How can I possibly express what my conscious experience is like?
Will we ever understand each others’ embodied experiences of the world?
Like me, you may be of the opinion that no one can ever truly know what it is to be you. We’ve discussed the logistics of swapping bodies but keeping our minds, and it just doesn’t make sense that this would reveal someone’s complete embodied experience.
Every minute detail of my body makes up my lived experience. From the specificity of my senses to the way I interpret that sensory information, to the way I consciously or unconsciously think about it after that.
So although it may be impossible to share my complete embodied experience, there are definitely ways to give representations of it. I’m talking about art work, music, literature, film, and photography (and more…).
These acts of expression play on the senses. A film may document a character’s life by using image and sound to make you empathise with their situation. Of course, this only gives a vague impression of what it feels like to be them, but it’s a start, and a very powerful one. I find it fascinating trying to imagine someone elses’ experience, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.
We can never know what other selves—human or nonhuman—are “really” thinking, just as we can never be so sure of what we ourselves are really thinking. As Peirce notes, if you question “whether we can ever enter into one another’s feelings,” you “might just as well ask me whether I am sure that red looked to me yesterday as it does today”.
How Dogs Dream- Eduardo Kohn
Eduardo Kohn makes an interesting point in this quote. It is difficult to conceptualise your own thoughts, senses or feelings, so understanding another person’s experience is impossible.
I am sat at my desk with my chin resting on my knees which are pulled up to my chest. It’s windy outside, the kind of wind that rattles the windows. Behind that noise, I can also hear the hum of my laptop and there is an itch on the back of my head that I am thinking about scratching soon. I am trying to, but I cannot conceptualise my embodied experience because it is indescribable; these words are far from doing it justice. It something that is all enveloping all of the time, but from moment to moment, as I shift in my chair, I cannot fully remember what my experience was 5 minutes ago.
It is this sense of the temporality of lived experience that we intentionally or unintentionally try to capture when we produce things like art work or music. When I sketched the image of me with my hands covering my face I wasn’t trying to do anything in particular, but the physical act of making the pen strokes helped me to communicate something I was feeling at that moment that I couldn’t describe. Now, when I look at the image, I get a vague sense of that feeling again, but it will never be the same.
Merleau-Ponty illustrates this point in reference to the work of Cezanne:
“Expression cannot, therefore, be the translation of a thought that is already clear, since clear thoughts are those that have already been said within ourselves or by others.”
Cezanne’s Doubt- Merleau-Ponty
It seems that there is a human urge to reach out and share with others or ourself, a representation of our embodied experiences. Although I have discussed artistic expressions of consciousness, a sharing of experience isn’t always transmitted in a conventionally creative way. Even the way you move, phrase your sentences, or raise your eyebrows are unique forms of expression.
A photo series from Nuzha- A Syrian refugee, who lives in the Burj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut, Lebanon shares her embodied experience of life in their temporary home.
The intention of this photography project, named “Behind Closed Doors”, was to allow people to have a voice and, “to sensitise the international community to the migration issue”. It was run by the French photographer Séverine Sajous, and is an interesting example of a form of expression of conscious experience. The expectation is that those viewing the project will connect small elements of the photos to their own embodied experience, and feel empathy towards Nuzha and her family.
The projection of one’s own embodied experience onto another’s experience is part of the Theory of Mind (attributing mental states to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own). This aknowledges that everyone’s embodied experiences are very different to our own.
So, Francoise Heritier wrote a list to share her embodied experience, I like to sketch, my friend sings and my mum writes.
How do you express your embodied experience?
KOHN, E. (2007). How dogs dream: Amazonian natures and the politics of transspecies engagement. American Ethnologist, 34(1), pp.3-24.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (2007 ). Cézanne’s Doubt. In L. Lawlor, T. Toadvine (eds) The Merleau-Ponty Reader. Northwestern University Press, 69–84.
Cave Painting Photograph from: https://www.britannica.com/art/cave-painting
Postcards from Beirut: Everything’s falling apart- The Guardian, Emine Saner, 12th February 2017: https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2017/feb/12/postcards-beirut-severine-sajous-refugee-camp-lebanon