Introductory Notes by Michael Soth: ‘Embodied Intersubjectivity in the Clinic’ with Shaun Gallagher

Introductory Notes by Michael Soth: ‘Embodied Intersubjectivity in the Clinic’ with Shaun Gallagher


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1-day Conference in London - 26 April '15

This page is for preparatory materials to read before the event. See the conference invitation for all details about the conference, including our distinguished panelists, as well as practicalities and booking.
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Questions inherent in our theme ‘Embodied Intersubjectivity’

What are our ideas/concepts of ‘mind’ and how two ‘minds’ understand each other and relate? What notion of ‘mind’ is implicit in our practice and in our way of being and thinking?

What role does our bodily experience play in our ‘mind’ process? What are our implicit assumptions about the body-mind relationship?

Burying Cartesian dualism?

One way of phrasing the significance of our theme today is to think of Shaun’s ideas on embodiment and intersubjectivity as helping us put the final nail into the coffin of Cartesian dualism and bury it.

But why should we be bothered by ideas that were formulated 400 years ago, by Descartes who lived 1596 – 1650? Or, to put it the other way around: how come his ideas are still sufficiently influential in how we think and practice psychotherapy today, that we need to bother critiquing them?

How does Descartes live on in our therapy practice today?

The more we think of the mind as embodied and embedded, the more sense it makes that

  • a) our 'individual mind' is embedded in cultural contexts,
  • b) these cultural contexts go through an epigenetic evolution throughout history,
  • c) with historically evolved aspects of 'mind' being carried from generation to generation (like transgenerational trauma),

There is a straight historical line of conflict (between 'rational' and 'irrational', between 'mind' and 'body') from Descartes and the enlightenment, through the romantics to psychoanalysis (Freud being equally committed, or let's say: torn apart between, science and soul - he won prizes for literature, not medicine!). That conflict continues, and it is not too far-fetched to say that we are also still embodying and embedding Descartes, as one of the pillars of one polarity in that conflict, in how we work and how we think about our work. So here is a psychotherapeutic transgenerational accusation of how Descartes interferes in our practice today:

The transgenerational embodied and embedded mind

As psychotherapists we understand more profoundly than much of the rest of the culture how our experience of mind is socially constructed and shaped by our early formative experience – my mind is shaped by the company of other minds and by the social context in which it first emerges – that’s the upshot of modern infant research as neuropsychoanalysis – (Allan Schore) and short of neuroplasticity, that’s the mind I’m lumbered with for the rest of my life.

And Susie has been influential in spreading the recognition that the same applies to our experience of ‘body’ – our bodies are socially constructed, manifesting currently in a painful epidemic: the obsession towards perfecting a virtual body co-exists with a loathing of the actual body; the body as a fashion accessory, an objectified advertisement of Self rather than an incarnation of self or a subjectifying psychosomatic process.

In Western culture, secure embodiment, rather than being implicit, must often be earned. To feel alive and connected to one's own body is an achievement that goes against the cultural grain. (Susie Orbach: Acquisition of a Body)

We can take a step further and rather than thinking of mind and body separately as socially constructed, we combine the two and think about how the relationship between mind and body is shaped and moulded and conditioned by the social context in which it emerges and develops.

The transgenerational replication of dis/embodiment

What Winnicott called our experience of “psyche indwelling in the soma” is something we cannot take for granted in the modern world. So if we call what Winnicott is talking about our subjective experience of ‘embodiment’ (which is our lived experience and awareness of inhabiting our bodies, not just the mere fact that we ‘have’ a body and ‘are’ a body), then we can say that the degree of ‘embodiment’ or ‘disembodiment’ we experience – the relational matrix of our bodymind system - is something that gets transgenerationally handed down to us and that we “find ourselves thrown into”.

The way my reflective mind handles and holds my spontaneous experience tends to parallel the way I was handled and held as a child.

The way my reflective mind handles and holds my spontaneous experience tends to parallel the way I was handled and held as a child. The way I was related to as an emerging bodymind subjectivity in early development is the way I relate to spontaneous and emergent processes now.

Perceiving, feeling, breathing, thinking, relating via ‘character’

That means that the way we are able to consciously talk about (to perceive, to think and reflect and use language to describe) our experience of our mind or bodymind or embodiment is always already pre-structured by our developmental experience which is a prior ‘given’. As psychotherapists we understand that our thinking is circumscribed and limited by what Christopher Bollas calls the ‘unthought known’, or Body Psychotherapists might say that we perceive, feel, breathe, think and do everything else (speak, vote, have sex, eat, etc) from within ‘character’ – our life history and biography organising (or traumatically frozen into) our bodymind.

