Disembodied Novels

Embodiment of stories has been investigated so far especially in respect to psychotic stories. In particular, Els van Dongen devoted a book (2002) and a follow-up paper (2003) to the topic, maintaining that stories that are seen as irrelevant and incomprehensible get their non-psychiatric meaning and power by embodiment. According to van Dongen, psychotic people, namely patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, try to regain control over their lives and to influence the course of events by performing and carrying out actions that are based on a story, which has become sort of a text for living. Indeed, so as to gain power and control, schizophrenics need to do more than narrating in language: they have to make their story a narration of flesh and blood, they have to become part of the story itself by embodying it. Since the power of psychotic stories doesn’t come from telling but from acting out accordingly, the final meaning of the mad story is less situated in discursive practices than in the performance, exerting narratives as social features.

Van Dongen observed that it can be misleading to contrast the world of normal people and the schizophrenic one by defining the first one as reality and the second one as situated outside reality. Indeed, for the main part, schizophrenics live in the so called real world where normal people spend their lives. Moreover, the so called ‘mad world’ has its own universe of discourse, its own conception of reality and criteria of rationality, sometimes very different from the ones applying to the non-psychotic world. Both the remarks may be ecologically re-framed by saying that so called mad stories embodied by schizophrenics basically rely on peculiar filtering strategies. That is, they are based on a non-standard common coding of perception and action and the special pairing of perceptual events and/or actions with emotional states.

Opportunely, van Dongen never suggested that mad stories should be assessed as different from normal ones because the former have to be embodied and the latter have not. As suggested by previous entries, embodiment of stories is even implied in the processing of narratives normal people go through while reading a novel or listening to a story. That is, embodied stories are part of the every-day experience of so called ‘normal’ people as well. Rather, disembodiment of narratives may be associated to peculiar neural lesions like the ones described by Oliver Sacks (1985) in his famous collection of clinical cases. For instance, the renowned dr. P, aka The man who mistook his wife for an hat,

investigating the difficulties with leftness of his patient, Sacks observed that his visual field deficits affected both his visual perception and his visual memory and imagination. Hence, «thinking of the almost allucinatoryintensity with which Tolstoy visualises and animates his characters», he tested dr. P’s «internal visualization» questioning him about Anna Karenina, a novel he craved. Interestingly, Sacks describes the reactions of his patient as follows:

He could remember incidents without difficulty, had an undiminished grasp of the plot, but completely omitted visual characteristics, visual narratives and scenes. He remembered the words of the characters but not their faces; and though, when asked, he could quote, whit his remarkable and almost verbatim memory, the original visual descriptions, these were, it became apparent, quite empty for him and lacked sensorial, imaginal, or emotional reality.

The clinical case provides an amazing sample of how disembodied processing of a novel should work. Basically, descriptions do not trigger the embodiment of corresponding sensory experiences and interoceptive correlates as emotions and feelings. Besides, the mere words or sentences are stored, saved as ’empty’ labels and strings lacking any peculiar reference. As Sacks remarks, being dr. P, a musician and a teacher at the local school of music with undiminished musical skills, memory for words might have been part of a more general strategy of compensating visual impairments with peculiar enhancement of auditory and sensory-motor skills.

Interestingly, the clinical case described by Sacks provides evidence of a disembodied processing of narrative events, that is the inability of decoding sensory experiences and emotional correlates on the basis of verbal references, associated to major visual impairments including inability to figure out body part related affordances of very common items. Indeed, dr. P showed undiminished ability of describing shapes, abstract forms, whereas he failed to visually recognize a glove by the pure sight, being rather triggered by sudden understanding of his function as soon as he wore it.

Hence, dr. P’s peculiar ‘reality’ makes plenty of sense in ecological terms. Indeed, inability to focus on narrative events entailing visual references seems paired with a more general visual impairment affecting actual sensory appraisal of natural environments. Likewise, the case of The Lost Mariner presents a similar inability of visual-related language processing paired with a general amnesia involving loss of all visual images, without any sense of loss being present:

Indeed, he had lost the very idea of seeing-and was not only unable to describe anything visually, but bewildered when I used words as ‘seing’ and ‘light’. He had become, in essence, a non visual being (p. 41).

Such evidence corroborates hebbian association models proposed by Pulvermüller (1999, 2002: ch. 4, 50-65), based on the idea that distinct cortical topographies represent biological counterparts of words and their symbolic inherently referential features. In particular, assemblies that process words referring to visually perceived objects trigger neural activity in the perisylvian cortices but even recruit additional cells from visual or motor cortices depending on the content of the word.

In general, observation of patient showing congruent disembodiment of stories and corresponding sensory experiences supports the idea that that understanding of narratives relies on the enacting of appropriate embodied experiences the described events refer to (Feldman and Narayanan 2004). Indeed, the ability to utter and process linguistic references to perceptual events, as narrative ones based on literary sources, seems to be somatotopically related to the ability to process corresponding sensory events and actions in natural environments.



Feldman J. – Narayanan S. 2004
Embodied meaning in a neural theory of language, in «Brain and Language» 89: 385-92.

Sacks, o. 1985
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, New York: Summit Books; London: Gerald Duckworth .

Pulvermüller, F. 1999
Words in the Brain Language, in «Behavioral and Brain Sciences» 22 (1999): 253-336.

Pulvermüller, F. 2002
The Neuroscience of Language. On Brain Circuits of Words and Serial order, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Van Dongen, E. 2002
Walking stories. An oddnography of mad people’s work with culture, Amsterdam, Rozenberg Publishers, 2002.

Van Dongen, E. 2003
Walking stories: narratives of mental patients as magica, in «Anthropology & Medicine» 10 (2003) , pp. 207-222.


3 responses to “Disembodied Novels

  1. Beautiful, you have created the word i needed ‘disembody’.
    I have thought similar way, coming to ’embodiment and expressing the embodied’, but your word is much better.

  2. Question is, is disembodiment happening when you create in your mind some idea or emotion (like artists do) and need to disembody it to the environment in order to use it as the tool of your actions. I mean, the person disembodies his tools all the time in order to make the environment appropraite, understandable, usable through these disembodied elements. And, when they disembody something, is it actually always relating the sensory-motor action potentials with some objects or subjects in the environment, basically is disembodiment the way we toolisize our environment. I think using toolisizing and mediation as synonymes may be wrong in the sense that not always i want to mediate something for someone else. Instead i want to accommodate my external self, constantly adjust it?

  3. TYVM for crediting me, but disembodiment is not a concept I invented. For instance, Sacks used it in the book I quote and it’s common use in ecological theories based on radical embodiment. And no, it’s not typically used in respect of rendering ideas into artcrafts or tools of any kind. In ecological terms, a painting, as a writing on the wall or tool can’t be disembodied for no reason since they all are environmental features interacting with your motor-perceptual system even after you created them after something you planned. Environment is never disembodied as far as its features are mirror matched by sensory-motor system of the perceiver. Disembodiment happens when references are processed independently on sensory-motor system, that is basically impossible in normal subjects, unless pure abstraction is obtained by means of peculiar training or some drugs. I think that using concepts as disembodiment in the sense you are stressing can be misleading. Better to use ‘externalization’, but as we discussed often internal and external are categories that hardly fit ecological accounts. According to Ingold idea of taskscape, borders are where purposeful action planning sets them in order to perform according to a goal oriented activity pattern.

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