Nov 232011

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the “mind-body connection,” and you may even have heard me argue against it. “There is no such thing as a mind-body connection,” I say over and over again. “That implies that there are three things: a mind, a body, and a connection between the two, when in reality there is only ONE THING: there is only the embodied mind.” Which is true.

As a logical argument, it’s unassailable, and as a piece of motivational speaking it usually goes over pretty well, in the moment.

But then  the person who heard me talk about it goes and lives in the world and can’t shake it intractable illusion that there is a mind and there is a body and they may affect each other, but they sure do feel like separate things.

Indeed, often I can’t help but talk about it as though they’re separate. “If it comes down to you versus your body, your body wins every time,” I tell students.

I talk about The Monkey – the animal, the Earth-bound organism that so many of the highly intelligent, high-functioning students I work with would willingly trade for a robot’s casing, so they didn’t have to sleep, didn’t have to exercise, didn’t feel stress, didn’t have to make decisions about food, etc. “If you had a pet monkey,” I ask, “Would you feed it crap food and never let it exercise or play and tell it how stupid and ugly it was? No, you’d LOVE your pet monkey! So love Your Monkey!”

Which inherently plays on the perceived division of mind and body (monkey). It’s a problem, and indeed a hypocrisy, and at the same time, I can’t abandon the utility of The Monkey metaphor.

The fact is, our ridonkulous brains, capable of generating an all-but-impenetrable illusion of inorganic spirit/mind, are housed in the sticky, needy, reactive mess that is an animal’s body. It requires air, water, and food (in that order). It breathes, sweats, pees, and poops. It notices threats in the environment and responds with adrenaline. It creates velcro between you and your chair 10 minutes before you go to the gym; it tells you, “Meh. You don’t need to work out. Conserve your energy for when you REALLY need it (like when you or your loved ones are being chased by a lion).” Or, “Meh. You don’t need sex – sex is for people who aren’t worried about their survival. You’ve got STRESS, baby, and you gotta deal with the potential LIONS that are hunting you before you can think about sex!”

And you’re never aware – or almost never aware – of why you REALLY decided not to go to the gym or initiate sex; the truth is, your monkey has hijacked your reasoning self and persuaded it that you don’t have the energy to spare.

The body, the monkey,  has multiple holograms of itself contained within your brain – the somatosensory homunculus, the motor homunculus, etc – and the world itself has multiple holograms in your brain – the various functions of visual cortex, the various functions of auditory cortex, the different streams of tactile sensation, smell and taste. The thing we call “the mind” is really just this illusion that emerges when all those different streams of information mix together. Or rather, “the mind,” the stuff you’re consciously aware of, is like a precis, an abstract of all that information.

And like anyone who just reads the abstracts, it’s missing out on pretty much ALL the important stuff.

The monkey read the whole paper, the monkey knows all. Unfortunately, the monkey thinks it’s about, oh, 1million BC today and also she can’t talk. She doesn’t know about, like, agriculture and cola and treadmills and self-help. She knows about survival – her own and that of her family.

I’ll write another post sometime soon about what the monkey needs – care and feeding of your monkey, if you will, to maximize sexual satisfaction. For now, as is seasonally appropriate, I’m giving thanks for my monkey, the physical body that engages sensually with the world, notices potential threats and responds appropriately, notices beauty and responds appropriately. The mind is all well and good – I make my living with my mind – but without the monkey, there would be no mind at all! So this year, I give thanks to the monkey.

Emily Nagoski

  7 Responses to “the monkey and the mind”

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  1. I give thanks to this blog.

  2. It’s a nice idea, but I think the fact is that we’re monkeys all the way down – heck look at politics for a perfect example of an activity that ought to be governed by highmindedness but is instead a sordid swamp of self-delusion and short-term, emotionally-felt interests. So much recent work in the borderlands between psychology and neurology comes back to a repeated emphasis on our inability to actually be ‘rational’ at all when considering anything beyond the purely abstract.

  3. I think that that measuring something as “irrational” (in the perjorative) introduces a qualitative (and potentially hierarchical) aspect to the monkey. Body-mind non-dualism is hard to write about because it’s so damn tempting to re-dualize it.

  4. One could also state the same dichotomy in terms of lower and higher brains. My frontal lobe knows I should go to the gym, but my monkey brain hijacks that plan (or many other possible terms). It’s all embodied mind, but different levels/parts of the brain.

  5. The mind/body problem came up recently when I was reading about linguistic universals (the 40 or so concepts that actually appear to be directly translatable between all known languages). Apparently, all languages reflect a dualistic folk model of personhood with a visible part (body) and an invisible part (mind or kokoro, or whatever). It struck me how deep this illusion penetrates and how difficult it is to shake!

    • I was really fascinated by ya’ll’s blog post about cross-cultural notions of “mind” ( and the different ways this dichotomy is constructed. I wonder sometimes how useful it is for me as a health educator to insist on the idea of embodiment when their daily experience just doesn’t reflect that reality. I suppose the next step coul dbe teaching the mind to “know” that it is an illusion, kind of like lucid dreaming – you know you’re asleep, but you can use that knowledge to be in control – you can know you’re locked in the illusion of mind, but can use that illusion to your benefit.

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