Brooke Thomas: Today I am having a conversation with Frank Forencich about the ‘long body’. I’m quoting Frank here: “Our perception of the human body as a singular, isolated unit, strong as it may be, is actually an illusion and a dangerous one at that. In actual fact, we are massively interconnected with the biological and social world around us, and it’s not altogether clear where the human body begins and ends. Thinking of ourselves as individuals is a pivotal blunder, a profound biological and psychosocial misconception” (Forencich 2015).
Since this podcast is dedicated to the human body and, in particular, [looking] through a lens of a whole and unified human body, I was so grateful to talk with Frank about expanding this sense of holism to understanding how we are interconnected not just within our individual bodies, but also with our world and with our environment. Thank you so much Frank for talking with all of us today.
Frank Forencich: It’s great to be here.
BT: You shared with me recently about the ‘long body’ (Forencich 2015). Can you describe what that means and where it comes from?
FF: Right. This is kind of a rarely talked about Native American term, and my understanding of the term is that it refers to the individual human body plus the life support systems around us. It’s a much bigger conception of the human body than we normally have in Western culture, and this seems to be not just a Native American idea – it seems to come up again and again in native or indigenous cultures. They don’t make such a distinction between the body and the larger environment. They see the body as being continuous with the larger environment. It’s an old way to look at the body and it’s also kind of a new way to look at the body.
BT: Yeah, and you mentioned that our perception of the human body as these isolated units can be a dangerous illusion. Why dangerous?
FF: It’s dangerous because it ignores our history and it doesn’t take into account the subtleties and the complexities of an organism that’s living in context, in an environment. The science now is starting to really show us the extent of that continuity. To give you the full picture, I want to go back a little bit in evolution and the idea that the body has a history and that we co- evolve with these habitats over the course of many millions of years. The body would be adapted and highly tuned to these environments that we live in. One question that I always pose to audiences, when we’re talking about these types of themes, is “Why do you have a nervous system? What does your nervous system do?” The short answer that always comes up, is the reason you have a nervous system is so that you can regulate your own body. That’s true and that sounds right. It’s fantastically effective at doing that, but the nervous system has other functions as well. They have to do with learning, and for human beings in particular, the purpose of the nervous system is to learn habitat and to learn our social environment as well.
We have this incredible sensitivity to the land, to habitat, to plants, to animals, to weather, to natural sensation, and we have also this incredible sensitivity to one another. In other words, the nervous system is all about helping us learn our life-support systems: the ecological ones, and the tribal ones. This is why we have a nervous system. If we ignore the life-support systems of habitat and tribe, then we look at the body in isolation and we miss so much of what the body is actually doing in the world. That’s why I think it’s a dangerous thing.
The other way to approach this is that the body really is not as singular and unitary as it would appear. If you look at evolution and the vast scope of evolution, you start to see that evolution adds on component parts to organisms. It adds on elements over time, and it starts with simple forms and then creates hybrids of new elements and keeps adding on pieces, which gives it more complex functions. Now you get these complex organisms that people now are starting to call ‘kludges’. This is a really interesting word. It comes from the world of technology and engineering and it refers to devices or structures or inventions that have components that are added on to [them] to give new functions. It turns out the body works that way as well and what we’ve done over the course of millions – tens, hundreds of millions – of years is add on these different components. The body, in fact, is a kludge. Our goal in health is to integrate all those component parts, and part of that is to bring in our relationship with the natural world and with the tribe.
BT: You wrote (Forencich 2015),“We literally integrate habitat and people into our brains, and we use terms all the time like ‘toxic people’ or ‘toxic work environment’ or things like that. These situations or people can create certain kinds of sickness in us too.”
FF: Right. It really helps to appreciate how alien the modern environment is to us now. It depends what reference points you want to use, but a lot of people say the human body, in its current form, is roughly six million years old. That was the last major branching point in evolution where one branch went to the chimpanzees and the bonobos and the other branch went to the hominids and humans. If our body is six million years old, 99.9% of that time has been spent in wild outdoor ancestral conditions. That was our ancestral environment, and it makes sense to know that our bodies are tuned to those conditions. It’s only in the last few hundred years that we’ve drastically, radically changed the nature of our environment, and it’s true to say that we now live in an alien environment. Some of us manage to adapt pretty well to that alien environment but a lot of us don’t, and this is something that we have to come to grips with now – because our body is not adapted to this alien environment by and large, and what we see with all these lifestyle diseases now is a reaction to that predicament of living in the modern age.
BB: I was listening to a radio show on Love + Radio (2014) about the first group of people who are going to go to colonize Mars, and in the show they were talking with this woman who is in the running with five hundred other people to train as an astronaut and go. It’s a one-way trip. You go, you don’t come back. I was preparing for the interview and thinking about your work as I was listening to it. I thought, it’s funny, because they were talking about what they’re going to be facing in a habitat that is really completely alien for our species (gravity forces are completely different and all that kind of thing), and what you were talking about is that here on Earth, we experience plenty of that too – this radically alien environment in the last hundred or so years compared to what our species has been up to most of the time it’s been kicking around.
