Honesty and the Human Body

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt.

In economics and biology, honesty is understood in terms of signals.

Signals are anything used to communicate, to convey information. A price is a signal of value. Conspicuous consumption is a signal of wealth. A growl is a threat — and the growl’s depth is a signal of the size of the creature’s body cavity.

Signals are said to be honest when they reliably correspond to an underlying trait or fact about the world. Otherwise they are dishonest or deceptive.

The temptation to deceive is ubiquitous. Deception allows an agent to reap benefits without incurring costs. That’s why the best signals — the most honest ones — are expensive. More precisely, they are differentially expensive: costly to produce, but even more costly to fake.

This is the reason Apple retail stores are roomy and filled with helpful employees — it’s something their lower-margin competitors can’t afford. It’s also why species with good defense mechanisms (like skunks and coral snakes) evolve high-contrast colors. Unless it can defend itself, an animal that stands out quickly becomes another animal’s lunch.

Honesty is thus, in part, an economic proposition.

Humans are the most communicative species on the planet, but we’ve come increasingly to rely on the very cheapest signals: words. The problem with words is that they aren’t a scarce resource. Which is a more honest signal of your value to a company: when your boss says, “Great job!” or when she gives you a raise?

Talk, as they say, is cheap. This is especially true on the Internet. Faced with global deflation in the value of words, we’ve had to find other ways to gauge quality and honesty. PageRank, for example, works because incoming links are scarce (at least from high-quality websites). CPU cycles are also scarce, which is how the bitcoin network prevents double-spending. CAPTCHAs use a task that’s difficult for a computer but easy for a human; in other words, it can honestly detect the presence of a brain. And social networks use real-world identities, with their attendant reputations, to keep imposters and anonymous commenters out of the system (for better or worse).

In each of these examples, we’re looking for evidence of things we care about. Words (or bits), by themselves, aren’t a good medium for honest signals because they aren’t differentially expensive. False and/or low-quality sentences are just as easy to produce as true, high-quality sentences. To gauge honesty and/or quality, we have to look outside the words — to the economics of the process that produces them.

Getting information reliably from point A to point B also hinges on mediation. How many intermediate representations does the information pass through? And are any other agents putting their stamp on the information? Agency is disruptive because it acts as a lens, distorting information as it passes through a field of incentives. And agency is often difficult even to locate, as Mike Travers’ catalogue so wonderfully demonstrates.

Incidentally, cutting out the middleman is the cornerstone of science. When I tell you something, as one scientist to another, there’s an implied subtext: don’t trust me! Or my words! Go check them yourself, against reality. It’s a disintermediating move, one that helps maintain honesty across a huge network of agents with different agendas.

Taking the body seriously

As a matter of methodology, it’s often wise to ignore words entirely. This is especially useful when trying to understand the human social world, which is rife with agency and deception. Instead we should focus our attention (whenever possible) on the underlying economics, which is ultimately grounded in physical, ecological, and biological reality.

The lynchpin of this enterprise is the human body. Everything that happens to us, and every action we take, passes through the body. It’s the most immediate connection we have to external reality. And it’s through the body — that fragile nexus of metabolism and reproduction — that we confront the scarcity of the physical world. As such, the body is uniquely positioned to send honest signals.

This is why skilled interrogators are trained to read nonverbal body language — facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, posture, and voice. As former FBI agent Joe Navarro writes,

Understanding the biological basis for body language will help you appreciate how nonverbal behavior works and why it is such a potent predictor of human thoughts, feelings, and intentions…. [The limbic system] is the part of the brain that reacts to the world around us reflexively and instantaneously, in real time, and without thought [i.e., unmediated]. For that reason, it gives off a true response to information coming in from the environment.

It’s also worth noting that punishment (the basis for extended peace and cooperation) is inherently physical: confiscation of property, imprisonment, ostracism, corporal and capital punishment. Most people don’t pay taxes out of an abstract sense of civic duty — they’re afraid of men with guns showing up at their door. To the extent that words can be honest, it’s because of the (explicit or implicit) threat of physical punishment, whether by the state or by one’s peers.