The same thing is true for the way we live the self-other relationship: we relate to others from within ‘character’ – from within the established blueprints, survival mechanisms, scripts, schemas, RIG’s (Daniel Stern: representations which have been generalised), internal object relations, affect motor schemas, etc. or as Nick calls them: engrams.

Nature via nurture (after a book with that title by Matt Ridley)

So as an extension of Shaun’s book title, we could say: our (past) bodymind character shapes our (present) mind – the somatised (bio-neuro-psycho-socio) history of our emergent bodymind shapes our emergent bodymind now

[I mean: right now].

For practical therapeutic purposes, we phrase the same thing more psychologically and say, in object relations terms: we have internalised our family’s bodymind narrative, and are carrying them as flesh-and-blood embodied internal objects into our being and relating and mental processes now. Or better: these family relationships structure our sense of self and our bodymind experience of being, thinking, reflecting and relating now.

culture –> family –> bodymind formative years –> bodymind now = culture shapes the bodymind -> body shapes the mind

Descartes in your consulting room

One way of phrasing the point of the conference: down that transgenerational chain of influences like endless dominoes, Descartes still structures our self-experience and bodymind process and self-reflection as therapists.

The oversimplified narrative, vilifying Descartes as the originator/exacerbator of existential split and disembodiment goes something like this: since the ‘Enlightenment’ we Westerners get conditioned/socialised into a dualistic/Cartesian universe which we therefore find ourselves thrown into as very real in our first-hand phenomenological experience. That experience is then accurately reflected in dualistic thought processes, dualistic philosophies and beliefs. And then we try to deal with the painful fall-out from the isolation and alienation we experience within that dualistic presumption using counterproductive dualistic tools.

To phrase it in the Cartesian language of CBT (who quite happily use his paradigm and don't have nearly half as much trouble with Descartes as we have): Cartesianism has become a culturally dominant faulty thought that functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating transgenerational traumatic disembodiment.

This is relevant for psychoanalysis and psychotherapy because – as I have suggested - psychotherapy has a dualistic 'birth trauma': having been born into the zeitgeist of the late 19th century, psychotherapy still carries the legacy of the kind of Cartesian assumptions which Freud’s time took for granted down the generations into our current therapeutic theories, approaches and practice – reflected in the idea of the ‘talking therapies’ and the ‘talking cure’.

The struggle to overcome Cartesian dualism

So we have good reason to question and try and get beyond Cartesian dualism. As Shaun points out, most of cognitive science these days agrees in principle that Cartesian dualism is now dead, after ruling the roost for most of the 19th and 20th century. Atwood and Stolorow, the originators of the intersubjectivist psychoanalysis have been explicitly attacking the Cartesian ‘myth of the isolated mind’.

Cartesianism is not that easy to escape

However, as those of us who have been battling with and against the body-mind split and disembodiment, or with and against the ‘myth of the isolated mind’, have found over the years - in Shaun’s words: “Cartesianism is not that easy to escape.”

What is ‘dualism’? What’s the alternative?

Dualism is when we absolutize and reify phases in a differentiating self-organising process into abstract, static, linear antagonistic categorical opposites. The opposite of dualism is Yin-Yang: antagonistic AND complementary – a systemic field and process understanding (in psychology, the closest notion would be Jung's enantiodromia - having gone towards the extreme at one end of a polarity, it turns into its opposite).

The fallacies of anti-dualism

Many who oppose and critique dualism fall into the opposite trap, what I call 'anti-split holism'. But countering dualism with more dualism is like putting out a fire by adding more fuel. We are not going to get beyond dualism by categorically opposing it, e.g. ...

