Neuroscience and Architecture

Anna-Maija Tuunanen wrote a paper on Neurophenomenological Approaches to Embodiment in Architecture. In the context of the 6th Annual Architecture Research Symposium (‘Designing & Planning the Built Environment for Human Well-Being’) 2014 her aim was to alert fellow architects to the relevance of neuroscience to architecture. Her main point was that, because ‘…people largely perceive buildings through [all] the senses…’ (Mallgrove 2010) in a global kind of way, architects should be concerned not just with visual factors (as seems to be the case): human beings contrive awareness of the spaces they inhabit by proprioception, the body-brain’s inner sense of grasping what it’s like to move about in some defined space or simply to occupy it in a relatively fixed position. Proprioception gives rise to unique personal experience.

This is all words, the marshalling of inert ideas – as it is with all mere collections of words, the question is: how to make them come alive experientially? To use Gurdjieff’s nice word – how do we ‘vivify’ them? How in this case do we vivify the the activity called ‘proprioception’ so that it has real meaning within the body-mind system of a human individual – for me in my awareness, right now, for example. It’s not enough just to trot out a definition and hope for the best. How do we give life, for example, to the notion of ‘fully inhabiting built space’? How do we achieve full understanding of ‘…the interwoven connection of body & space’ ?

It’s worth recalling Gurdjieff’s model of Understanding – that it can only result from a live combination of Knowledge and Being-action: you have to do something essential to your being acting on the inertness of pure Knowledge to transform it into Understanding. This is what I call the KUB model.

Moving Laboratories

Anna-Maija Tuunanen describes practical ‘Moving Laboratories’ which seem to fulfil Gurdjieff’s model admirably. In the built space of a Moving Laboratory, individuals discover ways in which the interior space of their bodies exists within and has a relationship with external space by moving intentionally through it. This takes up Francisco Varela’s essentially Buddhist idea of a ‘…portable self-laboratorium [as] a place for human discovery and transformation’ and gives it architectural form. The explorer physically embodies the experience of space, pursuing the knowledge of the way it is ordered & shaped in itself and by progress through it.

Treated with serious intent, the body-mind system is a laboratory in itself; its study is usually called ‘self-observation’! Through this practice we can gain systematic spatial intelligence by following Varela’s advice to note manifestations of mind as if they were ‘scientific data’; with dedicated practice they become ‘gestures of awareness’ or mindfulness. Gesture constitutes data.

Quoting Mallgrave (2013), Anna-Maija Tuunanen points out that we are ‘…continually reconstituting ourselves within environmental fields of stimuli that are sculpting or re-engineering our biological systems…’

She defines Varela’s project as seeking to advance beyond the ‘spook of subjectivity’ and make the study of subjective lived experience as respectable as the hard sciences are said to be. His conclusion was that a combination of neuroscience and phenomenology would assist ‘a disciplined approach to exploring human experience…’ (Depraz et al On Becoming Aware 2003)

In my view, phenomenology is the philosophy behind both the Fourth Way and Neuro-linguistic Programming. For what it’s worth, I feel at home with it.

However, I am not an architect, so the general drift of Anna-Maija Tuunanen’s article is of no consequence to me – it misses the mark. But it speaks to me eloquently in that I had a big hand in re-designing the already built living space we inhabit: I feel that I have both shaped it and chosen to be shaped by it these twenty years; there’s a systemic relationship.


A Personal Journey

Before it could be properly lived in, the house’s structure – originally three terraced dwellings – required a good deal of adjustment – walls to be knocked down; doorways & corridors to be reconstituted; new woodwork, library shelving, fireplaces to be installed to replace 1950’s rather nasty tiles; plastering & painting attacked. The major work was done by professionals in the building game. I vividly recall wandering around after them through the brickdust and marvelling at the way spaces kept opening up with new-cut arches and doorways; it felt then as though my ‘psyche’ was expanding into the new rooms and passageways. I did not define it thus then, but just by making journeys through the planks & plaster I was in fact making new gestures of awareness, every move a gesture filling the spaces with feelingful cognition, taking it all into my being. This is what I understand as ‘embodiment’.

I suppose that all this could be dismissed as an example of subjective spookiness but it’s actually neither more nor less than it was. I can’t be bothered to call it an ‘objective’ account but the fact is that I felt my psyche expand to fill the entire space and it’s been that way for twenty years now.

In the thick of thin things, we have come to take the results of all this activity for granted, but I do often pause now in going from room to room to notice the woodwork, the carefully mitred joins, in a few places the very unskilled plasterwork I did myself, the things that remain unfinished after all those years, patterns made by walls and furniture. And so I decided to treat the house for a few days as a Laboratorium, myself the explorer strolling about it taking photos. These are to be studied not as a purely visual record but as quick snapshots representing body-mind cognitive-affective gestures: I look to left and right and make a digital gesture, often resulting in something rather blurred but true to life; I ‘bracket’ the bricks & mortar so as to reveal the thing itself in its essential relationship with lived experience. It occurs to me that photographs are perhaps always mere gestures towards so-called reality.

