ARCHAEOACOUSTICS & YOUR BODY
How do our bodies mediate interactions with our environment in this “virtual” age?
“The body is the instrument of our hold on the world."
― Roland Jouvent Simone de Beauvoir
The source of the echo
If you visit the pyramid of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza and clap your hands at its periphery, you will hear an echo that mimics the chirping of the quetzal bird (its name related to the feathered god Quetzalcoatl). According to archaeoacoustical research of the past few decades, this singular effect occurs by design: The temple’s 8th-12th century Mayan architects constructed the iconic limestone steps such that they would scatter the sound of the human clap into a high-frequency chirp. (What’s more, it is claimed that when the spring or autumn equinox sun hits the side of the temple, the sculptured serpents cast shadows that appear to slither down the pyramid’s edge). All of this suggests that this temple was designed—as so much architecture is—with its environment in mind. The pyramid operates in this particular way, honors its particular deity via sound and light, because of where it stands.
The field of archaeoacoustics, which studies how sound relates to pre-ancient and ancient artifacts, cave paintings, and architecture, offers many such findings: The site of Chavín de Huantar in Peru, for instance, produces an acoustical resonance reminiscent of the pututu shells that were common musical instruments at the time. The horses & hoofbeats painted at certain points within ancient caves in France represent what the thunder must have sounded like from those spots.
We in the 21st century might well draw a personal lesson from this attention to the natural environment—when we live so much of our lives virtually, we forget, ironically, how closely our existence is connected to our physical surroundings; that our bodies are more than just transportation for our brains. Our bodies mediate our relationship with our surroundings. The full world we live in is not the disembodied land of the Internet.
In Self Comes to Mind, Antonio Damasio states that
“our brains serve our bodies, rather than the obverse – a seemingly provocative, but profoundly liberating idea that arises out of the oft-forgotten fact that life began without nervous systems…the special kind of mental images of the body produced in body-mapping structures, constitute the protoself, which foreshadows the self to be.”
As we emerge from this era of physical retreat, we may benefit from sculpting our own lives, moment by moment, with such attentiveness to our surroundings as exhibited by the architects of the pyramid at Chichen Itza. This month, I invite you to think about how your body is a key feature of your interaction with the environment and how you can optimize your engagement by deliberately directing your physical movements.
YOUR TASK FOR THIS MONTH (...should you choose to accept it)
This month, focus on figuring out how your body mediates the interactions between your emotions and their surroundings. Mind-body therapist Kelly Vincent, PsyD, suggests that “intentional movement releases any stored energy while helping the brain recognize the difference between tension and relaxation.”
Intentional movement, according to research, activates the body by creating a sense of safety. This can be especially beneficial to bodies that have physically stored trauma by “remembering” how their organs once reacted to stressful external events. As Mark Olson, PhD, LMT, states, “Your head is in a different position when you’re confident and when you’re confused… Your spine takes on a different shape when you’re defeated or victorious.”
This month, try setting aside 30 minutes every day for intentional movement.
As suggested by Julianne Ishler in “How to Release ‘Emotional Baggage’ and the Tension That Goes with It,” you might try the following:
belly breathing exercises
CURATING YOUR ENVIRONMENT Build your environment anew. Assess objects in your bedroom, in your home, in your car, on your commute. Look at your clothing, the artwork on your walls. Do these reflect parts of you that still exist (or, more aptly, parts of you that you want to still exist)? Have you taken care to prioritize physical comfort in addition to aesthetics? How does your body physically respond to your surroundings (explore whether certain spaces make your body feel calmer, tenser, frustrated, energetic...)?
If it is logistically possible, make a few changes. Your environment, in a way, produces echoes within you; what parts of your environment do you want your body to mimic, and what parts do you want to let go?
WHEN POTTERY SPEAKS
Every way in which we interact with our environment has some sort of effect, leaves some sort of residue—whether we consider it an intentional legacy or not. Every word we speak, every sound we make, has some sort of impact on generations to come. Generally, we think of this metaphorically. Some thinkers, however, have taken this idea one step further—they have speculated about a world in which the legacy of sound is concrete.
Below, I've collected some of the theories that most struck me upon reading them. While many of the following have failed to be proven by falsifiable scientific experiments, I still find them fun to think about!
In the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise of 1837, Charles Babbage (widely believed to be the inventor of the first mechanical computer) brings up an idea with interesting, though potentially fantastical, implications: He ponders the multiplicative effect of the physical vibrations of the spoken word and waxes poetic on their possible cumulative effects (based loosely on the concept of the transfer of motion between particles). In a section entitled "On the permanent impression of our words and actions on the globe we inhabit," he writes: "Thus considered, what a strange chaos is this wide atmosphere we breathe! Every atom...retains at once the motions which philosophers and sages have imparted to it. The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered. There, in their mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest, as well as with the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man's changeful will." And so, in a sense, past words are imagined to exist, like little puffs of lingering smoke. It is indeed fun to imagine our words floating through the air, knocking into one another, existing outside of us who have spoken them!
“Time Shards” is a 1979 short story by Gregory Benford. In this tale, a researcher discovers that a conversation in Middle English has been mysteriously inscribed onto a piece of pottery—not in writing, but in audio! The story suggests that the conversation that was heard as the wire spun around the pottery wheel jiggled the clay in such a way that it created grooves that could be played back, a thousand years later, for those individuals possessing just the right equipment. In his short story, the concept plays out fictionally; as we now know, however, the phonograph does indeed work in a similar way in reality: sound is engraved upon a cylinder in grooves, and using the right appliance, these sounds can be recreated, or “played back.” The idea that sound was accidentally recorded—or, as some thinkers suggest, that some pottery might contain the voice of Aristotle if only we had the equipment to unravel it properly!—remains, for now, a fiction.
Archaeoacoustics researcher Steven J. Waller conducted an experiment that explored the relationship between acoustical patterns and the structure of Stonehenge. In an empty field, he set up two blindfolded people to play the same continuous note on a flute. He noted that the interference pattern (the spots on the field where the two notes cancelled each other out such that someone standing there would only hear silence) was curiously familiar. Waller reports, "The quiet regions of destructive sound wave cancellation, in which the high pressure from one flute cancelled the low pressure from the other flute, gave blindfolded subjects the illusion of a giant ring of rocks or 'pillars' casting acoustic shadows.” It is the incarnation of these “shadows” into stone blocks that we now know as Stonehenge. Waller relates these findings to the mythical stories of the magical piper who played a flute to lure in dancing maidens whom he would subsequently turn to stone. There may be something to this theory; after all, many such megalithic ring circles that conform to specific acoustical patterns are called, to this day, “Pipers’ Circles.” (It is to be noted that there are spirited detractors to Waller’s theory, and they make very convincing arguments. You can read here and decide for yourself!)
"How to Release ‘Emotional Baggage’ and the Tension That Goes with It" By Julianne Ishler [Healthline] "Time Shards" by Gregory Benford
"The Interoreceptive Turn: The science of how we sense ourselves from within, including our bodily states, is creating a radical picture of selfhood" by Noga Arikha [Aeon] "The 4 Ways Sound Affects Us" by Julian Treasure [TEDTalk]
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