The body is also important because it is primary. It comes first — both in phylogeny and ontogeny.

Our hominin ancestors had bodies well before they learned to use language, before they became properly, verbally self-conscious. (Before the Fall, if you will.) But lacking language didn’t stop them from engaging in all manner of activities that require communication: hunting, confrontational scavenging, finding mates, forming political coalitions, etc. Instead they used honest signals grounded in physical and biological reality.

The body also precedes language and abstract thought during individual development. A child first comes to know the world through his or her body, and later developmental steps build on top of that understanding. As George Lakoff argues, our capacity for abstract thought is grounded in (conceptual) metaphor. We reason about abstract domains in terms of more concrete, embodied domains. “The very words which form the building blocks of explicit thought are themselves all originally metaphors, grounded in the human body and its experience,” writes Iain McGilchrist, channeling Lakoff.

Finally, the body is the locus of emotion, the glue that holds relationships together. David Gelernter laments that online communities still haven’t figured this out:

The physical body is not irrelevant to a human community. The emotional subtext of human communication is crucial to human thought. It isn’t a footnote. Too many computer scientists don’t understand this.

Demography is destiny. History is subject to geology. To this I would add: society is grounded in biology. But, as I will now argue, the modern world has become particularly disembodied. This is most pronounced in the West.

The Cartesian Delusion

By and large we [in the West] locate ourselves behind the eyes and somewhere between the ears. It is as if within the dome of the skull there was some sort of arrangement such as there is at the SAC Air Force headquarters in Denver, where men sit in great rooms surrounded with radar screens and all sorts of monitors, watching the movements of planes all over the world. So, in the same way, we have the idea of ourselves as a little man inside our heads, who has earphones on (which bring messages from the ears), and who has a television set in front of him (which brings messages from the eyes), and who has all sorts of electrodes all over his body (giving him signals from the hands and so on). And he has a panel in front of him with buttons and dials and things. So he more or less controls the body… but he isn’t the same as the body.

Alan Watts calls this the “myth of the skin-encapsulated ego.”


By ‘myth’ he doesn’t mean falsehood, but rather an image or metaphor that affects how we think about the world on a very deep level.

‘Skin-encapsulated egoism’ is an organizing principle, if you will, for Western civilization. A shared fiction or collective delusion. A cultural frame we’ve been raised in, which shapes our inner mental lives and the societies we build for ourselves.

The myth of the skin-encapsulated ego — aka Cartesian dualism — is a decidedly disembodied worldview. It privileges the mind (or soul) and downplays the importance of the body. To make a caricature of it, Descartes would happily sit in a vat, cogitating and perhaps exchanging thought-packets with other Cartesian beings. His body is merely a vessel.

This way of looking at the world produces a disembodied consciousness. It’s an abstract, analytical, representational, cerebral mode of experience, one in which our bodies (and the world beyond them) are incidental — mere tools for our minds to manipulate.

In contrast, an embodied consciousness is concrete, empathic, enactive, and visceral — the awareness of being a creature with a body situated and enmeshed in the world.

It’s the difference between the kind of awareness required for finance, and the kind required for police work. The difference between a taking a math test and reading body language. The difference between linguistics and musicology. The difference between offline and online processing. The difference between self-consciousness and ‘presence.’ The difference between saying, “I have a body,” and saying, “I am a body.”

Embodied consciousness satisfies both of the criteria for honesty we discussed earlier. Because it is not mediated through the verbal, egoic parts of the brain, there’s one fewer agent whose agenda you need to discount. And because it’s anchored to the body, it’s subject to the economic constraints of the physical world, making it easier to send and receive honest signals.