‘Bracketing’ is a key phenomenological process of reduction; in Husserl’s terms an epoché, a suspension for the moment of all the judgmental urges of the mind, employed originally by the Greek sceptics as a way of arriving at a lucid state of absolute tranquillity in which things remain mere things, disidentified, to be seen for what they are, phenomena of the human mind before they get crunched in ratiocination. Gurdjieff’s ‘Pure Impressions’.


I photo-bracket the front door of the house which was a wholly new space sawn out of old bricks – it didn’t exist twenty years ago; seeing it thus, with bright sunlight obscuring the garden outside, returns it to the status of newly carved framework rather than ‘front door’. My view of it becomes again the making of much mess of broken bricks & dust. It is a part of my Being. Mess into the kind of order that I relish…

One of the most important ways in which a house can contribute to embodiment is that it functions as a museum of memory – the neurons full of electro-chemical connections. While the house was being renovated, I stayed in a posh hotel that had a very large, golden framed mirror at the turn of some stairs.


This photo-gesture re-animates the memory which of course is by now somewhat out of focus with the passage of time – I recall thinking that a large mirror (preferably in a golden frame) would do very well in this position so that it doubled the size of the entrance hall and, when the front door was open brought the garden outside into the house. The mirror turned up in a local antique shop shortly after I’d enjoyed the hotel experience…

DSCN0463Up the stairs, sunlight following me around, the picture gallery, visual anchors for this and that experience, I am determined to come to grips with the statement: ‘…We wish to understand how we come to examine what we live through…’ (Depraz et al op cit 2003)

I climb these stairs at least ten times an average day; in the ‘normal course of events I do not pause to notice the manifold emotional associations attached to each of the framed photos, paintings, memorials on the wall; nor do I stop to focus on this pattern of depth & upstairs sitting-room & circle of blue carpet. Today I do; I perform a ‘gesture of suspension’ as a break from the ‘natural attitude’; my habitual approach to stair-mounting is in abeyance and my thoughts go off in a different direction. This is my own elaboration of a Depraz, Varela & Vermersch (1999) diagram incorporating Gurdjieff’s STOP! mechanism which I feel it’s necessary to internalise in order to make the epoché, bracketing off, work:-


Depraz et al, op cit (2003) confirm this as a method of guided introspection, a turning inwards and then a letting go so that something new can be revealed in a jointly cognitive/affective manner.

Strangely, Depraz et al  connect what they call a ‘moving intimacy with our experience’ with what is assumed to be a mental capacity – ‘intuition’. This seems to me to be an example of ‘if you don’t know what something-or-other might be, just give it a name and all will be well…’ Rather flaccid thinking!

On the other hand, we could take Gurdjieff’s ‘Centres’ (corresponding with the brain functions of neo-cortex (thinking), limbic, (feeling) & reptile (action & reaction), acknowledge Left & Right brain functions and thread in sense experience (VAKOG – Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, Olfactory & Gustatory) at every level to form a complex systemic process where the connecting threads represent lived experience thus:-

Scan0058It requires a balanced melding of all these possible human functions to achieve full awareness. If anything, ‘intuition’ could be usefully construed as the Emergent Property of such a system. It could be a rough equivalent of something like ‘energy of connection’, a fusion of potential human proclivities, an unspecifiable gesture of awareness like waving one’s hand towards something. Thus the smell and taste of books & carpet, the passing through arches & doorways, going down corridors, become the Emergent Property of ‘passing through’ and/or coming to the other side, being connected.

Expanded in this way, it is perhaps possible to accept that ‘…intuitive evidence is less a result or a product than an act and process of coming forth… when filling in and intended meaning … coincide you have intuitive evidence…’

And so I turn left at the top of the stairs pausing for a moment on the threshold of a bedroom, ‘filling in’ context to look at the long view outside into which I can stretch my being – a matter of large embodiment. The view stays in my mind as I penetrate the closed & cluttered space where I’m typing this.

