Saturday, 7 April 2012

Mind over matter?

One of the most commonly repeated 'facts' about marathon swimming is that it is 80% mental and 20% physical. Now, I understand that this is partly rhetorical - an attempt to stress the importance of psychological preparedness - but I've always been slightly uncomfortable with it.

Firstly, it relies on a separation of mind and body that doesn't really hold up - think, for example, about how tiredness affects your mood and cognitive function; how hunger does the same. Conversely, psychological stress manifests itself in profoundly physiological ways - loss of sleep, skin problems, blood pressure, digestive problems etc. It's the same with fear - the pumping of adrenalin, the prickling of the skin. So, thinking about it in sociological terms (as i'm bound to do...), a mind-body split is a quite impoverished way to think about the complexity of our embodied lives and activities.

Following on from this, the opposition of mind-body is never a division of equals, but rather, a hierarchically structured binary. In this case, "mind" traditionally holds the superior position. Philosophy and the social sciences have shown how this binary pair then maps on to a whole series of other binaries: science / nature; reason / emotion; black / white; man / woman. From this perspective, a reliance on a mind-body split relies upon a whole set of problematic social values and relations that limit how we think about particular bodies and the opportunities that are then made available to them. (Think, for example, how women are conventionally categorised as innately 'emotional', and therefore suited to some kinds of work, but not others).

And finally, the reliance upon mind over matter effectively minimises the very real physical and social constraints for some on action - whether that's training to swim the Channel, or a significant personal challenge like trying to get educational qualifications, or break an addiction. It's never simply a question of self-belief and commitment, as is suggested by the 80:20 division. The problem with this comes when an individual fails to complete whatever endeavour they are aiming for, which then becomes a failure primarily of will (the privileged aspect).

Of course, I recognise that there are times when a failure to complete a swim feels very much like a mental collapse; and similarly, I know from my own experience that at times of physical suffering or struggle during a swim, it certainly feels like you are marshalling psychological resources to get through it (mind over matter). But I still find it an uncomfortable way to think about what marathon swimming is. As a habit of thought, it has worrying implications both in terms of how we think about unsuccessful swims, and also, how wider society and its challenges are then conceptualised. It's simply not true that people can do anything if they really want to. I think this matters a lot at a time when, in the UK at least, people are being harried to pull themselves up by their bootstraps without any real understanding of the constraints they are living under.

So instead, I choose to follow the proposal of feminist scholar, Anne Fausto-Sterling. Writing about attempts within science to delineate between the relative contributions of genetics and environments (nature / nurture), she argues instead that it is better conceptualised as 100% of both. This works better for me both within and outside of swimming; I think it's kinder, less hierarchical, and most of all, completely captivates the embodied complexity - both struggles and pleasures - of a challenge like a Channel swim.

1 comment:

  1. I really like this post. Especially the 2nd paragraph.

    When I'm racing (or even just tired on a long swim), I notice how unreliable my powers of reason become. I'll see someone pass me and get it in my head that my evenly-matched training partner has suddenly gotten much faster than I am. Nope--he's a half a body length behind me, that was someone else.

    That happens because the brain is just another organ, and not the most useful one for what I'm doing at the time. It goes on the B-list, along with the digestive system.

    I like the idea that my body (brain included) is wise, strong, and competent. It's not a battle, it's a challenge. It would be great if we had enough resources for everything to operate at 100% all the time, but we don't.