Reflection 7: senses traditions

While interest in the role of the senses in society is growing in the human sciences, supplanting older paradigms and challenging conventional theories of perception and representation, the idea that there is a close connection between psychological states and physiological processes can be traced back to many traditions.

This sensorial perspective existed in ancient Greece and was at the basis of Aristotle’s belief system. He regarded: “the soul or mind not as the product of the physiological conditions of the body, but as the truth of the body — the substance in which only the bodily conditions gain their real meaning. (…)  perception is not merely a passive or receptive affection. It in turn acts, and, distinguishing between the qualities of outward things, becomes “a movement of the soul through the medium of the body.” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/embodied-cognition/#EmbVsTraThrIss)

Aristotle considered the interplay between mind-body as key to our sense of reality and as such can be considered as the forefather of contemporary western embodied cognitive science, which: “has modeled cognition as the product of dynamic interplay between neural and non-neural processes, with no general fracture between cognition, the agent’s bodily experience, and real-life contexts.”(http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/embodied-cognition/#EmbVsTraThrIss).

This perspective is far removed from Plato’s, who believed that the body to be an empty vessel and in that process, began a belief system in which we disowned and repressed the body and reinforced centuries later by Descartes’ famous sentence: “I think therefore I am”.   Ever since Descartes, western society has been plunged in a “Cartesian anxiety” (Bernstein, 1983),an examination of the world as separate from ourselves based on the use of scientific methods should be able to lead us to a firm and unchanging knowledge of ourselves and the world around us.

I just came across this beautiful text, Animism, Perception, and Earthly Craft of the Magician by David Abram who explains this way of thinking very succinctly.  As he writes:

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his classic work, Phenomenology of Perception, suggests that the primordial event of perception is always experienced as a reciprocal encounter between the perceiver and the perceived, an open dialectic wherein my sensing body continually responds and adjusts itself to the things it senses, and wherein the perceived phenomenon responds in turn, disclosing its nuances to me only as I allow myself to be affected by its unique style, its particular dynamism or active agency. (…) Perception, according to Merleau-Ponty, is nothing other than this reciprocity, this mutual reverberation and blending in which the surrounding terrain is experienced by me only to the extent that I feel myself caught up within and experienced by those surroundings.


Such a description neatly echoes the discourse of many indigenous peoples, such as the Koyukon people of central Alaska, who claim that they live “in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes.” (Nelson, p. 14). Oral, indigenous peoples from around the world — whether hunters or rudimentary horticulturalists — commonly assert that the land itself is alive and aware, that the local animals, the plants, and the earthly elements around them have their own sensitivity and sentience. They claim that the earthly world we experience also experiences us. And hence that we must be respectful toward that world, lest we offend the very ground that supports us, the winds and waters that nourish us.“


Today this type of understanding of the world is not only unknown, but also unthinkable to a majority of occidental. And in my mind, this is a very interesting paradox. Descartes official separated our body from our mind and turned us into thinkers who discovered knowledge.  We became separate from our body, stopped being in the world but watching it from our minds’ eye. We lost our ability to be self-awareness, and as such lost a sense for the base from which we started, which made it impossible to continue to “feel” our progress via our senses.  We stopped perceiving the connections.

For the last 500 hundred years, the dominant culture has been one that has oppressed and repressed the body and the senses to the benefit of reason.  But such a belief system is only one of many and definitely not the only one to exist.

Aboriginal belief systems posit that each person has three aspects, which make up his or her whole being. Those are the body, the mind and the spirit. It is said that for Aboriginal people to heal from whatever ails them, all aspects of their being need to be treated—not just one. In that respect, the Aboriginal belief is in the holistic treatment of the person.

Arboriginal cultures are amongst the most ancients in our civilizations and interestingly, across the globe, in many of these cultures, a similar animist tradition exists. Animist traditions encompass the beliefs that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical world not only in humans, but also in all other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment. While such a concept is far fetch from eurocentric belief systems, examples of it can be found in forms of Shinto,  Serer,  Hinduism,  Buddhism, Jainism, Pantheism, Paganism and Neopaganism.

While to an occidental, such a belief system may seem “simple”, in reality it shows a way to have a balanced life within nature can lead to a way of life within which we respect ourselves, our bodies, and everything in our lives.  Such a belief system requires us to be entirely rooted in sensorial experiences and a very different way of perceiving.

For Abram, Animism represents a way of being:

“ When the natural world is perceived not from the spectator-like position of a detached or disembodied intellect, but rather from an embodied position situated entirely within that world, one encounters no aspect of that world that is definitively inert or inanimate. “Animism” remains a useful term for this highly embodied, and embedded, mode of perception. In this sense, “animism” may be said to name a primordial mode of perception that admits of no clear distinction between that which is animate and that which is inanimate. Rather, every phenomenon that draws our attention is perceived, or felt, to be at least potentially animate. Each perceived thing has its own rhythm and style, its own interior animation. Everything moves — although, clearly, some things move much slower than other things, like the mountains, or the ground underfoot.

To such an embodied, and embedded, perspective, the enveloping world is encountered not as a conglomeration of determinate objects, but as a community of subjects — as a relational field of animate, active agencies in which we humans, too, are participant. “

From biologist to physicist, many scientists are demonstrating the animated nature of plants and animals .  In the article Root apices as plant command centres: the unique ‘brain-like’ status of the root apex transition zone, František Baluška1, Stefano Mancuso2, Dieter Volkmann & Peter Barlow wrote:

 synaptic communication is not limited to animals and humans but seems to be widespread throughout plant tissues. Root apices seated at the anterior pole of the plant body show many features which allow us to propose that they, especially their transition zones, act in some way as brainlike command centres. The opposite posterior pole harbours sexual organs and is specialized for plant reproduction. Last but not least, we propose that vascular tissues represent highways for plant nervous activity allowing rapid exchange of information between the growing points of above-ground organs and the brain-like zones in the root apices.” Plants co-construct a vast communication system which they share intelligently.

Bacteria have been observed and now understood to have social order and life. Entities that vote and act in accordance to the group’s best interest.  In the study of animals, it has been demonstrated that most think, show high level of intelligence and observe us as much as us them.

No wonder that on 7 July 2012, prominent cognitive neuroscientists announced The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. According to the scientists, animals possess the cognitive ability to assess situations based on prior experience, and then act accordingly. They also state that both humans and animals are emotionally aroused through the same brain regions, and that artificial arousal of such brain regions provokes similar emotional states and behaviour in both animals and human beings.

The publicly proclaimed declaration concludes by saying: “The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”(http://positivenews.org.uk/2012/environment/8831/animals-humans-scientists-declare/).

The last few centuries mark an era within which nature and the other has been  primarily spoken of in abstract terms. A time when animals were said to be entirely “programmed in their genes,” and when the surrounding sensuous landscape is referred to merely as a stock of “resources” for human use. We have become blind, deaf and desensitized to ourselves, our needs and our world. If we are to become healthy we need to begin to understand our participatory sensory communication system.  Can we regain the ability to be in contact with what surrounds us? Can we learn to understand the sensations as communication signals? Can we re-embody ourselves?



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