We academics think for a living (or, at least, that’s supposed to be a part of it). You might think that, for this reason, our work can be done anywhere, at any time. Since academic work takes place in an abstract realm — the realm of thoughts — it is eternally accessible, no matter the bodily backdrop. That’s why, during this pandemic, we are among the lucky ones. “Working from home” is of no consequence when your work takes place in the realm of thought.
Never mind those of us with children or family to take care of, this picture doesn’t even reflect reality for dependant-less academics. Why? Because thought simply doesn’t work like this. Our thought is fundamentally embodied and contextual. The idea that thought exists somewhere far away from the body is nothing but a Cartesian hangover … or is it?
In fact, Descartes himself recognised that thought is very much embodied. Sure, minds are, strictly speaking, distinct from bodies. But we are not pure minds; we are human beings with beating hearts and (at the moment) lockdown bellies. We are just as much a part of the physical world as the mental one.
The list of things that Descartes attributes to the body is really quite significant: “the digestion of food, the beating of the heart and arteries, the nourishment and growth of the limbs, respiration, waking and sleeping, the reception by the external sense organs of light, sounds, smells, tastes, heat and other such qualities, the imprinting of the ideas of these qualities in the organ of the ‘common’ sense and the imagination, the retention or stamping of these ideas in the memory, the internal movements of the appetites and passions, and finally the external movements of all the limbs.”
In this passage, Descartes does not just attribute physical processes like digestion and respiration to bodies, but many far more mental-sounding faculties like passion, imagination, and even memory. The body meddles in mental space. Mind and body are not akin to sailor and ship, and Descartes knew this just as well as anyone: “I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but that I am very closely joined and intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit.”
So, this leaves the academic in the same boat as everyone else. We can’t jump ship and escape our bodies, and we make a harmful mistake when we assume that our work takes place in a non-physical realm. The bodily context of our thinking is an essential part of that thinking, and we must acknowledge it as such. The inclination to think of the body as a life-support machine for the mind is erroneous and it brings damaging effects for universities with it.
The myth of the disembodied mind is dangerous for the academy for at least a couple of reasons. First, it implies that teaching and research are matters of mind and, therefore, that they can be effectively done with no bodily involvement. Second, it denies our very nature as human beings; making us feel guilty for our inability to transcend our physical predicaments.
The move to online teaching (which was already well underway before the pandemic) seems to be motivated by the view that university teaching is just a mind-to-mind “knowledge transfer”. But this neglects the fact that teaching is an affective and body-involving practice: it plays to our eyes, ears and emotions as well as our intellects. To think of our students as disembodied minds is detrimental. Rather, we must think of them as mind-body unities (AKA human beings) who mirror emotions and care about what they’re learning.
What do you remember about your time at university? I’ll guess that you remember rooms, faces, smells and voices — and that these memories are inextricably linked with the theorems and facts that you left with. For students, making an effort to travel to a room where nothing else happens but learning, where you watch and listen to someone who is animated and passionate about their subject — these are central parts of the experience, and they are essentially physical.
In line with this, it seems to be much more difficult to stay focussed during an online conference or seminar than it does when you have travelled to a room for the specific purpose of hearing that talk. Body space and headspace really do go hand in hand.
Why does the situation of the body affect our ability to think? Descartes can offer us some more insight here. In his work the Passions of the Soul, Descartes talks about the ability of the body to “strengthen and preserve” our thoughts. The “spirits” of the body (bodily vapours and rarefied blood), when stirred up by various physical factors, fix the patterns in our neurons (which give rise to thoughts in our minds) and keep them still for a period of time — which means that we stay attentive to that one thought in particular. This is one of many ways in which the body serves the mind, according to Descartes.
So, attempts to digitise teaching and learning cost us. Comparable attempts to digitise have also come at a cost: studies have shown that reading on a Kindle is less effective (in terms of how much information the reader retains) than reading from a tactile paper book, for example. Bodies and their feelings, sensations and emotions cannot be left out. Of course, digital teaching is the best we can do for now, but it is not the best we can do.
The myth that a human mind can transcend the physical is also responsible for a great deal of academic guilt. If thinking is really something done outside of the head, then the space that your head is in shouldn’t matter. But, of course, it does. If it’s noisy, you won’t do good thinking. If your muscles are tense, you won’t do good thinking. If you’ve just had some bad news, you won’t do good thinking. If you’re hungry, you won’t do good thinking (and studies show that you award your students lower grades!). I could go on and on, but I’m sure this is familiar territory.
Once we accept the truth — that our thinking is essentially embodied –– we can begin to create physical and mental spaces that are conducive to good thinking. Take a break, do some yoga, change the scene, pet your dog — it sounds basic because it is. You’ll do better thinking if you nourish the body, because your mind is in there somewhere. There is absolutely nothing to feel guilty about.
So, we shouldn’t be surprised if our thoughts and thought processes are different now that we’re stuck at home. We shouldn’t think of our environments as obstacles that must be overcome. We shouldn’t call ourselves “failures” when we can’t quite grasp those elusive and complex thoughts from the sofa. Instead, we should give our bodies time to settle into their new surroundings. Many of us will be teaching and researching from home until Christmas at least. That means that we have time to pull into the harbour and let down the anchor (okay, I’ll stop with the nautical metaphors). Let your mind settle into the body’s new surroundings and see what turns up.