Technologically enhanced body schema and spatiality; steps towards research on humanoid robots

Kari Jormakka

The dominating theory of architectural space is based on a phenomenological conception of the body. Edmund Husserl maintained that all spatiality is constituted through movement, the movement of the object itself and the movement of the ‘I’. Through visual parallax, proprioseptic perception and other information, our movements make it possible for us to recognize things and their locations in space. In walking, according to Husserl, my organism constitutes itself: by means of its relation to itself as an animate organism it is also constituted as moveable, along with the ‘I stretch out my arm,’ the ‘I move my eyes,’ along with spatially rolling my eyes in their sockets. Once the moving body is kinesthetically unified as the Nullpunkt, it can bring about a unified core-world and ultimately a Cartesian space. While the mobile body is thus the source of our notions of abstract and homogeneous space, Husserl nonetheless argued that the body does not entirely conform to this notion of space. “External space is homogeneous, even though it presents itself as oriented in various ways … But the lived body and its bodily space break the homogeneity asunder.”

In contrast to Husserl’s idea of the body as the dimensionless origo, Maurice Merleau-Ponty claimed that the world is not ‘in’ my body, and my body is ultimately not ‘in’ the visible world; as flesh applied to flesh, the world neither surrounds it nor is unsurrounded by it. He asks: “Why would this generality which constituted the unity of my body, not be open to other bodies? … Why would not the synergy exist among different organisms, if it is possible within each?” Early theorists of the body schema, Sir Henry Head and Gordon Holmes already suggested that a woman’s power of localization may extend to the feather in her hat. Merleau-Ponty went further in arguing that the body schema is a dynamically adaptive system: my body appears to me as an attitude directed towards a certain possible or existing task. Its spatiality is not, like that of external objects, a spatiality of position, but one of situation. From this basis, later philosophers, such as Maxine Sheets-Johnstone or George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, have developed theories of embodied minds and animate form.

Recent neurophysiological, neuroimaging, neuropsychological, and behavioral studies by H. Henrik Ehrsson, Manos Tsakiris and many others employing the Pinocchio Illusion and the Rubber Hand Illusion suggest that the brain computes body image by integrating signals from the skin, joints, and muscles through hierarchical processing in the somatosensory system. Instead of being constrained by a pre-stored morphology of the human body, the body schema can be recalibrated to incorporate an additional limb or other artificial extensions through postural representations that integrate proprioseptic and tactile information with visual cues about the body and its environment.

The goal of the research approach is to extend the phenomenological theory of spatiality through an investigation of both philosophical and empirical findings. A revised theory will articulate some of the conditions of how the body or its architectural surroundings could be robotically enhanced without creating an intrusive effect through a modification of the body schema that underlies perception.