bodies


I’ve just begun reading Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. I bought the book while I was in grad school, knowing it would be years before I could get to it, but so excited by the title! Consciousness and how it relates to the body and emotions is one of my favorite topics of inquiry. Plus, Damasio is a scientist with a (rare) good reputation as a writer.

In the introduction he describes six facts that a good theory of consciousness will have to take into account. Here are my paraphrases:

1) There will be an “anatomy of consciousness”: Elements of consciousness appear to be associated with activity in certain parts of the brain.

This may be scary to those who believe that consciousness is magical, or that its magic would be somehow diminished if it relied on the brain’s circuitry. I too used to be uneasy about that idea. After diving into brain studies a bit, though, I feel both excited and humbled by it. It’s just neat that our brains apparently produce all the subtleties of our experience. Also, it’s a good reminder that our experiences of feeling, thinking, knowing, and of awareness itself is created by our brains, and is not a direct line on reality.

2) Consciousness is more than wakefulness or attentiveness. Humans can be awake and attentive without being conscious.

Damasio describes patients who are clearly awake and attentive, but not conscious, and promises to devote two chapters to the significance of this phenomenon.

3) You cannot have consciousness without emotion.

I am excited about this point because I’ve thought it both crucial and little recognized since reading The Mind’s I many years ago. It had an essay which convinced me that real artificial intelligence would not be possible without emotion. Without emotion all you have is processing power. And in human intelligence at least, emotion brings in the body. Emotions are not just mental phenomenon. I can’t wait to see how Damasio deals with this.

4) There is a distinction between “core consciousness,” producing a sense of moment-to-moment “core self,” and “extended consciousness,” producing a story-making “autobiographical self.”

This distinction could bring clarity to the debates about consciousness in infants and non-human animals. Core consciousness may be the kind that everyone has, and extended consciousness the kind that we develop as our experience becomes more and more intertwined with language and concepts.

Core consciousness sounds to me like the experience that meditators work to remain in. We live most of our lives in the useful but problematic realm of extended consciousness, judging experiences as good or bad, right or wrong, safe or unsafe, and other ways they relate to the story we have of ourselves. Once we are living this way it is difficult to escape. Meditators find that maintaining awareness of core consciousness can be a welcome rest from all that. This practice may help the autobiographical self have an easier time as well.

5) Consciousness cannot be wholly described by other mental activities. Things like language and memory are necessary but not sufficient for full consciousness.

You can’t leave consciousness out of the discussion. It is more than its parts. I like this because I think a lot of scientists are squeamish of even using the word “consciousness.” It makes you sound like a hippy. Prepare to hear a lot of scientists trying to talk about consciousness without sounding like a hippy.

6) Consciousness also cannot be described wholly by describing how the brain creates our experiences out of sensory and mental data.

I read some famous scientist saying that if he were to be at the beginning of his career, he would be looking into creation of qualia, the “particles” of experience, that this was the next holy grail of psychology. That’s a good one, for sure, but I think an explanation of consciousness is a better holy grail than an explanation of qualia.

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As I wrote recently, part of my posture-reprogramming regime is that I have a watch alarm that goes off every 20 minutes, reminding me to check and, if necessary, fix my posture. (I’ve written about my protocol for fixing it here.) My amazing physical therapist, Shannon, predicts that in the long run, this will be the most helpful part of all the work I’m doing. I’ve been doing it every day for over three months, now, and it does seem to be helping. It is no longer unusual that the alarm goes off and I don’t need to fix my posture, which never happened during the first month.

One entertaining side effect of this practice is that my friends have begun correcting their posture, too, when my alarm goes off. At Not Back to School Camp, this summer, campers and staff figured out pretty quickly what the alarm meant. Here is some footage I took secretly from the back of a camp meeting while my alarm went off:

Improving your posture is not an easy task once your body becomes set in its ways. The obvious reason is that your joints lose their range of motion, your muscles become long in the wrong places and short in the wrong places, and everything gets tight. In my case, for example, the ribs and thoracic spinal joints do not move as freely as they should, and especially the upper thoracic spine is habitually curved forward. This places my head too far forward, placing strain on the whole axial system. This is not easy to reverse at my age, and I have been spending just over two hours a day at it for more than six months. (See here and here for more.) I am prepared to work on it for several more years, if necessary. I plan to live at least into my 90s and want to have a strong, flexible, pain free body for as long as possible.

One less obvious way that improving your posture is not an easy task is that habitual body position seems to be activity-specific. I am pretty good and improving at good posture while standing, sitting, and walking, for example, but only while doing extremely simple versions of those activities. Sitting in my truck, driving straight on the highway, it’s easy to have good posture as long as I am thinking about it. Making a right turn, however, is a completely different deal, for two reasons. First, the attention that I use to remember posture tends to be taken up by the brain activity of making the turn. Second, it seems that my body has a way of making a right turn that is a gestalt: what I am looking at and for, what I am thinking about, how I move, and the position of my entire body is molded by the pattern and memory of 24 years of right-turn making.

So unravelling that and making right turns with good posture takes some doing. And that leaves left turns pretty much untouched, not to mention playing guitar, having an emotional conversation, or leading an underarm pass while partner dancing.

I was cutting up big pieces of plywood today, using a table saw. I tried to figure out how to do this series of motions while keeping my body in good alignment. I wished that I could have a construction-slash-posture coach there, helping me out. Then I started fantasizing about people who use table saws for a living getting trained like that. I have worked on construction crews, and if you are lucky you get trained how not to cut off your fingers, but you never get trained how not to have a painful back in ten or twenty years. If it was successful, I bet the extra cost would be more than made up for by the reduction in worker’s comp claims.

