‘A Multidisciplinary Approach to Embodiment’: Book Review

Lena Maria Lorenz reviews A Multidisciplinary Approach to Embodiment. Understanding Human Being (Routledge, 2021), edited by Nancy K. Dess.

In this 20-essay volume, concepts of embodiment serve to answer the question of what (human) life is and where it is located. The implicit approach taken is a deconstruction of the body-mind dualism and the computer metaphor of the brain. It is the performative, action-based model that is argued to be closer to the truth about living. This living is not a ‘tak[ing] part in processes, but [takes place in] organisms [that] are processes, [more precisely,] leaky processes spreading out across brain, body, and world’ (3). This idea from the introduction is picked up again in the epilogue which seeks to explain what embodiment is by addressing the two fundamentals of embodied cognitive science, namely, phenomenology (with Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the lived body) and the perception-action coupling. The 20 essays are divided into five parts on Being, Engaging, Coordinating, (Re)Locating, and Healing; each comprises four very short essays. Position papers, one could say, because although scholarly-argued and rooted in research, they each focus on one key idea and read like thought experiments with a mildly polemic undertone. As per example for the style, there is a general scarcity of in-text references, but a list of around six sources is provided in each entry as suggestion for further reading.

Part I looks at the beginnings, features and end of the human body from a biophysical perspective. The essence of human life is examined in chapter 1 on the backdrop of big bang theory, the development of the Universe and our solar system, concluding that ‘human beings have a body that mirrors the complexity of the Universe’ (10). It is a body in motion, continuously renewed and adjusting. Taking geology as the starting point, chapter 2 also makes a case for the relevance of earth-bound matter for human embodiment, calling it ‘an antidote to the dangerous illusion of disembodiment’ (17) as found in Western discourses (sc. Platonism and Gnosticism). Still within an evolutionary framework, chapter 3 highlights the RNA processes of inserting, deleting, adapting, modifying, and counterbalancing; this communication and cooperation on the tiniest of scales are considered the secrets of life. The same dynamics, the authors infer, are also at play in the self-/non-self-differentiation in the development of human self-identity, thus joining together perspectives on life from virology and philosophy. Addressing the threat to life, death, the fourth essay in Part I reviews the history of death and dying, showing that ‘throughout history humans have been ardently devoted to understanding, forestalling, reversing, and transcending death’ (27) and pointing to the new questions brought about by the technological advancement in the medical world.

Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man, Salvador Dalí, 1943

The four essays in Part II are subsumed under the heading of Engaging and they present examples of the active, intentional, and responding engagement of the human body with its environment. The first of those essays is titled Attentive Bodies, analysing epigenetic processes and arguing for perpetual motion and transformation in the human life, which disrupts the Western distinction between matter and meaning (and consequently cause and effect, active and passive, subject and object, subjective and objective). Epigenetic processes are said to be the response to the body’s response to its experience in the world, thus ‘represent[ing] a complete disruption of the long-standing distinction between the raw, material, animal processes of the body oriented only towards survival and the purportedly more elevated processes bound up with taste and aesthetics, habit, movement, acculturation, thought, and language’ (38). The next entry introduces the concept of ‘embodied agents’ from the cognitive sciences and shows that an understanding of ‘Embodiment [that] is tied to an agent rather than being a substantial entity in its own right’ (40) is problematic because it ‘keeps out the living human body itself’ (41). Uncovering the Living Body, therefore, takes evolutionary theory into account and calls for attention to the living animal body in the inquiry of the human mind and cognition. The deep connection between the body and the mind is also the focus of chapter 7 which discusses the influence of gesture on thought, and the revelation of unspoken thought through gesture. Gesture – “a ubiquitous and easily accessible tool” (49) – is distinguished from (other bodily) action and said to help learning, remembering and applying new information. Chapter 8 puts the use of hands and fingers at the forefront too in an analysis of Handling Texts on Paper and Screens, as the subtitle reads. It discusses the differing kinaesthetic feedback between reading on paper versus reading on screens, and the haptic dissonance experienced by readers when reading on screens.

