Body – Mind Connections


Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), hiked up this hill daily to his office (hidden in the trees to the left). In winter, he lived in Paris, but in summer, Buffon returned to his estate in the country.

There’s something wonderful about summer: so much of it can be spent outdoors. This is due in part to the cultural construct of “summer vacation.” The expectation that we will take some vacation time is tied to the academic calendar which ironically originated in the need to work in the harvest! But the harvest, of course, also means being outdoors, even in an age of John Deere combines such as the one I rode in when I was working on a ranch in eastern Oregon many years ago: feeling the grit of dirt in my teeth, clambering through mounds of wheat to even the load, and picking out the grasshoppers that infested Sherman county that summer.

As I write, the harvest is in. Whether one’s summer was spent pulling in crops or hiking and camping…or perhaps in a library, the outdoors beckons less urgently. As we settle into more sedentary pursuits appropriate for the colder months, I’m thinking about how to keep getting outside. Moving the whole body is good for thinking!

I’m thinking a lot about “The Age of Enlightenment,” also known as the Age of Reason – of ideas, of thinking things through. This refers to an intellectual movement in history, (the long eighteenth century and mostly French history) in which emphasized rationality over tradition. We are children of that age, or so we are often told. But while people in the Enlightenment lived much of their lives outside, we twenty-first century people sit indoors saturated with texts, images, graphs and numbers – mere representations of the world outside. In fact, we can be so tied to our screens that we literally don’t move for hours at a time.

In the Enlightenment, people moved a lot – they walked, they rode, they danced. And they thought – and wrote – deep thoughts. The essays of people like Voltaire, Kant, Goethe, Diderot, and Buffon (of course Buffon!) are still read and discussed because their ideas are still compelling. Buffon, well-known in the eighteenth century for his vibrant writing of natural history, was especially known for his “active lifestyle.” He made the 170 mile journey to Paris from his home in Montbard every year over rough roads. He chopped wood to test its tensile strength. He built an iron foundry to conduct experiments with iron balls to estimate the age of the earth. And he hiked up a hill every day to go to his writing office!

There’s a connection between the body and the brain that we graduate students can easily miss. As I am spending long hours writing a dissertation on movement in the eighteenth century, I am wondering in what ways I can keep my body moving. I cannot help but see the irony in how much I’m sitting here at a computer, writing about movement but moving only my fingertips!