Of course, both embodied and disembodied consciousness exist simultaneously in any culture, and also (at various times) within any given person. But it’s a matter of degree. How frequently and how deeply do we experience disembodied consciousness, vs. how frequently and deeply do we experience embodied consciousness?

The answer, I think, is that we experience disembodied consciousness more frequently, and more deeply, than at any other place or time.

WEIRD Culture

In 2010, Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan made a splash in the behavioral sciences community with a paper entitled The weirdest people in the world? It’s a critique of a rather large swath of the research agenda in modern experimental psychology, i.e., experimenting on Western college students and using the results to make pronouncements about ‘universal’ human tendencies.

The paper revolves around the concept of WEIRD, which stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. The problem is that WEIRD people are, well, odd. Along various dimensions, they sit at the extremes relative to people raised in all other types of societies. They have different ideas about fairness, cooperation, and punishment; about the self and its relation to others; and about conformity and personal choice. They reason differently about morality, taking a more analytical approach. They even have different patterns of visual cognition. WEIRD people literally see the world differently.

Jonathan Haidt summarizes it for us in The Righteous Mind:

Several of the peculiarities of WEIRD culture can be captured in this simple generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.

Seeing separate objects is the hallmark of disembodied consciousness. Disembodiment produces distance and detachment, and the less you feel enmeshed in the world, the more likely you are to parse it with a clinical, analytic mindset.

Let’s look at how each of the five WEIRD factors reinforces disembodied consciousness.

Western. In The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington gives the following characteristics of Western civ: a Classical legacy, Catholicism and Protestantism, European languages, separation of spiritual and temporal authority, rule of law, social pluralism, representational bodies, and individualism. (He conveniently omits imperialism.)

Of these, the two most important for producing a sense of disembodiment are the rule of law (which we’ll discuss in the section on democracy) and individualism. Individualism holds that people are isolated centers of awareness, action, responsibility, and moral worth. Relationships are seen as incidental features of the environment, not intrinsic to personal identity.

Educated. If modern education doesn’t produce a very strange kind of consciousness, I don’t know what does. Consider how unnatural classroom-based education is for a human creature. It’s a comprehensive exercise in restraint, in training the mind to exert control over the body. We force our children to sit still for hours upon hours; to focus on boring, repetitive tasks; to control their impulses; to delay gratification; to use words and reasons instead of violence; to wake up at prescribed times; to move from place to place when a bell rings; to ask permission before going to the bathroom (think about that for a second). We systematically reward children for exerting control over their bodies and punish them when they don’t — reinforcing the ego-centered neural pathways and starving the body-centered ones. This enterprise, which lasts for over a decade, exalts the mind as the owner and master of its body.

(I find it singularly amazing that in 13 years of public education in America, I received literally thousands of hours of instruction in math, science, writing, history, etc., but not a single lesson on how to interpret body language. It’s as if our culture is scared of something — though I can’t quite make out what.)

Industrialized. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx explored the implications of living in a highly specialized, heavily industrialized society. The result was his theory of alienation — disconnection and estrangement from one’s own humanity. He identified and distinguished four types of alienation:

  • Alienation from the work product
  • Alienation from the work act
  • Alienation from the motivation for work
  • Alienation from fellow humans

To summarize his point: when your work becomes increasingly specialized, and when your body becomes an instrument (especially of external agency), you start to think of your body as a machine, as a tool. That’s how the industrial system sees your body, after all, and when you spend enough years being worked by that system, you can’t help but adopt its way of thinking.

If living in a world of bewildering social and technological complexity induces nausea, then working in an industrial economy induces alienation and detachment from the body. (And both fuel the desire to self-medicate.)

Rich. Wealth is an important part of the WEIRD complex because it insulates (alienates) us even further from the material conditions of our existence. Freed from resource constraints, the rich aren’t threatened by leaking roofs, loan sharks, or the spectre of living on the street. Most of us manipulate paper, pixels, and bits for a living. We might wear metaphorical yokes, but few among us get paid for raw physical labor. In short: being rich makes our bodies increasingly irrelevant for getting along in the world.

