Embodied Cognition and Lifestyle Sports.

In 2010 I wrote my M.Phil thesis at the Higher Technical School of Architecture of San Sebastian about the relationship between skateboarding in the streets and the effects of this youthful activity in contemporary urban-development.

Titled “Live Free or Die Trying: Skateboarding as an Urban Countercultural Tool” (available in spanish here), I tried to show the strength of this lifestyle sport as a instrument for the non-intellectual critique of life inside cities in contemporary capitalism and as a vehicle for the “détourné” (also known as psychogeographic drift), a way to live an experiential and authentic “collage” of our metropolis.

Evidently at that time of little academic literature like mine I was heavily influenced by the pioneering job of british professor Iain Borden, the writings of former professional skateboarder Ocean Howell and the feminist view of Dr. Belinda Wheaton. Now thankfully this research field has grown a lot, even to a degree where last summer the first international academic conference named Pushing Boarders was held in London. 

I’m very happy with the current developments of the intersection between skateboarding and academia, but life took me in other directions since I conducted this research that I share with you. My intellectual evolution faded away from architecture and sociology towards neuroscience and philosophy, and even I still love to  skateboard until recently I paid little attention to the changes of perception about this “lifestyle sport” in the context of universities.

But last week, while skateboarding in my spare time -and subconsciously analyzing the contribution to Philosophy of the Mind of such theories as Embodied Cognition- I realized the great connection that can be found between this two research fields: sports and neuroscience. Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner (now known as Caitlyn Jenner after her male to female transgender transition) once said: “You have to train your mind like you train your body”, and that for sure is food for thought…

 As cognitive scientist Vincent Walsh writes we often assume that the only tasks that require intelligence are those associated with nice, middle class, intellectual or school-based performance. However, if we consider the challenges that elite sport performance presents it will be difficult to find any human activity that places more demands on the brain. Here Ian where we can connect with Embodied Cognition a relatively new and radical branch of cognitive science that looks to ecological psychology and dynamical systems theory to understand the contribution of bodily capacities to cognitive processes. As any skateboarder will know, the individual has bodily skills and abilities that are refined and perfected through practice for dealing adequately with the possibilities for action that our environment offers. 

Anyhow, I must agree with my old teacher Ignacio Morgado -Professor of Psychobiology at the Neuroscience Institute of the Autonomous University of Barcelona- that our mind is a brain function in interaction with its environment. I strongly believe that when talking about our brain we should include the whole nervous system, that includes for example our stomach which has 100 million neurons (as many as the brain of a cat). So maybe we shall emphasize that from a neurophilosophical point of view cognition has always been considered embodied and embedded in our biological complex systems.

In an upcoming handbook edited by Massimiliano L. Cappuccio we will be able to learn that athletic skill is a legitimate form of intelligence, involving cognitive faculties no less sophisticated and complex than those required by mathematical problem solving. It is no wonder then that pioneer skaters like Rodney Mullen, often considered a genius by many of us, mixes elements of philosophy and neuroscience in order to train his brain to enter a semi-hypnotic state prior to contests so that the variables of failing won’t ruin his performance. This ability has taken Mullen nothing less than to be a part of a research into human resilience conducted by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, a lab dedicated to helping the American military establish “cognitive dominance”…

In his “Build on a Bedrock of Failure” keynote in June 2014, Rodney Mullen spoke of the way that “failure, pain, injury, recovery” are “embedded in the very notion of what it is to be a skateboarder”... And maybe that might be a clue to why we as skateboarders will be able to find a new and creative way to contribute to the fascinating world of cognitive science.

Think, skate and create!

*(Pictures: Mikel ollie in 2006 photo by Javi Cobo & Rodney Mullen skateboarding in 2016).


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