B is for Bodies

| April 30, 2014

Matisse, Henri. Blue Nude II. Paris, 1952

“..we observe a man’s actions and place ourselves partly but not wholly in his position; or we act, and place ourselves partly in the position of an outsider.”

T.S. Eliot, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley

In common language, we often use spatial terms to refer to empathy. The most common one being; putting oneself in another person’s shoes. The way we speak is often determined by the way we think (although supporters of the Whorfian hypothesis of linguistic determinism may beg to differ). And I think we can all relate to the quote above, which essentially states that whenever we see someone doing something, we tend to mentally project ourselves in their position (in order to understand their intentions and, perhaps, emotions). Similarly, whenever we perform an action, we might mentally put ourselves in the position of the observer in order to understand their reactions or coordinate our positions in space. But what is the relationship between spatial and social perspective-taking? The former refers to a physical process by which we create a representation of our own bodies and mentally rotate them into the position of another’s (for example in order to decide if something is to someone’s right or left). The latter describes the metaphorical adoption of another’s opinions or emotions. Certainly, the basis for successful conversation with others is the ability to metaphorically adopt their perspective. However, another example of a potential interaction is that of bodies in space, as opposed to voices. It follows that also adopting another’s physical perspective is integral to successful communication (e.g. negotiating the crowd in the subway, handing someone a glass of water). A school of thought provides us with a hypothesis for a link between these two seemingly distinct forms of perspective-taking; embodied simulation. This word describes the theory that states that this sense of shared interpersonal space represents a basic prerequisite for empathy. In other words, this theory posits spatial perspective-taking as the rudimental precursor of social perspective-taking. Certainly an interesting suggestion which is worth exploring.

Read this excellent article by Vittorio Gallese for a detailed analysis; The manifold nature of interpersonal relations:the quest for a common mechanism.