Dissecting the Visceral Body, Across Time and Disciplines: Conference Review

Isla Jones reviews the ‘Dissecting the Visceral Body, Across Time and Disciplines’ conference, University of London, March 1st 2019.

The distinction between outer and inner, body and mind, has long been a point of contention. In recent years, this topic has had a renewed focus in many fields, from psychology and neuroscience to art history and the medical humanities. The conference ‘Dissecting the Visceral Body, Across Time and Disciplines’ took place at Senate House, University of London, on March 1st 2019 and investigated the visceral body and its role in helping us understand the human condition.

The conference began by explicitly addressing one of the key debates of the day: subjectivity and objectivity of the body. In her paper, Helena De Preester approached this debate from a philosophical perspective, arguing that in addition to an objective body, there is a subjective body. She went on to discuss symptom perception and the problem of ‘medically unexplained symptoms’, which arise when subjective experience falls out of line with the measurable objective mechanisms and processes of the body. In practice, these symptoms are often dismissed and labelled as illusory if there is no detectable bodily explanation for the patient’s subjective experience. Drawing on the work of philosopher Michel Henry, who primarily considers the body as a subjective entity, De Preester posits the idea that the real being of the body, as opposed to the idea of it, is a subjective and transcendental being. This claim has serious implications for interoception as a discipline, where the objective body and the measurable signals within it are seen as the starting point and the objective ‘truth’.

Various speakers discussed historical and cultural aspects of the viscera and its links to emotion and the self. Jack Hartnell’s discussion centred on thirteenth-century France, specifically Maubuisson Abbey and its founder, Blanche of Castile, who expressed the first recorded request that her heart should be separated from her body after death and buried elsewhere as a symbolic gesture. This started something of a tradition; more than thirty people in the family then specified that their heart, and sometimes also their entrails, should be removed from their body after death and buried separately. In these cases, the viscera were treated with a great deal of respect and were possibly seen to embody some aspects of the individual’s character. Sally Shuttleworth also touched on this in her paper ‘Bodily Climates: Health Resorts and the Invalid Body, 1850-1900’, describing the development of medical tools which allowed us to observe our inner bodies. At the time, this was seen by some as an invasion of privacy, looking into one’s very character – a conflation of our selfhood with our innards.

This historical focus continued through Fay Bound Alberti’s paper on ‘Gendering Interoception’, which explored gender and the ways in which bodily experiences are articulated through language, focusing on the heart of Harriet Martineau. Martineau experienced a ‘creaking sensation at the heart’ which led to breathlessness and discomfort. When describing her symptoms, physicians questioned her ability to accurately describe her own bodily experiences. Fay Bound Alberti explained that in mid-Victorian Britain, the heart was seen as the centre of emotionality, and heart disease as an intense sensibility of feeling which was associated with women, as well as writers. Women such as Harriet Martineau were not trusted when it came to describing their own perceptions and bodily sensations. This is echoed in the statement of Sir Charles Mansfield Clarke, who examined Martineau during her illness: ‘For a physician to treat women with any reference to her own perception of her illness was like expecting to remove [round worms] from the anus by making application to the nostrils’ (Bound Alberti, 2012;  Mansfield Clarke, 1824).

Continuing the exploration of the visceral body in medicine and the medical humanities, Jane Macnaughton’s paper focused on the sensation of breathlessness, particularly in cases of discordance between what is experienced by the individual and what is measured by the physician. Visual symptoms of dyspnea, or difficult and laboured breathing, do not convey the distress which accompanies severe breathlessness. In order to communicate their experiences and symptoms, patients are often asked to choose the ‘best fit’ description, rather than being allowed to organically describe their experiences. Macnaughton also discussed how the breath can sometimes take on a social role, such as during smoking, when the breath becomes visible. She argued that visible breath facilitates the extension of our body, and self, into the environment. On the other hand, the social lives of those who experience breathlessness can suffer, as those individuals may be embarrassed and feel inclined to hide their breathlessness.

Several of the speakers discussed the theme of the brain-body connection, and its influence on mental health conditions and the sense of self. In his paper, Manos Tsakiris discussed the role of the visceral body, and linked modern debates on interoception and the visceral body to the views of Plato and Aristotle on the role of the heart and brain. Tsakiris highlighted the bidirectional, continuous dialogue between the brain and the viscera and its role in the self, as demonstrated by the case of patient MM, who underwent surgery on the upper spinal sympathetic nerve trunk to treat excessive sweating, but experienced a shift in personality after the surgery, resulting in indifference and a lack of relation to others. Tsakiris presents the idea that the representation of the self is constructed through continuous integration of bodily signals from an early age, and also argues that interoception may be the first step towards understanding others. In her paper ‘Hearts and Minds: Interoception and Mental Health, Sarah Garfinkel also explored the dynamic relationship between the body and brain, and how this can be altered in various mental health conditions. For example, she discussed a link between dissociation in psychosis and interoceptive metacognition, which not only suggests a relationship between the body and brain, but also the influence of the body on mental health conditions and symptoms. Bringing in a historical element, she revisited Aristotle’s work and his view of the heart as a sensation centre, as well as William James’ work on the role of the body in emotion.

The conference featured a screening of Daria Martin’s film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist, which was followed by a panel discussion between Daria Martin, Katerina Fotopoulou and Jenny Chamarette, chaired by Noga Arikha. The short film focuses on a professional hunger artist (a public performer who fasts for extended periods) who witnesses a waning interest in his performances. Following the recurring theme of objectivity and subjectivity, it is suggested that the hunger artist battles with not only objective, bodily hunger, but perhaps more importantly, an insatiable subjective and metaphorical hunger for something he is missing. Throughout the short film, there is a contrast between the observers and the observed; the body is displayed as an object to be seen, rather than a subject to be experienced or felt. This is accentuated by the loose-fitting black clothes worn by the hunger artist which, in the dark environments in the film, portray him as a face without a body. This is an interesting paradoxical representation, since the hunger artist draws audiences precisely due to his body and his mastery of his own hunger. The panel also suggested that a key aspect of A Hunger Artist is its various tensions – there is a reciprocal dependence and hunger between the artist and the audience. The hunger artist seems to disown parts of his body which have need, precisely in order to exist as a mind.

Through its interrogation of the relationship between the body and the self, the panel discussion (and the conference as a whole) tackled questions spanning across several disciplines and provoked varied discussion amongst the attendees. A Hunger Artist brought the focus back to the complex relationship between the objective and subjective body, a theme which was touched on in various ways throughout the day. As is apparent from the diverse range of speakers at this conference, a cross-disciplinary approach is beneficial to the exploration of the relationship between the body and the self, and helps elucidate the complex nature of the brain-body connection.

 

Bibliography

Bound Alberti, F. (2012). HEART OF MYTH – HEART OF SCIENCE Part I: Harriet Martineau’s cardiac symptoms: a Victorian case history. Dialogues in cardiovascular medicine : DCM17(2), 135–143.

Mansfield Clarke, C. (1824). Observations on those diseases of females which are attended by discharges. Carey and Lea.

 

Isla Jones is a research assistant in social and affective neuroscience, working on the ‘Body & Image in Arts & Science’ (BIAS) project at the University of London. Her current work revolves around the influence of the cardiac cycle on the perceived authenticity of images and the perception of facial characteristics.

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