Setting aside for a moment your commitment to public safety, it’s possible for technology use to worsen yet your sense of what’s real, driving beyond where you think “real” is, to where you think “you” are. Recently, researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute figured out how to apply virtual reality technology to convince participants to perceive someone else’s body as being where their sense of “I” resided.
This is all it takes for to create a “body-transfer illusion”: A participant gets herself decked out with a camera, a pair of virtual reality goggles and a few electrodes, while her human (or mannequin) partner mounts a companion camera on his head. Through the manipulations of what they see through the goggles, participants actually begin to feel what they see and to “body swap.” Through various camera manipulations,
they may experience their partner moving to shake their hand as if they themselves were doing it, or see a stick touch their partner’s abdomen and believe it’s their own stomach that’s being touched. Lead Karolinska researcher Henrik Ehrsoon commented that the experiment “shows how easy it is to change the brain’s perception of the physical self. By manipulating sensory impressions, it’s possible to fool the self not only out of its body but into other bodies, too.” This technology application is so sophisticated in its ability to make us lose sense of our own bodily reality that seeing actually becomes (false) sensing.
Not just Fun With Computers to take us farther and farther out of our bodily reality, these technologies may also help restore us to a sense of self within a living body. Karolinska health professors envision the opportunity to help limb amputees or stroke victims integrate their use of prosthetics through practice with virtual limbs. Another promising application may lie in the treatment of people who suffer with body-image disorders to use their perception of someone else’s body (where there is no problem) to correct their own distorted body image: others’ bodies seem more real in these cases even before the goggles are strapped on. (See “This is Not the Body I Ordered.”)
Technology may have the capacity to bring us back to our essential humanness as well as drive us out of it. It could even enhance our capacity for meaningful contact with others. What if urban kids experienced a rival group member’s body as if it were their own? Could this experience help re-sensitize kids overexposed to violence in their communities and the media, helping them feel — and through this, recognize — that any pain that happens to another happens to themselves as well?
Our own physical body possesses a wisdom which we who inhabit the body lack. We give it orders which make no sense.
~ Henry Miller
Why should a man’s mind have been thrown into such close, sad, sensational, inexplicable relations with such a precarious object as his body?
~ Thomas Hardy
When Maurice was in his 80s, he would recount at family celebrations the story of his parents’ failed attempt to make a social dancer of him. As his wife, my adopted grandmother, Ella, seized her lips together in a low underscore, this proudly unschooled self-made man would tell how, in the earliest years of the twentieth century, his parents took him to dancing school to put the finishing touches on his preparation for adulthood.
He stood opposite the young ladies in his class; he accepted the aggravated partnering of his teacher. After the second lesson, she called his parents in for a talk. “Mr. and Mrs. Labovitz, there’s no point. Your son will never be able to tell his right foot from his left. To continue would be a waste of your money and my time.”
As a retired retail magnate in his 80s, perhaps Maurice could afford to admit to a failing, especially in such a feminizing sphere of activity as dancing. Indeed, being a poor dancer could arguably raise his masculine status. He had no sense of rhythm, he boasted, then or now. No ability to differentiate his feet. The steps would just not sink from his head down into his body. Everyone should know: Maurice Labovitz was a klutz! (Ella’s chagrin during this inelegant display of her husband’s ineptitude was palpable.)
Henri Bergson — a French philosopher writing before and after Maurice’s curt dancing days — said, we laugh when a someone appears to be a something, when there is a “mechanical incrustation” that seems to have taken hold of living things. What’s funny is when the fall arrives just after the pride. It’s the smug Rob Petrie of the early Dick Van Dyke Show, tripping over his own living room rug after, as the man of the house, having made some decree to his submissive wife, Laura. Gerald Ford’s periodic walking into other people or his tripping down the stairs of Air Force One. Rhianna’s onstage falls.
