Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (1994) Methodology and Tactile-kinesthetic Experience. Psycoloquy: 5(72) Evolution Thinking (9)

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Psycoloquy 5(72): Methodology and Tactile-kinesthetic Experience

Reply to Grossenbacher on Evolution-Thinking

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone
Department of Philosophy
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403



This article focuses on methodology. With respect to the body in particular, bridging the interdisciplinary gap requires an examination and expansion of viable methodological options. Neglect of movement is a byproduct of a methodological problem: how to take tactile-kinesthetic experience into account.


analogical thinking, animate form, concepts, evolution, tactile-kinesthetic body.
1. Grossenbacher's (1994) thoughtful and thought-provoking review suggests ways of closing the gap between what might broadly be termed philosophical anthropology and cognitive neuropsychology. He does this by pinpointing "at least three topics [in Sheets-Johnstone, 1990, henceforth ROOTS] which should be investigated in a full-bodied experimental psychology" (Ibid., par. 3). I will comment only briefly on his specific suggestions for opening up experimental psychology to the three particular topics. I will offer some observations and raise some questions about methodology, a subject with which Grossenbacher opens his review.

2. After noting that the corporeal analyses presented ROOTS are empirically verifiable by the reader, provided the reader takes time to allow his body to be heard (p. 19), Grossenbacher remarks upon the debate regarding the existence of mental imagery, in which "individual differences in phenomenology [appeared] amongst the debating scientists and philosophers" (Grossenbacher 1994, par. 3). He notes that "If we are not careful, a similar, uneven distribution of somesthetic attention skills might initially confuse our collective thought regarding bodily perception tasks such as corporeal scanning." Grossenbacher's caveat is important and the methodological issue he thereby raises is equally important.

3. To begin with, how ARE differences in findings resolved? Traditional scientific procedure is to replicate the experiment many times over and to continue comparing results. It is possible that findings remain at odds with each other. At a later time, one set of findings may prove the more satisfactory, whether in terms of its scope, its simplicity, or its conformity with other related findings. The point is that traditional scientific methodology does not guarantee absolute results straightaway; in other words, debate or disagreement is certainly not foreign to science. However, the attainment of truth regarding the matter under investigation is, in the end, realizable precisely in virtue of the methodology which does not play favorites.

4. Why should we not expect the same with respect to phenomenological accounts? Asking the reader to verify by his own experience the descriptive accounts given in the paleoanthropological case studies (Sheets-Johnstone, 1990) should similarly be expected to guarantee truths in the end. This should be so in the specific case of tactile-kinesthetic experience, the experience of the felt human body, which is, after all, a cultural universal. We all walk, for example. Do any of us fail to experience a binary rhythm--first this side, then that side, for example, or first this impact, then that impact?

5. But the problem is not only one of conviction in the method, thus conviction in phenomenological analysis as well as in standard scientific procedure; it is one of TRAINING in the phenomenological method, in the same way that one TRAINS in the scientific method. Clearly, it takes time, study, and proper guidance and supervision to achieve practicing scientist status. The same is true for an aspiring phenomenological analyst -- whether a matter of mental imagery, the body, or whatever. Training in the present instance is, in fact, particularly critical. Just because it is a matter of the body and just because everyone is a body, these are no reasons to think that everybody's observations are equally keen and precise. Clinical physiologist Edmund Jacobson recognized this fact. Indeed, he consistently pointed it out, lamenting that "Unfortunately, courses of instruction in autosensory observation have not yet become standard in university curricula". His criticism went further, suggesting that "Often, psychologists lacking this essential training nevertheless publish 'authoritative' conclusions on mental activity" (Jacobson, 1967, pp. 96-97). Jacobson might have equally reproved philosophers. Autosensory observation demands training and cannot be done by people not previously trained (Jacobson, 1967, 1970).

6. Perhaps we should use Jacobson's term "autosensory observation" rather than the strife-worn term "introspection." Certainly "autosensory observation" is more precise: it states exactly the focus of attention and the kind of data that such attention will bring forth (but see too Grossenbacher's important point [1994, par. 7] regarding the non-unanimity of opinion with respect to somesthetic sensory modality classifications). In addition, of course, it has an unmistakable empirical ring. Insofar as tactile-kinesthetic bodily experience is fundamental to life and cannot be discounted in any full understanding of what it is to be human, merely doing away with introspection will not do. Some means of reckoning with tactile- kinesthetic bodily experience must be found.

7. From this perspective, Jacobson's work cannot be easily ignored. Earlier scientific observations, just because they are not current, are not thereby at fault and wanting in significant data. Models come and go; the real thing remains. Jacobson's findings concerning the tight fit between brain and muscles are a case in point. Drawing on his own experimental research and citing the previous work of Sherrington and Setschenow in support, Jacobson points out that experimental evidence "point[s] contrary to the tradition that all mental activity occurs in the brain alone" (Jacobson, 1970, p. 31). He states that "Our evidence indicates that the brain, although essential, does not and cannot by itself think" (Ibid., p. 34). In short, brains and bodies -- neuromuscular activity -- go hand in hand. Thus, for example, where traditionalists insist that perception comes first, then movement, Jacobson speaks of a "simultaneous exchange" between brain and muscles (Ibid., p. 33).

