Editorial Introduction – The Formation of Body Memory

Christian Tewes
and Thomas Fuchs


1. Preliminary Remarks

The contributors to this special issue have set out to analyse and investigate the psychological, biological, and social conditions of body memories and their impact on the constitution of collective memories. In contrast to episodic or semantic recollections, body memories such as habits shape the movements, postures, and gestures of the entire body. They are generated by repeated social interactions and thus incorporate cultural norms, values, and styles of expression. It is the goal of this special issue to explore the various dimensions of this memory type from a range of disciplinary perspectives and to eluci­date how body memories are formed by learning processes, social rituals, but also by painful or traumatic experiences. In what follows, we introduce some key characteristics of body memory and explain their relations to existing debates and research paradigms in the theory of embodiment. Finally, we summarize the various contributions of this issue and the research questions they address.

2. The Discovery of Body Memory

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the French philosophers Maine de Biran (1799/1953), Félix Ravaisson (1838/1999), and Henri Bergson (1896/1911) discovered and studied the habitual capacities of the body as an independent kind of memory. Thus, in his Matter and Memory (1896/1911), Bergson famously distinguished between ‘pure’ or ‘image memory’ (souvenir-image) and ‘habit memory’ (mémoire habitude). Today, the former would be called episodic memory (Baars and Gage, 2007/2010, pp. 325–6); it represents ‘events of our daily life as they occur in time’ (Bergson, 1896/1911, p. 31). The latter, according to Bergson, is intimately connected to recurrent ‘motor mechanisms’ of the entire body (ibid., p. 29); it denotes the bodily habits which result from repeated movements and determine our dis­positions, attitudes, and automatic reactions towards perceived objects (ibid., p. 23).

Since Bergson’s work on habit memory — whose roots lie in an Aristotelian tradition (Bernacer and Murillo, 2014) — phenomenol­ogical research has played a particular role in broadening the concept of body memory and exploring its phenomenal basis (Behnke, 1997; Casey, 1984; 1984/2000; Fuchs, 2000; 2012; Sutton et al., 2011; Sheets-Johnstone, 2012). One important facet of this memory type is the procedural or ‘habitual body’: according to Bergson, it allows for quite flexible interaction with objects or other persons (Casey, 1984/ 2000, p. 46) and thus cannot be reduced to merely automatic or uncon­sciously operating sensorimotor functions (Sutton et al., 2011; Sheets-Johnstone, 2012). Merleau-Ponty had already demonstrated this with his famous example of an experienced organist who is able to transfer his virtuosity to an organ with which he is unfamiliar. Despite the fact that its layout may be different, the expert is capable of adapting his skills effortlessly to the affordances of the new instrument (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/2005, pp. 167–8), clearly a situation-dependent (adaptive) capacity.

Such tacit knowledge, as it is revealed in habitual movements or perceptions, also plays a significant role in the cognitive sciences, where it is termed ‘implicit memory’. Daniel Schacter, for instance, has carried out and evaluated empirical studies that point to the existence of such a memory type. He conceives implicit memory in such a way that it is revealed every time a previous experience facili­tates the performance of a task that does not require conscious recollection (Schacter, 1987, p. 501). An important method for testing and prompting implicit memories is the analysis of priming, which can be defined as ‘an effect in which exposure to a stimulus influences response to a later stimulus’ (Soler, Dasí and Ruiz, 2015, p. 1). To give an example, a subject who is presented with a quick-fire series of words will often be unable to accurately recall the entire series but will nevertheless be able, at a later point, to complete word stems based on those same words (ibid.).

Another important source for research on implicit memories is amnesic patients who have lost the ability of explicit recall. Despite this loss, however, their implicit memory — as experiments have demonstrated ― can still be intact (Schacter, 1987, pp. 508–9).

3. Further Dimensions of Body Memory

The last example indicates further dimensions of body memories which have been of interest to phenomenology and psychology (Fuchs, 2012). Research on psychopathological phenomena arising from traumatic experiences or dementia has proved particularly con­ducive to broadening and deepening the concept of body memory (Caldwell, 2012), while exploration of the latter in turn sheds light on autobiographical memory formation and aspects of personal identity (Fuchs, 2017b). In this vein, Steven Brown and Paula Reavey have coined the term ‘vital memory’ to describe and analyse the way survivors of sexual abuse have to manage the recollection of past events against a backdrop of deeply entrenched traumatic experiences (Brown and Reavey, 2015, p. 143). Vital memories explicitly include the effects of such experiences on the (re)organization of autobio­graphical memories. The interplay between autobiographical and body memory is also revealed in recent research on such phenomena in Alzheimer’s (Hydén, Lindemann and Brockmeier, 2014). Here, embodiment-based memory research can help the patient and their spouse to create joint activities for establishing or conserving shared meanings (Hydén, 2014, pp. 148–9). This indicates the important role which intercorporeal memories play in pathological cases such as dementia.

