Author: Mia Vaerman
First publication: 01/01/2004
Language: English
Originally published in: Danswetenschap in Nederland - Deel 4
Made available by: Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek
Media: article

Dit artikel is eerder verschenen in: Linden, M. van der, L. Wildschut, J. Zeijlemaker (eds.) (2006), Danswetenschap in Nederland – Deel 4. Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek, pp.99-106.

It always catches my attention how completely different visions of bodily memory are at stake in contemporary choreographers creations and investigations. A good deal of contemporary dance — as well as traditional ballet — is a perfect example of Bergson’s view on mémoire du corps (bodily memory). Thomas Hauert seems to be a perfect example of Merleau-Ponty’s mémoire motrice (motor memory). Even the (so abhorrent?) Cartesian concept of the bodily memory is shamelessly given right of speech: Svar Hagendoorn, for example, performs very cerebral and mathematically elaborated movements, and in Vincent Dunoyer’s Cadavre Exquis, a perfectly conceptual performance hides behind a surrealistic procedure. It appears that choreographers simply do not care about paradigm taboos and clear-cut theories…

My doctorate is about the bodily memory. What triggered my interest is that, at first sight, the bodily memory seems to unite data which we have always considered to be opposite: mind and body, thinking and doing. This division is a product of Cartesian philosophy, and the concept ‘bodily memory’ seems to bridge precisely this dualistic and intellectualistic vision.

‘La mémoire du corps’ is a concept, introduced by the French philosopher Henri Bergson in Matière et mémoire (Matter and memory) from 1889. With the exception of a reaction to it by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, another French philosopher, in the fifties, the concept completely disappeared from philosophical and scientific jargon.

At the beginning, I could not prevent myself from questioning where the bodily memory might be situated: in the brain, or in the body itself, in the muscles, the spine or the hips? Is a dance movement totally ‘carried’ from the neurons in the brain towards the legs, or is it stored in the ankle joints, as a reflex? How should I imagine this? When we consider that Bergson situated the ‘mémoire pure’ (the other memory, the one which relates to the things we remember – see below) without hesitation outside the mind AND the body, in the void, the idea of a memory in the muscles is not as eccentric as it seems after all.

Until today, Bergson’s concept has remained rather vague. The bodily memory is used in a pseudo-scientific context (New Age and related areas) and it is a common concept in the world of music, where it is related to the physical control of the instrument and the evidence with which melody and text can be retrieved. It has also been a subject of investigation in contemporary dance, amongst others in Contact Improvisation, a movement created by Steve Paxton in the late sixties. However, none of these domains created the need for rigorous scientific or philosophical questioning which relates to corporality.

The scientific interest in this phenomenon radically changed in the last decade. Now, attention is also developing at a philosophical level. This is due to the enormous impact of neuroscience, where the relationship is studied between thought (and action) and the brain, the so-called ‘mind/brain-issue’. Nowadays, discoveries are being carried out which relate back to what Maurice Merleau-Ponty already suggested fifty years ago. I refer for example to the mirror neurons, which appear to learn by imitation: a movement is better and faster assimilated by imitating it, than by analysing it systematically – whether or not verbally.

I know now that the bodily memory is stored in the brain neurons, just like thinking, feeling, moving, pain, sensory perception, names, representations, etc. But the fact that it is so still remains fascinating. The investigation that I have carried out so far, has convinced me in the first instance that the concept of the bodily memory is really a junction of, at first sight, diverse domains, both within philosophy (action philosophy, philosophy of mind and phenomenology, among others) and outside (neuroscience, psychoanalysis, dance, music). The bodily memory offers a concrete concept in which to study the relationship between body and mind. It works like an little hook, making a run and unravelling the carefully constructed philosophical theories. I still have more questions than answers about it. The questions and answers often arise while I watch and analyse contemporary dance, or when I consciously linger over my own movements and memory (e.g. in a Contact Improvisation workshop, in yoga or while singing).

The sensory, emotional and motor memory
In my research so far I have distinguished three types of bodily memory: the sensory, emotional and motor memory. They refer to diverse phenomenological data, but overlap.

