It’s not all in the mind…

Feldenkrais’s innovative view on the relationship between the mind and the body

Octopuses have entered my world recently. My kids have been watching Blue Planet, particularly enjoying an octopus somehow escaping from a shark’s jaws, by blocking the predator’s gills; and also arming itself with shells.  Nifty stuff.  And then I saw a review in The Guardian of Peter Godfrey-Smith’s new book Other Minds, about these 8 limbed creatures (15/03/2017).  

Now that’s what I call flexibitility……….photo by Vlad Tchompalov

It turns out octopuses have developed an evolutionary path completely  separate to mammals, and ‘is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien’, with their eight legs, three hearts and blue green blood.   They have found their own particular way of adapting to the environment.  And the really interesting bit from a Feldenkrais perspective –  they live outside the brain-body divide.  

As the reviewer Philip Hoare says: ‘an octopus’s neurons are ranged through its entire body.   It is “suffused with nervousness” – including its arms, which act as “agents of their own.”’  And they’re pretty bright too – with 500m neurons, as ‘smart’ as a dog, able to unscrew jars, and turn off lights in labs that bother them.

So, my immediate thought was:  do humans as Feldenkrais characterised them live outside the brain-body divide too?  In talking about the method to a newcomer, I will often vaguely mention that it challenges a mind / body opposition, but I’m not too clear what that really means.  Time to clarify for my own benefit how Feldenkrais talked about the inter-relation of the brain (is it the same as the mind?), and the body.

I dusted down my copy of the Elusive Obvious.  Feldenkrais writes that ‘only a brain can think, abstract, dream remember and so on’ (p. 17).  Hmmm…not so octopus like,  where higher level neural functions seemed to be distributed throughout its organism.

But Feldenkrais goes onto say (pp17-18):

A nervous system introduces order into the random, constantly changing stimuli…and the nervous system has to arrange the mobile changing world, and its own mobility to make some sense of this whirling turmoil.  

Now, the most unexpected means to achieve this Herculean feat [of sense making] is movement.  The movement of the living organism is essential to form stationary and repetitive [and therefore comprehensible] events in the changing moving environment.

It is movement, not just thinking or the abstract work of the brain, that is one of the key tools for sense and order making that the nervous system can call upon. For example, an image on a retina could not give a three dimensional image without movement of the head and eyes.  And he also gives the example of students in an experiment wearing glasses which inverted the images they perceived. After some time, they only began to see the world the right way up again once they began to feel objects, and move around their newly altered world.

Octopuses, or aliens, we are not.  It would seem they have much more diffused neural functions.  But Feldenkrais presents a view of the human nervous system (not just mind or brain), encompassing movement, which presents a much richer view of the self, than a superior brain commanding a subservient body.

Article written by Ed Bartram, 1/2/18, for Functional Information (Feldenkrais Guild UK Newsletter)