Preparing for ‘Embodied Intersubjectivity in the Clinic’ with Shaun Gallagher

Preparing for ‘Embodied Intersubjectivity in the Clinic’ with Shaun Gallagher


Conference Invitation >>

1-day Conference in London - 26 April '15

See the Invitation for conference background and leaflet, as well as biographies and comments from the panelists.
Conference Invitation >>
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Presentations & PowerPoints

This page below contains all the preparatory materials made available before the event. Follow the green button for all the conference presentations (as text or PowerPoint), including introductory notes by Michael.
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Preparations for the Conference

In a conference dedicated to conceptual clarification with the help of a philosopher, I thought we better make sure that we’ve got our terms straight, and that we all know what we’re talking about. Therefore, in the build-up to the conference, I wanted to prepare the ground for our conversations on the day, by posting various summaries of key writings and key-points by Shaun, plus a glossary of important terms, so that on the day we could be clear about their definition and distinctions, hoping that this would avert misunderstandings at the gross end of the spectrum, knowing full well that this is a conceptual minefield of subtlety and complexity. Taking care of some obvious semantic misunderstandings upfront may help us to bring out more sharply and more productively philosophical and conceptual convergences and differences on the day.

I was also wondering how together we might provide some clinical context that links Shaun’s abstract philosophical considerations with everyday embodied and relational practice.

Why is this event important now?

An unmissable conference for all relational and body-oriented psychotherapists

This event is of interest to all therapists, particularly those who define themselves as relational (Footnote 1) and those who see themselves as body-oriented in some shape or form. It is especially relevant (i.e. unmissable) to those who are trying to combine the two.

Over the last decades, both ‘embodiment’ and ‘intersubjectivity’ are increasingly understood as crucial ingredients in the therapeutic endeavour. However, as successful as they have been in their counter-cultural challenges to traditional orthodoxy, it is unlikely that they will fulfil their paradigm-shifting potential, unless we now take stock and sharpen our understanding of these ideas. As they are gaining credibility and status in the field, they are also in danger of becoming mere sound-bites, with their meaning diluted and their deeper potential lost. The more they gain currency and the more people are attracted to and identify with these principles, the more they will also be misunderstood and misrepresented.

As ‘embodiment’ and ‘intersubjectivity’ are gaining credibility and status in the field, they’re also in danger of becoming mere sound-bites.

So the first reason might be phrased - with just the right amount of marketing hyperbole: if we do not want ‘embodiment’ and ‘intersubjectivity’ to be another passing fashion, like so many other therapeutic fads that come and go, we want to pre-empt and avert conceptual McDonaldisation now by sharpening our formulation of these notions across the field.

The notions of 'embodiment' and 'intersubjectivity' are surrounded by confusion and polarised assumptions: 'embodiment' acquires its polarised meaning in contrast to ‘thinking’ and the 'talking therapies'; 'intersubjectivity' is conceived of in opposition to 'one-person psychology' and the Cartesian 'myth of the isolated mind'.

But the second and main reason is that for the sake of our own clarity in practice it is important to investigate these ideas which have carried many of us far into the depth of therapeutic process, for some of us over decades. However, as we stated on the leaflet for the conference: “The notions of 'embodiment' and 'intersubjectivity' are surrounded by confusion and polarised assumptions: 'embodiment' acquires its polarised meaning in contrast to ‘thinking’ and the 'talking therapies'; 'intersubjectivity' is conceived of in opposition to 'one-person psychology' and the Cartesian 'myth of the isolated mind'. However, in their polarised meanings, these supposedly helpful and paradigm-shifting notions become too one-dimensional, rigid and unhelpful, creating as many conceptual traps and problems as they are meant to solve.”

‘Embodiment’ and ‘intersubjectivity’ - contain inherent paradoxes which most of us have limited capacity to sustain and endure.

Beyond the problem of their acquired polarised meanings, as I have suggested previously, both notions - ‘embodiment’ and ‘intersubjectivity’ - contain inherent paradoxes which most of us have limited capacity to sustain and endure. When our own wounds get activated and constellated, as they inevitably do, our limited capacity to stomach pain, uncertainty and confusion also triggers our habitual positions as therapists. That then manifests in a tendency to resort to our fundamental ‘credo’ – our basic beliefs and assumptions about therapy which can then acquire a defensive function, abstracting us from the here-and-now encounter and its subtleties.

If you happen to be signed-up member to the Embodied or Relational sect of therapy (or worse: both), you are liable to take refuge in your Embodied or Relational credo in quasi-religious fashion just at the wrong/right moment, usually precipitating a deepening of whatever enactment you were trying to escape. But now it’s even more difficult to catch up with, because our own precious beliefs are at stake, which most of the time we take for granted and do not consider an issue because they are obviously true. An embodied-relational perspective is not immune against fuelling destructive enactments, even whilst philosophising about them.

An embodied-relational perspective is not immune against fuelling destructive enactments, even whilst philosophising about them.

Conceptual clarification is going to do little to those essential therapeutic dynamics occurring as they need to, but it might just become helpful in crucial moments.

