November 20, 2014

WHAT’S UP, DOC?: Body Memories

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By SHOAN YIN CHEUNG ’09

One night, as graduate students are oft to do, I sat at the pub to dissect the most recent spate of theoretical texts that we were assigned. The theme for the night being “embodied knowledge,” our conversation drifted into a discussion about the residual trace of experience that remains in our bodies from having played musical instruments as children.

We spoke of the disconcerting feeling of being inhabited by ghost hands once the finger touches the keys after a long absence: suddenly, a scale happens, or perhaps something more complex. Our professional lives reward the performance of cognitive functions like “analysis,” but what of our muscles that can somehow recall the patterns that our bodies internalized years ago?

The way we think about our bodies we inherited from a Western medical tradition that has not only split off mind from matter, but also condensed the ineffable qualities of personhood into a matter of … matter itself. In other places, souls exist, but here, we have brains.

In our society, we tend to treat the brain as the seat of volition, and also life itself. Our sense of ourselves as people begin when memory lets us construct our own autobiographies, and on the other side there is death, which in the U.S. is legally defined as the complete and irreversible cessation of brain function. The emphasis on the body as matter that is controlled by the executive functions of the brain reduces the experience of living into occupancy of a machine body. As evidence by pharmaceutical efforts in creating a “pill for every ill,” our current biomedical paradigm treats the body as mere biological material, entirely controllable through altering the chemistry of the brain.

And so we are confused when our bodies seem to take on a life of their own, animating themselves on their own accord.

Several days later, with these conversations from the pub fresh in my mind, I played in a repertoire class. It was late on a Friday afternoon, and musical performance has a way of introducing a kind of dissonance that suspends the seamless transactions between brain and body that would otherwise occur in our daily lives. One member of the group, voicing her frustrations with how the added element of having an audience affected her playing, complained that, “it was as if my fingers had brains of their own!” A gruesome image: a hand full of Medusas certainly disrupts the way we think about how we relate to our bodies. Yet, this sentiment expresses how deeply we rely on the idea of the brain as the executive controller of our actions.

In the 1940s, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) proposed an alternative model of how we encounter the world through the concept of body knowledge. By adding this third element of body knowledge, he was one of the first to complicate the idea of imagined movement (“mind”) and motor execution (“body”) in explaining how we might move through the world. In Phenomenology of Perception, he refers to touch typing  as “knowledge in the hands.” This particular type of knowledge is not distinctly explicit, conscious, or articulated; however, it is known by the body and acquired through practice.

We can find parallels to these ideas in contemporary scientific literature under the name of procedural memory, which refers to the processes that guide the performance of particular types of actions. Often said to reside below consciousness, procedural memory is retrieved without conscious attention to execute the kinds of habituated actions that seem to never leave the body, like reading or riding a bike. Procedural memory, developed through repeating an action until all neural systems involved are synchronized, is characterized by efficiency. Studies show, for instance, that experienced pianists use the motor network less than inexperienced pianists when performing the same complex hand movements.Did modern cognitive science provide a “scientific basis” to French phenomenology, or did it just rework the idea to once again reconfirm a worldview that prizes the dominance of the brain?

In performance at least, we refer to really knowing a piece well as knowing it “in the body.” Which invites the question: body memory or neural networks?

Body memory is a powerful refutation of the dualism proposed by Western medicine that splits the body into consciousness and the physical body. While our education system encourages us to hone our cognitive prowess, these moments of dissonance (what we might refer to as “nerves”) that occur in musical performance, during an athletic match, or simply on the day of a big test gives us enough pause to reconsider the presumed power of the brain, which may come at the expense of mining what lies within our bodies.

In our society, life and sociality is defined by the well being of the brain. We demonstrate our personhood through the memories we recall and our ability to articulate narratives from of our lives. Explicit memory, however, can only render the past as the past.

Body memory on the other hand — whether it be the whiff of the proverbial macaroon imbued with the sensation of lost love, or the reservoir of tactile experience that is recalled in the shaping of a trill — the memory of the body summons the living presence of the past, and who are we if we are not a living body informed by experiences past?

Shoan Yin Cheung ’09 is a fourth-year Ph.D. student studying medical anthropology in the Department of Science and Technology Studies. She may be reached at sc479@cornell.edu. What’s Up, Doc? appears alternate Fridays this semester.