FF: Right. The magnitude of that change – I think a lot of people don’t realize just how drastically we’ve changed our living conditions over, say, the last hundred I read a piece recently in New Scientist magazine where they tabulated the amount of time people now spend indoors, and they figured the average human lifespan now runs something like seventy-eight years or thereabouts and of that seventy-eight years, we supposedly spend some seventy years indoors.
FF: That’s an astonishing number from my point of view, because that in itself is a radical divergence from our evolution. Even just knowing that, you would assume that the nervous system now is reaching out for sensation that it is tuned for – outdoors, natural sensitization. A lot of us appreciate this distinction between indoor and outdoor living, and a lot of people, especially Richard Louv (2012), have pointed out that we have ‘nature deficit disorder’ now; we just aren’t having enough outdoor time in nature.
The other part of this picture is the fact that we’ve radically reworked our social environment as well. Here you’ve got to go back in history to appreciate ancestral conditions when people lived in tribes and bands and clans, and this was our ancestral social environment and this is the norm. This is the status quo for human beings to live in these small bands or tribes of people. Our bodies are tuned for this, our social behavior comes from and through the body. Our social behavior is profoundly physical and the subtlety here is astonishing.
I want to walk you through it a little bit. When we have a face-to-face conversation with somebody, we don’t just hear the content of their words, we’re continuously scanning their bodies and their facial expressions for emotional content. This is very subtle and very sophisticated, so when I look at your body and I look at your facial expressions, I’ve a set of mirror neurons in my brain that are starting to register your intent and your movements and your posture. These mirror neurons have kind of a dual function, because they also respond to other people’s movements and intention. The mirror-neuron system allows me to perform a simulation in my own mind and my own body of what you are experiencing in yours. It’s not just in the cortex of my brain, because the mirror-neuron system feeds down into my limbic system, into the center of my brain, the emotional centers of my brain, and it also goes down into my abdomen via the vagus nerve – down into my guts. Now I can have a felt sensation of what you are experiencing in your body. This is what Dr. Daniel Siegel (Rose 2010-2011) calls the ‘resonance circuit’. It’s beautiful because it means that when we have a conversation, your movements and your emotional state give a lot more meaning to the content of our conversation. This is all the nonverbal stuff that I pick up, and it’s vital for having a complete understanding of another person.
Now, what we’ve done with our electronic technology is we basically eliminated the body from the process; and now, especially with something like texting, all we see are the fragments of information. These things are disembodied, and we eliminate the resonant circuit, we eliminate the mirror- neuron system, we eliminate our guts. All our physicality now is gone, and we use just a tiny fragment of our capability to understand the other person. This is why these devices are so dangerous. This is why we have so many misunderstandings with each other now, and it doesn’t look good. The trajectory of this is not good – because it’s safe to assume, as most athletes know, that the body is basically a ‘use it or lose it’ [system]. We are very plastic organisms, and it’s safe to assume that the resonance circuit is also a plastic, or a use-it-or-lose- it, system. When we use these electronic devices compulsively and continuously throughout the day, the resonance circuit begins to atrophy.
Now, it becomes harder and harder to have meaningful interactions with other people, and this creates an alien social environment. These two conditions now are really catastrophic for human health, because we eliminate nature by living indoors and then we eliminate authentic face-to-face interactions with other people. So now we are literally out of touch with our two main life-support systems. This creates all sorts of potential health problems beginning with the mind and the spirit, because we start to feel this anxiety and this sense of isolation – this sense of disconnect with our environment. It’s no wonder that we feel so much stress. It’s no wonder that we feel so much unhappiness. It’s time to take a good hard look at what we’re doing in creating this alien environment and, in many ways, making it worse with every passing day and each new technology that we add to the mix which further distances us from nature and from each other. A lot of people are using this phrase ‘rewilding’ – it’s time really to take a step back and to really examine what we’re doing and the role of the body and the consequences for human health. Because what we’re doing is basically designing our bodies into a sense of isolation.
BT: When you speak about consequences, I know you talked about all of these dislocating things – that we’re dislocated from nature and our habitat, dislocated from tribe and normal social interactions – you describe it as a spiritual and health catastrophe. Can you talk more about what you see are some of the downstream effects or consequences of that?
FF: The most obvious thing is stress. This has changed radically since paleo times. If you think about life in an ancestral environment, our ancestors did experience stress and they had a very ancient stress system in their bodies to help them deal with this. Of course, the types of stresses that they encountered most typically, most classically, would be encounters with wild animals. Specifically predators would attack them from time to time, and their stresses would have been acute but not chronic. You’re attacked by a wild animal for minutes or maybe hours, but then if you survive that encounter, you wait it out, you go back to camp, and now your stress response returns to normal. In a paleo environment, your stress response would have been acute but not chronic. What we have in the modern world now is the inverse of this, because now most of us are facing chronic stress that never really seems to go away and we’re firing our stress response in a way that’s not adaptive, it’s not normal, and it’s not something that the body does very well with. The thing you hear all the time is, “I’m pumping cortisol, I’m pumping adrenaline, and I’m doing it all the time.” We’ve taken this acute thing and turned it into something chronic – and that, of course, most people now know that that’s damaging for tissue throughout the body, not just cardiovascular tissue but also [the] nervous system and, in turn, it changes our cognition and our relationships with the world around us.
