Presence is not just a warm body

On The Hive podcast, Natalie Nahai spoke with Dr Gillian Isaacs Russell, psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, and the author of Screen Relations: The Limits of Computer-Mediated Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, which examines how relationships, including that of analyst and patient, are affected by technologically-mediated communication.

“We’re wired to relate in an embodied way,” she said. “65% of communication is non-verbal.”

(Side note: Natalie Nahai’s annual solstice chat with fellow podcasters Della Duncan and Manda Scott is one of my favourites and always inspires my new year reading list: https://www.nathalienahai.com/77-a-special-solstice-conversation-della-duncan-manda-scott/)

In their conversation, Dr Russell spoke about “presence”, and what it actually means.

Here I was thinking it was really about paying attention, without allowing yourself to get distracted or be half-listening and multi-tasking. It kind of is, but it’s more than that. It’s deeply related to your own sense of agency, your ability to turn your thoughts or intentions into actions, and it’s related to your ability to be able to do something for or with or two another being, which might be why it feels so enriching when someone gifts you their presence:

“Being present stems from an organism’s capacity to locate itself in the external world, according to the action that you can do in it to impact it.

People experience presence if they’re able to act out in an external world and successfully transform their intentions into actions.

So it’s not the same thing as emotional engagement. Presence isn’t the same thing as absorption or the degree of technological immersion. For humans, these actions specifically include a person’s potential capacity to interact with a person in an external environment – so there’s the potential to touch, hug, kick, kiss.

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