Scenes like the one Maurice painted of his dance lessons tickle us to imagine. We spend so much time trying to look like we have it all together, when someone messes up — especially when he seems to hold an intention to move quickly, surely, or unobtrusively — it amuses us. It’s such a classic strategy for cultivating laughter — perhaps best known in slapstick comedy — that Toastmasters in Honolulu advises budding public speakers with solid bone mass to pretend at clumsiness to enhance the humor of their presentations.
An advice column on the Internet addresses nurses who habitually break things and have begun to question whether they can succeed anyhow in their chosen profession. An inherently clumsy nurse admonishes: Just be sure to hold thermometers quite firmly. Keep your presence of mind and pay attention to where you are, where you’re going, and what’s happening now: avoid thinking into the future. Practice complex motions in advance so that you’re not quite so anxious when it comes time to really do them.
While clumsiness is usually cute or endearing when we see it in other people — I’ve even heard it described as sexy in men — being clumsy often feels mortifying or frustrating when it happens to us. It is as though we’re trucking along, expecting the body to be right there with us, when it’s secretly holding a “V” sign up behind our head. Or, the brain, driving the front car, leads a caravan of friends behind us to a restaurant they’ve never been to before. Without thinking to see if any of our group is behind us, we hang a right. Something, and a bunch of someones, are missing.
Where was the body when we thought it was with us? Why is it spilling, breaking, tripping over things and misjudging how far away things are — and doing these things so much more often when we’re pregnant, pre-menstrual, or male? (Boys are four times more likely than girls to be labeled as seriously clumsy.)
Blogger Tara Whitney writes, “I was born with the clumsy gene. My body grew faster than my brain could catch up. And so growing up I was all long lean spidermonkey limbs flailing about poking people in the eyeball. I can’t tell you how many times I have
broken/sprained my pinky toes. Or how many times I have tripped over something invisible in public. Embarrassed myself in front of huge crowds. Or stepped off of curbs/stairs just at the right angle to tweak my ankle. There was even a family I babysat for in high school, who eventually bought me my own special plastic cup to use at their house, because no joke–every time I sat for them, one of their glasses would go slipping from my butterfingers and crash onto the tile floor. Even if I tried not to USE one, if I did the dishes or cleaned up? CRASH ONTO THE TILE. It’s a huge family joke that I’m this big ditz when it comes to paying attention to my body vs. its surroundings. Or at least it used to be, thankfully I have grown out of a LOT of this stuff. And guess who inherited this from me? Drew. My poor, gangly, long-leanspidermonkey-limbed child. Who just doesn’t know where his body ends and where the pavement begins.”
Other than a few bruises and breakages, all this is only a “problem” if we assume the body is supposed to be the slave of the master brain, intended to be the submissive Laura to the traditionally manly Rob. It may be that the body gets the message, but refuses to treat it as important. The underclass rehearses the revolution.
What would happen to clumsiness if we didn’t believe in the body as willing servant to the mind’s orders? (One strong possibility: we’d have to find a lot of other things to laugh at, and disturb the rest of both Maurice Labovitz and Henri Bergson.)
What if mind and body were roommates rather than master and slave? Who or what is it that would serve as landlord to them
A Practice on Making Missteps
Here’s a chance to look at your assumptions about how your body is supposed to execute your intentions out in the world. Pick up something from your kitchen that’s not easy to hold: a can opener that doesn’t fit well in your hand, a metal tray that would do better in two hands than one, a coffee thermos that never felt quite right when full.
Caveat: Don’t pick something that’s sharp.
Advanced practice: Use something that’s breakable.
Walk out of rhythm (think Steve Martin in The Jerk), passing the object from hand to hand. (If that’s too easy, toss it from hand to hand.) And, as the Toastmasters suggest, if you don’t have strong bones, take the difficulty level down a bit.
Where was your mind when your body was doing its thing — When was it “there,” following or staying with your body? When was it “gone”? What, if anything, could be considered “right” about the awkwardness, the spilling, the dropping, the tripping, and even the breaking? Was your mind or your body the “boss,” or does a more apt metaphor come to you for how mind and body co-existed in this practice?