I spend a lot of time in this small room, focussed; it feels safe, isolated & enclosed; it holds my being together; paradoxically, it feels as though my mind/body system reaches out in jubilation into the universe from here via books, computer, contemporary classical music through ear-phones as loud as I like even at midnight, yards of notebooks filed relatively neatly on shelving made from old floor-boarding dismantled from various parts of the old houses… The little room lives – there’s a cognitive-affective something-or-other that

‘…makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

John Donne: The Good-Morrow

Here I do not need to move far to get what I want to facilitate thinking; it all seems joyously close at hand; I sit at writing desk or computer table; I turn my head to look two bosky miles over the river; I adjust my sitting to suit myself; I am ‘doing proprioception’ – ‘the inner sense by which the body is aware of itself…’ Comfort in sitting, minor adjustments, awareness of arm & hand movements – ‘joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles & skin’ contain feedback mechanisms that tell me when to shift position. And then I can get up and go down into the much larger space of the library which contains, as I like to think, the gallivanting sources of my intellectual life. As I pass from one space to the other, there’s a feeling of personal transformation, of an opening up; my whole being becomes wider & seemingly taller though the actual ceiling is the same height throughout!


And then there are the views from the house which give it a whole new feeling every morning!


To recapitulate… Reflections on the origin of Neurophenomenology

The basis for neurophenomenology in modern times comes from Kant via Edmund Husserl (1859 -1938).

Husserl proposes that ‘the natural standpoint’ of human being-in-the-world can be established and experienced with its alternative by means of straightforward first person meditation; he provides us with an example which in itself is worth pondering and meditating upon in order to embody the process; in Gurdjieff’s terms to ‘vivify’ it, make it live for us, render it our own possession.

Our first outlook upon life is that of natural human beings, imaging, judging, feeling, willing, ‘from the natural standpoint’. Let us make clear to ourselves what this means in the form of simple meditations which we can best carry on in the first person.

I am aware of a world, spread out in space endlessly, and in time becoming and become, without end. I am aware of it, that means, first of all, I discover it immediately, intuitively, I experience it. Through sight, touch, hearing, etc., in the different ways of sensory perception, corporeal things somehow spatially distributed are for me simply there, in verbal or figurative sense ‘present’, whether or not I pay them special attention by busying myself with them, considering, thinking, feeling, willing.

Embodiment is a function of all the senses: we accumulate things in the body by taking possession of them visually, auditorily and kinaesthetically; when applying oneself to grasping the concept of embodiment it’s as well to do so in each of these ways and then combine the effect. Perhaps the combination amounts to ‘intuition’ – a label invented to refer to some indefinable mode of apprehension.

[Others]… too are present as realities in my field of intuition, even when I pay them no attention… [and] I can let my attention wander from the writing-table I have just seen and observed, through the unseen portions of the room behind my back to the verandah, into the garden, to the children in the summer-house, and so forth, to all the objects concerning which I precisely ‘know’ that they are there and yonder in my immediate co-perceived surroundings – a knowledge which has nothing of conceptual thinking in it, and first changes into clear intuiting with the bestowing of attention, and even then only partially and for the most part very imperfectly.

When we are not specifically attending to an event or series of events (everything is a ‘event’) we are in ‘natural standpoint’, idling along without focus. Things exist, there is a world-presence ‘…whether or not I pay [it] special attention by busying myself with [it]…’ But shifting gear into ‘special attention’ (do it now, just as Husserl does it for us!) gets us something else entirely, something rare and unique to the moment-when. So, for Husserl here, the deliberately summoned up sight & feel of the writing table & the felt sense of the verandah behind him is enriched by the sound of children playing in the summer house. I take it that this is how ‘embodiment’ occurs. It is not just an idea; it ‘…has nothing of conceptual thinking in it…’ – it is simply the case but it is something that never occurs to us when we’re in ‘natural standpoint’… when we are just getting on with ordinary living – that is to say most of the time. The experience of ‘special attention’ becomes even more striking as a working engagement when you ‘busy’ yourself sufficiently to add that ‘…beyond all this there’s a …zone of indeterminacy [which] is infinite. The misty horizon that can never be completely outlined remains necessarily there…’ which stretches out in time. Tennyson’s Ullyses understands this:-

…all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

This world now present to me, and in every waking ‘now’ obviously so, has its temporal horizon, infinite in both directions, its known and unknown, its intimately alive and its unalive past and future. Moving freely within the moment of experience which brings what is present into my intuitional grasp, I can follow up these connexions of the reality which immediately surrounds me. I can shift my standpoint in space and time, look this way and that, turn temporally forwards and backwards; I can provide for myself constantly new and more or less clear and meaningful perceptions and representations, and images also more or less clear, in which I make intuitable to myself whatever can possibly exist really or
supposedly in the steadfast order of space and time.

