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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Nugent

Reflections on Lego

Updated: Mar 21, 2022

Last Christmas I found myself in the rather engrossing task of building a Lego technic race plane. The task was set for children 7+ years and my initial fantasy that this would be a straightforward assembly was quickly challenged. The aircraft was more technical than I had imagined it would be for this age group, which of course makes sense as following manuals is not quite the same skill set as unassisted engineering. I eventually got into the groove of translating the instructions and got there in the end. Albeit with some frustration around where the stickers were supposed to go.

The exercise got me thinking about what role Lego played in my childhood. Playing Lego is a longstanding family favourite activity. As children we had access to a large wooden box full of Lego pieces and instead of the task of following manuals, we would work at the task of creating. Occasionally one of us would be given a Lego set with a manual (a cousin’s Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon is still the source of deep envy) but this was a rare treat and should it occur the Lego build would eventually become merged into the sea of Lego parts in the wooden box.

What is interesting to me about Lego is that any one element, or any Lego set, is not an isolated or complete object, but comes with the potential, and the promise, that it is part of a much larger whole. The system of interconnecting studs and tubes, patented by the Lego Group in 1958, means that any Lego object can be connected with others and almost endlessly extended. This experience of seeking out patterns and connections feels very familiar to me and as an adult is a significant part of my process and curiosity in my work. (Gauntlet, 2015)

I wonder about Lego’s influence on me: has playing Lego and in this non-manually instructed way affected the way I think about the world, my attitudes to creativity, co-creation and how I categorise things? I don’t know for sure, but it at least seems possible. Maybe it’s got more to do with the possibility that our brains are predisposed to pattern recognition and as such Lego easily facilitates a natural process of learning for young minds.

Children use their bodies to perceive, sense, and move through life, while as adults we tend to to think or talk our way along. Lego is an intuitive play experience. Interestingly if we start with only using manuals in this play - whilst there can be huge pleasure in completion of something that might otherwise have felt impossible - there also can be anxiety about losing pieces, getting it right, breaking the end product and misinterpreting the manual. There can also be a potential lack of confidence in going it alone when faced with a box of Lego pieces. Likewise if we never have a manual, we might not understand their value and the importance of using the wise mind of another.

What I am describing here in play with Lego is what is often called embodied learning. Embodied learning is the idea that many features of thinking and understanding are shaped by aspects of the entire human body. We learn through being and doing, in a layered and multifaceted way. We cannot simply be told what to do and then learn - and if teaching does only happen this way we might invite in other layers of embodied learning about 'needing to be like the instructor to hold authority’, ‘needing someone to tell us what to do', 'the importance of making the instructor feel useful' and 'what it might mean to get it right or wrong'.

"Children learn more from what you ARE than what you TEACH." W. E. B. DuBois.

For me exploring my embodied learning (and sometimes then unlearning) has been at the heart of my personal development over the years - whether through the gym, psychological depth analysis, yoga, living on a small holding or motherhood. In many regards exploring my embodied learning stands as a counterbalance to the predominance of the cognitive and social constructivist theories of learning that dominated my clinical psychology training and have been hugely popular in psychology during the later half of the twentieth century.

Whilst cognitive science and social constructionists necessarily show how as humans we are inherently social, the theories of embodiment remind us that the mind is inextricably bound up in a body and it is only through embodied learning we grow and develop and come to know the world. The notion that “I move, therefore I think” might then be a more accurate depiction of the way in which the body utilizes all its internal and external systems and processes to “think” just as much as the mind does.

Or as Audre Lorde rather most beautifully stated in her speech “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”:

“The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.”

It’s easy to forget, or ignore, the body, when we are so immersed in a patriarchal culture heavily influenced by mind and body separateness. The belief that the mind and body can be separated is everywhere ('mind over matter') and some even believe the mind and body are capable of functioning entirely separately - as if the body is there only as a wardrobe accessory, to service the mood of the mind. So when the body draws our attention, rather than asking why the body might need to communicate in a particular way, the logic is something like - if you are unhappy with what your body is being, mostly likely it is because you body is bad/broken/mad and needs to be modified in some way, changing your body into something more 'normal' will most likely resolve the problem. If you are unable to fix your body you must be psychologically weak or lacking in some way.

The desire for mind and body separateness has been explored many times over in poetry and philosophy. My personal favourite is in William Butler Yeats' poem "Among School Children" when he famously asks "How can we know the dancer from the dance"?

An example of the ease of ignoring the connectedness of mind and body is evidenced in the common confusion often encountered in modern readers of the famous Greek myth about Teiresias and how he came to be such an influential seer in Greek mythology.

Teiresias was an ordinary Greek man, outlying walking through the mountain valleys when he saw two snakes copulating. Disgusted by the scene, he struck them and wounded at least one of them. The goddess Hera saw this and became angry and decided to turn Teiresias into a woman to encourage him to learn. Teirisias spent the next seven years of life living as a priestess of Hera. During this period Teirisias married a man and gave birth to children. At the end of the seventh year, Teirisias came across the same two snakes mating yet again. Having apparently learned the lesson, this time Teiresias made sure not to touch them and was transformed again, this time returning to his male body.

