Michael teaches yoga and meditation, practises bodywork, and does philosophy relating to the mind, body, and yoga.

what's with the octopus?

Octopuses (and before anybody makes the first use of the comments section on this blog an unnecessarily pedantic display--yes, that is the correct way to refer to more than one octopus) have long held a high place in my esteem. Admittedly, this esteem came initially from a gustatory appreciation: I discovered at the age of five or six how delicious they were. However, my budding knowledge of the magnificent creatures led to the decision that I could not continue to eat them. They are far too intelligent.

A magnificent new book by philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith has cemented my high regard for these cephalopods and their sophisticated smarts. You may have heard tell of the octopus' ability to open jars (and even 'child-proof' bottles!), navigate mazes, and escape through remarkably narrow passageways. Moreover, Godfrey-Smith's book relates accounts of octopuses in the lab who can recognise and form opinions about individual human beings. He tells a story, for example, of one animal who decided that he didn't particularly like one of the scientists, and responded invariably to her presence in the lab by squirting her with water. Of course I've taken a shine to this capacity for an impish sense of humour as well. And what's more, they can be so adorable!

But surely, you might say, there are plenty of animals which demonstrate higher levels of intelligence. Why shouldn't the new mascot be a dolphin, a chimpanzee, a border collie, or a crow? I've certainly spent generous numbers of life-hours learning about these remarkable creatures as well, and since recently receiving a pair of fantastic-looking books from a friend (this! and this!) I'll surely spend at least a few more hours doing so as well. 

However, the reason the octopus deserves an above-the-title billing has its sources not only in the quality of its intelligence, but in the nature of it. While the brain contains the vast majority of human neurons, nearly three-fifths of an octopus' neurons extend into the creature's tentacles. For me, this literally embodied intelligence makes the octopus emblematic of precisely the topics I intend to explore with this blog. 

Just over 25 years ago, Evan Thompson, Francisco Valera, and Elanor Rosch co-authored a book called The Embodied Mind. In it, the authors 'reconceptualized cognition as a form of embodied action while reframing cognitive science as the investigation of embodied cognition.' And they didn't stop there. They also helped legitimise Buddhist studies in Western philosophical circles by embracing Eastern contemplative philosophy and praxis as their framework for understanding human phenomenology--that is, what it means to 'experience' something.

Ignoring the notion of embodiment can lead, in the extremes, to characterising the mind as a mere computer or as something somehow altogether separate from the body. Ironically, I find that the yoga community can rather easily resort to discussing the mind and the body as two disparate things. The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, probably the most heralded text amongst yoga schools in the West, appears to advocate that very position. And Western philosophy has of course spent centuries grappling with its own dualistic mind-body issues. Yet today's science leads us more and more in a direction of understanding that we have no real way of separating 'spirit' from 'substance.' 

I decided to begin this blog because, in order for the ideas that have been kicking around in my head to have any real impact on the world, I need a way of connecting them with other thinkers. I would love for this to become a conversation about how we can all make the most of the fact that our minds enact ambitions, emotions, and ideas through and with our bodies, rather than in spite of them or without regard for them. Much of the discussion here will entail showing the ways in which research demonstrates the elegance and efficacy of the mind-body connection. Other parts of the discussion will be geared toward how this knowledge can help us all to become thriving, peaceful, empowered individuals.

As a more niche ambition, I would love to see this conversation have a real impact on how yoga teachers in particular frame their pedagogy. I myself am not a scientist, and I don't expect any other yoga teachers to become scientists either. However, when teaching about the mind, the body, and philosophy, I do believe that it is important to consider these words of one of my favourite philosophers:

It's not to just pull it out of your ass, but to connect in a very meaningful way to the range of data that is relevant...and that means instead of having this scientific enterprise which is largely vertical, the philosopher can have a scientific program which is horizontal and goes across many sub-disciplines, to try to synthesise and put it together in a useful way. -Patricia Churchland

We as human beings do not, in fact, have such a large proportion of our neurons in our limbs; therefore, the octopus will of course remain a metaphor. Yet I consider it an inspiring and powerful metaphor. If we can actively stretch out the numerous tentacles of our minds in order to examine all of the relevant data that is available to us--and what's more, if we can somehow embody that knowledge--we'll surely all become greater contributors within our own disciplines, and more fulfilled within ourselves.

yoga and epigenetics: muting the buzz