Embodiment – An Introduction
by Araceli Camargo
Embodiment is how our internal, intangible biological experiences are made tangible through their relation to our body. There are two main types of embodiment – cognitive and emotional – both of which affect the way we translate our internal experience into external action.
Imagine the following scenario: two people are standing at a bar; one is smiling and one is frowning, when a third person tells them a joke. Who is more likely to ‘get’ the joke? Science would say the one who was already smiling; this phenomenon is called embodiment. We embody both thoughts and emotions. A warm drink will make us feel more accepting and open as it makes us feel comfortable, or a room full of natural light will make us feel more awake due to the way the light waves hit our retinas. We do not just pay attention to our environment, we actually take it in via our body as well.
The relationship between the mind and the body is still being studied. One of the leading scientists on the subject is Mark Williams, professor and researcher on depression at Cambridge University. He has been working on the links between depression and physical posturing and activity.
In one of his studies, he asked sufferers of the disorder to adopt a more ‘positive’ posture in their daily life in order to instigate a change in mood. His work has found that patients who started to adjust their body by walking with their head held high and sitting upright started to see a change in their mood. This insight can help facilitate the creation of smarter environments which work in tandem with the people in the space. We can use conscious embodiment to teach, change and influence behaviours.
The other main part of embodiment is emotion. Our environments are filled with emotionally significant information. Emotions are an essential component in how we make decisions and contextualise our relationship with our surroundings. It is like a gauge that measures our relationship between internal or external stimuli and ourselves. Without emotions we would be unable to read with accuracy the significance and meaning of our experiences and interaction with the built environment and people.
Imagine you are walking down the street, you spot an acquaintance, you choose to wave and keep walking. There is an element of recognition which allows you to categorise this person as an acquaintance. However, your reaction to them and interaction is gauged by how you feel about them. You may be pleased to see them, but that feeling may not be enough to make you want to cross the street to engage further. Emotions are yet another set of tools our body and brain use to understand, communicate and interact with people and places around us.
Emotions start with chemical reactions. We interact with stimuli and these stimuli cause a chemical to be released, which then causes us to feel a certain emotion in relation to those stimuli. From there we make a decision about what type of interaction we want to have with said stimuli. If you were out running and a car you did not expect came racing out, you would see it and a rush of chemicals including adrenaline would flood from the brain to the body, making you feel fear. These chemicals would dictate your rapid response towards the car, i.e. quickly removing yourself from harm’s way. Our brain is in constant chemical flux, as everything we interact with will induce a chemical and emotional response. When you felt the car no longer posed a threat, your body would start the process of returning to homeostasis, the neutral state. Then you start to run again, and perhaps you see a person walking a dog. You like dogs and would feel happy, and again your body and brain would release another set of chemicals, and on it goes.
Even objects can have an emotional charge that captures our attention, modifies memory and guides judgement and decision making. For example, a bond with a childhood object like a cuddly toy can spark nostalgia, and so we keep it. Or a ring may become a multi-generational heirloom. At a macro cultural level, we keep important artefacts because of our emotional attachment towards them. They serve as physical anchors to memory and experience, allowing memories, concepts and emotions we consider to be important to travel through time without being lost.
Transforming these chemically induced emotions into something tangible is what we call emotional embodiment. It is a very complex and beautiful dance that entwines body, cognition and intangible neural systems. Most philosophical practices have tried explaining this dance; in Western theorisations, we have the concept of ‘brain over body’ or ‘mind over matter’ as if to prioritise our mental capabilities to be strong and dominant over the body’s function. In the East it is mind/body; there is less distinction between the two. Another interpretation is to consider ‘mind with body’, meaning that the mind and body are in constant dialogue, which is in turn interpreted by our emotions.
Marathon runners experience this relationship in a very tangible way. Running a marathon is whirlwind of emotions that require a steady conversation and collaboration between mind and body. The motivation to run such a long distance comes from both the mental will and a physical craving. Many first-time marathon runners will attest to wanting a big change in their life before setting off towards this goal. Emotions of discontent will alert you that a change is necessary, kick-starting cognitive processes to achieve this desire. Then there is a physical drive, which creates the avenue and momentum for the change to occur. For most runners it happens subconsciously; they find themselves one day going for their first casual run, which over time turns into the desire for a marathon.
These internal emotions find expression in the physicality of running, and the change in emotional state creates a feedback loop that gains potency each time a goal is set and achieved. It is upon retrospection that a person begins to see how the sudden changes in their life and circumstances are associated with a new perspective, a new set of emotional responses, generated by a different embodiment of thoughts. These are but a few examples of the seemingly mundane processes that guide our lives.
We also embody emotions on a micro level. We smile when we are happy or grimace in disgust. We embody emotions to turn abstract, complex neural systems into tangible communication. How else would another person know what we are feeling inside? How can we understand our own emotions without physically embodying them?
When curating the general feel of an experience, we must look at whether the emotional landscape fits with the brand. If it fits, then we create physical activities which will elicit those emotions. The way we place items, the use of texture and lighting, how these things are situated in space – all this will influence the emotional state of the people in the room. A coherent experience unifies its stimuli – if you want people to feel happy, create opportunities for them to smile, hold the event in a building that is flooded with white light, and create spaces within it that are comforting and safe. Happiness doesn’t occur unless we feel safe or comfortable.
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