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Coffee & Wisdom 02.74: Embodied Cognition Part 5

David Breeden is speaking all week about embodied cognition


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Hello, I’m David Breeden. I’m the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically Humanist congregation. This is Coffee and Wisdom. This week we’ve been looking at different aspects of “embodied cognition.” I have been contrasting the two phrases: I think therefore I am, and I am because we are. Of course, “I think therefore I am (cogito ergo sum)” comes from Rene Descartes, leading to ideas about dualism and materiality and spirituality as being split in some way. The full phrase is dobito ergo cogito, cogito ergo sum: I doubt therefore I think, I think therefore I am. Doubt then being the confirmation of personhood and selfhood and of the I. Well, that’s all up in the head, isn’t it? And that then is distinguished from other things we’ve been looking at. For example, this term “embodied cognition,” which I have not yet exactly defined, because we did want to go into various aspects of it before we thought through too much about it. But the American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology says this “the thesis that the human mind is largely determined by the structures of the human body (morphology, sensory and motor systems) and its interactions with the physical environment. This concept emerged from work in late 20th century linguistics, cognitive psychology and philosophy. So again, the thesis that the human mind is largely determined by the structures of the human body (morphology, sensory and motor systems). So no, we can’t actually have a brain in a jar, if we want to preserve the personality. Basically this is what embodied cognition is telling us: You’ve got to have the body as part of the brain in order to have what we would consider to be personality or a self or this thing we call I. I said earlier in the week, Amishi Jha is a neuropsychologist. She says, “Emotional function and cognitive function aren’t unrelated to each other. They are completely intertwined.” So our emotions and our thinking, our cognition, which also then encompasses the body, are all a matrix of things, actually, and then we can separate them out. But these are abstractions that we’re separating out, not the actual thing. Now, this goes back to some very ancient wisdom that is still with us today. We talk about the Western world and Descartes’ dualism, but many parts of the world have never been touched by this particular kind of idea. I quoted Michael Onyebuchi Eze yesterday: “The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance.” This in his book, Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa. Many philosophers and scholars in various African nations are nowadays talking about embodied cognition. That is part and parcel, very much of the way of thinking in tribal groups, ancient parts of African culture that has not been stamped out by Western religions, as we’ll see in just a moment. Another word we do need to learn is entrain: “to fall gradually into synchrony with a rhythm or something that varies rhythmically.” Entrainment is when various things do become synchronous, people can do that as well. We can become synchronous through music, drumming, movements of various kind, tai chi, that kind of thing. Entrainment then embodies the cognition and pulls people into or out of their own heads and into a larger organism, a group. One way that we can entrain that we’ve talked about is marching, off we go. And especially goose-stepping is a very great way to entrain people. As you see, it becomes quite mechanical, all going at a constant pace. This is perfect kinds of entrainment. The militaries of our world have long known, this is a great to get individuals to act in a collective manner. So much so that if you go to London today, you will see at the Albert Bridge, which is a suspension bridge over the Thames, this notice: “All troops must break step when marching over this bridge.” Various Victorian Era suspension bridges did develop harmonic resonance when troops marched over them and a couple did fall down as a result. So the rhythms, constant rhythms do have quite an effect on the real world. “Break step” being a Britishism for “don’t march over this bridge.” Well, we can go back to the absolute, most ancient paintings in our world, to the oldest kinds of human expression. Well, what are they doing? We don’t really quite know. But it does look like there’s some kind of circle going on, some kind of perhaps dancing. You see some hands raised and maybe a clapping motion or something of that nature. So this goes way back. Here’s some dancing also on a cave wall. Here appears to be some kind of percussion instrument, perhaps. The Egyptians, definitely we see some people dancing here. Some sort of instrument there going on, precursor to a flute, perhaps, but music and dancing, quite the entrainment and the embodied cognition for people. Oh, let’s look here. Here we have mainline Protestant Americans going to church in those good old 1950s. Not a lot of entrainment going on. They are singing together, it does appear. Yeah, but not a lot of embodied cognition. And indeed, we have an Anglican priest saying. “If embodied cognition also translates as bums on pews, I’m all for it.” Well, that’s great, Church of England, but how are you going to get embodied cognition going in your particular church tradition? It might be a little bit difficult as it is for mainline Protestantism in the United States. Well, all religions don’t have this problem. Here we have some embodied cognition and some entrainment going on. A praise session here among Pentecostals. We have a woman dancing in the spirit, up out of her pew and dancing, and an older picture of some church elders, Pentecostal Church elders, praying, putting their hands on a young girl to heal her of some disease or other. And, you know, if you really don’t want to go to sleep on Sunday morning, one thing you can do is go to see some snake handling. I can virtually guarantee you won’t go to sleep in a church that handles snakes. Yes, this still happens. National Geographic did have some documentary