To have a theoretical foundation which appreciates the presence of paradox frequently emerges as a useful reminder when I find myself in the midst of some mind-bending impossibility – it seems to open out more creative attention in moments when binary options seem to dominate the therapeutic atmosphere. It also helps some internal decision-making process whether to keep an enactment I feel entangled in implicit and unspoken, or whether to attempt to make it more explicit and bring awareness to it.

I am imagining that the conversations on the conference will support me in that kind of understanding and reflection.


1. One of the questions we will probably need to address in terms of terminology are the distinctions between ‘intersubjectivity’ and ‘relationality’ – because Shaun works in an academic field where the term ‘intersubjectivity’ is the established language, it makes sense to use it as the title. These definitions probably do not transfer accurately across into the therapeutic field where ‘intersubjective’ and ‘relational’ have been claimed as defining terms by distinct communities of practitioners - I will write a brief blog post on this topic, based on a paper by Philip Ringstrom “Meeting Mitchell’s Challenge: A Comparison of Relational Psychoanalysis and Intersubjective Systems Theory”

Shaun Gallagher's publications / online material

Shaun's complete profile, including links to all his papers - many of them available online - can be found here: and also on his own website

You may also want to watch a 50-minute video of a 2011 presentation by Shaun: "Enactively extended intentionality":

How the Body Shapes the Mind – Shaun Gallager 2005

Chapter 9: The Interactive Practice of Mind – Extracts summarised by Michael Soth

how one person understands and interrelates with another: theories of mind

In psychology, philosophy of mind, and recently in the neurosciences, studies of how one person understands and interrelates with another person have been conducted under the heading theory of mind.

two main approaches: theory theory and simulation theory

Discussions of theory of mind are dominated by two main approaches: theory theory and simulation theory. The major tenets of theory theory are based on well-designed scientific experiments that show that children develop an understanding of other minds around the age of 4.

two versions of theory theory (innate versus acquired): postulating mental states in others

One version of theory theory claims that this understanding is based on an innately specified, domain-specific mechanism designed for ‘reading’ other minds (Baron- Cohen 1995; Leslie 1991). An alternative version claims that the child attains this ability through a course of development in which the child tests its social environ- ment and gradually learns about people (Gopnik and Meltzoff 1997). Common to both versions of theory theory is the idea that children attain their understanding of other minds by implicitly employing a theoretical stance. This stance involves postulating the existence of mental states in others and using such postulations to explain and predict another person’s behavior.

simulation theory: using one’s own mental experience as an internal model for the other mind

The second approach, simulation theory, argues that one does not theorize about the other person but uses one’s own mental experience as an internal model for the other mind (e.g. Goldman 1989; Gordon 1986, 1995a; and Heal 1986, 1998a, b). To understand the other person, I simulate the thoughts or feelings that I would experience if I were in the situation of the other. I emulate what must be going through the other person’s mind; or I create in my own mind pretend beliefs, desires, or strategies that I use to understand the other’s behavior. My source for these simulations is not a theory that I have. Rather, I have a real model of the mind at my immediate disposal, that is, I have my own mind, and I can use it to generate and run simulations.
Tooby and Cosmides (1995: p. xvii), suggest that ‘humans everywhere interpret the behavior of others in...mentalistic terms because we all come equipped with a ‘‘theory of mind’’ module (ToMM) that is compelled to interpret others this way, with mentalistic terms as its natural language’.

‘interaction theory’

my intention is not simply to criticize the approaches of theory theory and simulation theory. I will offer an alternative proposal—I’ll refer to it as ‘interaction theory’: … The understanding of the other person is primarily neither theoretical nor based on an internal simulation. It is a form of embodied practice. In explicating this idea I do not want to deny that we do develop capacities for both theoretical interpretation and simulation, and that in certain cases we do understand others by enacting just such theoretical attitudes or simulations. Such instances are rare, however, relative to the majority of our interactions. Theory theory and simulation theory at best explain a very narrow and specialized set of cognitive processes that we sometimes use to relate to others. … But neither theoretical nor simulation strategies constitute the primary way in which we relate to, interact with, or understand others. Furthermore, in those cases where we do use theoretical and simulation strategies, these strategies are already shaped by a more primary embodied practice.

The mentalistic supposition:

A common and basic assumption implicit to theory of mind accounts is that to know another person is to know that person’s mind, and this means to know their beliefs, desires, or intentional states. … The problem of intersubjectivity is precisely the problem of other minds. That is, the problem is to explain how we can access the minds of others.
theories of mind: communicative interaction between two Cartesian minds
Both theory theory and simulation theory conceive of communicative interaction between two people as a process that takes place between two Cartesian minds. It assumes that one’s understanding involves a retreat into a realm of theoria or simulacra, into a set of internal mental operations that come to be expressed (externalized) in speech, gesture, or action. If, in contrast, we think of communicative interaction as being accomplished in the very action of communication, in the expressive movement of speech, gesture, and the interaction itself, then the idea that the understanding of another person involves an attempt to theorize about an unseen belief, or to ‘mind-read’, is problematic.
For some theorists of mind (e.g. Carruthers and Smith 1996; Frith and Happe ́ 1999; Gopnik 1993), even to know our own mind we need to take this conceptual, theoretical attitude toward our own experience, and they discount the idea that we have something like a direct access to our own experience (see Zahavi and Parnas 2003 for a phenomenological critique of this idea). And since we certainly have no direct access to other people, to understand them we must take just such a theoretical attitude.

