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The Psychophysiology of Self-AwarenessReview - The Psychophysiology of Self-Awareness
Rediscovering the Lost Art of Body Sense
by Alan Fogel
W. W. Norton, 2009
Review by Carlos Herrera, Ph.D.
Aug 3rd 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 31)

Ever since Descartes formalized his version of dualism, the body has been seen as a machine, essentially separate from all forms of awareness that we call the mind. This view was common in philosophy, science and medicine, as well as in folk psychology - but it has been extensively challenged, first by the phenomenological movement, lately in the embodied cognitive science paradigm, and last but not least from a number of therapeutic practices that have developed on the basis that disengagement from our bodies can be a source of malaise.

Although the insights provided by such therapeutic practices are fundamentally empirical (yet experiential rather than experimental), and often sustained by theories with a strong scientific component (with more or less rigor), they are often seen as unscientific or esoteric. It is therefore a challenge for scientists such as Alan Fogel, a researcher in cognitive neuroscience, as well as a Rosen Method practitioner, to provide a scientific theory that can accommodate the empirical observations that such a practice facilitates.

The principle of Rosen Method, as well as a family of therapies such as Feldenkreis or Alexander Techniques, is to increase our awareness of our own body, for instance to improve habits or overcome trauma. Although Fogel extends this principle to a wider range of therapies and practices, for example yoga or dance therapy, it is clear the Rosen Method plays a central role in this book. The question is whether the benefits of these therapies can be analysed and explained in a way that is consistent with current cognitive neuroscience.

This could be the main goal of The Psychophysiology of Self-awareness. The central tenet is that embodied self-awareness, that is, neuro-physiological processes that allow us to become aware, sense, attend or recognize bodily processes and states, is fundamental for biological regulation and adequate adaptation to the social and natural environment. The thesis is not only that becoming aware of our bodies can be a healthy practice - but also that much of our physiological and cognitive organization is geared to this end. 

The book is nevertheless more complex in its intentions. It is directed to different audiences: cognitive scientists, health practitioners and anyone interested in embodied practices. And it is also diverse in its content and style, ranging from scientific textbook to self-help guide. The neurophysiology of body awareness is of course the central topic. But Fogel also explains in detail how certain patterns in modern life may cause a lack of self awareness and how this may give raise to common health problems. The book also offers to give some basic guidance on how self-awareness practices are conducted, and an opportunity to those familiar with one or several of such practices to better understand their principles. Although it was always the intention of the author to combine such diverse perspectives, the result can sometimes be a compendium of observations that, although always interesting, at times lack a central thread.

The most important contribution of The Psychophysiology of Self-awareness is to give a scientific account of the neuro-physiological processes involved, directly and indirectly, in embodied self awareness - and their functional role in the physiological, cognitive and behavioural organization of our bodies as intelligent adaptive systems. To this end Fogel reveals the different neural networks involved in monitoring body states, from the structures in the brain involved to the receptors in the body, as well as the role hormones play.

As a scientific book, The Psychophysiology of Self-awareness is both accessible and rigorous, and its scientific content fits well with the latest developments in embodied cognitive science. As much work in cognitive neuroscience, many of its hypotheses regarding the function of diverse brain areas is open to revision. The style of attribution of functionality to brain areas is standard - while the appeal to dynamical systems theory and the notion of attractors is done more metaphorically than in a strict sense. Whilst there is a strong focus on body-awareness, the theory presented could be richer by exploring the connections with other forms of higher order cognition.

Despite these and other possible criticisms, Fogel does extraordinarily well in explaining the connection between basic bio-regulatory processes and the experience of the lived body. Particularly interesting is the chapter on emotion, and how the more or less reactive responses to threat can shape higher order psychological traits. Given that this is an area in which cognitive scientist struggle to reconcile the notion of embodiment with so-called cognitive architectures, it becomes clear that the consideration of therapeutic practices throws light on the interplay between nervous system, autonomic nervous system, endocrine, motor and sensory systems. In summary, the scientific content is not only rigourous in general, but some parts of this book can be considered at the cutting edge of the embodied cognitive science literature.

The book is less rigorous in dealing with philosophical issues. The distinction between conceptual self-awareness and embodied self-awareness is a bold simplification of the most important concept in this book, awareness. The idea of being in the present, so intuitive and fashionable, may be enough to guide an embodied practice, but leaves too many gaps in our understanding of the phenomenological qualities of awareness.

Objections can also arise in how Fogel deals with the moral dimension of this book. Whilst the benefits of self-awareness are treated as a matter of scientific fact, it is forgotten that the practices explained are ultimately a form of moral guidance. Curiously, this may bring Fogel closer to the tradition of disembodiment. As Charles Taylor explains (1995. Philosophical Arguments. Harvard University Press), the philosophers of Enlightenment transformed a sophisticated moral procedure (to break down and scrutinize our beliefs, and overcome our personal desires and emotions) into the reification of our minds as information processors, independent of their embodiment. In the same way, we should be careful not to construct, from our experience of a beneficial procedure (gain awareness of our body), an ideal of what constitutes a healthy and fulfilled human agent.

 

© 2010 Carlos Herrera

 

Carlos Herrera has a PhD in Cognitive Science and is currently affiliated to the Echo Echo Dance Theatre Dance Company, Derry, Northern Ireland


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