Skip to Content

Body as mind

Memory, movement, and the space to be human

It seems reasonable to think that our capacity to interact with the world is tied exclusively to the activity of our mind. Our thoughts seem to be the great managers of who we are. Aren't humans fundamentally conscious creatures? Certainly the mind manages many activities, yet the mind is also controlled by the body.

Another way of seeing this is to recognize that the body is a type of a brain. Our unconscious, which can also be thought of as our body's mind, manages more than what is ordinarily managed by our conscious self. It is important to think with our body as well as with our mind. 

Most of us have the luxury of memory. We think that if we visualize a memory, this constitutes knowledge. But our bodies have memory also. Bodies are a material, mostly rubbery and moist, and they crystallize over time. This materiality has relevance to what we remember and how we act.

Materials can be taught to do things. They react to their environment, though materials may have no cerebral cortex. For example, steam a piece of straight wood, and it can be bent without breaking. Hold the wood in the bent position long enough, and it will learn how to stay curved at rest. If the wood is thin enough and has some plasticity, you can try to flatten it again and it will spring back to being curved, even if it began life straight. It has memory. It can do this on its own. If the wood finds itself in a humid place when its home is normally dry, it will learn to curve by itself.

Our bodies are a bit like these pieces of wood. Dancers and performers often speak of "body memory"; this is no metaphor. Bodies and minds alike are reactive to environments and to themselves.

Pilobolus dancers Andy Herro and Renee Jaworski. Photo John Kane.

Many of the places and things we make using our bodies and minds—the buildings, cities, benches, landscapes—are teaching our bodies as much as they teach our minds. They stretch us, bend us, or stiffen us each day. Our eyes are useful for navigation, but the unconscious world often guides us. The body often provokes decisions, and we move happily on our way, thinking our mind is hard at work, not recognizing that it has many partners along the way.

Try to remember everything about a moment 30 minutes ago. For most of us, it's a challenge to conjure that moment with complete accuracy. That's because the mind isn't the sole provider of memory. While the mind focuses on registering key components of an experience, the body is hard at work remembering its positions, temperatures, flexibility, weight, relative reactions to light and dark, and so on. The body will not necessarily provide you with a visual memory; instead, it logs in data, interprets, and simulates, while the mind generates ideas. Together the two build a memory, some of which is visual and some visceral. I like to think about this when I design. My thoughts move back and forth between what is apparent and what is less obvious, what is rational and irrational, what is happening versus what is being made to happen. Inside of this dichoto-mized world I see a spectrum of characteristics; I try not to focus on the poles themselves.​

What happens when a situation is not constructed? What can challenge people to create alternative understandings of a place? What can make people forget or remember? These are concepts that can guide a design intention. Memories or imaginations of places tend to emphasize how things appear in relation to other things at a moment in time. Contextualizing how things look is natural, but it can be overemphasized. When we say old-fashioned, new-fashioned, modern, or historical, we defer to categorizations of what we see fitting into the zeitgeist. But these descriptions are not necessarily about how we physically interact with things.

Our work at Snøhetta often tests this manner of thinking in projects that manifest a condition of physical movement or connectivity to place. At the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York City, a delicate space for memories that are all too fresh for many, we have created a series of curatorial moments, allowing the mind to remain open. Our entrance pavilion features a tilted reflecting façade that invites visitors to see themselves in a different way as they approach the building. Expansive and unusually tilted window frames ask visitors to draw closer, peer inside, and touch the building. Through the glass they might be surprised to see others inside the building looking back at them. All this occurs around a meandering staircase connecting the aboveground areas with the museum below, inviting pause and introspection within a space defined by an edgeless skylit atrium.

Tilted window frames at the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York City. Photo: Jeff Goldberg/ESTO.

Much of how we style our lives is based on unconscious tendencies that are formed by how our bodies interact with their surroundings. Just ask a polar bear at the zoo; "lifestyle" is not a figure of speech. A cage may look like a natural environment, but all the characteristics remain alien to the actual needs of the bear. The stress becomes apparent in the animal's pacing and erratic behavior.

What if we could manage our surroundings in a way that supports better conscious and unconscious choices, promoting healthier living conditions? What can a healthy or civil space be like? What kind of space represents what it seems to be human and also helps us to be human?

To answer these questions, be introspective and empathetic. Take the time to observe unguarded moments. Look at details: how our hands are held when we are seated or standing, the range of eye contact used, the lines of dirt that trace the movement of a shoe, changes in stance, engagement between light and dark, levels of voice.

At the James B. Hunt Jr. Library in Raleigh, North Carolina, we created a series of stairs that connect pivotal locations, allowing visitors to engage with their surroundings. These characteristics provide a sense of ownership and physical memory. A bright yellow color provides focus, while the meandering plan of the stair allows for ongoing surprise, inviting use, despite rising for five stories. This decep-tively simple design decision helps visitors choose a healthy alternative to the elevators.

​​​The five-story stairs at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo: Jeff Goldberg/ESTO.

Despite its multitude of visitors, New York City's Times Square is a civic space that remains uncomfortable and elusive for most people. Our work redesigning this ''crossroads of the world" first focused on removing impediments. We then introduced such elements as large benches and a reflective paving pattern that help orient the north/south alignment of the square, while erasure of the curb lines helps complete the design as a familiar yet new place. The simple, monolithic character of these new elements might not inspire critical raves, but it provides balance to the kinetic marquees that define Times Square.

Consciousness is a spectrum, and its layers are defined by interactions between the body and the mind. The myriad details that define our lives profoundly determine our actions and reactions within this spectrum. The voice of our body makes it possible to better understand the needs of the environments we create. We need only listen. ■