There’s a reason people like me don’t have children. When I learned in college there was a psychological condition in which
people grappled with distorted body images — perceiving their bodies as being heftier than they actually are — I got excited. How interesting it would be to induce yet a different perceptual distortion through mindful child-rearing!
Perhaps I had Lewis Carroll’s tale Through the Looking Glass on the brain, with Alice’s continual changes of size in relation to her environment. You could have a child, I figured, then keep getting new furniture that kept enlarging in proportion with him as he grew. You could arrange it so that he only came into contact with environments that maintained the same proportional relationships with him as when he was an infant. As the child grew, so would the trees, storefronts, restaurants, home interiors. With all this carefully controlled, he might never feel “bigger” than he once had been — at least not in relation to the objects the world is filled with.
Of course, there was always the people problem: what if a new baby came into the family, one observably smaller than the existing child? The child’s perception of his new brother or sister’s size would be difficult to control without a lot of prosthetics. What if the child noticed his own limbs were getting longer in relation to his torso over time? And — just working this through — wouldn’t you, as the parent, have to be careful to growexactly in proportion with your child? How much could you really manipulate that?
Clearly, the whole thing was feasible, if expensive and time-consuming, all for the sake of controlling children’s perceptions — that is, all except for the people part, which was where the whole experiment in child-rearing breaks down. If what psychologists say is true, that we get a sense of self in relation to other people, the experiment was doomed to failure from the start.
In “body dysmorphic disorder,” the mind-body distortion that so fascinated me in Abnormal Psych, sufferers hold an image of
their bodies as being grossly defective in some way. Probably the most common form BDD takes is in those with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, in which sufferers’ image of their size and shape is out of keeping with the observable reality. We think of the girl who squeezes off her food intake, or who binges and then forcibly purges, in a terrible spiral that, unchecked, can be fatal.
The girl looks in the mirror, flanked by a friend. What her nearby companion sees, both in the mirror and beside her, is a thinning or vanishing figure, while what an anorexic sees in her reflection is grotesquely fleshy. As someone with BDD complained on website Experience Project, “It makes me feel angry to know that the world sees a different person when they look at me than I do. … Ridiculous, I know, but when someone calls me beautiful, how can I possibly believe them when my reflection shows a monster?” Treatment would tear her uncomfortably away from her compulsion, as it “would mean losing the ability to see my flaws.”
People who see their bodies as detestable can focus on other things besides weight. A high school senior may spend more than an hour per day checking the size and shape of his nose in various reflections, hoping for an impossible reassurance that it has changed. Humanistic neurologist Oliver Sacks described asomatognosia, a condition in which sufferers, not recognizing one of their limbs as their own, may long to have the disowned appendage amputated.
While men may also unrealistically perceive themselves to be overweight, another variation of BDD has been noted in some men, called muscle dysmorphia or body dysphoria. Ever dissatisfied with the size of their muscles, they may dive into body-building and train beyond any rational point. Some Japanese men believe their body odor to be so socially unacceptable that they have made themselves recluses rather than offend others or draw attention to themselves.
BDD may be a disorder not about the body at all but rather about a distorted, unrealistic compulsion toward perfectionism. Some researchers paint it as a disorder of overuse of the left brain — when sufferers look at what others would see as “big pictures,” they see only the details, treating all visual information as if it were “high-frequency” information. Instead of seeing their bodies as wholes, those with BDD may see it as a dumping ground for defective parts.
If you’re in an experiential mood tonight and want to put yourself into a state of more conscious body dysmorphia, check yourself out on the “Human Aesthetics Calculator” on http://www.thephilosopher.co.uk/humaes/human-aesthetics.htm. If you really want to put yourself through this, you can measure your wrist and then compare the resultant calculations the site will perform for your ideal chest, neck, waist, hip, thigh, calf, bicep, and forearm measurements, depending on whether you want to emulate Michelangelo’s David, Mattel’s Barbie, an American body-builder, or a Polynesian Islander (listed as a now-vanished ideal). Just see if your body stretches the 7 head-lengths favored by Rembrandt, the 7.5 head-lengths Dürer preferred, or the 8 of the perfect body of classical times.