BT: Yeah, I remember in college I read that book Nisa (Shostak 1981) that was about the !Kung warrior tribe, one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes out in the Kalahari Desert. I don’t know if you’ve ever read it, but I remember when I picked up the book, I was like, oh, this is going to be kind of depressing. Like I thought it would be a depressing story about having to hunt and gather for your food and a not particularly hospitable environment in the Kalahari. And I finished the book and I was, like, that is a good gig, because it was without chronic stress. So there would be times of hunger and having to dig for roots to get any kind of water and that kind of thing, but it was a lot of making instruments from gourds and lots of having sex in the afternoon and napping. I was, like, I’m into that, that sounds great.
FF: It’s easy to romanticize the paleo, and I don’t want to go too far with that, but a lot of anthropologists have described that time. They said these primal people were the original affluent society because these people didn’t have much in the way of possessions or what we would think of as wealth, but they had a lot of free time. In fact, the very notion of time itself has changed. In a paleo environment, time was always seen as something circular or something flowing, something connected to the seasons and the environment. But now we see time as a resource, a commodity. We take a linear view of time, and that in itself is a tremendous stressor. Time is always getting away from us and, if nothing else, that would be a good place to focus our attention right now.
BT: Yeah, for sure. You’ve touched on a lot of these things, but since you’re talking about this concept of the long body, you write that we live in a ‘short’ culture and culture is one of those things – it’s really hard to see our own cultural biases. Can you describe some of the other features of our
culture that make it a short culture versus a long culture?
FF: I’m sure a lot of this came into being with the scientific revolution and starting to look at pieces and fragments of different phenomena. We found that we could gain power and control if we looked at one thing at a time, studied one object at a time. There’s a lot to be said for looking at things in isolation. You can wield power and control, but not everybody does it in this way, and most obviously Eastern cultures tend to look at things in a more integrated way. There’s a really great example of this coming from a book called Crazy Like Us by Ethan Watters (2010). What he does is look at the prevalence of mental illness around the world. One story he tells is about the tsunami that happened in Indonesia, 2004 I believe. Of course many people were killed, a lot of people were displaced; it was just this tremendous tragedy. And a lot of Western- trained psychologists and psychotherapists went to Indonesia in the aftermath to help out, to help treat some of these people. This was a tremendous culture clash because they went in with this expectation that people would have PTSD, that they would have a certain set of symptoms, and that they would respond to this methodology that focused exclusively on individuals. It turned out it didn’t really work, because people had an unexpected reaction. Instead of talking about themselves as individuals with particular symptoms, they talked primarily about webs of social relationships that were disrupted. This was a tremendous culture clash. The Western therapy approach to treating a person with PTSD didn’t really work. That’s an example where our culture really makes a difference, and what works in one place may not work somewhere else. I think, as Westerners, we would do well to keep that in mind and keep a bigger picture; focus on the individual isn’t the only way to do it.
BT: What are some ways that we can maybe practice ‘long’ health and ‘long’ fitness and take a different view in our lives?
FF: The standard advice here, and we hear it more and more coming from a lot of different directions, and it’s the simplest thing, is to go outside. But more than that, to slow down in our habitat. We see a lot of fitness people now doing outdoor adventurer things and using nature as if it were a tool for them. That’s all fine and good, but I think we can do better than that. We could take more of a John Muir- type of experience in the wild, where we actually learn our habitats and put our bodies in direct communication with them. But you’ve got to slow down to make that happen. The other part of it is paying more attention to face-to-face contact with other people. That’s the gold standard for human relationships. So put down the phone, turn off the phone, turn off the electronics. Those are the two most important things that I can say right off.
BT: Yeah, that’s beautiful. Really good advice. Thank you very much. I’m really grateful for your time and for all the work that you’re doing.
Frank Forencich is an internationally recognized expert on health and human performance. As an engaging speaker and movement teacher, he brings a unique perspective to the human predicament and offers practical solutions for some of the most pressing problems of our age. He earned his BA at Stanford University in human biology and neuroscience and has over thirty years teaching experience in health education and performance training. Frank has traveled to Africa on several occasions to study human origins and the ancestral environment. He is a regular contributor to Paleo Magazine, and in 2012 was named by Experience Life magazine as one of “five visionaries leading the charge to better health, and a healthier world.” He is the author of several books including Change Your Body, Change the World; Stresscraft; and Beautiful Practice. His website is www.exuberantanimal.com.
Brooke Thomas is a Certified Rolfer in practice in New Haven, Conneticut. She is also the creator of the Liberated Body Podcast, a show that interviews somatic thought leaders in interdisciplinary conversations about the wondrous human body.
Forencich, F. 2015. Personal communication.
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Siegel, D. 2010. Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York: Bantam Books.
Shostak, M. 1981. Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. New York: Vintage Books.
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