The sensory memory can be found, amongst others, in Marcel Proust’s ‘mémoire involontaire’ (involuntary memory). A typical example is his experience of the madeleine cookie, dipped in tea: the mixture of the smell and taste involuntarily reminds the main character of the world of Combray and his early childhood into the most vivid details and the most subtle emotions. This sensory memory is not accessible to the consciously searching mind. It seems to be hidden in the things themselves, in the boulders, the church towers, but also in the body itself, in its muscles, in its movements. It is a state of grace, opposite to the voluntary memory, e.g. when you consciously try to remember the name of an old friend. Both Merleau-Ponty and Bergson refer frequently to Proust in their work.

The emotional memory is the easiest to recognise in its pathologically marked variant. By malfunctioning the body shouts that which it cannot express in words. We find it in symptoms like the ones Freud describes in his Studien über Hysterie: uncontrollable clicking of one’s tongue, a paralysed arm, etc. But emotional memory is also the basis of more innocent failures in one’s actions, for example unintentionally taking the wrong road (reluctance to go the right way, or longing to take that other road). In her studies of children, the child psychiatrist and analyst Françoise Dolto unveils the impact of it. In L’image inconsciente du corps (The unconscious image of the body) she explains by means of dozens of case studies how the child’s emotional development history plays a role in its corporal and motor capacities. Traumas and psychological suffering are unconsciously stored in the body and search for a way out via that body, using all kinds of channels, from incontinence to anorexia. Because I have to limit my research I will only discuss Dolto lateraly, as well as Freud, and psychoanalytical concepts as unconsciousness, attention, failure, symptom, primary and secondary processes.

The third memory, motor memory, may be the most important one in philosophical terms, unless it is simply the domain in which my thesis has made most progress thus far. It concerns the automatic movement as it was studied by Henri Bergson and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and nowadays again by the American philosopher John Searle and certain neuroscientists. Dancing, playing the piano, driving a car, cycling, the backhand movement in tennis, etc. are all actions which take place “without thinking”. It remains an enigma as to how these actions are learned and stored in our memory.

The division which I have made is subjective and not clearly defined. A fundamental quality of each of these forms of the body’s memory is that they occur pre-reflexively, we do not think about them, we do not ‘linger on them’, they ‘just happen’. However, this does not mean that all memory is not language-related: in the unconscious, for example, language plays an important role in things like for example when we slip. On the other hand, pre-reflexive does not necessarily mean unconscious. According to Merleau-Ponty, automatic actions are precisely carried out consciously, but without representation! Conscious/unconscious, intentional/unintentional, in primary or secondary processes, linguistic/non-linguistic, with or without representation, reflexive/pre-reflexive are all qualities that arise in the context of the bodily memory, in varying combinations. One of the aims of my doctorate will be to define exactly where these different approaches differ or merge The fact that so many qualities are taken into account already indicates how difficult it is to pin down the concept of the bodily memory.

In our brain there is a different type of thinking than just our linguistic thinking. In evolutionary terms it may be an older kind of thinking, a primitive function from which linguistic thinking has developed. What intrigues me about the bodily memory is that there is a way the body functions which is not reflexive, and that is pre-attentional. In other words, this type of thinking or acting is not a passive undergoing of our bodily reality but it does escape from insight and logical, rational understanding. This bodily positioning focuses our attention on a new ontology, which in my opinion has not yet , according to me, still not got through enough.

My doctorate is still in an early stage. I will focus in the next years on bodily memory and on our physical anchoring in the world – a fact that is not being realised well enough in philosophy today, to my opinion. I will concentrate on the opposite views of Henri Bergson and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and include laterally other aspects, such as the different forms of bodily memory which I distinguished above, and their relation to neurosciences.

In order to work out these ideas in a more particular way, I would like to focus in this article on the bodily memory in the way in which Henri Bergson and Maurice Merleau-Ponty approached the subject.1

Henri Bergson, Matière et mémoire, (Matter and memory), 1896
The concept ‘bodily memory’ was first introduced by Henri Bergson. It was conceptualised as a consequence of the distinction he made between souvenirs situated in our mind, and a memory located in our body.

