Connecting the Brain and the Body for Futures Thinking
How can we ensure that extending our minds helps us find the new in the present? What processes can we design that pay as much homage to our emotions as we do for data, models and trend watching? How can we feel futures? How did your body react while reading this?
I had a major anxiety flare-up early this year that took two months to get under control. I could still function but I couldn't think. My body had taken over my mind. As one friend said to me "Maree, your body is screaming at you. Listen to it". What helped me recover was remembering the inextricable link between the brain and the body which I had been ignoring by, essentially, living in my mind.
I'm reading the book The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain by Annie Murphy Paul at the moment, and in the first few pages this connection has been explained very clearly. I went off on a tangent about my posts here on Foresight in the Present which are all about thinking about thinking about futures (mostly) when that is really only one part of the experience of opening our minds to our futures. How we physically engage with those futures matters too.
Now, first let me tell you I have always hated those exercises where you have to get up from your seat and join in something physical - dancing for example, which I now know stimulates the vagus nerve and that reduces anxiety so I think I'll join in a bit more enthusiastically next time. And I have a new appreciation for experiential futures which I have always thought are wonderful and exciting ways to engage with futures - but for me? Nah. I might have to reconsider that too.
This connection between brain and body isn't new of course because Eastern philosophy views the mind-body- spirit connection holistically and as something to be acquired over time - and has done for centuries. Annie Murphy Paul writes about embodied, situated and distributed cognition - the impact of, respectively, body, place and thinking with others. She writes (p.xv): "Together they seemed to indicate that it's the stuff outside our heads that make us smart." While the published research in these three areas is significant, it is not integrated - and integration is a foundational premise for futures studies; it is a field with open boundaries (mostly) that draws on many disciplines and approaches. I'm only reading the prologue for heaven's sake, yet I feel as though I have found something I've been looking for, that has helped me answer some of my questions about self and my connection between my mind and body.
And, I'm thinking that this may be the missing link in the design of my conversations about futures framework which I developed in my PhD and have been trying to write a book about for the last year. It is a framework that integrates our inner and outer worlds, but I just can't complete the last chapter which is all about making the framework real, usable, practical. I missed that it's not only that our assumptions about futures are held in our minds, we also enact them in our bodies.
For example, the fear, excitement, anxiety, struggle or indifference that we experience when we are asked to imagine futures and that I encountered in every workshop I did for 20 odd years. I heard these feelings and emotions being expressed in various ways in all these workshops, but I did not really acknowledge them or explore them as part of the process - which may be why I always felt uncomfortable as a workshop facilitator. I did not want to acknowledge them - I didn't know how. I usually tried a rational approach to my responses which of course I realise now was just a bit pointless. I feared engaging with emotions - mine or those of my participants.
This is more than being asked to stand up and do jumping jacks in a workshop; rather, it's about being able to imagine our futures in our minds and feel them in our bodies. That means recognising those feelings (I could do this), sitting with them, exploring them and seeking understanding about why they are related to your experience of imagining futures. Not dismissing, ignoring, but trusting emergence of something new, yet to be defined.
Jeanne Liedtka, in one of her publications about strategy, writes: “Strategies must be felt to be vivid, personally meaningful, and compelling by the members of the organization who must adopt new behaviours in order to execute them. And thinking won’t get you there”. That is, to act in meaningful – and transformative – ways in the present as an outcome of using futures processes requires some form of emotional response - as well as intellectual engagement to underpin the design of those processes. And that means we need to listen to our bodies as well as our minds, to trust our emotions, our gestures, our sensations, as much as we trust data. To trust our interoceptive sense (tuning into the sensations of our bodies which help us know when we are hungry or thirsty, but also when we are with others to help us sense how they are feeling). How our futures make us feel.
We may do this intuitively already (I wasn't) and I know futures folks who do this brilliantly in their processes, but I also know from what I read and watch that there are many people who run futures process and who run the process well, but who also miss engaging our inner selves to open up a new lens on futures by a rigid implementation of a model or framework. I am reminded here of someone who reviewed my first book and said: A good exploration of foresight and futures but of little practical use because it lacks a model. Thinking here is framed within the boundaries of the model being used - and not allowed to escape.
Do we need to extend our methodologies and methods overtly beyond the brain, to extend our logical reasoning and escape dominant thinking modes that now constrain the full extent of what futures can be identified in the present? How can we ensure that extending our minds helps us find the new in the present? What processes can we design that pay as much homage to our emotions as we do for data, models and trend watching? How can we feel futures? How did your body react while reading this?
Annie Murphy Paul, 2021, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, Mariner Books, New York.
Jeanne Liedtke, 2010, ‘Strategy as experienced’, in A Manu (ed.), Disrupting Business, Gower Publishing Company, Farnham, 2010, p. 155, italics added.