The Dance, Henri Matisse, 1910

Coordinating is the theme for the chapters in Part III which investigate the rhythms of life. In Embodied Time, human rhythmicity is described as biological (inherent in organisms), endogenous (self-generated, independent from the environment), and circadian (approximately daily repetition). Alongside the biological, embodied component of rhythm, chapter 10 on Rhythm and the Body further includes the social and cultural role of rhythmic movement. And again, the notion of motion in human embodiment is of importance here too when it is said that the ‘underlying conceptual metaphor of flowing [rhythm] is rooted in our physical experiences of moving through the world and understanding that movement as a kind of journey’ (64). Chapter 11 goes on to emphasize the embodiment of emotions and critiques the contemporary positions which regard emotions primarily as cognitive mental states. With reference to the philosopher William James, it is pointed out that ‘a purely disembodied emotion is a nonentity’ (70) because an emotion without a body is merely ‘a feelingless state of “cold cognition”’ (70). Reviewing research on practice and performance in highly skilled bodily activities, the authors of chapter 12 defend the controversial argument that a conscious body focus can help control the body and thereby improve the practice and performance of the expert action.

(Re)Locating is the umbrella term for the entries in Part IV which all consider the social dimension of the embodied human life. The first one calls for interdisciplinary bridging when studying embodiment. It is argued that the concept of embodiment joins together the ‘social’ and the ‘natural’ in the human body as the ‘body politic’ which is ‘sensuous, differential, located, and viscous’ (88). Similarly, in chapter 14, evidence of ‘the “biological embedding” of social experience’ (90) is given from the field of epigenetics. The inscription of environmental factors on the biological body is one example of the link between social structures and biological bodies. It follows a highly politically charged and dogmatic essay titled Violating the Inviolable which regards women’s reproductive decision-making an inviolable right and abortion bans as a defiance of that inviolability. More grounded and philosophically rooted is chapter 16 which picks up the term ‘embodied agents’ in the context of the diasporic experience as the displacement from an originary time and space.

Death and Fire, Paul Klee, 1940

The fifth and final section addresses embodiment in Healing and therapeutic treatments. Starting with Eastern medicine, Chapter 17 explains the concepts that are translated into Western terms as vital energy, life force, and biofield, and gives an overview of methods from Traditional Chinese Medicine and their adaptation in the West.  Next, the essay on The Power of Touch includes a review of selected studies and advocates the health benefits of oxytocin, the ‘love hormone,’ releasing massage therapy as direct, active bodily contact. The following chapter on Traumatic Embodiment argues that traumatic experiences are bodily encoded and recalled. It is therefore this ‘Embodied cognition [which] is a complex interplay between self, others, and the world’ (123) that needs healing for the healing from trauma. Finally, the essay Virtual Embodiment and Embodied Cognition as ‘two theoretical explanations of the effectiveness of VRPT [Virtual Reality Perspective Taking] tasks’ (127) concludes that study ‘results suggest that virtual embodiment can be leveraged to not only change participant’s perception, attitudes, and behavior, but that it can potentially be used as rehabilitation tool’ (129).

Overall, the 20 essays in this volume are held together by the introductorily outlined view of embodiment as an active human being in perpetual motion. The volume holds true to its title as entries reflect a variety of expertises and many include interdisciplinary dialogues. The solid integration of philosophical thought with the sciences gives justice to both. But while philosophy is being challenged, science seems to be regarded as providing hard facts and evolutionary theory is assumed without questioning. In other words, very recent, technologically aided discoveries are granted precedence over century old human experience and reflection. This is contrary to the endeavours of the Medical Humanities, a perspective that is not represented in the present volume. The reader should thus be aware that despite the breadth of essays and their engagement with philosophical thought, it is scientific, quantitative research that undergirds the argumentation in this volume. From a neuroscientific and biomedical perspective, however, it may offer a refreshing approach. But regardless of the reader’s background or viewpoint, all essays are certainly comprehensible, making the book easily accessible for a wide range of audiences.


Lena Maria Lorenz is a PhD student in the Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University. Taking a multidisciplinary approach, she explores holistic healing and meaningful living. Her current research includes theological and phenomenological perspectives on the embodiment of hope in human lives that are marked by chronic, physical pain.

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