Wednesday, November 16, 2005

"Social Embodiment"

In this section of Chapter 12, Sagan/Skoyles refer to human evolution from a "fission-fusion ape." Both humans and chimpanzees evolved from the same ancestral stock. Both behave in like ways, socially. "Fission-Fusion" specifically means the ability of individuals from both species to carry the "troop" around "inside the head"; even when not in its actual presence receiving direct signals such as visual, sound, tactile, and smell input, we can still respond emotionally to the "troop" and retain a sense of connection to it, to other individuals or family members within it.
"Social Embodiment
Evolution made us not out of clay but from a fission-fusion ape. We inhabit not only an external, physical world but also, as argued in previous chapters, a social one. As William James put it, “A man’s social me is the recognition he gets from his mates.”

The sociability that gives us this recognition, of course, does not arise magically. The brain has to work to get recognition from others. Moreover, human bonds are not passive or fixed, as they have to be actively kept alive with simple, often overlooked actions.

Do you not chat? Do you not smile and laugh with your friends? You don’t do this mechanically. While sitting alone in a cafĂ© or on public transport, try some people watching. Just look at the human species as an alien would. Look at how people greet each other. One moment there are two dead faces, and then suddenly they burst into life. As they say “Hello,” their eyes, faces, and hands become a duet of responses that echo between them. Our faces are brilliantly animated, skilful, and sensitive social contact organs. Unfortunately, in psychology, it is taboo to marvel at them. We are not supposed to be awed at our ability to be social. Perhaps the camera is partly to blame. In magazines and advertisements, we are surrounded by expressions that stare out of paper – they could be of waxworks. Photography falsifies our awareness of how alive we really are. In reality our faces are never static and dead but interact with others continuously with split-second timing.

We also express our being with others through body movement, the tone of our voices, and the sensitivity of our hands when we touch and hug. All these can powerfully connect us with others. Indeed, the rich expressiveness of much music may be an extension of such human connection with melody, beat, and tonality (Clynes 1977).

All these forms of expression are actions – social actions, done with great sensitivity, sending and echoing in a chamber of social and hoped-for social recognition. Our expressions seek an audience, some kind of social reply. We smile to other faces – ones that smile back. (Musicians likewise need to play to listeners.) The use of expressions gives our brains a means to keep alive our presence in our social world. If no one responds, if a group stonewalls you, then you are out of their social world. You are not one of them. Our expressions fight against this to keep us part of others’ lives. We wield our “me-we” sonar. We try to echo the smiles and expressions of others.

Our sociability has a goal: to let us know we are not alone. People respond to us, and we learn how best to socially interact with them so that they do. Sociability is an essential link made between our brains and others’. There is no such thing as negative publicity, say the media. No solitary animals, we like to get noticed, preferably favorably, by others of our kind. And doing that requires plenty of skilled brain work.

Thus, as much as motor actions have sensory feedback, so is sociability guided by feedback. Touch the movement of your face when smiling spontaneously with others. Doesn’t part of the feeling of being “me” lie in it? Suppose your face turned into a wax mask and your hands and body turned into one of those clever automatons animated by hidden mechanisms found in “dark ride” exhibits at amusement parks. And what if your voice were changed too, to become a synthesized deadpan computer monotone. With a waxwork face you could not make even the slightest hint of a frown or smile. With automaton limbs you could, robotlike, get a cup of tea but not wave, pat anything, or offer a handshake. Nor could you, with your monotone voice, intone a subtle hello, or laugh. Such a condition is imaginable, but it would be a psychological hell. We could do without our legs and hands, but could we do without the expressiveness of our faces or of our voices and gestures? Without expression, we would be cut off from that which makes us what and who we are.

If physical actions performed in the physical, three-dimensional world give us a sense of physical extension, could not those performed in the social world likewise give us a sense of extension – social existence? Expressing ourselves to others through our faces and otherwise is crucial to our reality, not in the physical world so much as socially, embodying our identity and presence. It gives the brain a strong sense of “me.”"

This social embodiment, alas, can translate for humans, into social oppression, cultural oppression. It can interfere with our own relationship to our own bodies, our own physicality. It can interfere with our own ability to reestablish a sense of well-being that feels as though it rises up from our bodies. It can interfere with our natural right to move in ways that are natural, that throw off accumulated tension, because honest movement might look a bit weird to our 'troop': In a deft move, our social embodiment sets us up and can continuously trump our inherent right to access our own personal physical embodiment to the point of our developing chronic pain somewhere.

Most chronic aches and pains would not even arise if it were not for this default, this all too human "fatal attraction" we have for regarding the troop's imagined needs at the expense of our own. Our proclivity for adhering to social dictates and lives and understandings, other people - all the things we deem to be "cultural" - cost us, cost our bodies. How do we begin to turn it around for ourselves? We have to bite down on some facts:

1. We exist not only in a virtual world of others and comings and goings, we are also physical manifestations of cellular life.
2. Our cells need to access and burn up oxygen, all of them, especially our nervous systems. (Our nervous system, including brain, spinal cord and all the peripheral nerves, comprises only about 3% of our physicality, but uses up 20% of all the oxygen we take in, most of that by the brain.
3. Where our attention goes, so does neural firing and blood flow. Motion is lotion.
4. If we attend to our own creaturehood by allowing it to move us, even just once a day, even for just a little while, our nervous systems can balance our motor clutter, muscles can elongate and stop being isometrically contracted, the whole body will be able to breathe better.

Of course, "we" as individuals have to choose to make this personal sense of well-being and resilient physicality a priority over our "social embodiment" for awhile every day. It could be viewed as a form of movement meditation, perhaps. In any case, choosing "self"(including physical substrate, tuning into it, letting it express whatever movement it wants) over "the troop" mentality, for 10 minutes a day inside one's own mind, doesn't mean one is selfish or wrong or bad. It means one is an autonomous adult in control of one's own faculties, including maintenance of well-being in a body. Regardless of where we believe we may fit in a perceived social heirarchy, we are each the sovereign of our own physical life, like it or not. We are each the mayor of our own "city" of 65+trillion cellular "citizens." We are each the leader for life of our own physical domain. Are we going to be a wise and beneficent leader, visiting the citizens regularly, asking them kinesthetically if there's anything we can do for them, anything they need, celebrating life with them? Or are we going to be absent from our bodies, abandoning them to their fates, hanging out with the rest of the (mental/social) troop, only tuning into our bodies when it becomes impossible because of bodily discomfort, to tune them out?

Make a choice to learn move regularly from your body's own sense of its own self, not from some outer reference. To do that, you need to shut out the troop, go in, just for a little while, be solitary, and let movement come over you. Wait for whatever comes up, then let it express itself physically, from everywhere at the same time or from anywhere sequentially. Allow the movement your body produces to present itself to your awareness - be a spectator, not the director. Allow yourself to be taught by it, how connected your body parts are to one another, how they flow into each other. Marvel at how easy this seems, how good it feels, how restorative it can be. Your body is self-correcting in the moment at hand and you are privileged to observe. Let it show itself off. You will know things are on track when you feel the following: a sense of warmth flowing somewhere/everywhere, a sense of effortlessness, a sense of surprise or marvel, and a softening or melting away of tension. Are these not good things to feel? Does everyone not deserve to feel these things in their physical existance? Once a day, for just a little while? Our physicality supports our virtual existance; don't we owe it something in return, a chance to learn to feel good?

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