The Human Aesthetic Calculator graphically shows how the disparities between the images we hold of our bodies and the bodies themselves are mediated by cultural ideals. In our weight- and image-conscious media culture, most of us experience some dissonance among how we’d prefer to look, how we think we look, and how we actually look. Whereas those with eating disorders associated with body dysmorphic disorder see themselves as conforming less to the cultural ideal than they really do, our everyday dysmorphia may make us seem (and feel) better than the real. It’s well documented that women tend to underrate their attractiveness, while men overrate theirs. My style seems to be more like a man’s in some respects. For example, I only realized quite recently that it’s not a mistake every time I catch sight of myself in a yoga studio mirror or shop window and see that my legs have not gotten any longer in all these decades of delusion.
There are many other ways in which our idealized images of our bodies fail us. We pass by a shop window and suck in our bellies because the image doesn’t correspond to the one we prefer to hold — we may walk off clinging to the hollowed-out image, writing off the we just saw as a mistake. And is it not a form of dissonance when, as we age, we keep scanning the mirror for signs that yesterday’s sunken face will have been an accident of the last two and half years?
How odd and yet how common not to recognize our bodies –especially our changing bodies — as our own. What would it feel like to recognize ourselves in the mirror, or in our bodily experience, as someone other than someone else — as ourselves?
Passing for Thin is the story of the gradual adaptation of a woman’s psyche to losing 188 pounds in midlife. One might think that falling more into line with cultural norms of beauty and desirability would occasion only
pleasure, but even good things can be big.
For Kuffel, food had beenFor Kuffel, food had been “animate, a completely mutual and unfailingly loyal friend.” It was the only thing she longed for that she believed she really could have, yet she knew that her fat had “infantilized my body, with its pillowy curvelessness and the pudge that made my face ageless.” Enrolling in a 12-step program for overeaters after more than 40 years of being overweight, Kuffel had to re-engineer not only her self-image and her approach to dating, but also her relationships with her family and the built universe. And, as she slimmed down to a healthy weight, Kuffel became visible in new ways to her family members, to men, and to herself.
Not everyone enthusiastically supported the changes in her: Kuffel’s weight had been the basis of her brothers’ lifelong teasing. Her mother founded aspects of her own identity on Kuffel’s being larger than she, responding to news of her daughter’s progress on her diet, “Gee, I better get busy. You’re almost as thin as I am.” A friend in her 12-step program advised her from experience, “Don’t talk about your size with people who’ve known you a long time.”
Kuffel had new challenges to face with the sudden desirability of a face and body that both she and others had previously written off. With her weight down significantly, she also had to learn to walk differently: “My ankles were bruised because I kept knocking my heels against them, not yet adjusted to the new center of gravity in my body.” And, thin for the first time, at a restaurant, she saw the seating options anew: “I adored booths, a cheap trophy of the thin. I fit. Not only that, I could lounge, intimately. My breasts didn’t push at the table, I didn’t have to inch in and sit at odd angles. I could-this was cool-lean across the chasm between the seat and table and cross my legs.”
Most of all, Kuffel’s sense of self had to be reinvented in line with the social reality her body now represented. There had been stereotypical roles to choose from among the American archetypes of the overweight: the Zaftig, the Perfectionist, the Best Friend and Confidante, the Orphan, the Drab, the Queen Bee, the Careerist, the Fag Hag. As a thin woman, she wanted
to be post-archetypal.
Passing for Thin is about the unexpected demand to craft a fresh identity even as one conforms increasingly to cultural ideals, about the need to bring into some coordination who one has been and who one appears to be now.