Milkbrain: Writing the Cognitive Body

by Fiona Giles

© all rights reserved

This essay has had a response from Beth Spencer

When a mother breastfeeds in those intense first months, she is sometimes referred to endearingly as a “Milkbrain”, with that slightly zoned-out affect, and a tendency to lose things on the bus. The biochemical cause is thought to be the hormone oxytocin, known as the cuddle hormone. The body produces oxytocin when we breastfeed, when we have sex and when we give birth. Men also produce more oxytocin following orgasm and on the birth of their children. It is an example of the way the brain is engaged in and affected by the body.

So it is that the body thinks, not just through the soma of brain and spinal cord, but also through the breasts, the gut, and every part of us. Our many nervous systems extend throughout.

Stomachs in particular, are big thinkers, adding logic to the idea that an activity involving breasts and food will also affect cognition. Research shows that every chemical neurotransmitter produced by the brain is replicated in the gut; and in the case of some chemicals, such as seratonin, more is produced in the gut compared to the central nervous system.1 Another hormone, cholekystokinin is a relaxant produced in the gut of both mother and child simultaneously during breastfeeding.2 Here two bodies talk directly to each other, seeming to bypass the brain.

As Sylvan Tompkins says of affect, it is contagious, so that an emotional response within one body can cause a similar emotional response in others, without the mediation of speech or touch. If we think of affect as emotion written on the body, perhaps we can also think of the body speaking directly to other bodies. In a similar vein, so to speak, when we talk about “gut thinking,” or know something in our “heart of hearts,” or are merely hoping to keep “abreast of things” these are not just turns-of-phrase but have a literal basis that we don’t always readily acknowledge. As Anna Gibbs points out in her essay ” Contagious Feelings”, affect is “part of a larger cognitive system.a series of distributed functions which include affect, sensory perception and memory.”3 Similarly, Antonio Damasio argues that the brain is “body-minded” and that perception is understood “in terms of modifications it causes in the body proper.”4

In her Ph.D thesis, The Body as Fiction/Fiction as a Way of Thinking, Beth Spencer shows how the new field of psychoneuroimunology “supports the notion that the cells and systems of our bodies, not just our brain, have the capacity for storing memory.”5 She enlarges on this poetically:

I feel it in my bones-In two minds-Something heart-felt-Can’t quite put my finger on it-Feeling out of touch-Shrinking form something (especially if it leaves you cold)-Or playing with an idea-Tossing it around – Getting a sense of it- Grasping it-Or opening yourself to it: embracing it.6

Ferenczi, the psychoanalyst and colleague of Freud’s who later broke from his ranks, was interested in the way in which the hysteric produced symptoms within the body, and hypothesised that these symptoms (leg pain, or stomach ache, for example) were an expression of the body’s own nervous disorder. Since there were no overt physiological causes such as disease or injury to explain the symptoms, Ferenczi speculated that the body was speaking of its distress, much in the same way as a person might cry, or express emotional pain through words, or other emotionally identified behaviours-or, it could be said, through the art of writing. The hysteric, of course, was allegedly always female, since the word hysteria derives from the Greek for womb; yet the work of Ferenczi reminds us more generally of the cognitive and affective body that we all inhabit and which shapes us, somatically registering emotional distress as well as physical discomforts. As psychiatric research advances, the body and its biochemistry is increasingly implicated in mental states.

Tears are another example of the body speaking its distress, colonising a utilitarian bodily fluid in the interests of our emotional lexicon. But the proximity of tears to the face and brain, and the accompanying verbal noises we make, perhaps conceal this to some extent – as D.H. Lawrence put it of a certain kind of love, crying is “in the head” and thereby imagined to be disembodied, if not cerebral. Though the heart may be breaking, there is no outward material evidence of this; instead the head sheds tears. In his book Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears, Tom Lutz states that “Hippocratic doctors thought that tears came directly from the brain,”7 Descartes later saw them as manifestations of the spirit, and Darwin as a function of facial muscles. Now we know them to be the result of a complex of interlinked emotional, psychological and physiological causes and effects throughout the body.