Democratic. Democracy is, among other things, a rational process, by which I mean that reasons have at least some currency in the system. Powerful people can’t do things simply because they’re powerful. When their actions impinge on others, the norms of a democratic culture demand reasons. Those reasons won’t always be good or sound (there’s an art to justifying an a priori position: confabulation). But they will at least be reasons, not just threats of violence. However meager, this is progress — and another step in the direction of disembodiment.

Also crucial to democracy is the separation of office from office holder. Barack Obama, in the flesh, isn’t really that important; most of his power lies in the Presidency itself. And this separation exists at all levels, not just at the top. But it wasn’t always like this. In feudal societies, offices were hereditary. Kingdom and earldoms passed along genealogical lines. The office existed in the man; his physical person — and his loins — were paramount.

… In addition to the five WEIRD elements, I would add two others that have helped shape our disembodied consciousness: peace and secularism, by which I mean the absence of violence and religion. It’s easy to see how violence cultivates an embodied worldview: fearing for your breath makes the body vivid in ways little else can. And religion has a similar effect, though it’s a bit harder to see with WEIRD lenses on. So let’s try to take them off.

Religion and the body

Religion has baffled me for nearly all of my adult life. Then, about a year ago, I had a realization: religion is not about beliefs.

In hindsight this should have been obvious. In trying to understand the phenomenon of religion, how could the (specific) beliefs matter? They’re what makes each religion unique, different from all the others.

But I grew up in the West, and a hazard of the Western (disembodied) sensibility is to focus on the beliefs — those verbal, propositional units that yield to analysis. Either gods exist, or they don’t. That’s what religion is about, right? Who cares about the menagerie of bizarre rituals; they can’t be particularly important.

I now maintain almost the exact opposite. Religion is a thin dross of verbal confabulation clinging to a bedrock of embodied practices. Talk is cheap. Behavior speaks louder than beliefs. And beliefs about the supernatural and/or esoteric are especially cheap, because those are precisely the domains where holding false beliefs doesn’t cost anything. Say whatever you like about the afterlife, but be careful what you believe about tigers.

So what happens when we ignore the beliefs and focus instead on the behaviors?

Enter, again, the human body. Religions pertain to the body in all sorts of weird ways:

  • Funerary practices are quintessentially religious. Burial (the disposal of dead bodies) is cited as the oldest religious behavior.
  • There’s no math in the Bible, but there’s plenty of genealogy, food taboos, and rules about what you can do with your genitals. (Snicker if you must, but remember that monogamy makes for more stable, less violent societies.)
  • Nearly every religious ritual makes use of the body. This is so striking it warrants a list: kneeling, bowing, prostrating, holding hands, dancing, chanting, singing, wailing, quaking and shaking, congregating, meditating, wearing special clothes, shaving one’s head, fasting, sharing meals, eating crackers, drinking wine, gathering around a fire, animal sacrifices, self-flagellation, circumcision, pilgrimage, yoga….

The fact that rituals are embodied serves a number of separate but complementary purposes. (1) It reinforces body-centered neural pathways and suppresses ego-centered ones (the exact opposite of modern classroom-based education). (2) It enables kinesthetic learning by connecting abstract ideas (especially ones of great social significance) to bodily experiences, and vice versa. And (3) it allows members of a group to send honest signals of their commitment, especially when the rituals involve an element of sacrifice (whether time, energy, or material resources).

Sosis and Alcorta elaborate on the use of honest signals in their wonderful survey paper, Signaling, Solidarity, and the Sacred:

Religions often maintain intragroup solidarity by requiring costly behavioral patterns of group members. The performance of these costly behaviors signals commitment and loyalty to the group and the beliefs of its members. Thus, trust is enhanced among group members, which enables them to minimize costly monitoring mechanisms that are otherwise necessary to overcome the free-rider problems that typically plague collective pursuits.