In his philosophy, Henri Bergson introduced a perspective which was new for his time: the body. He stated that our existence as human beings departs from our bodies and not from our minds. The body is the first to register experiences from the external world and the reactions to these perceptions are born in the body. In the case of the most elementary living beings, e.g. amoebas, perception equals reaction. The higher one climbs in the hierarchy of living organisms, the more diverse the response becomes. Animals react in different ways to external stimuli: dogs run after a stick, bark when the bell rings or throw themselves on their food dish when they smell meat. Human beings react far more often than we might imagine out of automatism, too, but we maintain a certain freedom with respect to our reactions. According to Bergson, man is a ‘centre d’indétermination’, a centre of undeterminedness. Our brain is an ‘instrument of analysis with regard to the perceived movement and an instrument of selection with regard to the movement carried out’ (Bergson, 1999, p.26)2 . It has a mediating function.

Bergson is an anti-intellectualist, contrary to Descartes. ‘…the fundamental law of life is one of action’, he says (Bergson, 1999, p.167). ‘Le présent n’est pas ce qui est (…) mais ce qui se fait’ (Bergson, 1999, p.166). The present is not what is, but what happens. But just like Descartes, Bergson fundamentally remains a dualist. According to him, body and mind, matter and memory are radically different. To him the mind is a function, and the brain is not its archivist. There are many relationships between the two realities of body and mind. Bergson analyses them with regard to the memory. He distinguishes two kinds of memory: the bodily memory and the pure memory.

The bodily memory is about physical habits: walking, cycling, driving a car, dancing. It is “the whole of intelligently built mechanisms that guarantee an appropriate response to all kinds of possible interpellations” (Bergson, 1999, p.167). The bodily memory is run by our organism. It concerns, in the first place, actions which we repeat every day. It is what is conserved best, Bergson says. (This is also the case in Alzheimer’s patients.) The bodily memory is active in the present tense. It is not the past that is present again, it plays the past again. It repeats the past for its entire duration: you cannot rehearse a choreography in one flash, you have to repeat every single step of the dance movement. It requires effort to learn the steps: you have to rehearse the entire movement time after time in order to analyse it. The bodily memory underlines the essence of this.

“The purpose of the repetition is that the body analyses the movement and then reconstructs it. This way, the body is called for its intelligence. At each rehearsal attention is focused on a new detail that had remained unnoticed until then. One by one the lines of the total movement, that compose its internal structure, are found again. In this sense a movement is learned at the moment the body has understood it” (Bergson, 1999, p.122).

Opposite the bodily memory is the pure memory: ‘mémoire pure’ or ‘mémoire vraie’. This pure memory stores our memories: the facts from the life which we have lived, like a photo-album with dates, hours and all details – really all of them, according to Bergson! Hence, the pure memory represents the totality of our unconscious. But the pure memory is capricious and of itself it is powerless. Memories come to the surface accidentally and arbitrarily. For example, by dipping a madeleine cookie in your tea, or by image associations of right before or right after an event that is already present in our consciousness. According to Bergson, the pure memory is not located in the brain, because the brain is nothing more than a transit station. The memories are elsewhere. But it is not quite clear where they are… and that is very intriguing. Bergson’s division of the memory brings down the categories we have created: he places an intelligent, analysing, rational body opposite an emotional, creative and unbridled mind.

The two forms of memory seldom appear separately. In our daily lives they are interwoven and support each other. In Bergson’s opinion, the bodily memory serves as a basis for the “real” memory. He says the body has the task (…) of limiting the existence of the mind in function of the action (Bergson, 1999, p. 199). From the unconscious, we retrieve memories which are useful to the body. The enormous database of memories is only consulted when it is useful, when we feel the need to do so. Just like Descartes and the entire intellectualistic and idealistic tradition, Bergson also looks down upon the bodily memory. Although he places it on the map of philosophical thinking, he assigns it an inferior position.