Other curious metaphors for the brain and mind suggest a tension between an enlightenment privileging of cerebral consciousness, and the pull of somatic sensibilities. Alison Bartlett points out that although the brain is often referred to as the “seat of thought,” the Penguin Macquarie Dictionary instead refers to the breast as the “seat of thoughts and feelings”.8 Similarly, lactation when assisted by hand or pump, is referred to as expression, as though the body is speaking of the food it produces, and whatever it represents. Milk is also related to tears. Midwives say that when the postnatal blues come on day three, that’s also when the milk comes in. The sudden drop in estrogen causes melancholy at the same time that it allows for the production of milk. And prolactin, the hormone that produces milk, is also the hormone that produces tears.9

The intelligence and expressiveness of the body in these instances needs to be fully acknowledged, and as Elspeth Probyn has argued in her book Carnal Appetites, we can learn from our bodies, and what they know, if we listen to them carefully. She writes, “while we still do not know the full capacities of bodies, in different contexts they give off clues about their knowledges.”10

The other way in which the body is often referred to in writing, in relation to women in particular, though not exclusively, has been through the theory of the French feminists, most famously Irigaray, Kristeva and Cixous. Each of these women, in distinctive ways, argued for the particularities of the female body to be considered when speaking of establishing a discursive space for women. The maternity and sexuality of women’s bodies were taken as metaphors for a distinctively female mode of writing and thinking. They did not argue that men didn’t have access to these ways of thinking and writing also, and allowed for a gender neutral concept of the feminine; but they were also focused on privileging the sexual, female body as a site of creativity – that is, not only maternal creativity, but intellectual and artistic creativity as well. As Cixous writes in her famous essay, “The Laugh of Medusa”:

She gives birth. With the force of a lioness. Of a plant. Of a cosmogony. Of a woman.And in the wake of the child, a squall of Breath! A longing for text! Confusion! What’s come over her? A child! Paper! Intoxications! I’m brimming over! My breasts are too overflowing! Milk. Ink. Nursing time. And me? I’m hungry, too. The milky taste of ink!11

The writing of the French Feminists was also intended as a critique of the normative male body (the phallogocentric body), against which women’s performance was measured. Irigaray’s This Sex Which is Not One saw the female genitals as a metaphor for the multiple and shifting levels of self and thought that a woman could express. More recent work on maternity and the female subject asserts that the pregnant body also testifies to the multiplicity and fluidity of the female subject, and to her lack of clear boundaries, her relationality and her changeability.12 The closer we look at our physiology, the more permeable our boundaries seem to become.

These approaches see the body as integral to subjectivity: the brain is not describing the body and identity, so much as the body describing the brain, and the function of thought that extends beyond it, and speaks back to it. According to Elizabeth Wilson, where feminist theory has interested itself in biology, it is possible to see how the brain is no longer just the controlling function; rather, thought arises out of a complex relationship of parts and processes throughout the body, including the (embodied) brain.13Together with the work of Vicki Kirby and Elizabeth Grosz, Wilson argues for the need to turn attention back to nature – to physiology – so as to balance the interest in cultural constructivism in feminist theory of the past decades. ” Most troublingly, she writes, “it seems that the very sophistication of feminist accounts of embodiment has been brokered through a repudiation of biological data.”14

So how does this relate to thinking about writing and the body? Firstly, we live in our bodies, we read and write in our bodies and in many ways our bodies write us. Anyone who has kept a diary, or written an essay, poem or story, will know that writing is a cognitive process. The movement of hand across page, the play of fingers on keyboard, is firmly linked to a switch that turns on thought; and perhaps the activity itself is a kind of thought. Use both hands, they say of playing the piano, and you stimulate the connections between the two cerebral hemispheres. Perhaps writing on a keyboard has the same effect. Regardless of page or screen, the marks we make are evidence of thought in action, not just a report on cognition that has passed. As Tom Griffiths put it, “You are not just ‘writing up’. You come to the page prepared to explore, to imagine, to journey.”15 And none of this is possible without the involvement of the body. Perhaps the most breathtaking example of this is the case of Jean-Dominique Bauby who, after experiencing a stroke, wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death purely through blinking his left eye to spell out his text, letter by letter.16 Although a testament to the mind working virtually unaided, his body remains indelibly present; it aches, he says, while its memories bubble to the surface.