The point is, religions ‘get’ that the body plays an important role in human social life, and that it can be harnessed to help groups cohere. And they encode this understanding in the deepest parts of their DNA. This, along with the tribal nature of most religions, is what has enabled them to endure for millennia, outlasting almost every other institution on the planet.

We may object to the politics or epistemology of some modern religions, but if we trivialize or dismiss them, we’re missing an opportunity to study how they have thrived for so long, and how we might apply those lessons in other areas of social life.

Toward an Embodied Worldview

As a shared fiction, the myth of Cartesian dualism is extremely useful. You might even say it’s the stone in the stone soup of the West. As such, it’s helped generate an incredible amount of peace, wealth, and technological progress, which we would be fools to forget.

But myths are necessarily lossy. By highlighting certain parts of reality, the disembodied, Cartesian worldview casts a shadow on other parts. It marginalizes important aspects of human nature, making them less prominent, less visible — but no less a reality.

It’s those marginalized aspects of human nature — and of the societies we’ve built to hide them — that I want to explore over the course of this year. I want to pursue and reconnect with an embodied worldview, one that sees the human body as an important source of honesty in our increasingly abstract political and social lives.

It’s not that I want to ignore or downplay the disembodied worldview, but I want to complement it with another, equally important perspective.

This is an extension of the project I started last time. In Anthropology of Mid-Sized Startups, I wrote

To fully appreciate what goes on at a growing startup, it pays to remember than an engineer is also a primate.

That’s the right idea, but I’d like to expand the scope a bit. To fully appreciate the modern world, it pays to remember the world it grew out of — one more tightly anchored to the underlying physics, ecology, and biology.

Thanks to Alex Vartan for reading a draft of this essay. Image credit: Jolyon.

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About Kevin Simler

Kevin Simler is a writer and technologist. You can follow him on Twitter or over at his home blog, Melting Asphalt.


  1. “Which is a more honest signal of your value to a company: when your boss says, “Great job!” or when she gives you a raise?”

    You probably have this assbackward, employee raises are not related to performance but to (non)fungibility.

    • Harry Pottash says

      I think Kevin’s quote was perfectly in line with the link you posted. Notice that Kevin said “value” not “performance”. The other part of that equation (how likely you are to leave) is simply the quality of your bargaining position.

  2. Excellent stuff!

    One random reaction: I think Gregory Bateson addressed the question of why it is generally considered somewhere betweeen bad taste and sacrilege to make photographss or videos of religious rituals. I forget what his theory was, but given the framework you are building here, the answer is that it works against the embodied nature of the ritual, threatening to turn it into mere information.

    • Mike: yeah, I get that now in a way I didn’t a few years ago. I also get why Native Americans were anxious about photographs. Coming from a culture that isn’t steeped in representations, it would feel creepy to see a flat, lifeless depiction of something that’s otherwise animated and full of life — akin perhaps to looking at a corpse. Like you say, it’s a violation of the sacred to turn an embodied human being into “mere information.” The animist worldview is pretty fascinating, once you learn to inhabit it on its own terms, rather than giving it a literal, modern/Western interpretation.

      • Jesse Dhillon says

        “The animist worldview is pretty fascinating, once you learn to inhabit it on its own terms, rather than giving it a literal, modern/Western interpretation.”

        Alan Watts also talks about this, (in The Way of Zen, I think) the tendency of Westerners to expect that an experience can be understood without experiencing it. That is, that something (Zen Buddhism in this case) can be reduced to information and consumed as such, without any essential part of the thing being lost.

        A “try-before-you-buy” sort of approach, as it were, which IIRC he writes about as being particularly resented by Japanese Buddhists in his experience (circa 1930) The reverse expectation was that Westerners would suspend judgment and immerse themselves fully in the experience before forming conclusions.

  3. Mitchell Porter says

    “Religion has baffled me for nearly all of my adult life.”