footage about this not too long ago. And yes, the star of that particular reality TV show, a minister, later died of snake bite. This does happen. Part of this that is going on is entrainment and a collective kind of hypnosis that does partially protect people from the poison of snakes and also snake bites. This goes on in the U.S., in mostly rural Appalachian churches nowadays. They don’t advertise it because they don’t want to become circus freaks. It’s just something they do on Sunday mornings, not all Sunday mornings, but it is part of a Pentecostal movement that has held on for well over a century in the American midsouth. Well, this is the graph that I’ve shown you over and over and Coffee and Wisdom, that is, the decline in American religion. Now, as of this year, we are told that the membership in American churches is now below 50 percent, churches, synagogues and mosques. That is the numbers as of today. Well, that’s not the entire story, however. The embodied and entrained churches are doing a little bit better. One of the things that is going on here is Pentecostalism. Probably the best book on this is Cecil Robeck Jr.’s the Azusa Street Mission St. & Revival, The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement. He is a scholar. He’s also a Pentecostal. In 1906, this photograph encompassed almost all the Pentecostals alive on the planet. They were in Los Angeles for the Azusa Street Revival. There are a couple of preachers missing, because they’d gone back home to pack up and move out to Los Angeles, but there were less than 20 Pentecostals in 1906, but this Azusa Street Revival, brought the Pentecostal movement to the media’s attention. Also, you will notice that Hispanics, African-Americans and Whites were all mixed together in this early Pentecostal movement. It was a movement among the very poor and dispossessed in America. It’s very interesting to watch in terms of the way race developed through Pentecostalism. Also notice that about half of the preachers are women. Another thing that occurred in the Azusa Street Revival. So instead of that downtrend that you see in most religion in the world today, in Pentecostalism, again, there were about 20 of them in 1906. By 1970 (this is worldwide) there were 74.5 million Pentecostals. By the year 2000, there were 482 million Pentecostals. The projection is that by 2025, there will be 740 million Pentecostals on our planet. By 2025 one in every four Christians will be Pentecostal, according to the present trends. Most of those will be residents of the global south, many in sub-Saharan Africa. Well, what are they doing? Well, the idea is and I think that the Pentecostals have struck upon this, again, is about embodied cognition and what it means in terms of our spiritual lives. You may not want to handle snakes or go rolling down aisles or jumping up and down, but there are lots of ways to be embodied that are also considered spiritual, Tai Chi and Chi Gong from the Daoist and Buddhist traditions in China that spread across the world. And then Yoga, of course, which develops in Hinduism in India and also has spread around the world. You, too, can get your visa to Yoga retreats and go to explore 50 plus Yoga retreats in India and take a tour of Yoga in India if you really want to. And it is a fast, fast growing part of our economy, as I mentioned a couple of days ago. Well, I’ll go back to a neuroscientist, Amishi Jha. I mentioned earlier in the week that she has a great TED Talk, talking about this idea of embodied cognition, what it really means to be alive in our world and in your body. She shows how we can cultivate the ability to focus on what really matters. “I think, therefore, I am distracted,” she says, is what we think nowadays, not I think, therefore I am. If Descartes were writing today, this is what his famous aphorism might have become, says Amishi Jha. She says that we need to think about some things to get into our body. I mentioned these earlier in the week. One is to Focus on the breath. That’s a great way to calm down and get centered up very quickly. It is one of the few of our physical functions that we can control by using our minds. Mindful walking. As I mentioned, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist priest, introduced this idea to the Western world, and that is: walking in a very bound space, usually barefoot or in socks, thinking about your steps as you go, and very much focusing on the physicality of that. Another thing that she recommends is a Mental scan of your body for sensations. Instead of putting on those those ear buds when you do your exercises, how about actually noticing how your body feels when you are doing it? Studies show that this helps with embodied cognition and also helps make your exercise routine more healthy for you. Also, within meditative practice, the ideas of Naming the ideas that are floating through your mind like clouds. Say that idea, that thing is about planning. That’s about worrying. That’s about judging. That’s about my past. That’s about worry about my future. Name them and we can get back into our embodied cognition. She says that, “People generally start to see benefits when they practice mindfulness for about 15 minutes a day, five days a week for around four weeks.” So the information is definitely out there on the Web that you can find if you want to explore embodied cognition. Next week, we’ll be back with thinking for the week about naïve optimism and stone walls. We’ll see what that means next week, and this weekend, Clean Up Our Act, MN. Earth Day at First Unitarian Society on Sunday, April the 18th, celebrating Earth Day, and then we will have events from 10:30 a.m. Central Time, which will be our regular assembly, all the way to 2:30 p.m. Central Time. If you want to sign up for that, so that you can find out what the schedule is and that kind of thing, it’s, and you too can sign up and know what’s going on at First Unitarian Society as we celebrate our Earth Day. Thanks a lot for listening this week. Think about embodied cognition. Get in to your body and out of your mind and just see what happens as you walk around today. Thanks a lot. And I will see you on Sunday.

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