  • countering the body-mind split with anti-split holism (idealisation of the body, reversal body-over-mind – "lose your head, come to your senses", bodymind unity)
  • countering classical one-person-psychology with dogmatic two-person psychology (or exclusive 'medical model' stance with categorical 'anti-medical model')


Dualisms affecting psychotherapy

The two main relationships that suffer from acquiring a static, linear, dualistic rather than a systemic, holistic process conception are:

a) mind-body relationship – body-mind split versus bodymind unity

b) doctor-patient relationship – therapy as treatment versus therapy as relationship

[Some of you may know that my own ‘resolution’ to these traditional polarisations is to think of them as paradoxical, never static, never finally resolved, but in constant, self-organising dynamic process (which I tried to summarise in a condensed hand-out

“The ‘Birth Trauma’ of Psychotherapy and the Deconstruction and Transcendence of 19th-century Dualisms (2004)”


The Cartesian mind: the brain-in-a-vat

For the sake of simplicity, let me summarise the Cartesian mind in an image (which Shaun discusses frequently when summarising the various branches and approaches of cognitive science): the brain-in-a-vat:




When we operate from that image and presumption, a tricky existential question arises:

How does one isolated brain-in-a-vat ever connect with and understand another brain-in-a-vat?

‘Mentalising’ as the key to ‘mutual recognition’?

The answer is ‘mentalising’ – my mind forming a theory of the other mind. And some of Shaun’s writing explicitly contradicts and critiques the main approaches in the cognitive sciences that form the basis of ‘mentalising’ (‘theory theory’ and ‘simulation theory’). Psychoanalysis has, of course, its own influential version of ‘mentalising’ (Fonagy & Target), which many of us who are thinking about intersubjectivity and relational perspectives, have been strongly relying on over the last 15 years, in order to understand the developmental achievement of ‘mutual recognition’ - a key notion in relational psychoanalysis).

So, for us, one important question is: to what extent does Shaun's critique apply to the psychoanalytic version of ‘mentalising’, too?

The mind equals the brain?

The other tricky implication of the brain-in-a-vat is that thought is then, of course, completely independent from body and material reality (which is precisely Descartes’ starting point and what Shaun’s book “How the Body Shapes the Mind” is formulated to challenge). Much of modern neuroscience has this emphasis on the brain, and it is one of the frontiers of consciousness studies to distinguish between brain, mind and consciousness.

The body-oriented traditions are organised, of course, around the intuition that mind emerges via the body, a principle that we work with experientially (as well as assume as a philosophical foundation).

Post-Cartesian versions of the mind

There are a variety of diverse and overlapping approaches and attempts to reconceptualise the mind as enactive and extended and embodied and embedded.

embodied mind: in philosophy one of the main most comprehensive formulations is by Merleau-Ponty (which Shaun refers to extensively)

embedded mind: various versions which see the mind as embedded in social contexts and socially constructed

extended mind: various versions of this throughout Shaun’s writings (see also

enactive mind: see “Enactive intersubjectivity: Participatory sense-making and mutual incorporation” by Thomas Fuchs & Hanne De Jaegher

systemic intersubjectivist psychoanalysis: Atwood and Stolorow

Dan Siegel: “the mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” the mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.

Principles of post-Cartesian meta-psychology:

1. body and mind are not separate (the body shapes the mind - extended and enactive mind - interactive rather than exclusive observer stance)

2. the two minds are not separate (two coupled bodyminds in cycles of co-regulation and disrupted co-regulation)

3. perception and behaviour are not separate (body schema: innate intermodal connection between visual and motor behaviour)

Questions, questions …

Even if as practitioners we 'believe' in these principles, we are then landed with several difficulties:

1. if 'mind' is extended and enactive (i.e. not clearly separate in each individual, but extending across body-brain-environment), how do we explain agency and intentionality? Jean will address that conundrum of 'agency'.

2. because we find ourselves thrown into dualism and Cartesianism (culturally, socialised into language and narrative communities), we appear to be operating within dualism (as if it's fundamentally ‘real’) and certainly many clients operate within dualisms (as if they were fundamentally ‘real’); even if we don't 'believe' that in essence human beings have to function like that, in practice we find that they do.

3. so a more embracing and realistic perspective to take might be to ask: how does the conflict between the Cartesian and post-Cartesian aspects of our being relate to each other in our experience, both in the client and in ourselves and the relationship?

4. if there is no separate, individual 'mind' (in the head, bounded by my skin), and everything happens within the ‘intersubjective manifold’ (Gallese) in self-organising cycles of enactive and extended 'mind' spontaneously, before reflective reasoning has a chance to kick in, on what basis do we reason and reflect and have agency as therapists?

By | 2017-03-07T19:54:20+00:00 April 1st, 2015|Michael's Psychotherapy CPD Blog|0 Comments

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