    Given your interpretation of “Cartesian dualism” as a “myth”, and your love for the counter-myth of “embodiment”, perhaps this is simply and primarily because of your materialist beliefs. Along with the functions that you are going to explore, religion also offers (1) a metaphysical account of who and what you are (2) hope amid the futility and horror of human existence.

    In contemporary science and philosophy, a lot of people have worked hard to justify and render plausible a worldview in which all that exists is matter, and in which these other two aspects of religion may look untenable. However, it is still the case that you exist, and somehow you know about your existence and about existence in general – and “knowledge of existence” is a curiously abstract property for a pile of atoms to possess. Good luck explaining that one, materialist philosophers of mind!

    Similarly, epistemic honesty compels me to observe that I do not know what happens to my consciousness, or the consciousness of others, upon death. Religious notions of an afterlife or of other worlds are scenarios plucked from the spectrum of possibilities, which have an attraction for those who despair of life or who just find it unreal. Materialists have already rediscovered radical uncertainty about reality – “are you living in a simulation?” – and now we have that concept, we may anticipate the future growth of digital superstitions and theologies e.g. in which your soul-program goes to an afterlife after you exit the simulation.

    • I have a question, regarding “offering” #2: do you see hope as being an attitude of mind, or a habit of the heart?

      • Responding to my own question…

        What bothered me was this: “notions of an afterlife […] have an attraction for those who despair of life.”

        I don’t think it’s prudent to make avoiding despair contingent on holding some particular opinion about the future – opinions can be superficial and changeable things. Moreover, merely holding opinions risks being a rather passive affair.

        I guess I’m more one for orthopraxis than orthodoxy. To me, hope is more like a virtue to be cultivated. As with other virtues, this springs from action:

        “Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a particular way. We become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.”

    • I would argue that knowledge of your own existence and consciousness is just a different flavor of the same type of consciousness. It’s simply consciousness, that internal representation of (mostly) outward reality, turned inward — a meta-awareness of what the mind is doing. Your consciousness of an apple sitting in front of you is no more magical than your consciousness of the fact that you are conscious of the apple in front of you. It’s not apples and oranges, it’s just different kinds of apples.

  4. But if you experience embodied cognition, how will you write about it? Seems silly.

  5. @Mitchell Porter
    “Good luck explaining that one, materialist philosophers of mind!”

    Huh! No! I see it as a materialist evidence and see no “radical uncertainty about reality” in the simulation hypothesis but rather yet another corruption brought about by the religious mind.
    I don’t believe AT ALL in the simulation hypothesis nor uploading.
    I actually strongly suspect that there is a physiological basis to the difference between materialists and religionists, each “see” or “feel” a distinction that the other finds irrelevant/non existent.

    • Uploading and The Singularity map fairly well onto Resurrection and The Armageddon.

      It isn’t surprising to see this emerge, because computer scientists work with the non-material. While connections to science and technology often bring some social pressure to turn away from traditional religion, a truly materialist philosophy would deny the existence of every entity that a programmer shapes, nurtures, or creates.

      I wouldn’t be surprised to see a physical difference, but I would bet that much of the structural difference could be explained by plasticity from the acquisition of skills. Are we in the habit of insisting that there is only a computer with some controlled internal complexity, or do we interpret that complexity as binary digits? Once we see bits, do we use Occam’s razor, or interpret some of those bits as data, and others as software; some as representations of variables, and others as functions or macros?

  6. Rodney Hoffman says

    Re: “in 13 years of public education in America, I received literally thousands of hours of instruction in math, science, writing, history, etc., but not a single lesson on how to interpret body language. It’s as if our culture is scared of something”

    Maybe it’s simple: The others are easier to teach! The others work the same for everyone.

    • maybe you’re right — I really don’t know. But my sense is that body language would, if anything, be *easier* to teach. Teachers struggle to make abstract concepts concrete, because kids have a hard time understanding things they can’t perceive directly. But body language is inherently already concrete. It’s right there, manifested plainly, staring you in the face (as it were).

