William James on Consciousness and Movement


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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6 Responses to William James on Consciousness and Movement

  1. Ben Nesvig says:

    Interesting thoughts. From several books I’ve read, walking has been a catalyst for inspiring great ideas from great people. Maybe it’s because of all the extra oxygen the brain gets during a walk? Consistent meditation with deeper breathing is supposed to increase gray matter in the brain. I’m sure walking does the same.

    Just searched the book Master for “walk” and found a few examples:

    Zora Neale Hurston – First black female to make a living from writing:
    “Walking alone, her imagination would take flight, and she would begin telling her own strange tales to herself. Someday she would write all of this down and become the Homer of Eatonville.”

    The second step is to maintain an openness and looseness of spirit. In moments of great tension and searching, you allow yourself moments of release. You take walks, engage in activities outside your work (Einstein played the violin), or think about something else, no matter how trivial. When some new and unanticipated idea now enters your mind, you do not ignore it because it is irrational or does not fit the narrow frame of your previous work. You give it instead full attention and explore where it leads you.

    Richard Wagner – Famous composer:
    The composer Richard Wagner had worked so hard on his opera Das Rheingold that he became completely blocked. Beyond frustration, he took a long walk in the woods, lay down, and fell asleep. In a sort of half dream, he felt himself sinking in swiftly flowing water. The rushing sounds formed into musical chords. He awoke, terrified by a feeling of drowning. He hurried home and noted down the chords of his dream, which seemed to perfectly conjure up the sound of rushing water. These chords became the prelude of the opera, a leitmotif that runs throughout it, and one of the most astonishing pieces he had ever written.

    “Even while apparently on the job at the patent office, he would focus for hours on the theory that was forming in his mind; even when out for a walk with friends, he would continue to ponder his ideas— he had the unusual ability to listen on one track and think on another. He carried with him a little notebook and filled it up with all kinds of ideas.”

    “On a beautiful, sunny day in Bern, he walked with a friend and colleague from the patent office, explaining to him the dead end he had reached, his frustration, and his decision to give up. Just as he said all of this, as Einstein later recalled, “I suddenly understood the key to the problem.” It came to him in a grand, intuitive flash, first with an image and then with words— a split-second insight that would forever alter our own concept of the universe.”

    Da Vinci:
    “During the day he would take endless walks through the city and countryside, his eyes taking in all of the details of the visible world.”

  2. I love this perspective on stagnation and movement. The research shows that living a sedentary lifestyle produces the same cancer risk as smoking, but considering the productivity, creativity, and spiritual implications is critical in achieving balance and well-roundedness, all of which society needs desperately.

    This is such a great post, Sarah, as is your comment, Ben.

  3. Steve Mouzon says:

    Movement in general and walking in particular are essential. I’m a walkability advocate and have worked for a few years on an idea I call “Walk Appeal” that attempts to describe conditions that will cause people to walk more (or less.) On the other hand, I recall being in architecture school in the late ’70s and early ’80s and hearing “tell me about your circulation” at the beginning of countless desk crits and juries. IMO, the profession has “freeway envy”, and is often more interested in spaces we spend just seconds moving through rather than spaces where we might spend hours. I don’t believe it’s an either-or equation… we need a highly interconnected network of sidewalks, passages, and paths that entice us out to experiences we can’t predict, and we also need places for settled work, and also spaces for quiet contemplation.

  4. Suzie says:

    You briefly mentioned massage. Thank you! I’m a massage therapist. I recently read an article in one of my trade journals in which the author discussed evidence emerging that mind-body experiences are bidirectional.

  5. Akira says:

    Fascinating! I wonder if we can shift cultures by enacting certain movements? Makes me think of those mass games in North Korea & China, what’s called “radio calisthenics” in Japan, used in group settings. These ideas too seem to come from the notion that movement and thoughts are intertwined…

    Walk and Talk thing reminds me: Do you know Jane Martin at Shift Design?

  6. Psilocybe says:

    For me, William James is wrong… To understand “thinking”, you don’t need a book, but just watch yourself. Thought, undoubtedly, is a moviment in time. First of all, watch yoursel very carefully. Without memory, there is no thought. Memory is collect through experience, knowledge. So, you record the past experience and then, thought. Also, you can project yourself into the future, through desire, for exmample – you imagine yourself doing something in the future. The past is also the action that you recorded. This action is a moviment. It’s like a dream, there is always actions happens. Your thought process is the same, both in the future or in the past. The recored of some reaction.