The term ‘intercorporeality’, coined by Merleau-Ponty, not only refers to the relation between two bodies (Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, p. 180) but can be understood as a network of meaningful sets of body–object and body–body relations (Jordan and Mays, 2017, p. 364). Research on infants has shown the crucial importance of inter­corporeality for body memory. From birth on, recurrent patterns of interactions and affect attunement between caregiver and child are sedimented as interactive schemas in the infant’s body memory (‘schemes of being-with’; Stern, 1985), for instance ‘mummy-feeding-me’, ‘daddy-playing-with-me’, etc. This results in what Stern et al. (1998) termed implicit relational knowing ― an embodied, intuitive knowl­edge of how to interact with others, how to have fun together, how to elicit attention, to avoid rejection, etc. It is a temporally organized, ‘musical’ memory of the rhythm, dynamics, and under­tones which resonate in one’s interaction with others. Thus, long before they develop verbal communication, infants already acquire a primary understanding of others through shared practices engrained in their intercorporeal memory.

The enactive sensorimotor approach to consciousness, agency, and cognition (Varela, Thompson and Rosch, 1991; Noë, 2004; Thompson, 2007) has taken the lead in exploring the role of body–brain–environment interactions for the constitution of body memories. The key idea here is that memories are not stored as representational strings of information inside the brain (Tewes, 2016, pp. 43–4) but are always already in the world. Both the enactive approach to cognition and the phenomenology of the lived body have sought to overcome the dualism of representational mind and external world, and this also refers to the concept of memory. Thus, each perception already evokes possibilities for action, which means that objects are accessible for us (‘ready-to-hand’, to use Heidegger’s term), offering affordances for our mobile body that are derived from earlier interactions with the environment (Gibson, 1979). In these perception–action cycles, inside and outside, mind and world can no longer be separated. Thus, in con­trast to the representational paradigm, the enactive approach empha­sizes the anticipatory capacity of the embodied agent to open up a procedural field of possibilities that are not represented inside the skull (Fuchs, 2017a, pp. 336–7). Instead of inner maps or models of external reality, the brain rather provides open loops for such potential interactions. These loops are only closed to full functional cycles by suitable counterparts in the environment that the body currently connects with, leaving no place for separable representations (Fuchs, 2018, p. 102). Thus, by memory we should not denote some kind of static inner depository, but the capacity of a living being to actualize its dispositions acquired in earlier learning processes, and this capacity is bound to the ongoing dynamic coupling between brain, body, and environment.

4. Extended and Cultural Body Memories

Taking seriously the insight that body memories are realized in inter­active relations suggests the need for more detailed exploration of the role which the structure and dynamics of the procedural field of possi­bilities play in embodied memories. Proponents of the extended/distri­buted mind hypothesis also start from embodied approaches to cognition but they place no emphasis on the phenomenological foundation of consciousness and intercorporeality. Instead, they focus on external representational vehicles, such as mathematical systems, diagrams, written records (exograms), or technological devices, in order to explore their constitutive function for mental and cognitive capacities (Menary, 2007, pp. 229–30). According to them, mental capacities are spread across the biological and non-biological divide and are distributed over the physical, social, and cultural environment (Sutton, 2010, p. 189). That memory capacities are ‘distributed’ means that neural systems, bodily practices, and cultural artefacts (technologies, media) contribute to their constitution in various ways (Michaelian and Sutton, 2013, p. 3). From the very first formulations of the extended mind hypothesis we see the concept of distributed memory in operation: Clark and Chalmers famously argued that in specific circumstances a portable computer and its user can form a new cognitive system by sustaining the latter’s memory capacities (Clark and Chalmers, 1998).

In both enactive and extended approaches dynamical systems theory plays a crucial role in understanding how mental and cognitive capacities emerge. Here the concept of coupling is crucial: brains, bodies, and the environment are understood as components of an emergent coupled system, the brain–organism–environment system (Menary, 2007, p. 42; Clark 2008/2011, pp. 23–4). A central assump­tion here is that embodied cognition is a temporal capacity of living and evolving agents (van Gelder, 1998; Thompson, 2007, p. 38). Dynamical systems theory no longer conceptualizes cognitive pro­cesses as computational, linear input–output functions but as self-organizing wholes, emerging from a range of interacting nonlinear feedback processes (Kelso, 1995). What distinguishes these causal loops (apart from their reciprocal structure) is their multilevel relation: they are characterized by top-down (global to local) and bottom-up (local to global) processes across different levels of explanation (Thompson and Varela, 2001, pp. 419–20). This allows for the explanatory integration of different aspects of description, such as conscious and neural processes, by means of concepts and research tools drawn from the study of dynamics (Lewis, 2005, p. 169). Conceived in this way, it is also possible to explain how intercorporeal and collective memories can be strongly emergent features of inter­personal relationships, larger groups, and external features of the environment which exceed the capacities of their parts or elements (Sutton et al., 2010; Froese and Fuchs, 2012; Fuchs, 2012).