Bergson and dance

Classical and contemporary dance are based on the bodily memory in the way Bergson describes it: dance movements are repetitive actions of learned motor automatisms. They “actively” take place in the present and repeat themselves in their entirety. By repetition, the “inner” structure of the dance movement is discovered and then stored.

In contemporary dance many choreographers search for Bergson’s bodily memory. They obviously do not do so in a theoretical way, but they do it consciously and systematically. In the choreography Rosas danst Rosas, created in 1983, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker investigates the limits of that memory. She mixes two kinds of movements: on the one hand, extremely minimalist and styled choreographic movements; on the other, “real”, day-to-day movements: the dancers tie their hair, arrange their blouse or check their nails. The two kinds of movements are repeated endlessly and always with the same precision, again and again, until the dancers are exhausted. In order to obtain the desired effect, the movements have to become like an automatism which the dancers no longer need to think about. It is fascinating to see how the exact repetition of minimal movements reflects the temperament of each of the dancers.

Second example: the choreographer, dancer and teacher Steve Paxton is known as the ‘dancing encyclopaedi’ because in the course of his career he learned an infinite number of movement structures. Later, he dedicated himself to improvisation, with the purpose of breaking through the mechanism of automatic movements and to overcome the horse phenomenon. The horse phenomenon was first discovered in horses. Horses always follow the same way back to where they have come from, even if that it is not the shortest route. One day Paxton discovered this weird phenomenon in himself: he unconsciously took a road he knew to end up in a place he did not intend to go to. He made exactly the same steps and the same movements: he used the same leg to jump into the sand at a little brook, right before he jumped, he looked upwards in exactly the same way, etc. “The mind thinks of something, but the horse phenomenon gets the upper hand”, Paxton says (in Van Kerkhoven 2000, p. 15). During his improvisations in contact improvisation he forces a rupture in his movements each time he experiences uniformity with regard to the previous movement structures. He consciously interrupts his automatic movements.

In my opinion, the horse phenomenon interfaces with Merleau-Ponty’s bodily memory that I will introduce in the next paragraphs.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of perception, (Phénoménologie de la perception), 1945

Merleau-Ponty rejects the opposition between body and mind, and as a consequence discards the distinction between pure versus the bodily memory. To him mind, body and even the surrounding world are completely and inextricably intertwined.

I once bought a bicycle in Montreal, where I lived for three years. It was second-hand and pretty rickety. Due to the many holes in the road, it did not take long before my handlebars became loose. This was how I began to understand Merleau-Ponty. My handlebars were often about 10 degrees left or right out of their axle. The first time it happened I had a terrible fright. I put the handlebars back in the right position, but the next day it happened again, and so on every day after. After a while I discovered that, if I did not look, I could simply drive away and cycle straight. My body automatically corrected the anomaly. It was only when I looked, that things went wrong: when I tried to understand whether I had to steer to the left or the right, and how much. Later on I turned it into a game and only looked after a hundred meters where my handlebars were. In the end I simply forgot. I did not care anymore: my body would take care of me cycling straight.

My experience with my crooked bicycle is exactly described in Merleau-Ponty’s ‘bodily memory’. My automatic cycling movements are stored in my body, or more precisely: in my brain , as we now know thanks to neuroscience. My body carries out the movements in the correct order without requiring my conscious attention. But in Montreal, the help did not come from my cycling automatisms. The handlebars moved each time in a different way (to the left or to the right, a little less or a little more) and I did not have time to learn new automatisms or to calculate how much one arm had to compensate for the other. It was my body itself which adapted itself to the situation.

In his Phenomenology of perception Merleau-Ponty does not say a word about the bodily memory (mémoire du corps). He does talk about the motor habit (habitude motrice) or motor memory (souvenir moteur). In this sense he explicitly distances himself from Bergson’s theory. To Merleau-Ponty there is not that much an intelligent body which reproduces learned movements, but in the first place a thinking body in an organic and pre-reflexive relationship with the world. Merleau-Ponty not only rejects intellectualism but also dualism. There is no division between body and mind, nor is there between the self and the external world. Any knowledge of the world, any contact with the world takes places via the body. Bergson says the same, but whereas Bergson studies the relation between body and mind, Merleau-Ponty studies the unity. This is an essential difference. Mind, body and world are interwoven. The body inhabits space and time. Man is not in the world among other objects, like trees and tables. He is to the world, he is into the world, like in the expression ‘to bring a baby into the world’. “Etre-au-monde”, Merleau-Ponty says. In English it is translated as ‘being-in-the-world’ (with indents in between the words). It reflects a kind of mutuality, a link, an engagement.

