Body image

The whole body senses because it is a self-organizing process. Your current experiencing is in your bodymind not as things are inside containers, but as a move is in the game, a scene in the play, an episode in the story. The game has room for more moves while you live: its emptiness is your freedom, for the time being. The ‘third-person’ view of your body from without is in another, more public process, and only from there can we talk about your brain as ‘constructor’ of your experience.

Turning Signs, Chapter 4

In his 1993 ‘Afterword’ to A Leg to Stand On (p. 192), Oliver Sacks remarks that ‘body-image may be the first mental construct and self-construct there is, the one that acts as a model for all others.’ This view seems to be corroborated by Damasio (2010, 2018) and other neuroscientists. The self-construct which is the body-image, the brain’s mapping of the body as a whole, is the ground floor, so to speak, of consciousness itself as ‘constructed’ by the bodymind.

Consciousness, thus conceived, is essentially personal: it is essentially connected to the actual living body, its location and positing of a personal space; and it is based on memory, as a remembering which continually reconstructs and recategorizes itself.

— Sacks (1984/1993, 199-200)

The brain’s construction of the body-image as a whole continues when some part of the body is cut off from the brain for some time by neurological damage. This results in the mental phenomenon called neglect, in which the person does not feel as if that part of the body is missing, but rather does not feel that any such thing exists or has ever existed. For instance, when Sacks saw his badly injured left leg (made visual contact with it), he did not feel that it belonged to his body. Brain damage can also cause such neglect of half of the visual field. When neglect of a body part collides with visual or tactile experience of it, this can lead to alienation, as when Sacks could see his leg but felt as if it belonged to somebody else, perhaps a corpse. A third-person neurological account of such phenomena can explain the experience but does not change how it feels. (Nevertheless, we sometimes resist or reject a theoretical explanation of a valued feeling, as if the theory could “explain it away.”)

If the wholeness or integrity of the body-image does ‘act as a model’ for one’s mental construct or model of the whole world, it is the primary meaning space. No wonder then that we often neglect parts of the external world, or feel them to belong to somebody else’s world, even when we know of their existence and connection to us at some intellectual level. Your world and my world are felt as wholes, even though “everybody knows” that some parts of your world are absent from mine and some parts of mine from yours. We can’t help being partial to our own point of view, but we can make some meaning space for others by allowing for the felt integrity of their experience as well as ours.

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