practice, that I have “physicalized thoughts,” images that come to me that have a felt movement component. There is a “working something out” aspect to them, which I relate to my body thinking in a somatic language.

Another practice that I find to be connected to this investigation is a standing meditation practice from Soaring Crane qigong, which leads into improvised movement. In it one follows the qi through movement; there is a physical experience of working something out, again, of the body thinking in a somatic language. Nancy Topf’s Space Walk structure also exhibits qualities of somatic thinking through the placing of the anatomically imaged body in a greater environment—internal imagery extruded onto a physical landscape.

The Question for Research: What are the somatic components of a thought? How is thought somaticized? Can I observe the process in myself and in others?

Larger Purpose: A culture of somaticized thinking connects human beings to internal (of the senses) and external (of the environment) ecologies promoting healthy relationship with ourselves, the land, and other species. It avoids isolationist, me-first thinking/policy making and counteracts the possibility of spin and propaganda in communication.

Hunting thinking and gathering physical experience: The weeklong research (or possibly shorter workshop) would take the shape of a daily “walk in the woods” with a scientist lecturing on his or her specific area of expertise (hunting mushrooms and slime molds, a geology/archeology excursion, looking for bugs, beetles, and insects, checking up on watershed health). The somatic thought researchers “take on” this information, noticing the “intelligent design” (NOT in the sense of anti-evolutionists!) or “organizing principles” of the subject at hand as well as the modes of thinking used by the scientists in approaching their subject. In the subjects picked there is a strong element of interfacing with the land. In the physicality of connection to the land, similarities and differences of approach will be interesting clues in the further research of somatic thought.

A facilitated afternoon movement laboratory will allow the somatic thought researchers to “take in” to the body the modalities of thinking they observed/experienced in the morning lecture. This session allows time to develop and share individual movement practices in response to the morning lectures. Invited somatic facilitators with various backgrounds in somatic studies will be available to guide the afternoon practical session, for example to set a framework for the afternoon study: time and place guidelines, consultation on logistics, problem solving, arranging a structure for sharing of practices. For example, a facilitator might suggest to somatic researchers that they “replay” the morning lecture physically, much like movers might replay a dance segment that they had just witnessed. Researchers can use the guidelines as they see fit.

Objectives: To involve a variety of somas in first person research and to correlate experiences on the topic of somaticized thinking, to keep research logs/journals to that end, to hone individual working processes into practices that yields useful research on the path to understanding the somatic elements of thought.

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