Cressida Heyes Phd

13.2.2014: Guest post by Madeline Smith

Since I was in a car accident six months ago, I’m unwillingly hyperaware of the way I extend and control my body. Tools like cars, according to Drew Leder’s analysis of embodied experience, allow us to “redesign” our extended bodies to interact with the world. A car, understood as a tool that acts as an extension of a driver’s body, can be a part of the ecstatic self: that which reaches out into the space of the world. The walls of a car, like the walls of a house, can become a “second protective skin” within which we perceive the world. Because the way I experience this “skin” has changed, I’m now constantly paranoid about burning it.

This feeling is familiar to most drivers, but unless they’re particularly prone to anxiety, it’s probably a distant memory from their first attempts at learning their way around a vehicle. Getting used to controlling a clunky metal extension of yourself, blind spots and all, is initially difficult. But eventually, the complex combination of motor functions involved in driving disappears into the background. There ceases to be the awkward second where you try to remember whether to push your hand up or down to turn on your right-hand signal and you lose the constant hesitation of your foot over the brake pedal. The skill of driving is incorporated into the skills of your self — in Leder’s terms, brought into your bodily “I can” — and the driver is far less aware of their moment-to-moment actions. Eventually, this disappearance extends to the secondary “body” itself: the actual vehicle. While you may start out intensely aware of the vulnerability and danger of speeding down a busy road in a metal contraption, the car itself soon begins to fade into the background. The need to go somewhere is more prominent than the fact of the car. The vehicle, like the required actions for operating it, recedes from perception.

While the ability to put the mechanical actions of driving into a perceptual background is an important part of becoming a good driver, the increasingly recessive perception of the vehicle also holds the potential for disaster. Combined with increasingly ubiquitous technology such as cell phones, this potential multiplies. As cell phones come to be regarded as a constantly present extension of our bodies, it feels natural to use them all the time — even in motion. If the coordinated actions of driving and the logical awareness of our extended bodies are pushed into our conscious background, distracting behaviours like texting while driving don’t seem like such a stretch.

When the media covers a death caused by distracted driving, as they did when 20-year-old Quebec woman Emy Brochu was killed in 2012, there’s an outcry to do something to curb the problem. Solutions range from new in-car technology to let people use their phones while keeping their eyes on the road to tougher sanctions for drivers caught using their phones behind the wheel. But Leder’s explanation of the nature of our relationship with our bodies points to a deeper issue in our engagement in behaviours that distract us. We’re already “distracted” from ourselves, and as drivers, we put the dangerous realities of operating a car into our conscious background in order to do it effectively.

Jessica Leeder’s article in the Globe & Mail covering Brochu’s case quotes MIT professor Nicholas Ashford, a critical voice against putting the convenience of accessing phones while driving over safety. He explains that our “biology” makes our brain “[increase] the signal of … what we want to pay attention to.” On a basic level, this makes sense: we would rather pay attention to a funny text conversation with a friend than the mundane motions of driving. But it isn’t just that we don’t want to focus on driving — our ability to do so is bound up with the appearance and disappearance of our perception of our ecstatic body and its extensions, and we potentially put ourselves in danger as a result.

In coming to terms with my responsibility for my car crash, I find my ability to put bodily reactions into my conscious “background” difficult. All the learned movements of driving are still there when I start the car. The skill of driving is obviously still “in my body.” But I have a hard time bringing the “secondary skin” of the car back within my body to hide it away in my background perception. The consequences of this disrupting awareness are bodily too: I clumsily slam my foot on the brake at the slightest provocation and involuntarily gasp or flinch at any unexpected move another driver makes.

The last time I unbuckled myself from the driver’s seat with a hammering heart and shaky hands, I was a teenager still struggling with the complicated dance of coordination that is driving. After my crash, my movements are familiar enough to fade out of focus, but the ease of this bodily experience is no longer reassuring. I wasn’t engaged in any directly “distracting” behaviours when I turned left directly into an oncoming car, but the ironic result of my intensely renewed awareness of my extended body is that I’ve become a worse driver.

I often feel like my body is betraying me, as the once-simple task of driving now requires extensive mental preparation and rehearsal. But it’s a far cry from detaching from my awareness of how my body is moving through world to such an extent that I would pick up my phone while behind the wheel. Finding a solution to the dangerous proliferation of distracted driving might also mean reexamining our relationships with our bodies, and how perception and disappearance shapes our ability to function. An awareness of how our behaviour changes as our bodies appear or recede from our conscious perception, as illuminated by Leder’s analysis, might be a step towards striking a balance between ignoring ourselves as we move through the world and the white-knuckled terror of being confronted with our vulnerabilities.

Leder, Drew. The Absent Body. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990. Print.

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