Even the simple act of moving one’s head, of looking in a different direction, can activate a different part of the brain and cause us to think and write differently. Writing books are full of advice about keeping on moving, shifting chairs or rooms, or going for a walk. Moving the body allows thoughts to flow. Similarly, the best meditation posture requires a slightly downward gaze, since a head held high is thought to stimulate “mental wandering and agitation”.17 Personally, I’ve found the best way to solve problems and generate ideas for my own writing is to walk or swim, preferably for long distances. In engaging with narrative, the flows of sex may unleash a flow of words, and our spoken or written post-coital confessions are based on the trust of bodies awash in oxytocin and pleasure. The metaphor of thought flowing borrows from bodily flows (infants are 70 per cent water), as well as the cadences of muscular exertion.

The second way in which the embodiment of thought relates to literature is through the concept of intimacy, which is often used to describe a close sexual relationship. Yet to intimate is to know, which in our culture refers more commonly to the capacity of the mind than the body. The quip that “the brain is the most important love muscle” certainly backs up the idea that sex in the head is not such a bad place to find to find it. Perhaps dismissed as a cause of repression and dysfunction, it can also be taken to mean that the brain is part of the responding, sexual body. The libido is constantly shadowed by imagination, projection and narrative.

Yet a kind of cerebral knowing can refer to other levels of intimacy, between the reader and his or her book, for example, and between the writer and his or her reader; and certainly between the writer and his or her writing during those moments when thoughts, words and ideas pour forth without resistance (or equally when we drag each word out painfully like splinters from a toe). Here too, we need to draw on the rest of the body, to reach the heart of the pleasure of reading. In her essay on “The Erotics of Reading” Anne-Marie Priest reveals how Henry James once wrote to Rudyard Kipling, that reading him was like immersing himself in a warm bath. James wrote, “I overflow, I beg you to believe, with Kim, and I rejoice in such a saturation, such a splendid dose of you. That has been the great thing I find; that one could sink deep and deep, could sit in you up to one’s neck.”18 Later in her essay Priest quotes Cixous on reading Virginia Woolf as a moment of bodily inhabitation. “I become, I inhabit, I enter,” she writes.19

This kind of intimate knowing can thus be both intellectual transport and embodied pleasure. Imagining we sink into a warm bath, we allow our bodies to respond in a similar way, to relax, to experience a feeling of warmth and safety. Even if we’re squashed on a crowded train, such quiet pleasure is still attainable. Perhaps this is merely a disembodied distraction or meditative cloak, you might say. But perhaps it is also a deep equilibrium based on biochemical and somatic calm. As Beth Spencer writes, “The body may at times seem absent, but it never is, constantly feeding information into the mix.”20 Writing might seem from the outside like a relatively passive activity, but the interior sensations some writers report, belies this. As Joanna Field reveals of her writing epiphany, “I sat motionless, draining sensation to its depths, wave after wave of delight flowing through every cell in my body.”21

The link between sexual intimacy and knowing comes about through the idea of secrets revealed through bodily knowledge shared with a lover. Sex with ourselves while alone is also a form of intimacy with literary connections. And the secrets we reveal to ourselves when masturbating can be even more revealing, or confronting, than those we learn from our partner. There’s nothing like sexual desire for oneself to fuel narratives of the wildest kind. This is when the secrets of our bodies perhaps speak most eloquently and without censure.

The link between eros, masturbating and reading is not new. In Solitary Sex: A History of Masturbation, Thomas W. Lacquer points out that the peak historical moment for the social and medical regulation of masturbation coincided with the peak historical moment for young ladies reclining with novels for entire afternoons on their window-seats and sofas. The risk of “brain fever” was the official reason for public alarm, but Lacquer wonders if the risk of masturbation wasn’t really the issue. He writes, “The moral pathophysiology of novel reading and masturbation was also similar, an example of the general and large category of diseases caused by the inappropriate exercise of a faculty, the imagination, whose vividness, immediacy, and unalloyed attraction could wreak havoc on the nerves and all that they touched.”22 Interestingly, Lacquer comments on the work of Kant, who believed that imagination was not “opposed to reason but reason in its sensuous form.”23 Soul vs. psyche, body vs. brain and head vs. heart might remain useful analytical categories in certain contexts. But in practice they have long been regarded as continuous, both within Eastern traditions, and – it would appear – in the West.

