Monday, June 08, 2009

The Human Pseudopod: Michotte on Bodily Phenomenology

Albert Michotte was famous for his work on the perception of causality, especially on the conditions under which one ball is visually interpreted as launching another. Less well known are his remarks on the experience of embodiment, which I just came across and can't resist sharing.

[W]here the body is motionless... there is an almost complete adaptation of the receptor organs, and the result is that the body simply disappears from the phenomenal world. This is indeed what seems to happen to a very high degree in the practice of certain oriental sects, where those who are expert are able, by remaining motionless, to achieve an extreme state of apparent "spiritualisation". Movement appears to be essential to the phenomenal existence of the body, and it is probable that we are aware of our bodily states only in so far as they are terminal phases of movements. In our ordinary waking life, of course, our bodies are motionless only to a relative extent; there is nearly always movement, if only as a result of respiration.

Whether it is temporarily motionless or whether it is moving, the body appears as a somewhat shapeless mass or volume. there is very little by way of internal organisation or connexion between the parts. There is no clear marking off of the head, trunk, and limbs by precise lines of demarcation.... Instead of any precise line of demarcation we find a number of regions with extensive connexions between them gradually merging into one another.

We can with some justification look on the body as a sort of kinaesthethic amoeba, a perpetually changing mass with loose connexions between the parts, and with the limbs constituting the pseudopodia.... The "volume" of which it consists is not limited by a clearly defined surface, and there is no "contour".... The limit of the body is more like the limit of the visual field -- an imprecise frontier which has no line of demarcation, and indeed which cannot without absurdity be imagined to have one (1946/1964, p. 203-204).
Close your eyes, refrain as much as possible from touching anything. Do your pseudopodia grow and shrink as you move or refrain from moving them?


Anonymous said...

I have had this experience or something like it before. I remember thinking if the sensation that I feel from pressing my fingertips together was located in my fingertips or in my brain. While I was thinking about it with my eyes closed I had the feeling my fingertips were pulled or shrunk or brought to the same area that I feel like my imaginings are (wherever that is). If is quite a fun feeling, and I can usually do something like it at will. Though I am not sure how philosophical it is.

nathan said...
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Andy said...

I suspect there's a lot of truth in what he says and many ordinary, everyday experiences hint at it - certain states of fatigue and deep relaxation in particular. Is it possible that in some way the phrase 'sinking into a comfortable armchair' refers not just to an external movement in which the body lowers itself into a particular position, but also to an internal state whereby the phenomenal boundary between the body and the environment becomes more fluid and the sense of location becomes more expansive?