Philosophers, theologians, and other scholars have been debating dualism for a very long time, but psychologists have been late to the party. We revered the Cartesian split between body and spirit, creating a disciplinary origin story that began with Descartes and continued on through the behaviorism of the 20th century. Behaviorism focused on conditioning physical reflexes in the bodies of animals and humans, both of which were treated as machine-like.
Once the so-called “cognitive revolution” was launched in the 1960s and 1970s, and psychologists accepted the radical idea that something called “mind” could be empirically studied, the body was pretty much abandoned as an object of psychological interest. In fact, many psychologists seemed to forget how to study behavior itself--the bedrock focus of the discipline for so many years-- preferring instead to plumb the mysteries of cognition and the brain.
In recent years, it has been harder to hold onto the notion that “cognition” is only in the head, separate from the body. The rapid growth of social neuroscience has gotten psychologists thinking again about the body. For example, when people feel their values have been threatened, they feel unclean and want to wash themselves (Zhong & Lijenquist, 2006). We talk about “heavy” or “weighty” difficult topics and indeed when people hold a heavier clipboard, they express stronger opinions about the information attached to the clipboard than those who hold a lighter clipboard (Jostmann, Lakens, & Schubert, 2009). If you’re out walking with a friend, you’ll estimate a hill you’re approaching as being less steep than if you’re walking by yourself (Schnall, Harber, Stefanucci, & Proffitt, 2008). And finally, those who are socially excluded—who get the “cold shoulder” from others—actually feel colder (Zhong & Leonardelli, 2008). Think about this in terms of elders with dementia who because of aging already may have problems with temperature regulation.
As a result of these and other research findings, some psychologists are starting to talk about embodied cognition. Also, since the dawn of the 21st century, 5 people who study dementia have begun to reflect on the implications of embodied selfhood for persons living with memory loss and other cognitive challenges.
Pia Kontos, of the University of Toronto, has been a leader in the theoretical revisioning of selfhood in dementia, saying that “confining what is essential about selfhood to the brain is to overlook how bodily sources of agency, grounded in the pre-reflective level of experience are fundamental to the constitution and manifestation of selfhood in Alzheimer’s disease” (Kontos, 2005, p. 555).
Working with the phenomenological philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the notion of habitus from the sociological theory of Pierre Bourdieu, Kontos argues that expressions of the “pre-reflective” body (things we do that we don’t think about) are shaped by the structures of our social worlds. Kontos argues that this has implications for person-centered care as people become sensitized to the ways we communicate through our bodies. This is especially important for persons who have lost much of their ability to use verbal language to express themselves.
For example, I remember a woman I’ll call Sue who was in one of my TimeSlips storytelling groups. She had had many strokes and could barely move, but as she sat in her wheelchair, often slumped over in a way that looked quite uncomfortable to me, she would greet me with a small gesture: a wave of her hand and a flicker of a smile. Sue showed she was still with us, still engaged, though she had limited ways of demonstrating that.
When I observed Sue’s wave and her smile, I felt her maintaining the fabric of the world; her wave and her smile were her prayer. It was a prayer about continuing to be in relationship despite her many limitations.
I had been thinking about Sue’s wave and smile, and the writings of Kontos and others on embodiment, selfhood and dementia for many months as I moved toward writing this lecture. Imagine my surprise and delight when sometime in mid-May, I received the latest issue of my favorite journal, Dementia: The International Journal of Social Research and Practice, and saw that it was devoted entirely to the topic of embodiment (Martin, Kontos, & Ward, 2013). One of the articles in this issue that I especially liked described women with dementia getting their hair done (Ward & Campbell, 2013).
I probably liked this because my mom was one of those women who got her hair “done” every week through her adult life. Think about the hair salons you see in long term care where people relax back in chairs to have hair washed, heads massaged, warm water poured gently to rinse, and then the drying, combing, curling, styling. Those who “do” hair offer care, care that along with all the other acts that contribute to the physical and mental health of people with dementia, represents a way of maintaining the fabric of the world.
None of the articles in the journal address embodiment and dementia from a theological standing ground, but that’s where I would like to move our thinking now. In his book, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, John Swinton 6 reminds us that belief in a Creator who is relation with human beings through love points us to a deeper conceptualization of embodiment. We are animated with God’s breath: the nephesh.
Swinton writes this about embodiment: “Human embodiedness is thus seen to be deeply spiritual in shape and function. Our bodies are the locus of God’s creative activity and the place where God meets and sustains us” (Swinton, 2012, p. 171).
Humble acceptance of this statement directs us away from the demands and assumptions of what ethicist Stephen Post calls our “hypercognitive culture,” demands and assumptions that carve a path directly toward stigmatization of persons with intellectual disabilities. An embodied spirituality requires us to recognize our own dependence and the vulnerabilities of our own bodies. Unfortunately, however, our anxiety about dependence and vulnerability often elicits what Kitwood called “malignant social psychology” directed against persons living with dementia.
In a paper on Christian spirituality as embodied spirituality, two American psychologists at Fuller’s Graduate School of Psychology—Warren Brown and Brad Strawn—argued that the idea of embodied spirituality requires us to recognize our need for community in order to “thrive and flourish” (Brown & Strawn, 2011, p. 77). This includes persons with disabilities of all kinds, persons who need their communities to actively imagine how they might “thrive and flourish.” In other words, we don’t maintain the fabric of the world by ourselves; we do it in community.
Susan H. McFadden, Ph.D is Professor Emerita of Psychology, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where she taught undergraduate and graduate courses, including Psychology of Religion and seminars on Dementia Studies. Susan retired from the University in June, 2012 and is now a research consultant for the Fox Valley Memory Project (www.foxvalleymemoryproject.org), which is creating a dementia-friendly community in northeast WI. She has published many papers on religion, spirituality, and aging