How and why the body is the foundation of our existence

** This text is largely based on material from my books:
(a) “The dance of miracles: the long journeys in the small steps” (in Greek, for now)
(b) “Shadow: our silent companion through life’s journey” (TRANSLATED in English) 

** The picture of the article is a processed photograph of Francois Delebescue-1984, (LES TEMPS D ‘UN MOVEMENT, AVENTURES ET MESAVENTURES DE L’ INSTANT PHOTOGRAPHIQUE – National Center of Photographie 2-15 Juin 1987)


A. Introduction
Not many decades ago we considered  our existence as an intangible and self-contained kind of invisible “essence”,

and our body a simple vehicle of this essence in physical reality.
Moreover, in philosophy, duality of spirit and matter was a huge issue and a cause for monumental conflicts that had very serious socio-political reflections.

Today, things have changed radically.
Through the knowledge provided by neurobiology, the ideas of the philosophical movement that is called “Phenomenology”, about how we synthesise our experience, are confirmed.
It is worth noting that in the phenomenological way of thinking, we first directly, subjectively and non-consciously experience the world through our body and senses, and then we form the world’s image in our minds and consciousness.

In other words, happens first the immediate, physical and non-conscious contact with the world and then we “understand” mentally the world.
Before I think and understand with my mind and consciousness that I am angry with you because of what you are doing, my body has already produced the substances that create my anger for you and whatever you are doing.

So, I think we could say that what we experience as our “personal micro-universe” is literally based on our body.

In this article, we will see how even our own self-sense, our ability to say “I am” and to feel this “I am” as our individual entity also stems from our body.

 

B. The body and the primary self.
The sense itself of being

(self-consciousness, the primary level of “I am” that we have every morning when we wake up) is for all of us self-evident and continuous in time.
But things are not that simple or self-evident at all.
Forming a sense of “first person” in what we experience and preserving this sense in time is an inconceivably complex issue – and at the same time an evolutionary miracle.
Let’s see how this self-evidently “I am” is built.

For Antonio Damasio (2014, 1999), our self-sense requires two things:

*** (a) mind and
*** (b) an elementary “self”.

Starting from the mind:
for Damasio, the mind is a flow of mental images – images made of material that our senses send to our brains.
All these mental images have to do with our senses. In essence, they are “sensory models“ formed by neural network co-operations in various regions of the brain, which are responsible for the production of such models.
It is remarkable that these areas work in the same way, whether the material that comes to them originates from our senses or is a produced by our imagination.

Now, let’s pass to the other requirement for our self-sense:
the elementary self, absolutely needed to give to our mental images a unified subjective perspective of the “first person”.
Or, if we say it otherwise, we need to be able to say that “it is me” that I form these mental images and build the flow of my own personal experience, meaning that “I am“ the owner of my own experience.
Of course, it is clarified that by saying “I own my experience” does not mean that I own it as a physical object, a house, a car, but rather that “the experiences I am living through present themselves differently (but not necessarily better) to me than to anybody else” (Gallagher & Zahavi, p. 226).

Moreover, our primary self must be stable and constant in order to establish continuity in our subjectivity during the processing of the flow of sensory stimuli reaching at every instant the brain. In this way the position of “first person” (the certainty that whatever I am experiencing it is “me” who is experiencing it), will be preserved.

Damasio argues that in order to feel on a primary level that we have a self able to maintain  subjectivity and continuity to our experiencing,

there must be some kind of “maps” in our brains that will be created and renewed constantly in reference to something relatively stable.
Thus, they will be able to play for the mind the role of a safe reference point in order to link the different images that it creates and to renew them according to the material provided by our senses. The stability of this reference will establish continuity as well as a constant sense of identity and subjectivity to our actions.

The role of this stable point of reference can not play a map

made with material from the “external” physical reality.
The reason is that if the senses that supply this material fail, this map will be distorted. There will be no definite connection between what I see right now and how it is modelled in my brain – at any moment this unstable connection can change according to how my senses are functioning.
Also, because my entire body is constantly changing at all levels, its form is not something stable. So neither mapping our external image will cover the stability needed by the map we are looking for.

But there is something more or less stable, related to our body.

It is our bodily internal functions, the chemistry of our body.
They are more or less a stable, inherent system, because great deviations of these functions mean illness or death.

Thus, our brain, in order to synthesise our primary self, builds maps of astonishing accuracy based on the micro-transformations that are constantly occurring within our bodies as we interact with the world and our senses are constantly “importing” new stimuli.

Everything that really happens in our body corresponds exactly to what these accurate maps depict as it happens in our bodies.
Besides, that’s why the areas of the brain, which regulate the different body functions in the situations we are experiencing, trust these very accurate mappings of its interior.

So, these are precisely the maps that make up the basis for developing a fundamental sense of being

in the first person, that is, the first non-conscious levels of what Damasio describes as a “core self” (or (“proto self”) that characterises all of us people from the moment we are born.

This bodily and non-conscious basis will later produce the development of all the other aspects of our more complex and conscious existential self-sense – that is, the way in which we define our existence in the higher levels of our mind.

So, this everyday self-evident certainty that I am the “owner“ of my experiencing, in essence, is not at all self-evident, but it is based on my body.

In other words:

*** (a) there can be no “self“ without our body and
*** (b) we all have a fundamental bodily subjectivity (with the word “bodily” I do not mean that our subjectivity has a body but only that it is based on our body).

