The Intelligent Body.

Don Herbison-Evans ,
Byrnes Dance Image

I think that Plato did the world a disservice with his mind-body dichotomy, implying that we have intelligence in the mind, but none in the body. This bias still pervades western culture.

My view is that the body is as intelligent as the mind, and that this is felt in the acquisition of any skill, and is felt especially by good dancers. It is also felt for example by trained typists. A typist does not have to search for each of the keys to type a word. Their fingers know where the keys are. Typists just think of the letters, and their fingers find them automatically. Their fingers know where the letters are. Typists do not even have to spell the words. A typist will merely think a word, for example "hello", and the fingers know how it is spelt, and go to each letter in turn. The fingers of a typist know how to spell. Likewise, when I am dancing well, I do not think about what I am doing. Rather: I feel that I am observing what I am doing. My body is moving with its own intelligence. A study of any system of movement, such as Dance, may be viewed as the study of this body-intelligence, just as Psychology is study of the mind-intelligence.

In this view, typing and sport are about goal-directed body-intelligence (particularly football: joke), or more generally: applied body-intelligence. Dance is about the more general aspects of body-intelligence.

Traditionally this body-intelligence is referred to as muscle-memory, and is commonly exemplified by the persistent ability to swim or ride a bicycle once a body is trained to do so. But this muscle-memory is different from the the normal idea of a memory which just stores facts. In the simplest case, muscle-memory stores procedures: how to do things: sequences of muscle activation levels. But it must be more complex than that for a typist to be able spell words, or a cyclist to correct a momentary off balance when riding a bicycle. To call this just a "memory" is a gross insult to the activity, hence my term "body-intelligence".

There has been much effort put into determining where this body-intelligence is stored in the brain. A tempting view is that language and logical thought are activities in general of the left half of our brain, but that emotion and dance are activities of the right half. The connection between the two hemispheres of the brain is easily shown to be limited. Just consider the difficulty of transferring a skill from one side of the body to the other, such as a right-handed person trying learn to write with the left hand. This limited transfer between hemispheres would explain why people, who have already started having dance lessons, can do dance steps from previous lessons that they did not know they knew. The left brain does not have a full understanding of what the right brain knows. This lack of knowing what you know is very worrying for beginner dancers. It is only with experience that dancers begin to accept with their logical left brain, that their right brain knows what they have to do. They have to learn to trust their body-intelligence.

(written 16 January 2009, updated 19 April 2012, 3 June 2017)