William James, from the University of Amsterdam

In the 1961 text titled Psychology: The Briefer Course, William James, (an eminent theorist and one of the founders of modern psychology), writes a series of essays on habits, consciousness, the self, attention, association, memory, sense of time, and several more topics. The book, a compilation of James’ (1842—1910) writings, was one of the foundation texts for advanced introduction to the history and systems of psychology during my undergraduate education.

P00360I found myself re-reading Chapter 14, on Consciousness and Movement—particularly the ideas that our thought patterns are influenced by our ability to move, or moreover, the fact that we are first and foremost mobile creatures—implies that consciousness itself is a motor activity. It’s been a while since I’ve dusted off my psychology textbooks, but I found myself up at night re-reading texts and trying to figure out what the relationship between movement and thinking implied.

In chapter 14, Consciousness and Movement:

“All consciousness is motor. The reader will not have forgotten, in the jungle of purely inward processes and products through which the last chapters have borne him, that the final result of them all must be some form of bodily activity due to the escape of the central excitement through outgoing nerves.”

“The whole neural organism, it will be remembered, is, physiologically considered, but a machine for converting stimuli into reactions; and the intellectual part of our life is knit up with but the middle or central part of the machine’s operations. “

 A bit further into the chapter, he talks more specifically about the relationship between feeling/thought and movement, which I find particularly interesting: 


“Using sweeping terms and ignoring exceptions, we might say that every possible feeling produces a movement, and that the movement is a movement of the entire organism, and of each and all its parts.”

The implications of this are fascinating. If every thought is a movement—that is, if every time you think, you produce some motor reaction (a neural stimulus, a twitch, a physiological shiver or reaction to stimulus; if each thought is related to stimulus that is transmitted through mechanical means throughout your body,

Then every single movement in your body is correlated to some extent, to thought.

And if this is true in one direction—if every motion in our body maps to some sort of thought process and embedded, historical thought;

Does every thought we have recall that initial motor stimulus and reaction?

And if so,

Does the act of movement, of creating mirrored movements and using each component part of our bodies, from walking to sitting to bending to lifting to exertion, to micro-movements and patterns of the smallest, indiscernible increment, but movement nonetheless—

Then cause us to think, even if only to recall previous thought patterns?

Certain physiological processes and therapies, massage in particular and yoga as another example, have foundation in the idea that movement is training for the mind.


The implication, however, for a society that prizes sitting, creating, and laborious hours behind a computer unmoving, — does this cause the resulting correlating conclusion of an equal and opposite reaction–or possible that a lack of movement may be correlated to an unmeasurable or intangible lack of intelligence happening on a widespread scale?

I suppose I’m suggesting: is a sedentary nation also a stupider nation?

Perhaps this is too far-fetched and unproven to be real; hence it is entirely (at current state, in my current mind) a speculation exercise: but sometimes, I wonder, after the glorification of Steve Jobs has waned a bit longer, after people thoughtfully critique his unique ability in a unique time and tease apart his contributions; –I wonder if the application of modern computers, with wide exception of course, will also be seen to perpetuate the numbing of a certain type of intelligence.

Thoughts for pondering.


I’m working on a series of essays and thought pieces about the importance of movement and thinking and the relationship between the two. I host a series of events called “Walk and Talk,” in San Francisco that marries the ideas of movement and analysis and provides fodder and opportunity for philosophical discussion. The groups are small, but feel free to request and invite if you’re in town.

Also–if you’re in San Francisco this week, I’m teaching a class at General Assembly this Thursday, February 7th on Storytelling and Narrative. I’d love to see you there!

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