The Mind-Body Myth in Academia

Lauren Slater
Age of Awareness
Published in
4 min readApr 15, 2020
‘Detach your mind from your body’ — Little Dean

Academics think for a living (or, at least, that’s supposed to be a part of it). You might think that, for this reason, their work can be done anywhere, at any time. Since academic work takes place in an abstract realm — the realm of thoughts — it is eternally accessible, no matter the bodily backdrop. That’s why, during this global pandemic, academics are among the lucky ones. ‘Working from home’ is of no consequence when your work takes place in the world of thought.

Actually… no.

Never mind those of us with children or family to take care of, this picture doesn’t even reflect reality for dependant-less academics. Why? Because thought simply doesn’t work like this. Our thought is fundamentally embodied and contextual. The idea that thought exists somewhere far away from the body is nothing but a Cartesian hangover… or is it…?

Actually… no.

In fact, Descartes himself recognised that thought is very much embodied. Sure, minds are, strictly speaking, distinct from bodies. But we are not pure minds; we are human beings with racing hearts, hurried tongues and hot breath. We are just as much a part of the physical world as the mental one.

The list of things that Descartes attributes to the body is really quite significant:

“the digestion of food, the beating of the heart and arteries, the nourishment and growth of the limbs, respiration, waking and sleeping, the reception by the external sense organs of light, sounds, smells, tastes, heat and other such qualities, the imprinting of the ideas of these qualities in the organ of the ‘common’ sense and the imagination, the retention or stamping of these ideas in the memory, the internal movements of the appetites and passions, and finally the external movements of all the limbs” [Descartes, Treatise on Man]

In this passage, Descartes does not just attribute physical processes like digestion and respiration to bodies, but many far more mental-sounding faculties like passion, imagination, and even memory. The body meddles in mental space. Mind and body are not akin to sailor and ship, and Descartes knew this just as well as anyone:

“I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but that I am very closely joined and intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit.” [Descartes, Meditation 6]

‘White sail’ — Little Dean

So this leaves the academic in the same boat as the rest of us. If only escape to Plato’s heaven was an option.

I believe that the myth of the disembodied mind is dangerous for the academy for a couple of reasons. First, it implies that teaching and research are matters of mind, and can be effectively done with no bodily involvement. Second, it denies our very nature as human beings; making us feel guilty for our inability to transcend our physical predicaments.

The move to online teaching (which was already well underway before the pandemic) seems to be motivated by the view that university teaching is just a mind-to-mind ‘knowledge transfer’. But this is to neglect the fact that teaching is an affective and body-involving practice: it plays to our eyes, ears and emotions as well as our intellects.

What do you remember about your time at university? I’ll guess that you remember rooms, faces, smells and voices — and that these memories are inextricably linked with the theorems and facts that you left with. For students, making an effort to travel to a room where nothing else happens but learning, where you watch and listen to someone who is animated and passionate about their subject — these are central parts of the experience, and they are essentially physical.

Attempting to digitise teaching costs us. Similar attempts to digitise have also come at a cost: this study shows that reading on a Kindle is less effective than reading from a tactile paper book, for example. Bodies and their feelings, sensations and emotions cannot be left out. Of course, digital teaching is the best we can do for now, but it is not the best we can do.

The myth that a human mind can transcend the physical is also responsible for a great deal of academic guilt. If thinking is really something done outside of the head, then the space that your head is in shouldn’t matter. But, of course, it does. If you’re hungry, you won’t do good thinking. If it’s noisy, you won’t do good thinking. If your muscles are tense, you won’t do good thinking. If you’ve just had some bad news (say, that there’s a really bad virus going around), you won’t do good thinking… I could go on and on, but I’m sure this is familiar territory.

Once we accept the truth — that our thinking is essentially embodied — we can begin to create physical and mental spaces that are conducive to good thinking. Take breaks, walk somewhere, do some yoga, make some snacks, change the scene, speak to your friends, do some star jumps, pet your dog , paint a picture — it sounds basic because it is. You’ll do better thinking if you nourish the body, because your mind is in there somewhere.

So don’t be surprised if your thoughts are different now you’re stuck at home. Try not to think of your environment as an obstacle that must be overcome, and don’t call yourself a failure if you can’t quite grasp those elusive and complex thoughts from the sofa. Let your mind settle in to its new surroundings and see what turns up.

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Lauren Slater
Age of Awareness

Philosophy PhD Student writing on 17th Century theories of mind and language.