In this way, when consciously awake, I find myself at all times, and without my ever being able to change this, set in relation to a world which, through its constant changes, remains one and ever the same. It is continually ‘present’ for me, and I myself am a member of it. Therefore this world is not there for me as a mere world of facts and affairs, but, with the same immediacy, as a world of values, a world of goods, a practical world. Without further effort on my part I find the things before me furnished not only with the qualities that befit their positive nature, but with value-characters such as beautiful or ugly, agreeable or disagreeable, pleasant or unpleasant, and so forth. Things in their immediacy stand there as objects to be used, the table with its books, the glass to drink from, the vase, the piano…

In Kurt Lewin’s terms, all these things have positive or negative valence. The world is enriched when we acknowledge that all events whatsoever have for us a certain strength of feeling attaching to them. I take it that this is how the poet & composer & painter represent the world to themselves in pre-verbal cognition. (See my Figure of Eight, based on Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of Now) At this very moment I suddenly realise that, becoming aware of the unsorted heaps of papers & books on my desk give me a ‘sinking feeling’, negative valence, when a clear desk would feel so much better!

…I am present to myself continually as someone who perceives, represents, thinks, feels, desires, and so forth; and for the most part herein I find myself related in present experience to the fact-world which is constantly about me. But I am not always so related, not every cogito in which I live has, for its cogitatum, things, men, objects or [relatively solid] contents of one kind or another. [There are ideas…] Perhaps I am busied with pure numbers and the laws they symbolize: nothing of this sort is present in the world about me, this world of ‘real fact’. And yet the world of numbers also is there for me, as the field of objects [or events] with which I am arithmetically busied; while I am thus occupied some numbers or constructions of a numerical kind will be at the focus of vision, girt by an arithmetical horizon partly defined, partly not; but obviously this being-there-for-me, like the being there at all, is something very different from this. The arithmetical world is there for me only when and so long as I occupy the arithmetical standpoint. But the natural world, the world in the ordinary sense of the word, is constantly there for me, so long as I live naturally and look in its direction. I am then at the ‘natural standpoint’, which is just another way of stating the same thing. And there is no need to modify these conclusions when I proceed to appropriate to myself the arithmetical world, and other similar ‘worlds’… [Whatever happens] the natural world still remains ‘present’ [as background] – I am at the natural standpoint after as well as before, and in this respect undisturbed by the adoption of new standpoints.

And when I’m on top form I know that this is just the case with others who appear within the scope of my ‘natural standpoint’ and I take account of this fact. Conflict occurs when I fail to take this into account. And this is not conceptual; it is just general description prior to all ‘theory’ about what might or might not be the case. It is pure subjective observation which anybody can verify without resort to theoretical perspectives. It has a certain objectivity about it.

How are we to navigate this mentally? Husserl proposes a deliberate shift of attention by means of his key concept, the epoché,  which needs to be thoroughly entered into to have any meaning for us. It is a new way of thinking – perhaps an ‘unnatural’ one.

Instead now of remaining at this standpoint, we propose to alter it radically. Our aim must be to convince ourselves of the possibility of this alteration on grounds of principle.

The General Thesis according to which the real world about me is at all times known not merely in a general way as something apprehended, but as a fact-world that has its being out there, does not consist of course in an act proper, in an articulated judgment about existence. It is and remains something all the time the standpoint is adopted, that is, it endures persistently during the whole course of our life of natural endeavour. What has been at any time perceived clearly, or obscurely made present, in short everything out of the world of nature known through experience and prior to any thinking, bears in its totality and in all its articulated sections the character ‘present out there’, a character which can function essentially as the ground of support for an explicit (predicative) existential judgment which is in agreement with the character it is grounded upon.

Theories based on doubting the very existence of things can be played around with philosophically but there has to be something there to enable doubt to take place. The verb ‘to doubt’ requires an object. Whatever you take leave to doubt the existence of something it must exist before you can manage to doubt it. Doubt the existence of the previous sentence and see where it gets you… Doubt its meaning… Even if, through systematic doubt, you set the whole of existence on one side, it is still there to be doubted.

What if, for the moment, we practised ‘setting things on one side? This is what Husserl proposes – the deliberate act of putting things ‘out of action’ by an act of ‘disconnection’ a ‘bracketing off’. Husserl explains:-

It still remains there like the bracketed in the bracket, like the disconnected outside the connexional system. We can also say: the thesis is experience as lived … but we make ‘no use’ of it, and by that, of course, we do not indicate privation (as when we say of the ignorant that he makes no use of a certain thesis); [but] we are dealing with … a unique form of consciousness, which clamps on to the original simple thesis … and transvalues it in a quite peculiar way.

Whatever gets bracketed is not to be discounted, ignored or otherwise done away with but simply to be suspended. ‘The thesis is ‘put out of action’, bracketed, it passes off into the modified status of a ‘bracketed thesis’, and the judgment [becomes] a ‘bracketed judgment’…’

We can reflect upon the various different appearances of events viewed from different angles – they represent different appearances, different ways of seeing, but phenomenology suggests that it’s necessary to abandon the natural habit of perception in order to concentrate on pure experience, on a pure phenomena – ‘pure impressions’ as Gurdjieff would say – on the appearance of things and events, unlabelled, all by itself.