On the other hand, it might not be successful. When I was first learning to dance, my teacher, Karly, spent some time emphasizing the importance of posture and moving my body into good posture. “Remember this,” she said. “This is what good posture feels like when you are dancing.” The problem was, I did not keep doing it. I think maybe I couldn’t. It was too much to think about at the same time–the feel of leading, the moves I was trying to lead, and posture. It was overwhelming. For that to have worked, I think I would have needed Karly to insist on perfect posture and never moving on before I could lead each move with perfect posture. That would have been very slow. On the other hand, I am going to have to do all of that work anyway, so that I can dance without hurting my body. That is my next project with dancing–start over, re-learning the simplest moves with perfect posture.

I’ve been working seriously on changing my posture for the last six months. I’ve been seeing a chiropractor, a massage therapist, and a physical therapist. On normal days I do about two hours of stretching and strengthening exercises–postural reprogramming stuff that they have assigned. On super busy days I do about an hour’s worth.

I’m strengthening the muscles that hold my shoulders and head back and up. I’m lengthening the muscles that pull them down and forward. I’m decreasing the exaggerated curvature in my thoracic spine (called kyphosis), especially focusing on the top few thoracic vertebrae. I’m increasing the twisting range of motion in my thoracic spine and ribs. I’m learning to relax muscles in my legs and butt, back and shoulder blades. I’m learning how to sit differently, stand differently, sleep differently, and especially walk differently. I have an alarm set to remind me about posture every 20 minutes that I’m awake.

The thing is, I’m almost 40 and I don’t have kids yet. I need my body to stay fit for at least another 20 years, and preferably more like 50 more. But nearly three years ago I started having some serious pain in my body–after 37 years of being as athletic as I pleased, I was suddenly limited in how much I could run, lift, swim, and sometimes even walk. One year I could go to a Lindy Hop event and dance all day and all night, and the next I had maybe two hours, maybe 15 minutes in me. Unacceptable.

And it turns out it’s because of my posture. Joints, muscles, and their connections do not work properly if not in the optimal relative position to each other. The habitual position of my joints had put enough strain on my body that I started having intense pain.

My chiropractor once told me, “You are the most compliant patient I’ve ever had.” My PT and massage therapist have said similar things. That is exactly what I’m aiming at–the most compliant patient. I do not just show up. I do not intend to waste my money or my life getting care and then not following through with the recommendations of my providers. If you tell me not to ride my bike for 3 months, I start walking or taking the bus. If you show me how to walk differently, I will walk differently. If you tell me to do 45 reps of some new, super-awkward exercise every day for the foreseeable future, I will do it. I am your perfect patient. I do it because I’m hoping you know what will help. I want to make you look brilliant. And I do it because if, after a couple of months, what you do and have me do has not helped noticeably, I will find someone else to work with, because I have tried you and your ideas out to the letter.

For the first time in my life, I have the perfect bike for me. It was built by Michael, the owner of Klink Cycles in Eugene, to my specifications, out of used parts when possible, for $250. It looks goofy but it feels great–I finally decided to get completely over aesthetics and go for ergonomics when it comes to my primary form of transportation. Bicycles have been hurting my posture for too long.

My specs:

Frame/wheels/tires OK for Eugene streets and Joshua Tree dirt roads.

A low top tube for easy stepping over, to accommodate recent back and hip limitations.

A shock absorbing seat post for butt, pelvis, and low-back comfort.

A “sweet cheeks” seat with no crotch and no nose for crotch comfort.

A tall handlebar stem for upright posture.

Handlebars with a certain amount of curve and flat-palm grips for hand wrist and hand comfort.

Michael spent a couple of hours with me, tweaking and changing out parts, then having me ride around until I found a complaint, then re-tweaking. He was amazing and this bike is amazing.

How should I stand if I want to stand in good posture? The answer I got from many, many sources–books, clips, websites, people–was some version of this: Tuck your tailbone under a little, imagine your head is being lifted, then hike your shoulders up a little, roll them back, then drop them down all the way in that back position. There are some minor variations out there, and some bigger ones–Esther Gokhale, for example, my mom’s favorite posture guru, is against tucking pelvis forward. “Ducky butt, not tucky butt!”

It was a bit of a revelation when my physical therapist, Shannon, gave me my first set of personalized instructions on my posture. I am to roll my shoulders up and back, but not down! I said “You are the only person who has ever given me that instruction. Why shouldn’t I drop my shoulders down as far as they go?” She explained, using a skeleton hanging in her office, how, while that’s true for many people, they way my shoulder blades and spine where out of whack, and because of which muscles are too long and too short from misuse, I need to bring my shoulders up. And I need to bring my ears in line with my shoulder joints. And I can tell the proper tilt of my pelvis based on what gives me the most height. Try it–reach up and move your pelvis and see what position lets you reach the highest. That’s the position for you.

After thinking about it, it seems obvious. Why would anyone think they could give me effective advice about my body without interacting with my body?

I’ve often wished I had a biofeedback device that could tell me whether something I was doing was good, bad, or neutral for my body. I have found pain and other sensations ambiguous directors. What are they asking for? This has been especially important in the last few years, dealing with injuries and slower healing. I recently asked my physiotherapist, Shannon, for her general recommendations for reading pain related to an activity. This is what she said:

1) Joint pain is never okay. If you experience joint pain during or after activity something is wrong; consider getting help to figure out what.

2) You should have no muscle pain during an activity (if you do, it means you are doing way too much).

3) Muscle pain after an activity means you are close to the right intensity – try lowering intensity and/or duration for a while and see how you respond.

4) Mild to moderate muscle pain in the next couple days is fine as long as it doesn’t escalate.

5) Each time you add an activity, do it at a constant level for 1-2 weeks before increasing duration or intensity

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