Experiencing embodiment

B K S Iyengar pic from www.tribuneindia.com

Last spring I began six rounds of chemotherapy which changed the relationship between me and my body forever. The chemo worked so well on the first round, it shut down my immune system and put me in hospital. Then each subsequent round left me weaker and weaker. For a few months, I became my body.

I spent everyday trying to battle the physical side effects of the chemo. And the intellectual part of me which I thought defined me, behaved like a useless relative asking the questions I didn’t want to hear: ‘Aren’t you scared?, ‘What if you don’t get better?’. Finally, I stopped thinking and did what my body asked me: ‘Sip this, chew that, lie down’. I lived from moment to moment and began living completely in the present, I had stumbled upon mindfulness.

One afternoon as I pushed a needle full of the immunostimulator Lenograstim subcutaneously into my stomach, I remembered Stelarc, an artist who upgrades himself surgically because he believes his body is obsolete. And I thought: ‘What a plonka,’ as I was still very sore from having cancer surgically removed from my body. But on reflection, I could see what he meant. I was only my body and so weak I was unable to interact with the world. Someone else was looking after my toddlers, taking them to the park, and doing all the things I could no longer do. I was trapped in my body upstairs on the bed, and I would weep at the thought of getting up to do anything, even reading was beyond me. I too felt that my body needed an upgrade.

I felt that every experience I had was totally physical and raw. Although on an intellectual level I still knew that was not true. We are embodied. We experience the world through our bodies and their limited senses and then our brain interprets the experience in light of our past experiences. There is no such thing as a raw experience.

I even lived this embodiment. Each time I thought of the next round of chemotherapy, I would vomit. Such a reaction is known as anticipatory nausea. And, anything I did in the chemotherapy room: drinking tea and reading my kindle, I was unable to do outside of it without vomiting. My embodiment had reinterpreted the experiences of drinking tea and reading my kindle as vomit-inducing ones.

I realised that it wasn’t just my embodiment which was causing my experiences. It was also other peoples’ embodiment, especially when it came to their perception of my physical appearance. I lost all of my body hair and so when I left the house it was in camouflage. I wore an expensive wig, I drew on my eyebrows and I wore a lot of eye-makeup to distract attention from my missing eyelashes, so people wouldn’t perceive me as sick. On the odd occasion when I would open the front door displaying my bald head and face, people would shrink backwards and look at me with horror or repulsion or fear. In my camouflage, people would treat me as a normal person and judge me on the tube for not giving up my seat to the needy. And the people who knew would say: ‘Oh you look so well, I can’t believe you had cancer.’ Everyone has an experience, or an image of how cancer should look.

Throughout it all, I kept my Matrix residual self image, the image of me which had been the same for over 20 years: Long black curly hair and a fine pair of eyebrows. So, I would get a shock when I saw my bald self in the mirror looking back horrified and repulsed even though I no longer felt my hair on my shoulders after I had asked my husband to cut it. I packed it and posted it myself to a wig charity. My hair had left the building. However, we didn’t have any mirrors in our home in which I could easily catch sight of myself, so I would go days thinking that I was still the same old me. Even when my husband said I looked like a Mekon, I laughed and thought, ‘Well that is just your opinion.’ In my head I was beautiful. I was a warrior. I was Wonderwoman. I had learnt how to reframe my experiences and tell myself positive stories. I had learnt to use narrative therapy.

And because I was focusing on reinterpreting things more positively, I stopped reading into situations. I have always been a people-pleaser, afraid that people won’t like me, or that I am not enough. Intellectually, I know that this is because my embodied mind is working overtime misintepreting other people’s behaviour. Most people aren’t actively disliking me, they are busy thinking about their underpants being too tight or what they are having for tea. They haven’t even noticed me. Sadly, I find a lot of women feel the way I do, it seems to be some warped extension of the mothering instinct. I have a feeling that I am responsible for making everyone happy and should rush about doing just that. As if I had the power?

Several months after finishing chemo, I went to a yoga class. I thought I would only do about 10 minutes and have to rest, but I managed to do the whole thing. It felt amazing. I was there and present and so proud of my body for being able to do yoga, to get into positions and to hold them. I was all of me, complete in my body. I was unaware of anything else until I looked up and saw a woman at the back of the room staring at me. Throughout the rest of the class she kept staring. Why wouldn’t she though? I was beautiful. I was a warrior. I was Wonderwoman. And then when we went over to return the blocks and belts, she told me off for standing on someone else’s yoga mat. It was immediate, she leant across and got hold of me the instant I stepped on it as if she had been waiting for me. I immediately apologised being the people-pleasing sap I am and stepped out of her grip, and then I lay down on my mat for the corpse pose and felt angry: It was a communal mat and I was barefoot and really, WTF? I decided I would talk to her later and got on with relaxing. When I got up I had forgotten what she looked like. How was that possible? And as I walked home I asked myself: What did it matter? Why did I need to say something? In this instance, her behaviour towards me was not my problem. It was sad that instead of using this time to do yoga and feel better, she was for whatever reason, annoyed with me.

And this was a revelation. I grew up in a household where sometimes I would be recounting an incident and then I would get told off because I didn’t respond correctly. I should have said X, or shouted, or shown them. Or, I would get told off because someone would be upset about something else and not about me at all. I just happened to be there able to become a focal point for their annoyances. And this has recurred in different contexts in my life, particularly in my career, which has made me feel bad because somewhere along the line, my embodiment believed that someone else’s inappropriate behaviour was my fault and that I should bend myself out of shape to fix it and make them feel better so that they won’t treat me badly again.