We have different experiencings or acts of experience. In Internal Considering we decorate and mix such events by identification just as we confuse our experience of other people with our own autobiography, projecting ourselves on to them as though we were them, expecting them to behave as we do. In External Considering we can get at the experience itself, isolate the event for specific pondering. We can , as it were, blot out people and events in order to scrutinise experience pure & simple.

We can suspend, at least temporarily, belief in the existence of whatever we manage to blot out; this is to perform a ‘phenomenological reduction’, an epoché. This is bracketing off, a way of treating the external world as if were not there so that we may focus on the experience we have of things, on experience without all the identifications with the events of experience that we are normally lumbered with.

Getting into what I call Meta-I we can look at essences, patterns, form & structure without all the usual clutter of existence. Husserl calls this ‘eidetic reduction’. Too much concerned with the details of things we tend, in the natural standpoint, to miss the pattern of things.

The act of bracketing shifts the point of focus. A very mundane example: here is a pleasant fellow whose practical bent is to do good in the world but his political beliefs are connected to the most destructive set of policies; in order to relate to him in a functional way as is necessary one has to perform an act of bracketing – thus one can set aside his outrageous politics and relate to him as a positive force; it may even be that he himself has erected unacknowledged ‘buffers’ between belief and action. What about a thinker whose private life has reprehensible elements in it but whose philosophical system is profound? Bracketing off the private life for the time being at least will enable focus on the philosophy. Here too is a writer whose characters inhabit a secure middle-upper class world in which none of them seem to have to toil with real ‘work’ – one can put that in brackets in order to engage intellectually in relationships and prose magic.

Refusal to engage with oppositions and paradox results in what Gurdjieff calls ‘buffers’ – a mental process that prevents us from facing up to our contradictions. Buffers exclude a relationship between elements; brackets enable open multiplication.

How is all this likely to affect one’s behaviour?

It is worth revisiting the Concept of PROPRIUM

https://colinblundell.wordpress.com/2011/09/28/the-self/ – an extract:-

In his neglected slim volume Becoming (1960), Gordon Allport comments that it’s ‘all too easy to assign functions that are not fully understood [nor can be] to a mysterious central agency and then to declare that ‘it’ [‘self’] performs in such a way as to unify the personality and maintain its integrity…’

Something more general, more neutral [than, say, ‘intuition’] might be more existentially accurate: something like Adler’s ‘life-style’, a ‘style or pattern of being’; the advantage of the latter is that if there is a pattern then one can unpick it and investigate its intricacy, discard the parts of the pattern that are not intrinsic to one’s sense of who one is – ho-hum things like driving on the right or left hand side of the road, not eating peas with your knife, politely holding a door open for somebody following you – and then you could start looking for those things that are ‘propriate’ – things ‘central to our sense of existence’. It makes perfect sense to say, “There is a pattern to my being on this earth; I can find it…”

The Proprium

Allport suggests using the concept of the Proprium which ‘includes all aspects of personality that make for inward unity’. He enumerates eight not necessarily discrete ways in which the Proprium functions; we can appropriate these paradigms to ourselves and find that they help to define what has become peculiarly ours.

• We have Bodily Sense; we are bathed in a sensory stream of events from the outside world; internally there are rumblings and oozings: these together provide a lifelong anchor for us. We locate the ground of our being somewhere in all this: for example when I was a child I vividly recall thinking that the root of my being was located in a large mole on the side of my foot.

• We have what we like to call Self-identity, that which we associate with our name; all our thoughts and feelings all down the years belong to it; there’s an organic continuity between the ‘I’ that entertained the belief about the mole and me now – I take my sock off and, though the mole has faded a little, I can still easily locate the root of my being there! Apart from which ‘Colin’ means ‘Victory to the People!’ with which I associate my long-term anarcho-socialist leanings; an alternative meaning is ‘dark’ with which I like to associate the NLP process of ‘artful vagueness’ or the Fourth Way ‘sly man’ (canniness)

Ego-enhancement – we have survival needs which often result in self-assertion; we derive self-satisfaction from what we do; take a pride in it, develop vanity and forthrightness…

• To assist this process, we identify with all kinds of things outside of us—Ego-extension; here we run the considerable risk of losing our selves in possessions, loved objects, people, teams, causes, loyalties, groups, clothes, nation and abstractions of all kinds that some of us even choose to go to war over.

• We have a Rational Agent that, by appropriate adjustments and planning, helps to keep us reasonably in touch with ‘reality’; it constantly discriminates between this and that.