8. Jacobson's findings and pleadings go in a most un-Cartesian direction. Psychologist H.L. Teuber gave them different but equal emphasis when he said that "one of our great embarrassments in coming to terms with the physiology of movement is that we always approach it from the wrong end. We are so constrained by classical spinal cord physiology that we always start at the sensory end and try to come out at the motor side. I very much agree with the late von Holst when he suggests that we start at the other end and work our way back toward sensation. I think that voluntary movement has physiologically distinctive properties that... we would suddenly see... after they have been before our eyes all along. It requires some different way of looking" (1966, pp. 440-41; cf. Keller [1983] on cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock who had a "different way of looking" and whose work finally won a Nobel prize). Though not a matter of autosensory observation, according to Teuber too the initial problem is one of methodology, a methodology whose traditional priorities can be a liability.

9. Grossenbacher makes the point twice in his commentary (pars. 5 and 10) that stimulus control with respect to somatic experiments is difficult. I would suggest that alongside that problem, or perhaps at the heart of it, is the methodological problem itself: the problem of tactile-kinesthetic experience, of the acuity of people's awarenesses of their own bodies, and of the need for training in autosensory observation. In this regard, people who have diligently studied the tactile-kinesthetic body as part of their life's work (presumably gymnasts, dancers, and the like) might be the deftest experimental subjects and ones with whom, at the least, insights into the problem of stimulus control might be gained or, at the most, the problem might be mitigated. On the other hand, perhaps ideas for solving the stimulus control problem might be garnered from infancy research, in spite of the fact that beginning experimental studies in this area were hampered not by stimulus control but by the lack of a measuring standard. (In fact, as Stern [1985] points out, three perfectly usable standards are present from birth: sucking, looking, and head-turning.) The point is that the body itself provided an answer; that is, the methodological problem in infancy research was solved by attending to commonly performed, everyday bodily acts and movements, and both tailoring and standardizing experiments to those real life bodily dispositions. It is interesting, of course, to point out that in this area of research there is no necessity for autosensory observational training. It comes ready-made with infancy and apparently only corrupts with age. Thus it is possible to take an infant's voluntary movement -- not the usual epistemological measuring rod in experimental studies -- as a reliable indicator of autosensory observations and perceptual interest.

10. My brief comment on Grossenbacher's suggestions regarding "bodily perception, sense modalities, and space perception... three psychological issues discussed in [The Roots of Thinking] which offer clear opportunities for experimental investigation" (par. 5) follows from the above methodological discussion. There is a great tendency to ignore movement. With this neglect, there is a concomitant tendency to construe the body as a static piece of goods waiting for a perception to happen -- or for some information to process. The notion of living beings as animate forms falls by the wayside. Adequate accounts of bodily perception, sense modalities, and space perception are in turn compromised. (There may be less of a tendency to ignore touch, but movement is an essential aspect of touch, just as it is of vision, at least in an epistemological sense.) On these grounds, experimental studies show "the importance of proprioceptive contributions (specifying limb positions) to spatial representations" (Grossenbacher, 1994, par. 9: Driver & Grossenbacher, in press) to be of considerable significance. Moreover, somesthetic experimental studies of the centrality of movement in perception generally, particularly those expanding upon Sperry's early view of movement (1952), are of equal significance. Such experimental work would undoubtedly show that movement warrants serious and continuing study as a sense modality -- in its own right and in conjunction with other sense modalities. They might further show that to apply a 20th century techno-informational Western lifestyle to our evolutionary heritage gives a distorting view of human reality.


Driver, J. & Grossenbacher, P.G. (in press) Multimodal spatial constraints on tactile selective attention. Attention and Performance, XVI.

Grossenbacher, P.G. (1994) Enigmas of the Body, Sense Modalities and Space Perception. PSYCOLOQUY 5(55) evolution-thinking.8.grossenbacher.

Jacobson, E. (1967) The Biology of Emotions. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas Pub.

Jacobson, E. (1970) Modern Treatment of Tense Patients. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas Pub.

Keller, E.F. (1983) A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. New York: W. H. Freeman & Co.

Sheets-Johnstone, M. (1990) The Roots of Thinking. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Sheets-Johnstone, M. (1994) Precis of: The Roots of Thinking. PSYCOLOQUY 5(8) evolution-thinking.1.sheets-johnstone.

Sperry, R. (1952) Neurology and the Mind-Brain Problem. American Scientist 40:291-312.

Stern, D. (1985) The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books.

Teuber, H.-L. (1966) Discussion of D. M. MacKay paper. In John C. Eccles, (Ed.), Brain and Conscious Experience. New York: Springer-Verlag.

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