So like the embodied kindle-tea vomiting that I learnt instantly, recognising that a woman telling me off was about her and not about me, was amazing. And it was fitting that this happened in yoga class. Yogis talk about cleaning the lense of perception and see the world as it really is. Through meditation, Yogis attain a healthy state of seeing things as they are rather than the unhealthy stories their embodied selves have learnt to believe. And once this ability to see clearly is combined with the mindfulness of being present in this moment of seeing, great power and wisdom become the norm.

When my hair and eyebrows first grew back they were white, so I dyed them and afterwards I looked in the mirror and felt a distinct sense of: ‘Ah there you are.’ The image in the mirror once more resembled the image in my head, although I had a funky short hairdo and looked like a different me but more me.

And having spent time listening to my body and practising mindfulness, some days I still feel like more me, albeit, a different, funky me. And other days I forget about me and where I have been as I am sucked back into life and the trifles which can make up a day. And every now and again, I remember where I am, and I remember that I am all of me, complete in my body, and once again I recognise that I am more me than I ever was and I welcome that distinct sense of: ‘Ah there you are.’ And why wouldn’t I?

I am beautiful. I am a warrior. I am Wonderwoman.

Upgrading your embodiment

Stelarc and his surgical arm ear copyright Nina Sellars

In 2002, I watched Stelarc at the CHI 2002 conference in Minneapolis, give his keynote speech entitled The body is obsolete.

We used to talk a lot about obsolete software. Nowadays we mostly talk about giving software an upgrade. In the same way, Stelarc is not saying that the body is no longer needed, as that would imply that he believes the body is separate from the mind, as Decartes and his theory of Cartesian Dualism postulates. Instead, Stelarc is saying that the human body needs a redesign to keep up with the mind.

By redesigning his physiology, Stelarc feels that he can extend his philosophy of life because in this technological age, we are overwhelmed with information and we cannot creatively process it. Thus, we need a more creative attitude to the body. Instead of designing ergonomic systems which adapt to the body, why not redesign the body so that it can be more easily plugged into technological advances?

Over the years Stelarc, a performance artist, has experimented with his own body to extend himself. In 2007 he had an ear with a microphone inside attached to his arm, with the aim of connecting it to the internet, so that people could hear what his ear is hearing.

Sterlac is not alone. Computer scientist Kevin Warwick wants to upgrade humans too. In 2002 he had a chip inserted into his left arm’s nerve fibres, which enabled him to control a wheelchair and an artificial hand. The chip also received signals and could stimulate/simulate artificial (meaningful?) sensations in his arm from the signals. I listened to Warwick present his research at Westminster University in 2005. He wanted to take this work further and ‘jack into the nervous system’ in order to override the restrictions of our bodies.

However, humans are constantly bombarded by signals to their senses and have limits on what they are able to interpret at any given time. Because of these limitations, we augment our cognitive capabilities by employing and interacting with the environment around us. We use calendars and write lists so we can use such information when we need it, instead of taking the time to memorise it and store it in our heads. And the information which makes it past the filters of our senses and into our brain is done so in such a way because of our past experiences, which in turn impacts the interpretation of our future experiences.

This interpretative experience of the world is known as embodiment or situatedness (otherwise known as social situatedness). We understand and process knowledge which is situated in social, cultural and physical contexts. We give meaning to the knowledge because of where we are, doing what we do, in a specific moment of time.

So, if you are going to override your embodied nature – or your limitations – by jacking into your nervous system or hearing extra streams of information, you are going to have some new experiences. Your body might learn to adapt, as we humans are adaptable creatures. Alternatively you might have a meltdown.

Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock popularised the term ‘Information overload’ which describes the difficulties humans can have understanding and making decisions when presented with too much information.

So, the questions that spring to mind when you upgrade your embodiment:

  • Is the information meaningful?
  • Is it protected? Safe and secure?
  • Is it enriching? Has it a purpose?
  • Can you wear this technology or perhaps pop it down your underpants instead of having surgery?

Steve Mann augments his reality with wearable computing. Mann wears sunglasses which display constantly streaming information based on what he is seeing. This information assists his memory and enriches his world view because it is situated. It comes with a context and is meaningful to him in that moment and if his technology stops working he can take it off his nose, sit down at his desk and fix it.

In contrast, Mark Gasson deliberately infected his chip implant with a computer virus in order to experiment with the security risks of implantable technology. His implant stopped working but he is leaving it in his arm. He says the experiment was motivated by more and more people getting chip implants.

Many people have surgery for cosmetic reasons, so it should not come as a surprise that people would voluntarily choose unnecessary surgery to augment their healthy bodies with technological implants. However, Stelarc has said that he is constantly redesigning his own body because it is difficult to find people who want to undergo surgery. No surprise there when he lists the various setbacks he has experienced such as infection and necrosis.

Controlling a wheelchair with your mind when your limbs no longer work and an extra ear on your arm transmitting whatever someone is saying when they are standing next to you, are two applications of implantable technology. Both the artist and the scientist are motivated by the desire to upgrade the embodied nature of the human condition because they feel that the human body is insufficient in today’s technological society.

Ironically, robotics researcher Rodney Brooks among others argues that true artificial intelligence can only be achieved by machines that have sensory and motor skills. Robots and machines need bodies. Thus, they need to be embodied and situated to have a context and constraints within which they can successfully interact with the world.

So, as humans aspire to override the very aspects of the body which make them human, robotics research is replicating these human limitations in order to successfully create functioning artificial beings.

We live in interesting times.