Years later, a bitter argument erupted between Zeus and Hera over the matter of sexual pleasure; the couple couldn’t agree over who – men or women – find more enjoyment in the act of sexual intercourse. Since Teiresias was in a unique position to arbitrate, they turned to him for the answer. “Of ten parts a man enjoys one only,” replied Teiresias, “but a woman enjoys the full ten parts in her heart.” Not at all pleased with the answer, Hera blinded Teiresias at the spot; happy with it, Zeus recompensed Teiresias by awarding him the gifts of prophecy and very long life.

In our current society it can feel confusing as to why Hera was so furious with Teiresias – surely, he was declaring women the winners in sexual pleasure. Why would she be angry? However, more clarity comes when we connect with the concept of embodied learning and play in sex.

Similar to the ancient Greeks we have a patriarchal society. Sexual health clinicians know a women's ability to enjoy sex is deeply impacted by her developmental embodied learning of play in sex: many women do not experience a playful freedom and pleasure in their own body, its sounds, smells and seasons, whereas men typically do. As a result it is unusual for a man to not ever have experienced an orgasm, whereas for women it is still relatively common to be anorgasmic. Women may well have the capacity for enormous sexual potential through the ebb and flow mechanics of their sex organs but simultaneously their embodied learning of what it is to be a sexual and straight woman in a patriarchal world (someone who is there is be useful to the other in sex - as such sex play is about assisting his good time, rather than playing to create something for herself), means that the same ebb and flow system can become a cause of frustration as many women struggle to sustain desire. People arrive at a sexual health clinic just wanting to be able to orgasm on cue without any curiosity what the body might be signposting our attention to when it refuses to comply.

Teiresias' seven year hiatus of living as a woman could not give him a collective understanding of what it was to have sex as a woman with a man. A certain part of the experience of being a woman was missed - the developmental embodied learning. This was not harmful to Teiresias, however it did mean he was unable to grasp the limitations of his sex change and as such he and others assumed he had more personal insight into something than in reality he did. A bit like if we only use manuals to build Lego kits - it can lead us to believe we have more insight into building than we actually do. I imagine few seven year olds, or adults for that matter, would be able to build a Lego technic race plane without the manual. The art of the engineer who writes the manual is that they use their embodied experience of learning to convey an 'as if' experience.

Importantly, Teiresias did become someone who held powerful wisdom and foresight. This came only after his physical blinding occurred when he was no longer capable of looking outwardly at the world and had to navigate instead the internal parts of himself. As Jung pointed out, the best way to understand the world and the darkness around us is to explore the darkness within ourselves.

Both Eastern and Western myths use blindness as a symbol of psychological avoidance of reality. As with Teiresias it is only in making our avoidances and limits conscious and acknowledging them are we able to develop insight. He became a deeply wise seer and spiritual guide. Insight however does not necessarily mean change (he never regains his sight), but rather that we can live more fully in our own reality - he lived a very long life.

This mind-body split appears to be everywhere in our culture. The collective motto of ‘mind over matter’ means our relationship with our bodies has become somewhat one sided. We see our bodies and want to either ‘correct them’ or ignore their existence at all. Like Tiresias and the snakes he felt his options were to hit or ignore, rather than wonder what was happening and why.

The serpent, or snake, is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols. The word is derived from Latin sers, a crawling animal or snake. Snakes have been associated with some of the oldest rituals known to mankind and represent dual expression of good and evil.

In some cultures, snakes were fertility symbols. For example, the Hopi people of North America performed an annual snake dance to celebrate the union of Snake Youth (a Sky spirit) and Snake Girl (an Underworld spirit) and to renew the fertility of Nature. During the dance, live snakes were handled, and at the end of the dance the snakes were released into the fields to guarantee good crops. "The snake dance is a prayer to the spirits of the clouds, the thunder and the lightning, that the rain may fall on the growing crops." To the Hopi, snakes symbolized the umbilical cord, joining all humans to Mother Earth. The Great Goddess often had snakes as her familiars—sometimes twining around her sacred staff, as in ancient Crete—and they were worshiped as guardians of her mysteries of birth and regeneration.

A bit like the snakes on the ground, we do not always see our bodies and all their life sustaining systems and sensation structures as capable of communicating anything of importance but rather they are commonly objects that are to be ignored or conquered. Thoughts with their loud emotionality are prized so highly that we might even subscribe to the notion that if a body expression is not packaged as a ‘thought’ then it is not occurring at all. Only the language of the mind - that of ‘thoughts and emotions’ count.

Rather than acknowledging bodies as faithful companions to our minds we can feel disappointed in our bodies that they do not do more for us, we see their protests and dysphoria as pathology. Fix the body and the mind will follow. We tell each other the pathway to inner peace is to subjugate the body, to reshape them and reprogramme their structures into whatever the mind or the world wants them to be. However silence is not synonymous with emotional well being or happiness. Psychological health and wellbeing actually come with bodies and minds that are able to work together, connect truthfully to the world and be responsive to life and all its awful and awesome realities. If we can’t value the communication of both mind and body, with their fundamental connectedness then we might well miss something vital.

And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, –all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, –who is good? not that men are ignorant, –what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.

W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

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