Merleau-Ponty believes that “habit is neither a knowledge nor an automatism”. “It has to do with something we know and that we are natural at. It is only expressed by physical effort, and cannot be translated by an objective description” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, p.168). My body is part of the car when I drive through a narrow street; the blind is at one with his stick as if it were a long finger. “Habits are not originated by an act of the intellect, organising elements to withdraw themselves after that.”

“To learn the habit of a dance”, Merleau-Ponty says, is not “to find the movement formula through an analytical way and then reconstruct it again by means of the ideal design and with the help of already learned movements (e.g. the movements of running). If the formula of the new dance has to incorporate certain elements of a general locomotion, then it must have undergone first some kind of motor initiation. It is… the body which ‘catches’(kapiert) and ‘understands’ the movement. The acquisition of a habit implies that a certain meaning is caught, but it is a motor meaning, caught in a motor manner” (my translation, Merleau-Ponty, 1945, p. 167).

To move the body means to focus on things by means of the body. Movement is therefore not “a servant of consciousness” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, p.161) and habit is not “the fossilised residue of a spiritual activity”, as Bergson describes it. The body is “the means to be into the world”, it learns because it feels like learning, and it understands when it “experiences unity” between what it sees and what is given. The motor habit is the way to realise something, but that something, that goal, is at the same time that, which puts the body in motion. Therefore, a serve in tennis can only succeed when the player has the firm intention of getting the ball into that particular part of the court (and not when he analyses the movement with his tennis teacher).

Philosophical summary: Descartes says: “I think, therefore I am”. Bergson says: “I do, therefore I am.” Merleau-Ponty says: “I can, therefore I am”. He says that literally (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, p.160) , like when you talk to a child who is learning to cycle: “Come on, you can do it!”.

Before the concert, the organist practises for an hour to get used to the organ. Keyboards, registers and pedals differ from church to church. One hour is not sufficient to learn new reflexes and it does not help to draw a general map of the instrument in order to find the right handles. But by touching here and there, the organist measures the size of the instrument. He installs himself and his body in this organ “like when you get settled in your new house,” Merleau-Ponty says (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, p.170). He takes possession of it by means of initiation gestures.

In the end, this is what it is about, Merleau-Ponty says: at the moment he begins playing, the organist is absorbed by the music. The organ and the organist disappear in a certain sense and make place for the musical and emotional experience. “Between the musical essence of the piece as indicated in the part, and the music that really sounds through the organ, such a direct relation develops that the organist’s body and the instrument are nothing more than a meeting point for this relation. From that moment on the music exists by itself. All the other things only exist through the music” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, p.170).

Merleau-Ponty and dance

According to Merleau-Ponty, “The body is our overall means through which we have a world. Sometimes it limits itself to gestures that are necessary for the preservation of life and accordingly places a biological world around us. At other times, while it plays with these first gestures and passes from their original sense into a metaphorical sense, it shows a new meaning, e.g. in the case of motor habits like dancing” (my translation, Merleau-Ponty, 1945, p.171).

In Drumming, a choreography by De Keersmaeker with music by Steve Reich, the twelve dancers are less concerned about the accuracy of their movements than about the rhythmical game. They do not systematically follow the cadence imposed by the drummers and even run counter to it, like a jazz solo in a free improvisation against a fixed background. An irresistible vitality is created by the interchange between the drummers and the dancers, by the interaction between the rhythm and the movement. Sometimes they avoid each other, sometimes they find each other again. The pleasure of rhythm: that is what it is about. The music and the emotion exist themselves. The dancers and the drummers only perform the movements of initiation (and not in the first place the repetition of aesthetical dance structures).

