A Bodily Memory, Re-Evoked

Today, after a several-month-long gap thanks to my sabbatical leave, I am ensconced again in my university campus office. (I made the trip in today to meet a doctoral student and to attend to some bureaucratic matters.) My journey to campus–a half-hour walk as usual, preceded by dropping off my daughter at daycare–was uneventful, reminding me of the many times I have traversed the pleasant neighborhoods that intervene between my home and the college main entrance.

On arriving at campus, I went through a slightly modified arrival routine: because I had arrived early, the department office was still not open for business, so I made a trip to the library cafe to pick up a coffee that would ease me into the day’s work. That done, I headed to my office. As I unlocked the door, I noticed an old, familiar sensation return: the key to the lock does not fit exactly on the first insertion and requires just a tiny juggle. Which I provided. As I have many, many times before.

Till that point in time, my return to campus had been entirely unremarkable: its sights–the students, the quadrangle, the security guards, the buildings–and sounds–classes in session, students talking on cellphones in hallways–were familiar enough, as they should be for a place where I’ve now spent a fair percentage of the last twelve years. None of them stirred me though, in the way that the bodily sensation of the not-quite-fitting key did. It was a memory all right, but an embodied one, a feeling within me that had lain dormant and been evoked by the right kind of interaction with the environment ‘outside.’

Memories can evidently be of many kinds. Sometimes we see a familiar face and feel an emotion stir within us; we are thus able to summon up the appropriate facial responses when we meet an old friend. On other occasions, a sound may remind us of a time in our lives–one accompanied by a mood, a mental sensation; we are able to experience a musically accompanied nostalgia.

And then, there are remembrances like the one I experienced today: a particular bodily configuration, an action that orients me in a very particular way with external impresses, that summons up long-practiced and experienced responses to the world’s affordances.

We carry the traces of our physical relationships with the world with us: in the way we walk, run, use our hands, eat, drink, and sleep. Our bodily gestures and mannerisms are well-practiced ones, honed by hours, days, weeks, months of persistent, hands-on movements. Sometimes the external evocations go away–as they did in my case when I had no occasion to unlock my office door–and then, like today, they return. When they do, we suddenly come into contact with a past self, one wrapped up in my corporeal layers, ready to spring into action. Anyone riding a long-ago-learned bike after an extended hiatus is familiar with this sensation in the most visceral of ways.

We are not disembodied minds, but embodied ones.

2 thoughts on “A Bodily Memory, Re-Evoked

  1. Hi Samir.

    Perhaps what you experienced has to do with the physiology and workings of the human brain. You expected to be using your modern and technologically advanced frontal cortex in your visit to campus, but instead you were using the basal ganglia, that ancient structure that stays on the inside of the brain and connects it to the spinal nerve system.

    The basal ganglia just happen to be the part of the brain that processes the habitual behaviors, using a lot less, energy, and almost no consciousness.

    The same thing would happen if you were driving you car after 6 months in a car-free life. Or jumping in pool after years without any swimming. Etc.



  2. Spot-on! I do remember visiting my university after many years… and I was searching in particular for small details like the characteristic sounds an elevator’s door made on closing. Returning to places I have worked or lived for some years always evoked similar recollections. I look for still unchanged door handles, clocks on walls, handrails and similar mundane things – and I feel sad if the whole place had been renovated and none of these was left in place.

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