• Our Self-image – the phenomenal self – derives from the way we regard our abilities, status, roles, and aspirations; it may include a vision of self-perfection driving us forward. The self-image guides propriate striving. It is a picture of our self that is not necessarily congruent with ‘reality’.

Propriate Striving is that which involves the ego, making for unification of the whole of our being, maintaining the tension of endeavour, expectation, intention; it is outcome-focussed and future-referenced. It’s what is usually called ‘motivation’ but is more about keeping the tension going than any kind of ‘drive reduction’.

• Somewhere in all this there is a Knower, a Knowing-I; it ‘knows’ bodily sensations, it can discriminate identity, it knows how it extends itself into other things, identifying with them; it knows what it is to strive, to get pleasure from being in a state of tension; it can bundle all this together and call it PROPRIUM. Such broad intentional dispositions are relatively few and it’s possible to distinguish and understand their basic patterning.

So, in order to move towards a definition of my self and to gain a measure of control over the result, I ask my self what are the broad intentional dispositions that have determined, and no doubt will continue to determine, the way I do my life?

My provisional answers would go something like this:-

• I persist in figuring out the patterns of things. The very concept of Proprium appeals to me because it offers the opportunity to replace the soggy lump of ‘self’ with a complex pattern that I can set myself to unravel.

• Without really thinking about it, I am constantly looking for connections. PDOuspensky said that, in spite of the fact that things appear to be separate, everything is in fact connected. I am deeply into the Enneagram which is a huge system of systems to do with understanding the way the whole of human personality is connected up together, how it behaves, how it thinks, how it relates.

• I aim to depict my Proprium – specifically the way in which it can be looked at from different perspectives – the way I can feel it working within, the way I can submit it to intellectual analysis and the way I can move between the different parts to make it work.

• I am above all a teacher of all this. Give me a new idea and, without thinking about it, I find myself setting about answering the question, “How will I teach that – how will I present it in a way that will appeal to many different learning styles?”


  1. Hi, Colin. Jae’s not on WordPress, but asked me to relay a message. He says that he’s been very tardy in reading your posts, and in responding to them. He says the drive from Billville to Indy uses up hours of time. That he’s been busy with a lot of things, and didn’t want you to think that he did read your posts with interest. He then added, there were only 4 participants in our discussion, which says something about the scholars (or whatever) on academia.edu, namely, that they are not very interested in Varela’s ideas. I can add for him, since I know that when Jae says ‘Varela’ that he means publications, etc., which he made with-or-without he associates or colleagues. I’m adding, Colin, that had I known so few were interested, I would have joined in, since I have an academia.edu account as well.


    1. Thanks Jone!

      Jae’s Dictionary is wonderful! We who are so busy with a lot of things know what it’s like!

      It’s a curious thing to me as an ‘educator’ – what interests people! When I come across a new name, one whose ‘line’ relates somehow to my own intellectual obsessions (there are other kinds of obsessions!), I tend to ‘go for it’… Then there’s the matter of how to ‘go for it’! For many years I’ve gone with Whitehead’s advice to make effort to convert ‘inert ideas’ into one’s own possession (Aims… 1929) That Antonio Damasio appears in Varela (et al)’s references was good enough for me to ‘get going…’ I based the notion of the ‘Figure of Eight’ (see my WordPress posts… making links is beyond my capability!) on an analysis of his The Feeling of What Happens. I made the connection with that and ’embodiment’ – a word I just haven’t used before when it was just a word. In order to make it become something other than an inert word on a page I had to get on to the inside of the concept – hence my Varela posts. I was shunted back to Husserl very willingly!

      What is it fires people up to make stuff into their own possession if not the feeling that one has to feel ideas ‘in the muscle’ as Robert Dilts says – embody them, ‘vivify’ them, to use Gurdjieff’s word (make them come alive)? Whereas most imagine that ideas are out there somewhere. Inside me there’s a virtual question which goes ‘How can I connect this with that?’ Varela – phenomenology – Damasio – William James – Husserl – bracketing – how to fit ideas together without clashes… on and on. I take it that many who post on the Internet are only concerned to flog their own dead horses rather than link up. Just the way of the world.

      I have yet to consume Varela! I’m just on the edge!


      1. Literally seconds after posting the above I met up with Gaston Bachelard… Will the connections never cease?! Of course not! PDOuspensky: things appear to be separated but in fact everything is connected – the dear man!