In Desh, one of De Keersmaeker’s latest creations, the dance synchronisation between two and sometimes three dancers also flows into dance solos. A tight choreography alternates with improvisation, this time on the cadences of binding Indian music. The dance fulfils the consecration of the music, the emotion and the eastern world of experience. One could stay watching, listening and ‘meditating’ for hours. Through the bodies, the music and a (to us) strange world are formed, time after time. The dancing body is in this case the creator of a new meaning (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, p.172). A meaning that is not created by the mind but experienced in the body.

A question as conclusion

Bergson and Merleau-Ponty stand diametrically opposed to each other. According to Bergson the body functions in an intelligent way, it reacts analysing, ordering, controlling. But here the mind has unbridled, unlimited freedom. The mind even seems to live completely detached from any sense of reality. It is the body which pilots it into the real world. Only the body restrains the unbridled mind (and the unbridled memory). Matter and memory are connected to each other but belong to two completely different worlds. Bergson’s concept of ‘undeterminedness’ guarantees, in that sense, the freedom of man.

According to Merleau-Ponty, the body does not think in such an ordering way; it creates in the first place a sense, a meaning. It is a creatively thinking body, a creating body. Merleau-Ponty states that the body precisely surrenders itself to the world that surrounds it. Body and mind seem like a concentrate of the environment, a thickened, compacted mass that arises from reality itself and reflects that reality. Mind, body and environment are part of one single ‘matter’. The deep unity between them is the core of Merleau-Ponty’s theory; the rejection of dualism his philosophical goal.

Merleau-Ponty systematically and convincingly refuted Bergson’s statements. Does that mean Merleau-Ponty went further than Bergson? Could Bergson’s ideas be disposed of as an outmoded paradigm? I have my doubts. Bergson seems to grant much more imagination and freedom to the spiritual side of our existence and our inner world. Merleau-Ponty’s surrendering to the external world restrains our thinking by the space and time which is imposed on it, by the fundamental incapacity we experience to understand that overwhelming unity. In that sense, the price we have to pay for Merleau-Ponty’s re-enchantment of our existence is very high. Maybe this is exactly what choreographers and other artists refute.


1 A version of this section of the paper was presented at the Symposium van het Nederlands Genootschap voor Esthetica, Zwolle, 14th of October 2005.
2 All translations by the author.


Naschrift door Mia Vaerman (April 2019)

Mia Vaerman recenseert theater- en dans en af en toe filosofie. Ze is gastdocent  op kunsthogeschool RITCS in Brussel, zit in de jury voor het Vlaams theaterfestival en is net aangesteld bij de subsidiecommissie voor dans, performance en theater. Het doctoraat is er niet gekomen. Het onderzoek, los van een instelling als independent scholar werd haar te eenzaam. Ook vond haar promotor indertijd het onderwerp “te weinig filosofisch, te veel op dans en voorbeelden gefocust”. Daar zou ze inmiddels wel een antwoord op weten: het is juist via kunst – dans, theater, etc. – dat nog onontgonnen denkpistes kunnen opengebroken worden. De tekst herlezen geeft haar wel zin om weer verder te gaan met het onderzoek. Een doctoraat in de kunsten zou niet eens hoeven hier, maar is een idee (denkt ze nu enthousiast).


  • Bergson, H. (1999). Matière et mémoire, Essai sur la relation du corps et de l’esprit. Paris: PUF.
  • Dolto, F. (1984). L’image inconsciente du corps. Paris: Editions du Seuil.
  • Freud, S. (met Breuer). Studien ûber Hysterie. In Gesammelte Werke, 18 delen. Frankfurt a.M.:S.Fischer Verlag.
  • Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945). Phénoménologie de la perception. Paris: Gallimard.
  • Van Kerkhoven, M. Aantekeningen omtrent geheugen en lichaam, traditie en vernieuwing (remarks concerning memory and body, tradition and
  • innovation). In Etcetera, Brussels, March 2000.
> Share on Facebook > Share on Twitter > Share via E-mail