Expanded Awareness And The “Car Body” Phenomenon

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The Mind and Body Sensations

Everything mind must first begin at the body, and specifically – our perceptual systems. Our biological bodies have been evolutionarily designed to experience the environment in a distinct and adaptive way. Every species has the senses they do due to some adaptive trait as a result of having that sense. Humans in particular have an incredibly complex perceptual system compared to most animals; our sensory modalities include sight, hearing, taste, smell, balance, temperature, kinesthetic (awareness of our three dimensional orientation in space), pain and a variety of other internal body sensations.

Sense is the building block to all experiences. If we did not sense our environment, what would we base our experiences off of? Nothingness.

Despite sense being where all experience begins it is not where all experience ends. Instead, the mind chooses to cognize about what it perceives. It thinks about it, creates conceptions, meaning – mental content. We build associations to the things we sense “out there” and the feelings we feel “in here.” And then we assign value to these feelings like “good or evil”, “right or wrong,” “seek or avoid.”

Body Awareness

One goal of mindful meditation is to not assign value or meaning to our senses – to observe them as is, and not how we intend them to be. We start by shedding awareness on our body. We tune into the particular sensation of our breathing, how air feels coming in through our mouth and out through our nostrils.

Then the mind moves – perhaps towards an itch on your foot or ache in your back. You observe your awareness expanding and contrasting. At times you zoom in to something as little as the pain of a small splinter on your toe. Other times, you are aware of your whole body at once like during a heavy gush of wind.

Our awareness is our window into experience. It is always being shaped and reshaped, shifting, moving through time and space from moment to moment.

If you pay attention you begin to notice your awareness even extends outside of your body at times. This may happen if you remain still for a long enough period of time, especially when your eyes are closed and you are in a silent environment. The reason for this, I postulate, may be due to boredom or fatigue on part of the mind thus it chooses to leave the sensory world as we experience it in our bodies and go off to other places – one may call this dreaming.

When one becomes skilled enough at mindfulness one begins to become aware of the “artificial” boundaries of the body. It begins with the sensation of awareness on the brink of the body – the outermost edge. And as you continually pay attention to this border you notice it begins to drift off of your skin, usually a couple inches away from your body. More and more we begin to notice our preconceptions of the body are not as rigid as we first thought.


The “Car Body” Phenomena

One doesn’t need to be a disciplined student of meditation or even in a dream world to experience a real-life example of awareness outside the body. It happens all of the time. One of the best examples I have noticed throughout my daily experience is what I would call the “Car Body” phenomena. Let me explain.

Even with years of experience as the passenger of a car, when you first take up the role of the driver the experience becomes quite foreign. Up until this point, you may have only had experience with mobilizing your natural body but this is one of the first times you step into the position of being the mind for a new and ultimately different body.

You are now in the position to choose where the car goes – the direction of is completely dependent on your will. The car also can be said to have different “physiological” states: it may be at rest or parked, moving forward or in reverse, accelerating or decelerating.

You are the mind of the car, and thus all the mental states of the car are contained within you. You have mental content about where the car is leaving from, how it will get to its destination and where it will ultimately end up. There are beginning states and end (or goal) states.

By now you may be starting to see the similarities between driving your car body and driving your natural body. The interesting phenomena I wish to illustrate however is the mind’s awareness to inhabit the car body in the same way we can become aware of our natural bodies during meditation.

Once one gets comfortable with driving it becomes second nature. We no longer need to consciously think out every action. This is evident in highway hypnosis – the experience of driving from point A to point B but having no recollection of having done so. This is especially true when we drive long distances, or even when we carry out commonplace daily actions such as driving to work everyday (especially when in a half-sleepy state after waking up). Almost all drivers have had some sort of experience with highway hypnosis.

If one remains mindful while driving you may come to the some of the same conclusions that I have regarding the car body. What I have discovered is that my mind seems to – at a subconscious level – inhabit the body of the car in the same way it inhabits my natural shell. In order to do this, my mind seems to extend its awareness to the edges of the car so that my awareness encompasses the full body of the car while I am navigating on the road.

Specifically, one may intensify this experience when trying to fit into a tight parking spot or change lanes with the presence of many cars. When doing this, I do not believe that we just use our visual senses and then make a computational judgment on how close we are to other objects, but instead, we have a kinesthetic feeling of our orientation in space as if we are body of the car.

Try to recall a memory when you drove a friend or family member’s car that is significantly different in shape or size to what you are typically used to driving. It takes time to familiarize yourself with not only the mechanics of the car and how rigid or smooth it operates, but also it’s specific orientation in space. You will notice when driving a bigger car that you may overcompensate for avoiding objects because you are so unfamiliar with the feeling or presence of the car on the street. It takes time for awareness to adjust to our new car body until eventually it too becomes second nature.

Opportunities For Scientific Research

I think this phenomenon may be of interest to cognitive scientists. I am not terribly familiar with brain scanning equipment, but it may be plausible to use EEG or fMRI scans to observe the neural activity of the brain when one is driving. We could check to see differences between “outside of the car” activity and “inside the car” activity (and then differences between passenger activity and driver activity).

What about between the activity of a driver when in a familiar car body and a driver when in an unfamiliar car body. What parts of the brain are active? Specifically the parietal lobe, which is said to be correlated to our spatial awareness. Does it become more active or give any indication of an expansion in awareness? We could also check on brain activity when driver’s parallel park, or change lanes between tight spaces. These are all topics of interest that may shed some light on my car body theory outside of just my anecdotal evidence and personal insight.

Addendum (6/24/09)

A recent research study has confirmed something very similar to my expressions posted in this article. This study has found that the brain indeed “represents tools as temporary body parts.”

“In other words, the tool becomes a part of what is known in psychology as our body schema.”

They go on to say: “It’s a phenomenon each of us unconsciously experiences every day…The reason you were able to brush your teeth this morning without necessarily looking at your mouth or arm is because your toothbrush was integrated into your brain’s representation of your arm.”

A report of this study was published in the June 23rd, 2009 Issue of Current Biology.

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