  2. Embodied Cognition – Cognition is embodied when it is deeply dependent upon features of the physical body of an agent, that is, when aspects of the agent’s body beyond the brain play a significant causal or physically constitutive role in cognitive processing. In general, dominant views in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science have considered the body as peripheral to understanding the nature of mind and cognition. Proponents of embodied cognitive science view this as a serious mistake. Sometimes the nature of the dependence of cognition on the body is quite unexpected, and suggests new ways of conceptualizing and exploring the mechanics of cognitive processing. Embodied cognitive science encompasses a loose-knit family of research programs in the cognitive sciences that often share a commitment to critiquing and even replacing traditional approaches to cognition and cognitive processing. Empirical research on embodied cognition has exploded in the past 10 years. As the bibliography for this article attests, the various bodies of work that will be discussed represent a serious alternative to the investigation of cognitive phenomena. Relatively recent work on the embodiment of cognition provides much food for thought for empirically-informed philosophers of mind. This is in part because of the rich range of phenomena that embodied cognitive science has studied. But it is also in part because those phenomena are often thought to challenge dominant views of the mind, such as the computational and representational theories of mind, at the heart of traditional cognitive science. And they have sometimes been taken to undermine standard positions in the philosophy of mind, such as the idea that the mind is identical to, or even realized in, the brain.

    -from Jae Kamel’s Dictionary.


  3. I really appreciate Jone’s extract from Jae Kamel’s Dictionary. We cannot simply ignore the work of Antonio Damsio can we? And so this is my somewhat less accademic response and my personal take on embodiment arrived at through reading copious amounts of research papers and through my own experience as a therapist and person.

    “Architects should be concerned not just with visual factors (as seems to be the case): human beings contrive awareness of the spaces they inhabit by proprioception, the body-brain’s inner sense (Mechanism) of grasping (understanding) what it’s like to move about in some defined space or simply to occupy it in a relatively fixed position. Proprioception gives rise to unique personal experience”.

    All words just a marshalling of ideas – (therefore is meaningless?)

    OK because there is no visible definition of proprioception, let us just look at one definition and see if it can help us vivify it.

    Proprioception: The ability to sense stimuli arising within the body regarding position, motion, and equilibrium.

    This naturally is not the only somatosensory mechanism being used inside a building or outside of it; we use all of our senses all of the time, whether or not we are consciously aware of that. To presume that architects are only concerned with visual factors is in my opinion a travesty – Architects are human beings creating buildings for other human beings, as such all of their senses and unique personal history go towards that creation.

    It may appear to that architects are concerned with making statements through the visual, but as persons who also inhabit buildings they also know that the look of a building is only a part of how a building is experienced. They know because they know as humans – they do not exclude their humanness when they go into design mode.

    They think about the effect of texture, both visual and touch, what the material used might “say” to the person using the building and to the onlooker, what sound the wind might make as it travels around the building, how much warmth the sun might produce from this or that angle. Internally, both inside the building and inside the person, what is the level of comfort the users of the building might experience? How quickly or slowly might they be encouraged to move around the building by the floor surfaces and colours, what work rate they might achieve in an open space as opposed to a closed and private space, etc. etc. etc.

    And so for me the article also misses the mark, even though I haven’t read it. (shame on me) It seems from what has been quoted, that the writer has blinkers on. And so do I more often than I’d like.

    Perhaps what Ms Tuunanen has missed is that because there is an inextricable mutual feed back link between our biology, our language and our emotions and our actions, each of us is communicated to differently by what we experience. The whole of our being is affected by the environment we find ourselves in, whether we are aware of it or not.

    We create stories about the environment we are in, (because we create stories about everything all of the time in order to make sense of things) just by “being” in it. The story itself triggers a response in our body and so the body/mind feedback loop starts again; when we return to a building at some point in the future, the body/mind goes into an “as if” loop, and we experience the environment “as if” the story were true.

    If the emotional impact was significant, (perhaps a dentist surgery or a hospital or church might provide some obvious examples) we already have a (other than consciously stored) somatic marker within us, that will trigger the “as if” response.

    The Knowledge is the information we imagine we have even though almost always partial
    e.g. This is the hospital ( it says so on the sign, what we don’t necessarily know is what type of hospital what going inside might be like)

    The Being state requires the whole of us to be present with our experience.
    e.g.The building is a bit clinical looking on the outside, does that set up a tension within, or a relief about the potential expertise of the persons with whom we will soon be interacting. Do we feel relaxed or tense on the approach. Our body tells us this, and then our mind through internal dialogue; our embodied state also tells others this.

    What we might “Understand” is always unique and depends upon our personal history and perspective and the context.

    Our subjective lived experience is all we have to appreciate the objects we interact with whether they be buildings or another person.

    A baby only learns to crawl through actually attempting to crawl, it does not learn to crawl through mere knowing/imagining the concept that if he placed his limbs and used his muscles well, he might move in the direction in which he wants to go. Although he probably imagines doing it (mental rehearsal) before actually doing it, and his motor cortex might even have been stimulated (through mirror neurones) by watching is parent or sibling demonstrate crawling, he cannot fully understand the consequences of his thoughts, and perceptions unless he actually attempts to move himself to where he wants to be.

