Monday, December 27, 2010

The Mind/Body Split: A Guest Post from My Former Self

I found my former self in some files recently, but I wasn't sure what to do with her, until now.  Here's what happened:

A friend sent me a link to an article titled Children's Gestures and the Embodied Knowledge of Geometry.  This is an incredibly important finding.  Here's the abstract:

There is mounting research evidence that contests the metaphysical perspective of knowing as mental process detached from the physical world. Yet education, especially in its teaching and learning practices, continues to treat knowledge as something that is necessarily and solely expressed in ideal verbal form. [Emphasis mine.]  This study is part of a funded project that investigates the role of the body in knowing and learning mathematics. Based on a 3-week (15 1-h lessons) video study of 1-s grade mathematics classroom (N = 24), we identify 4 claims: (a) gestures support children’s thinking and knowing, (b) gestures co-emerge with peers’ gestures in interactive situations, (c) gestures cope with the abstractness of concepts, and (d) children’s bodies exhibit geometrical knowledge. We conclude that children think and learn through their bodies. [Emphasis mine.]  Our study suggests to educators that conventional images of knowledge as being static and abstract in nature need to be rethought so that it not only takes into account verbal and written languages and text but also recognizes the necessary ways in which children’s knowledge is embodied in and expressed through their bodies.

Reading this abstract I am reminded that when I was in college I was concerned with, among other things, the continuation of a dichotomous world view; you know, seeing only us/them, self/other, intellect/emotion, good/evil and not any of the gray area in between.  In particular, one of my main concerns at the time was of the mind/body split.

That's where my former self comes in; it turns out she actually has a lot to offer this discussion.  Here is an excerpt from the introduction of a paper I wrote at the end of a quarter of self-directed study in 1989.  The paper is grandly titled "Connections: Healing the Split within Western Thought" and although I'm pretty sure it wasn't my best work, I find this portion to be particularly interesting. 

(Please excuse my youthful idealism.  And, please keep in mind the first line of the above abstract as you read: "There is mounting research evidence that contests the metaphysical perspective of knowing as mental process detached from the physical world.")

"In a dream I had a couple years ago, I cut off my head and walked around with it under my arm.  But the funny thing was, I could still hear and think, and feel.  I sat it down on a bed and we looked at each other for a while.  Then it was time for me to put the head back on my neck; I tried to keep it there but it flopped around like a little baby's head.  Finally, I got it settled, but then realized that I had to sew it to my neck -- but I hate to sew!  So I just let it sit there and walked around with a bright red line of blood around my neck.  I never did connect my head to my body, until now."

"The dream of severing my head from my body and then being reluctant to reattach it in any permanent way was, I know now, an unconscious image of the dichotomous schema that pervades Western thought.  Polarities such as self/other, us/them, male/female, black/white, mind/body, human/animal, and life/death permeate our mentality and prevent us from seeing the necessary relationships and connections that run between them. [...]

"In the following pages, I touch on the issue of how we have become so disconnected with the world.  And, more importantly, I look at the steps we can take to heal the split to become whole again.  In Part One, I trace briefly the major steps in history that have contributed to the dichotomy of thought that exists in our society today.  In Part Two, I present the foundation of holistic thought, which includes a brief discussion of Gregory Bateson's epistomology -- how we can learn to know the world as it really is.  Part Three investigates the characteristics of creativity and how it can help everyone reach her or his potential in life.  And, finally, Part Four shows how, when combined, Systems Theory, Batesonian epistemology, and creativity create an understanding of how we can, at least in theory, heal the split."

Um.  Okay, I know that was a big bite of thinking I took back then but let's but fast forward to now.  I suppose you could say that in creating a curriculum that integrates math and dance, using concrete movements and patterns executed by the body to illustrate and illuminate the often abstract world of mathematics, I am attempting to 'heal the split.'  I should also say that, at the time, I was acutely aware that I was short on life experience with which to illustrate my ideas.  My twenties were spent searching for a solid tether; when I found step dancing five years after this paper was written I felt a huge relief that I was finally doing something meaningful and real. 

And now?  Now it seems I've come full circle because from where I sit it is clear to me that finding the connection between mind and body has been my life's work all along.  I also like reading about the seeds of my interests in understanding the uses and benefits of creativity outside the realm of artistic process.  But that's for another day. 

(A side note from me as the spouse of a digital archivist -- if I hadn't printed out my papers back in 1989 and only kept my now inaccessible 'floppy discs' there would be no 'former self' to contribute to this blog.  How will you be accessing your digital files twenty years from now?  Just sayin'!)

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