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Sunday, 18 December 2011

Bodies and Minds: even more on philosophy and sport

Philosophers are nothing if not an argumentative bunch, and many different arguments have been offered against Dualism.  One school of philosophy that is particularly relevant in this regard is phenomenology.  This approach is unusual because as opposed to almost every other school of philosophy, it is mainly concerned with describing, rather than the explaining, the things we experience.  Hubert Dreyfus captures the spirit of the phenomenological stance when he wrote:

“In explaining our actions we must always sooner or later fall back on our everyday practices and simply say 'this is what we do' or 'that's what it is to be a human being'.  Thus, in the last analysis, all intelligibility and all intelligent behaviour must be traced back to our sense of what we are.” (cited in Wrathall, 2000, p. 94)

According to Dreyfus, the biggest problem with dualism is that its account of action just does not relate to what it is really like to move.

So, phenomenologists reject the Cartesian splitting of the mind and body in favour of an integrated view that emphasises the notion of embodiment, or the central importance of human experience as lived through a body.  In other words, while dualism generally regarded the mind as the driver and degraded the body to a mere machine or vehicle, phenomenology countered that the body was the bridge to the world:  “Our senses are the portals that lead from inner to outer space.  Robbed of them, we become an island unto ourselves, lacking the ability to interact with the world” (Hunter and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p. 8).

At the heart of phenomenology is the view that to be in the world is to have a body or be a body.  It is only through being a body that I am what and who I am.  And it is only though my body that I can experience and learn about the things that make up my world.

This might seem a rather abstract idea, but some writers have suggested that a lot of what goes on when people actually play sport does not seem to fit the dualist idea of a mind working a mechanical body, no matter how fit and efficient.  The psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, who we have just met above, suggested that there were certain experiences that were common to many sports players in which thought and action seem inseparable.  He used the word ‘flow’ to refer to experiences in which a person feels on top of the world, in total command of the situation and feeling that his/her limits are being pushed to the limits.  He quotes the words of an elite skater:
“Everything else goes away. It almost happens in slow motion, even though you're doing things at the correct time with the music and everything.  Nothing else matters; it is just such an eerie, eerie feeling. The audience fades away, except for the brief moment when they were clapping so loudly - actually that was just a part of us. It was all a part of our experience; it never took us out of our focus”. (Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi, 1999, p. 73)

Numerous sports players have spoken about these types of experiences: of ‘being in the zone’; of ‘going with the flow’; and of ‘playing out of my mind’.  Together, they point to an experience in which the body and the mind are inseparable.

“Basketball is a complex dance. To excel, you need to act with a clear mind and be totally focused on what everyone on the floor is doing. Some athletes describe this quality of mind as a "cocoon of concentration." But that implies shutting out the world when what you really need to do is become more acutely aware of what's happening right now, this very moment.” (Great basketball coach Phil Jackson; 1995, p. 116)

So, what do you think?

Is this just an illusion or a trick of the mind?

Or is it just the consequence of highly trained athletes just thinking that they are not thinking?

1 comment:

Gemma said...

I'm reading Leder's absent body book at the moment. It's interesting to combine your blog with this book in terms of when we do and do not feel or think about our body. Like often we only feel our body when it is in pain, and because it is in the background most of the time and doing thing automatically, we often don't see ourselves as in control of it, but that doesn't mean its not part of who we are. Often athletes do try and take as much of their body under their control as possible though, and it can often be treated like a machine, the the body is the mechanical part of us that is there for manipulation.