      I am really, genuinely puzzled about why it’s not taught — not even one lesson. At the risk of sounding conspiratorial, I think it’s just not part of “the program.” It’s no one’s fault, of course, but it’s certainly weird.

      • I agree with you that there is no formal instruction of body language, however, school being a social interaction is all about students learning appropriate ways to communicate with their bodies. E.g. To signal that you are paying attention and are respecting authority you sit motionless and look at the speaker (where in different cultures such action can signal very different things.) Also, among peers kids learn how to signal with everything but words about their belonging to this or that group.

        I think the problem arises, as you point out in your post, from the fact that we are so entrenched in the disembodied mind metaphor that we don’t realize that this kind of learning is going on. Consequently we unjustifiably universalize this understanding of body language, and when we meet someone who does not share it, we misinterpret their actions.

        (I’m thinking New Literacy Studies, James Paul Gee, Barba Rogoff etc)

        • “Consequently we unjustifiably universalize this understanding of body language, and when we meet someone who does not share it, we misinterpret their actions.”

          I think this gets at something interesting. Perhaps educators are hesitant to teach something that’s too variable (esp. across cultures). There are a lot of universals when it comes to body language (particularly when you look at some of the principles, e.g., approach vs. avoid, open vs. closed). But maybe trying to teach it normalizes it in a way that we’re uncomfortable with.

          A friend of mine thinks that one of the reasons people with Asperger’s are marginalized (to the extent that they are) is because they don’t exhibit “neurotypical” body language. When other people don’t realize this, they’re liable to project/infer the wrong kind of mental states, motivations, etc. (as you mention). That’s all the more reason to teach these things explicitly, IMO, but it does touch a sensitive cultural nerve.

      • Harry Pottash says

        Kevin, perhaps what’s catching you is that there is no *explicit* instruction in following body language. As you were very apt to notice, there is a great amount of implicit instruction that goes on in school. During every math class they are instructing you in the art of staying still. It seems just as reasonable to me to say that they are implicitly teaching you how to read body language when you interact with teachers and other students.

        That said this sort of “just pick it up” approach often leads to an extremely limited sort of skill. Explicit training in body language, or sitting still for that matter would probably be greatly superior. (Much as five years of martial arts will trump five years of bar fighting)

        Most meditation practices offer some explicit instruction on how to sit still for very long periods.
        I have an X who went through training in the Facial Action Coding System (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facial_Action_Coding_System) while I was dating her. It was as if she became psychic.

        So yeah, making teaching goals explicit seems like a good plan.

        • I agree that instruction in body language is implicit, or at least informal. Since body language is natural for (most) humans, formal instruction isn’t required. We have subconscious mechanisms for picking it up automatically. Similarly, we don’t need formal instruction in our native languages; human parents naturally know how to teach language to their children.

          The fact that we need to be taught reading/math/science in a formal setting, instead of just picking it up automatically through observation, further highlights the fact that these skills are new and uninstinctive.

          I disagree that explicit training in body language would be useful for most people. Most people don’t need an abstract, formal representation of body language; immediate intuition takes care of all the work for them. Teaching people body language explicitly would interfere with that intuitive process by introducing a membrane of conscious mediation between experience and bodily response. It would only heighten the disconnect between body and mind.

          • “Teaching people body language explicitly would interfere with that intuitive process by introducing a membrane of conscious mediation between experience and bodily response. It would only heighten the disconnect between body and mind.”

            Yes, yes, exactly. This is the best example of what the rest of the post was trying to get at, and I feel silly for not making the connection myself.

            That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s unnecessary or wrong to teach body language. We teach children (and ourselves) a lot of things that add a “membrane of conscious mediation” to our otherwise intuitive understanding of the world. Verbal language is the perfect example. We learn it naturally, from our parents and peers, but then complement it with a much more explicit program in school: grammar, formal writing, public speaking, etc. A few concepts and a little practice go a long way.

