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Thinking requires body as well as brain

01 February 2013

More evidence is emerging about how humans need bodies in order to think: this has implications for faith, says Mark Vernon

THERE is a widespread assumption today that faith is largely a question of intellectual belief. The debate around science and religion, for example, proceeds on the assumption that both activities deliver facts and theories that can, or cannot, coexist. But what if faith is not primarily about facts and theories? They may come, but only after time spent exploring a way of life, committing to a practice.

Alternatively, think of mission. Books, popular and scholarly, are written to assemble evidence designed to persuade non-believers that Jesus lived, and that the resurrection happened. Or proofs for the existence of God are strained again as if they might rationally convince the sceptics. But, surely, most people are more likely to find faith because, one day, perhaps by mistake, they walked into a holy place, or were helped by a Good Samaritan, or were caught by a visceral experience of love or loss. Thinking about what it means is vital, but belief rests on, and stays alive because of, the embodied experience.

A NEW area in science suggests that these intuitions are right. It is known as "embodied cognition", which roughly translates as: what we think, feel, and do depends not only on the brain, but also on the body. We are not brains in vats. "It is not the brain alone that gives rise to consciousness. Consciousness is grounded or contextualised in the body," the psychologist Canon Fraser Watts explained at a recent conference on embodied cognition and theology, organised by the International Society for Science and Religion.

Think of a footballer kicking the ball. He does not perform mathematical calculations in his head to land it in the back of the net. He feels his way through the kick, and hence fans say that he has a good feel for the game. Alternatively, recall how you involuntarily move as you speak. It turns out that the movement is not incidental. It actually helps you to reach for the right word, rehearse the argument, and remember details. Try speaking with your hands tied behind your back.

Further, language itself reminds us of the importance of the body. We say "on the one hand" and "on the other hand" when explaining something, and it is possible to demonstrate that this is no mere idiom. It makes complicated arguments easier to understand. Or, again, you could say that Marcel Proust was right: the smell of the madeleine was crucial to his capacity for recollection.

THE part played by the body takes centre stage in newer ideas about the origins of religion, too. The story here is one of mimesis, or imitation, the American sociologist Robert Bellah suggests in his book Religion in Human Evolution. Animals communicate with their bodies in their behaviour, he notes: bright plumage is flaunted, lips curl back in aggression, a head lowers in submission.

But some animals have a degree of freedom around the edges of this otherwise mechanical display. It is not done automatically, but can be played with, perhaps reflecting the creature's own character. It is something that any keen naturalist will spot. When filming Life in the Undergrowth, David Attenborough reported how he had to stop thinking of spiders as "mechanical little creatures". He reported, "some are lazy, some are hard-working, some don't like light. They all have it."

This mix of strict imitation and personal play is vital in the story of religion, Bellah says, because it is the precursor of ritual. When ritual speaks to an individual, it is not automatic, although it will look similar to when it was last performed. Instead, the individual makes it his or her own. It is only when both dynamics are operative that it can convey a feeling or express an understanding. Lighting a candle; bowing in prayer; raising a hand in praise - these embodied gestures are not spoken, they are done, and they are all the more powerful for it. Man can embody truth, W. B. Yeats reflected, when he cannot rationally know it.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow tells how he became converted to the value of rituals, having previously thought them "silly", when one day he was taking part in a colourful academic procession. He suddenly saw, in his mind's eye, a line reaching back into the past and stretching into the future. It spoke of the deep meaning of university life. It made sense when he allowed the embodied reality of the symbolism to speak to him.

ALLOWING such rituals and actions, religious practices and experiences, to speak of truth seems to be the problem for people today. Our culture has developed in such a way that it is inclined spontaneously to rank what can be calculated in the mind over other ways of knowing. But this may be changing. The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing, Pascal mused. The new science is suggesting that he was right. As the poet Yves Bonnefoy wittily put it: excarnation is simply "wrong-headed religion".

Mark Vernon is the author of Love: All that matters (Hodder Education, £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-44415-675-1)

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