Up to this point, we have seen how this so special and primary partnership of non-conscious mental and bodily processes generates a kind of elemental self-sense (a kind of fundamental, “basic” awareness).

Summing up, some features of this “I am”, which is our primary self, are as follows:

*** (a) It is created by our birth.

*** (b) It is the basis of our own self-sense and does not correspond to an abstract, intangible entity that exists outside of physical reality – it is not within us as something invisible and transcendent.

*** (c) It continues to exist throughout our lives as the stable invisible foundation on which we construct on many levels, as we move on in time, the very complex forms of self during our adult life (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2012).

*** (d) It gives us the feeling that we are the owners of our experience, it is like a “sixth sense”, a feeling that it is always “me”, myself, the acting agent in whatever I do.

*** (e) It is founded on the recording of the micro-processes that occur within our bodies as we move around the world and interact with things and others around us. And this means that, to form this coral self, we rely on senses and motion (“kinesthesia”). Furthermore I note here that, to a great extent, this primary self is the supporting foundation of amazing mechanisms of non-conscious bodily communication with other people. Between such mechanisms there are the so so-called “mirroring systems”.

*** (g) It is non-conscious and is a prerequisite of any experience. That is, it is not possible that we might turn a switch off, stop the flow of our experience, turn around and “take a look” within us to discover and observe mentally and supposedly “objectively” our self: this primary self we are talking about is not observable mentally.

Here, it is important to note that a number of species of animals (Yontef, 1993) have also a similar primary and bodily produced basic from of elementary awareness.
We simply develop this awareness further because (a) we have the ability of thinking (Edelman & Tononi, 2000) and (b) our brain structures have the ability to “push” the processing of our experience at higher (more complex) levels involving consciousness and our mind.

 

C. The “lived“ body.
Our primary self is based on the fact that our brain constantly maps

the micro-transformations of our body chemistry as we move into the world and interact with things.

So, this elemental self-sense, has directly to do with:
*** (a) how we organise our space in our perception,
*** (b) our action within this space,
*** (c) the basic sense of how and where our body is – with what our position and stance are.

For this reason, our primary self-sense is said to be “proprioceptive”, that is, it is based on information that the brain receives from our own body, so that each of us defines her/his own relationship with his/her body (Spinelli, 2005, p. 83).
Also, for many, our primary self-sense is “sensorimotor” (“kinaesthetic”), that is, it is based on the primary senses that our movement produces.

The fact that this elementary self-awareness is produced through our body and is related to its position and stance has the following consequence: while moving in the world and we can become observers of its objects, we can not do the same with our body.

This is because in whatever we do, we are always “in advance” our body.
In fact, we “are“ already our body before doing anything with it, even before we observe or think about it.
In other words, in everything we do in our lives, every moment, before we act as a self developed at higher levels of consciousness, we already exist as a primary self.

Thus, we can not build with our consciousness a position

from which we might observe our own body as if it were an object: we can not see our body from a distance, because to see it in any way, it has already happened that “we are “ our body.

We would say that our physical body is, on the one hand, a “body-object”: a body which, in neurology, physiology, anatomy, we place it in front of us, we can touch it, cut it, study it.

On the other hand, because the primary awareness of “I am” is bodily, we can not see our own body as any other object.
So, each one’s body automatically carries a huge variety of subtle meanings and, in this way, from an external object, it is always transformed into “my own” body my “lived body”.

Every moment I refer to ”my own body”, the concept “body” is not meant as something separating me from the world.

Inevitably, whatever I say about my own body, it represents my own primary way in which “I am”  – I exist – in the world (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2012).

In any case, this proprioceptive and kinaesthetic awareness of “I am“ always exists, silently, as a sort of “background”, in whatever we do, whether or not we perceive it.
That is, when I stretch out my hand to grab a glass, my focus is on the goal of my intent.
For example, I know that I stretch out my hand and I know what I want to do, but I focus on the purpose of my intention and not on the individual elements of my movement and on my bodily self-sense.

It is like in everyday activities the living body (this primary sense of “I am“) is moving “back”, in the background, so that I can fully dedicate my whole being and all my skills to my action – to what is immediately necessary to me as I move in the world.
It is as if my body remains only invisibly and silently present, since it is rather constantly experienced on a fundamental, non-conscious level, not becoming mentally perceived at the higher levels of mind and consciousness (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2012).

Ultimately,

our subjective reality, in every corner of the world, is bodily – it can not exist without the cells and juices of our bodies.
And the body, not only is not considered to be severed from the subject that shapes any kind of knowledge of the world, but is considered to be itself the primary cognitive subject.


References

**Damasio,  A.  (1999). The  feeling  of what  happens: Body  and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harvest Books.

**—–(2014) [FIAP Congress in Riva. Videoreport published on October 15, 2014, Southern California University]. Self comes to mind. A dialogue with Antonio Damasio. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LD13O7dkHc

**Edelman, G., & Tononi, G. (2000). Consciousness. How matter becomes imagination. London: The Penguin Press.

**Gallagher, S., Zahavi, D. (2012) The Phenomenological Mind. Routledge. London and New York

**Spinelli. E. (2005). The interpreted world: An introduction to Phenomenological Psychology. London: Sage.

**Yontef, G. (1993). Awareness, Dialogue and Process. Essays in Gestalt Therapy. Highland, New York: The Gestalt Journal Press, Inc.


 

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