No more brains on sticks: An excerpt from Susan Hrach’s Minding Bodies

Starting from new research on the body—aptly summarized as “sitting is the new smoking”—Minding Bodies aims to help instructors improve their students’ knowledge and skills through physical movement, attention to the spatial environment, and sensitivity to humans as more than “brains on sticks.” Susan Hrach’s book, excerpted here, is the latest title in WVU Press’s series Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, edited by James Lang and Michelle Miller. It ships now when ordered from our site. 

What if faculty members required students to sign the following waiver prior to enrollment in a traditional college course?

I understand that over the next 15 weeks, this course will require me to remain seated in class for 37.5 hours, plus an anticipated requirement of 75 hours for homework, to total an anticipated 112.5 hours. Sitting for this length of time has been linked to the following adverse health outcomes, for which I will not hold responsible the instructor or the institution: anxiety, depression, heart disease, breast and colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and back pain.

It may seem unfair to link these conditions directly to taking a single college course. These ailments are linked to sets of other complex factors and may only develop over decades, but the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” feels like an important twenty-first-century reckoning. The widely discussed and unanticipated epidemic of mental illness on campuses coincides with increased sedentary habits and time spent indoors, behind electronic screens. The vaunted human brain is turning out, as neuroscience probes it, to have some evolutionary vulnerabilities that can work against our well-being. We cannot deny our distance from the evolutionary physical conditions that shaped our embodied brains’ expectations for continual daily movement, a natural and varied diet, and sleep patterns regulated by natural light. Our embodied brains are crying for help in “the age of the chair,” as British author and academic Vybarr Cregan-Reid has termed it. In the course of writing a book about how bodies impact learning, it’s been impossible for me to ignore the implications of bodily health. I aim to bring the body into focus with an inclusive vision of wellness in the college classroom for bodies of all types and abilities.

This book represents a contribution to the scholarship of integration: I seek to bring the insights of embodied cognition, a subfield of neuroscience and cognitive psychology, to bear on practices of teaching and learning in college. An embodied teaching practice requires recasting cognition as a whole-body enterprise, yet faculty are typically unaccustomed to thinking about the body’s role in learning at all. Discourse on well-being in higher education often focuses on belonging, flourishing, and transforming, but until the COVID-19 pandemic entered our universe, we did not routinely prioritize the physical health of students, staff, and faculty. The pandemic has dramatically demonstrated how a threat to physical health can affect every institution in a society. But preventing catastrophic illness is an extreme end of the embodied awareness spectrum. Teachers whose jobs involve nurturing brain growth should know that routine physical health impacts cognitive performance. Brains are organs of the body, with specific vulnerabilities and strengths, like any other organ or system. They do not function in isolation from circulatory systems or digestive systems or endocrine systems or even ecological systems we think of as “external.” Intellectual performance demands physical energy that bodies must supply.

This book draws from the conclusions of experimental studies to recommend classroom applications, some empirically tested and some newly invented. I’ve used most of the exercises I describe here, and I can testify to the increase in enjoyment and engagement in learning for both me and my students. Understanding embodied cognition science has provided me with new insights for why many familiar, evidence-based practices work well, and it’s challenged me to try some unorthodox and unfamiliar activities, too. After twenty years in the college classroom, my decisions about how to create learning experiences for my students are now informed by a different set of criteria than they used to be, based on how to build knowledge and skills through physical movement, an attention to the spatial environment, and a sensitivity to the energy bandwidth of my students as the term progresses.

Over the course of reading widely and far afield from my own disciplinary background—early modern literature—I have discovered surprising new ways to make sense of common experiences, both in the classroom and in my personal life. I can offer reasons informed by embodied cognition science to explain why even shy or introverted faculty may enjoy lecturing, why good ideas often seem to occur in the shower, why grief over the death of a pet can be especially intense, why a desire for in-person learning persists despite good online alternatives, and why walking barefoot in the grass can ease a rough day as quickly as bourbon on the rocks.

Bringing an awareness of our physical bodies into academic endeavors makes education more humane. Whatever the differences in our cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, our genetic predispositions, or our habits of mind, we are united by our bodies’ need for sleep and by the way being hungry or thirsty can make us cranky. We are all affected by expectations (our own and those of others) that drive our perceptions of our bodies and our physical capabilities. In the course of writing this book, I have marveled at the ways we underestimate our bodies as sources of knowledge and skill. Humans are phenomenally adaptive: an acute sense of touch and hearing can allow a blind person to produce carpentry, strong and coordinated arms can allow a person without the use of their legs to play wheelchair tennis, and intense cardiovascular fitness can allow a multiple amputee to pitch hay and drive a tractor. Just as we know that a growth mindset promotes academic achievement, our health and well-being can benefit from a belief in our bodies’ fundamental capacity for mobility, expressed in a diverse variety of forms. We are built to move, and maintaining or improving mobility enhances the performance of our brains.

One of the most challenging aspects of this topic has been my wish to take an inclusive and compassionate approach to limited physical mobility while encouraging readers to reject sedentary norms. The brain science is simply clear: if we want our brains to work as effectively as possible, we need to make use of whatever mobility we’ve got. The mind is an expression of both brain and body awareness. As neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran has noted, “perhaps it’s time to recognize that the division between mind and body may be no more than a pedagogic device for instructing medical students—and not a useful construct for understanding human health, disease, and behavior.” Rather than seeing bodies as yet another category for difference, our priority to create a sense of belonging in the classroom can mean emphasizing our common humanity. Dealing with the physical can offer unusual ways for us to connect with each other and take risks together as human beings. Our unfortunate but common practice of treating learners like brains on sticks (a metaphor reputedly made first by eco-philosopher Joanna Macy) resonates because it’s so clearly the truth. We’ve created and reinforced a divide between brain and body in Western culture for hundreds of years, and in academe, our misunderstanding of thinking as a head-only process has seriously impaired our understanding of learning and practices of education. I hope it will seem shocking to us in the future that we once thought that bringing together the bodies of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of human beings only to have them sit quietly and listen for hours and weeks and years on end was the best way for them to learn. I hope we’ll understand that taking good care of our bodily health and well-being are marks of our care for ourselves as thinkers.

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