It may have been the taste of cake and tea that prompted Proust’s stream of memories, but for me the trigger is more often an action. I was shaping an old flat sable brush with a sharp knife, and a cloud of memories unfurled from deep in my past. As I pressed the flat side to my worktable and scraped the side, I was back in a friend’s dining room and an intense bearded man was demonstrating how to renew the brush there at the table after dinner. Then the image shifted to the friend who had the dinner party, who was himself the hub of a wheel of memories associated with Maryland Institute, as we called it then.
It was this very specific action that spurred my memory to an extensive network of associations. I often think of the body like a pliable tuning fork that depending on the position resonates with and evokes imagery of the past that is associated with being in that position. Studies have confirmed how hormones are affected by body position and then change our mood. As bodies in motion it makes sense that our habitual ways of moving would reinforce certain attitudes in our minds. And before the studies of hormones and neurotransmitters, there were psychological treatments based on the idea, change the body to change the mind. One of these is the Alexander Technique, which addresses the amount of tension that accumulates in the body over time. The body contracts with anxiety and confusion. The treatment offers corrective motions to help pull the body out of its habitual positions and release that accumulation of tension that drains energy. Moshe Feldenkrais was a judo master who had a similar idea. He thought people were frustrated and unhappy because they’d never learned to use their bodies properly, thought too much energy was lost to wasted movement. His books and methods educate people on how to recognize self-defeating body positions and provide exercises that demonstrate better ones.
New research has shown how exercise is good for the mind as well as the emotions. Chemically there’s the increase in dopamine and BDNF that’s been shown to promote growth of new neurons. In addition, our conceptual structure is built on the foundation of embodiment, the body’s experience of the world. Most of our conceptual understanding and scientific reasoning depends on physical experience of weight, balance and movement. Hundreds of years ago Leonardo da Vinci emphasized that exercise was not just important to health and vitality but to the improvement of mental functioning. Continuing to extend bodily experience is especially important in a time when so much daily activity is done sitting in one place.
The signals of core wisdom begin in the body. How the body adjusts to the spaces around it is basis for understanding visual art. Art develops core wisdom by distilling the experience of the body and strengthening the communicative power of visual language. The adjustment of the body is registered consciously as feeling, which is response to what we assume the circumstance will need from us. Our built-in response to visual form reflects the meaning we attach to that adjustment, the overall assessment of the physical or psychological environment. Looking at art can strengthen understanding of the body’s adjustment to visual form. Using the body strengthens the conceptual foundation itself. Development of our mental and psychological health requires physical participation.