The fruitfulness of exploring body memory in a further connection, namely the constitution of collective memories, has already been demonstrated in sociology and anthropology, for instance in the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1977; 1990) and Thomas Csordas (1990; 1994). In a similar vein, Paul Connerton has argued more recently that embodied practices such as rituals and commemorations are neglected but important mnemonic systems for study in social anthropology and history (Connerton, 1989, p. 103). What he has in mind are incorpora­ting practices such as repeatedly performed social activities, e.g. gestures or postures. How to sit, stand, or bow is also (implicitly and explicitly) taught and transmitted to children via approval and dis­approval. In the same process, gender differences or a child’s affiliation with specific groups or classes are often structured and entrenched (ibid., p. 73). Some researchers have questioned the explanatory scope of incorporating practices for social memories by arguing that body memories and embodied experiences do not contri­bute significantly to an understanding of discursive-based cultural memories (Spillman and Conway, 2007, pp. 80–1). This suggests that it is still an open research question to what extent body memories participate in constituting social or collective memories (Fuchs, 2017a). Answering this question may require further analysis of how physical, psychological, and social phenomena are connected and integrated by body memory.

5. Motivation, Questions,
and Content of the Special Issue

The special issue aims at refining and extending the notion of body memory as an explanatory tool and object of analysis by addressing the complex reciprocal interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors in its constitution. On this background, the articles will pursue the following questions:

  • Which temporal processes contribute to the constitution of body memory?
  • How are body memories related to other mnemonic capacities, such as declarative memory?
  • In what way are body memories informed and constituted by processes of enculturation, such as intersubjective and inter-objective relations (material culture) and discursive practices?
  • How can the exploration of psychological disorders contribute to the investigation of these processes?

Answers to these questions will be found by exploring key notions and findings from the research foci mentioned above. In contrast to much existing work in the field, however, the authors of this special issue use methods and findings from embodiment research, systems theory, and phenomenology to investigate the topic. In what follows, we briefly present the structure of the issue and outline the per­spectives each author brings.

5.1. Temporal characteristics of embodied memory capacities

In the first section, temporal processes of embodied memory forma­tion are explored from a range of research perspectives and with distinct methodologies. Tom Froese and Eduardo J. Izquierdo explore how different aspects of body memory have been emphasized in the phenomenological and enactive tradition. Based on the theory and research tools of dynamics, the authors focus on the relational character of intercorporeal memory and study three simulation models drawn from embodied cognition. These models aim to show how memory capacities may emerge without any internal representation or neuroplasticity, arising instead from the situatedness of the body in its environment and from previous interactions. This leads Froese and Izquierdo to a set of questions which can guide further research: how is the third-person perspective of the dynamic system approach related to the phenomenology of memory processes? In what way do con­sciousness and subjectivity contribute to more complex forms of memories which are not present in the basic simulation models of relational memory formation?

The integration of different research perspectives is also a major issue in Thomas Fuchs’ deliberations on the cyclical time of the body. Fuchs’ claim is that cyclical bodily processes, such as heartbeats or respiration, are decisive for living organisms and that the central integration of rhythmic bodily signals in the insula of the brain (among others) forms the biological foundation of the phenomenal sense of temporal continuity. This pre-reflective implicit temporal structure of body memories is then contrasted with the linear order of time typical of Western culture and the economic order. This distinction fits nicely with Boris Kotchoubey’s contribution, which distinguishes ‘embodied’ and ‘disembodied’ time. Starting with reflections on the difference between perfect and imperfect verb forms, Kotchoubey argues that animals exhibit an embodied relation­ship between past experiences and future intentions in relation to the actual presence of their basic needs. Kotchoubey goes on to outline a further type of time relationship which is termed ‘mental time travel’ and that refers to the capacity to represent the past and future in an abstract way and so to not be tied to an actual present.

