A talk at the Einstein Forum, Berlin Jan 31st

EF_Anz_touchThe Einstein Forum based in Potsdam, near Berlin, has asked me to contribute an evening lecture ahead of a full day’s discussion, a symposium, about touch. Fantastic stuff, and you can read more about the event here. It includes Martin Grunwald, from the Haptik Lab in Leipzig, whose research concentrates on the psychological and neurological aspects of haptic perceptions. Uwe Gieler will follow with a talk about psychodermatology. In the afternoon the session, Gabrielle Brandstetter, a researcher in theater science at the Free University, will talk about dance, movement and touch. And Michael Husemann — a prominent German religious scholar, will discuss the relationship between touch and religious relics.

My talk is for an educated public and is based on material being developed for my next book. Here is the abstract as a taster:

Articulating ‘inner touch’. From neurophysiological discovery to phenomenological experience.

Early neuroscientific studies of somatic sensations – those visceral and often vague feelings experienced as internal to the body – can be likened to the maps drawn up by explorers of unknown lands: exciting, pioneering, and contentious. In 1826 the British neurologist and surgeon Charles Bell famously wrote of a “muscle sense,” and was the first to distinguish between sensory and motor nerves. Some forty years later Henry Charles Bastian, seeking to provide a coherent sense of bodily movement in space, proposed a feedback mechanism between receptors in joints and muscles known as kinesthesis. In 1906 the British neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington coined the term proprioception to describe sensations that arise from having a body. Yet these early cartographies of the nervous system did not converge into an authoritative and unified map. And contemporary thinkers writing about embodiment have provided little by way of remedy. Even today, thinking about internal sensations – our “inner touch” – remains disjointed.

In this talk I examine some of the difficulties with articulating first-person experiences of the body. Unlike sight, where the persistence of perspective and image promises epistemological certainty, somatic sensations are fleeting and usually difficult to pinpoint. This modern ocular bias has ensured a lack of in-depth investigation into the nature and origin of somatic sensation. To redress these problems, I draw on Aristotle’s notion of sensory faculty (aesthesis) and its medieval reception as a form of “inner touch.” The idea of inner touch provides an experiential framework for understanding nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century neurophysiological discoveries and situates the articulation of experience within an even earlier cartography: one that joins up – or re-articulates – cartographies of the body with embodied experience.


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