Today’s essay has been written by Hiroko Nakatani in a way that allies scientific rigorousness and the subjectivity of an architect who finds in these experiments, a way to re-introduce the notion of the body in architecture. Starting from the Spinozist assessment that body and mind cannot be separated, Hiroko then overtakes a short inventory of scientific experiments that confirms such an immanent reading of the living. As a conclusion, she quotes Shusaku Arakawa -who she knows well for having worked with him as well as Madeline Gins for two years of her life- saying that a human owns thousands of brains in and out of his (her) body. Such a manifesto is of course deeply related to the body’s environment and therefore the architecture that surrounds it. Understanding this approach is what Hiroko proposes in the following paper:
Dissolving Minds and Bodies
by Hiroko Nakatani
The object of the idea constituting a human mind is the corresponding body, or a certain mode of extension that actually exists, and nothing else. -Baruch de Spinoza
Through the following presentation of five scientists from different fields and eras I would like to show the relevance of “body” as it relates to Spinoza’s concept of “mind” and “body” because it has been left behind over several centuries of spatial design that have mostly focused on a unilateral interpretation of “mind.” For Spinoza, mind and body are one. The skin is merely a boundary through which mind, which is a part of the infinite intellect, experiences the world, which is infinite substance. The examples below will show that not only is there scientific evidence that reveals that the body and world are a part of each other but also that we have only a very limited understanding of the potential within the body.
A biochemist, Rudolph Schoenheimer (1889-1942) research reveals that our body communicates with the material world around us; which body is an essential input for a mind according to Spinoza. He called his research Dynamic State of Body Constituents. He fed amino acid-marked food to adult mice. After feeding this for three days, he found that the mouse’s excretion was almost entirely non-marked materials. The marked materials were found all over inside the body. The food had become part of the mouse’s body very quickly while some parts of the body changed into waste. It is said that 98% of our body completely changes in one year. What really is interesting here for me is that materially we are the same as the food that we had today, and as dynamic as water that travels through body and river, and some other animal’s body again. As a material, our body is continuously exchanging and dissolving and taking part of this whole world of material. Although there are different scales of time in its process, this continuous flow will be the same as for the entire living/non-living things in the world whether it is a peak of a desert or the chair you are sitting in right now. To see it from Spinoza’s view, perception through body is an extension of mind, and now it keeps changing its components as an infinite cycle of material like the infinite intellect.
What is your brain doing right now while it is reading? Information goes into the brain but doesn’t come out. What happens to it? Your behaviors at the moment are probably basic— such as breathing and eye movements— yet, as you are aware, your brain is doing a lot more than that as you read and understand these words. – Jeff Hawkins
This constant interaction between the outside of our body is not just about our body that is material; it is also about our mind. In 1992, a group of neurophysiologists including Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma in Italy found a neuron in monkeys, that is activated when they copy some other monkey/people’s action such as holding up a cup. They named it the mirror neuron. The mirror neuron is a series of reactions that we can find in our brain and some other mammals when they copy another animal’s activity consciously or unconsciously. For example, when the person next to you yawns, you feel like yawning as well whether you want to or not. It is said that empathy is an example of the mirror neuron’s operation. If animals keep copying each other constantly, the borderline of one mind starts to disappear and dissolves into another. We are in a sense part of the environment just like our body is. The body is a limited entity if you look at just a single moment; however, over time, our body is a constantly changing phenomenon. Over the past century, it seems that body has been left behind by the speed of radical acceleration of connectivity of minds. Now a small voice reaches to the other side of the world as fast as you speak to someone next to you. People with common interests share with each other, gather and transmit their concentrated information to each other both consciously and unconsciously. How about body? Why don’t we explore alternate conditions of our bodies like mind?
Here are three extreme examples of explorations of bodies that I would like to introduce. The first one is a about a single tomato tree that makes me think of the hidden potential of a living thing. This tree in Japan has ten thousand tomatoes within its body. It was shown at the International Exposition, Tsukuba, Japan, 1985. It was grown by a botanist Shigeo Nomura from the mere seed of a tomato. He used no genetic engineering for this purpose. A seed of tomato just like you can find anywhere else produced ten thousand tomatoes. The way he grew this tree was far from high-tech. He did not use chemicals that would accelerate the tomato’s growth either. He simply gave the tomato tree plenty of water and air that was always circulating. The key was that he did not use soil, so that the tree would not consume its energy to grow its roots. He made the tomato’s body free from stress. This method is called Hyponica. He said in an interview, “I just helped what the tomatoes want to do”. This means that any living thing has all kind of potential that have not quite been exercised yet. In the way that he brought the tomato’s hidden potential to life, we might be able to demonstrate our hidden possibilities into life into some other ways by observing our lives carefully. There are many things that we have neither tried nor questioned about our environment. Is there anything that we believe to be “normal” which is not at all “normal” actually?
The second example of body comes from the opposite idea of the previous example. This is about potential that was discovered by limiting one’s environment. Kaspar Hauser(1812-1833) is a boy who lived in a darkened cell about two meters long, one meter wide, and one and a half meters high for a long time in his life with no social contact. When he was found at age 16, he almost could not speak any language nor recognize himself in a mirror. Kaspar could not eat meat since he had only been given bread and water throughout his life. On the other hand, his ability of perception was extraordinary compared with other human beings who had grown up in our environment. He could recognize colors in darkness, and he could distinguish iron and brass without seeing them. He could also recognize if there was prey caught in a spider web without even looking at it. However, his sharp perception went away as soon as he got used to living in society. This makes me want to think of a completely different way of living a life. If everyone lives in a generic way more and more, aren’t we ignoring what we could do?
While the previous two examples of body were about how environment changes body, the next example will show how body can be trained with new perceptions. We can train ourselves and develop a whole new perception. So far, mirror neuron was found only in sight and sound; however, it is not difficult to imagine finding it in all the other perceptions when we look at an American neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita’s (1934-2006) research. He made a device for blind people to wear on their tongues, which projects a visual pattern that is made of thousands of small needles. Using this visual information through the device, the examinees became able to see things through their tongues. After some training, they learned to open doors and pick up a glass of water. Most interestingly, when the examinees were wearing this device, they were using the part of their brain that is associated with seeing which had not been functioning for them since they had become blind. So, by using touch, we can develop a part of the brain that is used for sight. This reminds me of the words of the artist Shusaku Arakawa that a human has thousands of brains both within and outside of our body.
As we exchange our body with the materials in the environment and the information in our minds unconsciously with others, the boundary between body and mind disappears. Architects have not developed an environment for our body that exchanges as much as has been done for the mind. As Spinoza said, we should never leave our body behind. We need to take back our body by means of innovative ways of creating the architectural environment around us.
- Spinoza, Baruch. The Ethics. New York : Dover, 1955
- Damasio, Antonio. Looking for Spinoza. New York : A Harvest Book Harcourt Inc, 2003
- Hawkins, Jeff with Blakeslee, Sandra. On Intelligence. New York : Times Books, 2004
- Rizzolatti, Giacomo and Sinigalia, Corrado. Mirrors in the Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions, Emotions, and Experience. New York : Oxford New York, 2006
Special thanks to Dorian G. Stone