Using a Husserlian framework, Elisabeth Behnke explains how bodily memory is shaped by ‘capability consciousness’ and recalci­trant patterns. The awareness of capabilities is based on what Husserl dubbed the ‘I can’, i.e. a consciousness of kinaesthetic possibilities (and limitations) which develop into a system of potential movements in the course of human development. Such acquired skills and habits are sedimented and thus ‘make a body’, while the living body is also permeated by a past which is handed on to the future via present inter­actions, thereby sustaining the specific manner of the subject’s world-relatedness.

5.2. Habitual body, social memories, and material culture

The second section begins with a paper by Javier Bernacer on an integrative understanding of habits and their neural correlates. The contribution starts by characterizing the onesidedness of habit studies in the cognitive sciences, where habits are seen as rigid, non-intentional, and insensitive to changes in the environment. Bernacer then develops a crucial distinction between habits which result in learning and those which result in routines. Drawing on Aristotelian accounts of habit formation, Bernacer argues that this distinction is key to formulating an enriched conception of habits which does justice to the hitherto neglected phenomena of habitualized activities. The fruitfulness of this distinction becomes clearer still when we turn to experimental studies of decision making which highlight the efficacy of habit acquisition (in the enriched sense) at both the behavioural and neural level.

In his paper, Christian Tewes explores the question of whether the ‘habitual body’, as defined in phenomenological research, may also have explanatory value for the symbolic-based cultural practices studied in collective memory research. One argument given for an only limited explanatory scope of the habitual body is that textual and discursive practices result in collective memories and new emerging networks, whereas body memories in the phenomenological sense play no significant role in constituting them. However, as Lambros Malafouris and Maria Danae Koukouti argue, the external material environment and material culture ― including material signs such as a passport ― are essential features of body memory because they do not simply elicit neural activities but are ‘continuous and co-constitutive agents of recollection’. In their contribution, Malafouris and Koukouti draw upon analysis of body memory and skills, especially from material engagement theory, which studies the intertwinement of human cognition, materiality, and affectivity in the developmental constitution of human beings.

In the final contribution of this section, Gerd Sebald shows how the concept of body memory can help us conceive in a more refined way the social processes explored in a sociology of memory. To this end, he synthesizes four aspects of the body which have already been mentioned: (a) the body as an organic physical substrate; (b) the act­ing body and its potentials as forming and formed by social processes; (c) the living body in its phenomenal dimensions; (d) the social body in the context of a social and symbolic order. One of Sebald’s key ideas is that body memory is a kind of knowledge generated in a social context which functions to reproduce social orders.

5.3. Vital memories, embodied selfhood, and the Moving Cycle

The third and final section starts out with Steven Brown’s and Paula Reavey’s argument for an ‘expanded view’ of memory, focusing in particular on vital memories and how they are intertwined with inter­subjective and inter-object relations. For Brown and Reavey, such difficult or traumatic memories are strongly linked to particular spaces — for instance, a place where someone has experienced sexual abuse. The spatial organization of traumatic events is preserved in this way in recollection. Drawing on the work of Viveiros de Castro, among others, Reavey and Brown develop the challenging idea that if we take seriously the claim that the body is strictly relationally constituted in ever-changing lived spaces then there are no individual bodies as such but only multiple bodies without any underlying substance.

The ‘body-subject’ or ‘embodied selfhood’ conceived in its spatial and pre-reflective openness towards the world (Kontos, 2005) also plays a decisive role in the contribution by Lars-Christer Hydén. It is Hydén’s thesis that the way subjects integrate their bodily movements is highly relevant to persons suffering from dementia. Hydén demonstrates this by means of concrete examples of how dementia patients are able to sustain their identities and sense of self by using bodily gestures to communicate episodic and procedural memories which are no longer verbally expressible. In the final paper of the issue, Christine Caldwell and Sabine C. Koch show how an enhanced phenomenological understanding of body memory can have psycho­therapeutic applications. They discuss the so-called Moving Cycle (MC) approach as a psychotherapeutic method which regards move­ment in a vein similar to the concept of embodied selfhood, namely as an act of remembering. The Moving Cycle approach uses embodied memories in clinical work by sequencing conscious movements in four different phases. The authors give clinical examples that demonstrate the fruitfulness of this approach for psychotherapeutic goals, underlining a common theme of this section — the eminently practical consequences of the concept of body memories.

In contrast to much existing work in the field, this issue uses methods and results drawn from embodiment research, systems theory, phenomenology, and psychopathology to advance the debate on the questions and topics delineated above. The articles provide new insights into the formation of embodied memory, its impact on culture, and the role which mental disorders can play in elucidating the relationship between body memory and other forms of recollection.


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Comments 1

  1. This is missing the definition of memory.

    Memory is “re-play button” when stimulated, relive an experience or and an action.

    Body Memories are set of all instinct and skills.

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