Psychophysical Education: An Introduction

What is psychophysical education, and why is it important? Perhaps more than anything else, the term “psychophysical education” describes what is most essential and revolutionary about our work at the Institute and at Columbia Teachers College, where we are trying to describe an aspect of child development that is completely misunderstood and badly needed.

When we use the word “psychophysical” we are speaking of something mental and something physical, and we are speaking of these things as one whole so that, in some basic way, they are inseparable or interrelated. This means that when we work with children, or with adults, we cannot treat just the mind or the body but must look at the whole person.

But what exactly does this mean? It is well and good to say that mind and body are inseparable; but, in and of itself, the statement expresses a truism. All human activities are psychophysical in some sense: painting, walking, writing, playing volleyball, climbing a mountain. Even contemplating an idea or experiencing an emotion is psychophysical because they each involve the entire psychomotor system. The body is governed by the nervous system, and the nervous system is part of a moving, acting organism, and no act of any kind takes place without all of these elements being engaged as a whole. We must go deeper than this general truism to understand the field of study and its importance to education.

Because the term “psychophysical” can be interpreted in various way, it is perhaps important, as a starting point, to clarify what it is NOT. So let’s start by discussing a few of these related interpretations. In the next post, we’ll begin to define the term for our own purposes, and provide some background.

One thing that people often say about the term psychophysical is that it represents that aspect of functioning and activity that is holistic, that isn’t just of the mind. Various educators have been critical of the tendency for education to focus on cognition and subject matter and to ignore the psychophysical aspects of the child. Recognizing that something fundamental is missing in the education of children, educational reformers from various periods and places—beginning with Plato and continuing with Rousseau and various modern educators like Montessori and Dewey—have advocated all kinds of remedies: more play, broader kinds of learning programS that involve music and dance, yoga, somatic education, kinesthetic training, and so on. In recent decades, educators have become particularly sensitive to the fact that we learn in all kinds of ways—not just when we do math problems or think logically but, for instance, when we fix a car engine, paint a painting, sing, or sail a boat. In each case, we are engaged in a psychophysical activity that involves very sophisticated kinds of thinking. We can no longer limit thinking simply to logical and mathematic problems, memorization, and knowledge acquisition, but must include the sorts of thinking involved in making a painting, rebuilding a car engine, and sailing a boat. The last one of these is particularly important because it recognizes kinesthesia as, in Howard Gardner’s words, a “cognitive competency,” a form of thinking that is not logical but bodily. Here, we recognize that, just as a child thinks when learning math, thinking is involved in sailing, but a different kind of thinking involving the feel of what we are doing, with bodily sensations and the ability to regulate these in ways that enable us to do something competently. Just as in learning a math problem, this involves problem-solving and intelligence, but intelligence of a different kind.

As useful as these ideas are, however, they do not reflect the meaning behind the term “psychophysical” as we use it, since it is possible to gain kinesthetic knowledge, or to acquire kinesthetic skills, and yet to be unconscious about the general use of the organism in action.

Another definition of psychophysical, and one that we often revert to when this subject is raised, is that mind and emotions affect the body or that the body manifests mental and emotional states. This view is related to what is perhaps the single most influential theory of the 20th century, Freud’s description of the unconscious mind, which has had a profound effect on ideas about mind and body. As a clinician trying to understand certain inexplicable symptoms in patients, Freud argued that these physical symptoms were symbolic expressions of unresolved psychic conflict. Along similar lines, psychosomatic symptoms refer to the influence of emotional states on vegetative function, as when stress directly causes an ulcer.

But neither of these aspects of mind/body connection is psychophysical in the way we mean, for two reasons. First, although they speak about a mind-body connection, they are in fact more interactionist in their view of mind and body than unified. Secondly, they are clinical, looking at diagnoses and abnormal states, whereas we are looking at everyday activities and the normal ongoing function and development of the psychophysical self.

Within the bodywork community, many teachers and students will use the term “psychophysical” to express how mood shifts occur when we work positively on ourselves and experience changes. When we reduce tensions, restore lightness and length to the muscular system, free the breathing, we often feel better and often experience remarkable changes in attitude, emotional release, and so on—a very clear instance of the relation between mind and body. Many disciplines produce quite impressive psychophysical changes—for instance, forms of working out, or vocal techniques, which can be quite uplifting and profound in their effects on emotional attitude. But this is still not what we mean, and not what F.M. Alexander meant when he wrote about this issue many years ago.

As we will see in this series, there really is a bigger problem here that we need to uncover so that we can express what is unique and fundamental about the field and how it fits into and informs educational practice. Now that we’ve explored the term and its various meanings more generally, we can dive into our work with some context and clarity. In our next blog post, we will begin to look at what this concept means to us, and why it is central to understanding the field of psychophysical education.