    By actually doing the crawling, to get him from a to b, he discovers the big thing (a chair perhaps) he just bumped into is too dense and fixed for him to move through the space it occupies. (Knowledge through being/doing?) he learns that and he learns also that he has to physically shift his direction of travel if he wants to get from a to b, (embodiment of knowledge?). He understands, amongst other things, that it is useful to be able to change directions sometimes……………

    He only discovers (amongst other things) the concept of flexibility, through the direct experience of moving his body through space, thus his understanding is embodied.

    Anna-Maija Tuunanen points out that we are ‘…continually reconstituting ourselves within environmental fields of stimuli that are sculpting or re-engineering our biological systems…’

    Yes of course, we are doing this through our external environment, as well as through and simultaneously with the internal environmental fields of stimuli that are doing likewise. As per Antonio Damsio et al.

    Colin “I was in fact making new gestures of awareness, every move a gesture filling the spaces with feelingful cognition, taking it all into my being. This is what I understand as ‘embodiment’.
    Me too.

    Colin again “I climb these stairs at least ten times an average day; in the ‘normal course of events I do not pause to notice the manifold emotional associations attached to each of the framed photos, paintings, memorials on the wall; nor do I stop to focus on this pattern of depth & upstairs sitting-room & circle of blue carpet.

    I had a big hand in re-designing the already built living space we inhabit: I feel that I have both shaped it and chosen to be shaped by it these twenty years;”

    And now perhaps you have a felt sense of being at ease in your built environment – an embodied sense of ease.The triggers of which (somatic markers) no longer even noticed ordinarily at one level, but none the less there and active on the walls and in the walls and doorways and garden. (Active in that you’d notice immediately if one we removed).

    ” As I pass from one space to the other, there’s a feeling of personal transformation, of an opening up; my whole being becomes wider & seemingly taller though the actual ceiling is the same height throughout!”

    This is a beautiful example of embodiment in/of your particular building. In this case a consciously felt state.

    Something like it happens in every person, either in a pleasurable or non-pleasurable way and sometimes both, sometimes conscious and at other times other than conscious when they interact with objects in their environment and their environment.

    I think what I am trying to say is that it is impossible to not to be in an embodied state of some sort. It is as much this embodied state that speaks to people as any words or actions they might use.

    For me the challenge is to reflect on what is my embodied state currently, and what it is “saying” to me and to those I interact with. Am I authentically present with those with whom I am working. Does my embodied state communicate my openess, attention, focus and presence with them.

    Take a look at this architects work at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children – But perhaps not through Ms Tuunanen’s blinkers. http://www.wgsn.com/blogs/lifestyle-interiors/the-lullaby-factory-by-studio-weave .

    The persons interacting with this particular environment will undoubtedly embody changed states because of it and perhaps even changed feelings about going inside.

    Conscious as I am of my own change of direction from that which Colin’s blog went in, and I purposely limited myself to my own understanding of embodiment as it seems so fundamental to understanding the nature of our relational interactions with ourselves and others.


    1. Pat – Coming here to check Tom’s note I realised that I had’t commented on your splendid response.

      Just one thing: I think perhaps I failed to make it clear that in the article Ms Tuunanen was actually saying that it’s wrong of architects to consider only the visual aspects of a building and it was exactly that she was talking about the ‘…inextricable mutual feed back link between our biology, our language and our emotions and our actions, each of us is communicated to differently by what we experience. The whole of our being is affected by the environment we find ourselves in, whether we are aware of it or not…’ That is her line! My writing maybe helped you think that she was ‘blinkered’ when in fact she was suggesting that architects get rid of their blinkers! My poor emphasis – the point getting lost in my sprawling prose!

      Thanks for your take. Great Ormond Street is a whizz!

      My poor sister was in a different there in the fifties.



  4. Hi Colin,

    Three days before you posted this piece, I had open heart surgery to repair a faulty mitral valve, The operation was a success, and my recuperation at home has been faster than expected. In the past week, I’ve regained enough energy to resume my reading and writing, and to take on a few light chores and brief errands. And today, finally, I’ve caught up with your blog – sorry to say that most of the authors you discuss in this piece are barely familiar to me, but I most certainly enjoyed the photo tour of your magnificent home!



    1. Dear Tom

      I’m really glad that the operation was successful and that you are back in action. Keep it up! Pick & choose the chores & errands! ‘Never do anything unnecessary’, as one of my models (Ouspensky) says!

      I’m always pleased to find a new name: Varela fitted the bill! And got me back to ‘phenomenology’. Nice to revisit the very old stuff – nothing new under the sun.




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