            It’s the same with nonverbals. Yes, there’s a rich intuitive layer that we pick up automatically, but it can be enhanced tremendously with some explicit education. You’re right to point out, though, that we’d probably lose something in the process. Conscious mediation certainly opens up the potential for greater deception, for example.

            There’s an article on Less Wrong that compares Asperger’s to processing social information in the (slower, more general-purpose) CPU rather than in a (fast, specialized) GPU. Seems relevant here.


          • MIT Charm School is a step in this direction…I wonder if anyone has given serious study to if it is effective?

  7. Stephen Wihak says

    If this conversation interests you, this book is for you:

  8. As to “The West”, I’ve heard some very good things about Edward Said’s Orientalism. From what I understand, not having read it yet, “The West” is defined by contrast to an imagined Orient, which we construct in order to embody all those parts of ourselves which we wish to exclude. Lately, this has tended to center on misogyny, violence, and religious extremism (all of which I see plenty of very close to home, thank you), but it apparently used to have a lot to do with the life of the senses.

    Regarding what our education system is afraid of, may I recommend Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. Body language can be read like a book (another commenter mentioned FACS), but going through each tiny fraction of an expression in sequence takes too long to be of practical use unless one is working from a video recording; in most cases, the more practical skill would be to interpret it as an image. The interpretation of images competes with the interpretation of text, not only culturally, but cognitively. It sounds nutty that some early, extreme forms of Protestantism were so frightened of images that they wouldn’t even allow a bare cross into the church, but within this framework, it almost makes sense.

    An interesting cluster of connections between the cognitive aspects of literacy acquisition and music, which also touches on the early days of literacy in Greece linking debates about cultural changes due to technology then and now, is Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf. I’ve only seen the lecture version of this content, but I’m interested in reading the book soon, and it seems like the sort of thing you’d get a kick out of.

    • “The interpretation of images competes with the interpretation of text, not only culturally, but cognitively. It sounds nutty that some early, extreme forms of Protestantism were so frightened of images that they wouldn’t even allow a bare cross into the church, but within this framework, it almost makes sense.”

      Yes, this fascinates me, for two reasons:

      1. Where *do* images fit into all this? The embodied vs. disembodied distinction maps most closely onto kinesthetic vs. verbal processing. Visual processing seems to share some features with embodied consciousness (it’s fairly honest and un-mediated, all things considered), but as we build more technology for constructing and shunting images around, it starts to feel more and more disembodied. It’s probably best to model it as a distinct third category (that competes with the other two, as you say, both culturally and cognitively).

      2. Iconoclasm is such a great example of something that’s utterly alien to the modern/Western/disembodied mindset. But it’s been an *extremely* hot-button political issue at many different times and places. The combination of alien-to-us + important-to-others means there’s something very interesting going on there — something worth investigating and trying to get an intuitive handle on.

      Thanks for the suggested reading material btw. It all sounds very relevant to this discussion.

      • Quite welcome! And thank you for bringing Why do People Sing? to my attention: I’ve been thinking along those lines for years, and am glad to see some scholarly work on it.

  9. Karthik Raghunathan says

    Holy cow ! an altogether superior post !! I can see Alan Kay +Timothy Gallwey,
    add DeLanda (delanda destratified) and McLuhan and Skinner, and we’ve a Grand Theory !!

  10. “If living in a world of bewildering social and technological complexity induces nausea, then working in an industrial economy induces alienation and detachment from the body. (And both fuel the desire to self-medicate.)”
    I agree with the first part. Not quite with the last line though. I would say, Embodied consciousness can make you very much comfortable with the idea of self-medication. Obviously not through allopathic medicine. But through natural healing practices such as fasting and vipassana. Once you are connected with your body, you would want to consult the manufacturer rather than some local tinker to heal yourself!