To return to the hysterics and the secrets they were keeping, it could be supposed that their physical symptoms represented the secrets which their bodies refused to keep. In the famous case of Freud’s Dora, the knowledge of her father’s affair, and of Freud’s own complicity in the family secret, was being spoken through her body. Likewise in card-playing or other forms of dissembling, our ‘tells’ or unconscious physical gestures can give us away. The body resists silence and duplicity, as though here lies our conscience. Tingling skin, twitching mouth, a hand that leaps to the face – all dramatise our moral landscape.

Equally, there is nothing more honest, and more difficult to dissemble, than affect. Blushing, sweating, a sudden loss of eye-contact – all rampage through us before our brain has even registered the threat, and embarked on its spin. Being free to share secrets, which writing so readily allows, and being free to express our forbidden or illicit longings -whether with characters in a novel, with an author, or with a reader (even if that reader is just us)-is clearly important to the equilibrium of our physical state.

If part of a writer’s role is to unveil secrets, then writing is an intimate act. And if these intimations are not only to be ever more finely wrought versions of existing ideas, or even new ones, but thoughts from a cellular domain awaiting their lexicon, then we need to listen to what our bodies have to say. Attending to what Kant might have called our “sensual reason”, we can unearth the clues to embodied knowledge as we write.

As Kate Llewellyn points out in her poem on breasts, “in the morning my breast is refreshed/and wants to know something new.” 24


This essay is adapted from a conference paper presented to Love and Desire: Literature and the Intimate, National Library of Australia, September 2006.

Fiona Giles is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at Sydney University, and Postgraduate Coordinator of the Media Practice and Publishing Programs. Her most recent book is Fresh Milk:The Secret Life of Breasts (Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 2003)


1 Elizabeth Wilson, Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body, (Duke University Press, Durham, 2004), p. 36

2 Karleen Gribble, “Breastfeeding of a Medically Fragile Foster Child” Journal of Human Lactation, Vol. 21, No. 1, (2005), pp. 42-46, p. 44

3 Anna Gibbs, ” Contagious Feelings: Pauline Hanson and the Epidemiology of Affect”, Australian Humanities Review, December, 2001 [Accessed December 8, 2007]

4 Quoted in Sue Woolfe, The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: A Writer Looks at Creativity and Neuroscience, ( University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands), p. 43

5 Beth Spencer, The Body as Fiction/Fiction as A Way of Thinking, Unpublished Ph.D Thesis ( Ballarat University, 2006), p. 60

6 Spencer, p. 61

7 Tom Lutz, Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears, (Norton, New York, 1999), p. 72

8 Alison Bartlett, “Thinking About Breasts’ in Fiona Giles (ed), Fresh Milk: The Secret Life of Breasts, (Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2003), p. 159

9 Lutz, p.92

10 Elspeth Probyn, Carnal Appetites, ( Routledge, New York, 2000), pp. 146-7

11 Helene Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, Signs I, (1976), pp. 874-93, p.879

12 See for example, Myra. J. Hird, “The Corporeal Generosity of Maternity”, Body and Society, Vol. 13, No. 1, (2007), pp. 1-20

13 Elizabeth Wilson, “Gut Feminism”, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Vol. 15, no. 3 (2004), pp. 66-94

14 Wilson, p. 70

15 Tom Griffiths, “Essaying the Truth”, Meanjin, vol. 59, no. 1 (2000), p. 144

16 Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death (Vintage, New York, 1998)

17 Kathleen McDonald, How to Meditate: A Practical Guide (Wisdom Publications, Massachusetts, 1984), p. 36

18 Anne-Marie Priest, “Towards an Erotics of Reading” in Robert Dessaix (ed), Best Australian Essays 2004, (Black Inc, Melbourne, 2004), pp. 162-166, p. 162

19 Priest, p. 165

20 Spencer, p. 62

21 Quoted in Woolfe, p. 29

22 Thomas W. Lacquer, Solitary Sex: A History of Masturbation (Zone Books, Massachusetts, 2003), p. 322

23 Lacquer, p. 319

24 Kate Llewellyn, “Breasts” in Susan Hampton and K. Llewellyn (eds), The Penguin Book of Australian Women’s Poetry (Penguin, Ringwood, 1986), p. 158

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