by Barry Chudakov on December 31st, 2011

The Emotional Body

“The question of proprioception, our sense of our bodily outline, will soon emerge as the key psychological issue confronting the new generation of technologically aware people.” – Derrick de Kerckhove

From Galen’s early explorations of human anatomy to the Blakeslees’ recent survey of body maps, humans have steadily wondered where the body ends and the world begins. In our own neatly skinned consciousness capsule, we travel embodied through time and space. Pathology—witness Oliver Sacks’ patient who didn’t recognize his clothes or even his own face and sang through eating and getting dressed in order to navigate the simplest routines—can make the body a stranger. But perhaps stranger still is that now our extrasensory expeditions are taking us, as e.e. cummings framed it, somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond.


Curves 3, Flickr, some rights reserved by eightprime, creative commons license.


When we populate virtual realms with our thoughts and expressions, as embodied beings we enter those realms in ways we hardly intended.

“In real-life interaction people’s body images and schemas are relatively stable. But with virtual reality your body schema and image, which are integral to how your see yourself and treat others, are as flexible as your wardrobe. Results from [Jeremy Bailenson’s] studies may impact how people end up using virtual reality as more and more social and business interactions migrate into shared virtual environments.”

Google is a kind of statistical marker of just how far we have come, and how much time we spend as virtual entities in emergent body-less digital environments: Google receives 1 billion unique visitors per month who spend a total of 200 billion minutes per month on its sites (that’s 200 minutes per visitor a month).


Google Behind The Numbers


Once we acknowledge how much this is changing us, there is a tendency (rapidly becoming a cottage industry) to head straight to hand-wringing without passing GO. While there are plenty of reasons to stay wide awake as we filter our actions through ever more gadgets (Sherry Turkle: texting without breaking eye-contact “… is becoming a new, highly valued social skill”), something else is going on here. Our bodily awareness is simultaneously shrinking and expanding. Consider the woman in the mall parking lot on her iPhone standing in front of your car: she is oblivious to her imminent danger or to the fact that you are frozen in her chaotic pattern of zig and zag as she stumbles through her thumb-texted conversation. Obviously here we are witnessing a shrinking awareness of body in favor of gadget fixation.

But the coin has another side. In expanding our bodily transport—which may entail bodily unawareness—to be remotely present with another not here but in a distant there, our proprioception alters, just as Derrick de Kerckhove predicted. In Neuromancer, William Gibson described it as jacking in [to] … “a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.” And as this gadgeted connectivity takes us out of ourselves, out of our present into the ether of digital realms, we hear echoes of McLuhan who told us that the inevitable dynamic of all media is to alter our sense ratios.

Of course, as the Blakeslees remind us, “in real life there is no such thing as a disembodied consciousness.” But what about a re-embodied consciousness as we focus in a body-absent way on body-absent things? This change of focus brings with it changed levels of awareness (not to mention feelings of insecurity and loneliness).


Oya yubi sedai is Japanese for thumb tribe. We're joining the tribe at ever earlier ages. Flickr, some rights reserved by cesarastudillo, creative commons license.


We now have a new sense of where our body is or is not, even how we understand our body in relation to other bodies. Current debates surrounding the effects of porn and fashion imagery, each having spawned sub-industries of warping bodies to match images and altering the images themselves, revolve around a new body, the Metalife body—a reverberation between real life and an ersatz reality. Fascinatingly one label for our creation of this Metalife body is re-touching, as though the original ‘touch’ of our eyes over a given body was insufficient. There is also an echo of the sensuous here, the idealized sexual drama that has played out in Western human representation in the arts since the Greeks, including Michelangelo, Rodin, Henry Moore, and many others.



What sort of body are we in when we seemingly are so unaware of our actual flesh and bone, the heavy bear that goes with us? I believe the body in question here, though we may not be aware of it, is a revisiting of what philosophers and mystics have labeled the astral body, but some scientists today call the emotional body. We are discovering this body as we go somewhere we have never traveled, using emerging body maps that began in the brain just like the “numerous, flexible, morphable body maps” in our brains that tell us our me-ness and help us navigate through our world.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, and founder and former director of its world-renowned Stress Reduction Clinic, explains in his seminal work, Wherever You Go, There You Are:

Each region of the physical body has its counterpart in an emotional body or map which carries a deeper meaning for us, often completely below our level of awareness. In order to continue growing, we need to continuously activate, listen to, and learn from our emotional body.


Body map portrait using cut discarded maps by artist Nikki Rosato.** All rights reserved, Nikki Rosato.


Your metaphorical heart is as ‘real’ as the one that pulses at sixty beats a minute; your sight also includes insight. Writing in 1994, Kabat-Zinn said “the importance of the development of the emotional body is hardly recognized today.” But I would suggest that in our inadvertent travels outside the borders of our immediate here, as we project ourselves into an undefined there, we are encountering Kabat-Zinn’s emotional body unawares. Even though we have yet to recognize or define it, in this situation we need new ways of understanding ourselves as we compromise our mindfulness by adjusting wholeheartedly (pun intended) to the the logic of our gadgets.

Because we cannot truly be dis-embodied, the heavy bear that goes with us when we jack into cyberspace is not heavy at all in a physical sense; it is the emotional body, the body of emotions that is us from hair to toe.

We are encountering it in a completely new context and we now need new maps to help us understand an aspect of our identity that we have for too long ignored. In this process that is at times strange and difficult, we have the potential to re-discover our bodies, ourselves. And that could be exhilarating.


** Of her work, Ms. Rosato says: “Our physical bodies are beautiful structures full of detail, and they hold the stories that haunt and mold our lives. The lines on a road map are beautifully similar to the lines that cover the surface of the human body. In my most recent work involving maps, as I remove the landmasses from the silhouetted individuals I am further removing the figure’s identity, and what remains is a delicate skin-like structure. Through this process, specific individuals become ambiguous and hauntingly ghost-like, similar to the memories they represent.”


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