Phenomenology: our primary and usual way of being is pragmatic interaction

Phenomenology tells us that our primary and usual way of being in the world is pragmatic interaction (characterized by action, involvement, and interaction based on environmental and contextual factors), rather than mentalistic or conceptual contemplation (characterized as explanation or prediction based on mental contents).

Usual criticism of phenomenology: theories of mind operate unconsciously

This phenomenologically based criticism is subject to an objection that is often raised at this point. Is an appeal to phenomenology in this context justified? Theory theorists and simulation theorists often claim that the employment of a theory or simulation routine is unconscious and that what we experience or seemingly experience is not a good guide for what is really going on in such cases (e.g. Goldman and Gallese 2000).
In principle, phenomenology would not be able to say whether a subpersonal cognitive routine is operative; but it would be able to say whether my normal experience of the other person is best characterized as explanation and prediction, the kind of interpretations that both theory theory and simulation theory posit.
Theory of mind conceptualizes beliefs and other intentional states as discretely representational. There are good reasons, however, to view beliefs as dispositions that are sometimes ambiguous even from the perspective of the believer. To have a belief is not to have an all-or-nothing mental representation, but to have some more-or-less-complete set of dispositions to act and to experience in certain ways.

The Science of Other Minds: False-Belief Experiments

… false- belief test is ‘an ingenious, but very difficult task that taps one aspect of people’s understanding of the minds of others’ (p. B30).
The fact that these experiments are designed to test one aspect of how people understand the minds of others is both their strength and their weakness:
… Thus, there are at least three factors that limit the conclusions that can be drawn from such experiments for theory of mind, and especially for the pragmatic claim that theory of mind characterizes all our interpersonal interactions.
1. The experiments explicitly test for the specialized cognitive activities of explaining and predicting.
2. The experiments involve third-person perspectives rather than second-person interactions.
3. The experiments involve conscious processes and do not address theory-of- mind mechanisms that operate non-consciously.

Mirror Neurons: scientific support for simulation theory?

Since mirror neurons or shared representations respond both when a particular motor action is performed by the subject and when the subject observes the same goal-directed action performed by another individual, they constitute an intermodal link between the visual perception of action or dynamic expression, and the first-person, intrasubjective, proprioceptive sense of one’s own capabilities.
Simulation theorists suggest that mirror neurons help us to translate our visual perception of the other person’s behavior into a mental plan of that behavior in ourselves, thus enabling an explanation or prediction of the other person’s thoughts or actions. Mirror neurons facilitate the creation of pretend (‘off-line’) actions (motor images) that correspond to the visually perceived actions of others (Gallese and Goldman 1998). Mirror neurons, of course, are part of the motor system, so the ‘plan’ that is generated is a motoric one. This, it is argued, at least prefigures (or is a primitive kind of) mental simulation, and as such it supports simulation theory rather than theory theory. ‘The point is that

[mirror neuron] activity is not mere theoretical inference. It creates in the observer a state that matches that of the target (person).'(Gallese and Goldman 1998: 498).

mirror neurons do address second-person interactions and non-conscious, automatic processes

This approach addresses some of the limitations found in the false-belief experiments. First, the activation of mirror neurons can be thought to be most appropri- ately the result of specific second-person interactions, although they also operate in third-person perspectives on how others interact.13 Second, studies of mirror neurons are clearly studies of non-conscious, automatic processes that may or may not be experienced at a conscious level, although they surely shape conscious behavior. Nonetheless, the process thought to prefigure a more mature simulation routine is still described in a fashion similar to the theory-theory approach, as resulting in the specialized cognitive activities of explaining, predicting, and ‘retro-dicting’. Indeed, only by describing the activity as involving a representational ‘plan’ (Goldman and Gallese [2000] reject the idea of a non-representational intentionality) can simulation theorists claim that mirror neuron activity prefigures the more developed representational processes involved in explaining and predicting.
… however, the subject seemingly reads off the meaning of the other, not directly from the other’s actions, but from the internal simulation of the subject’s own ‘as if’ actions. This view suggests that the subject who under- stands the other person is not interacting with the other person so much as interacting with an internally simulated model of himself, pretending to be the other person. In effect, in contrast to the eclipse of second-person interaction by third-person observation in false-belief tests, here second-person interaction is reduced to a first-person internal activity.

Interaction and Intersubjectivity

There is good scientific evidence to support the developmental claim that around the age of 4 children come to recognize that others are capable of having beliefs different from their own. Prior to this, however, the basis for human interaction and for understanding others has already been laid down by certain embodied practices—practices that are emotional, sensory-motor, perceptual, and non- conceptual. I want to suggest that these embodied practices constitute our primary access for understanding others, and continue to do so in large measure even after we attain theory of mind abilities. Development that is specific to theory of mind happens within a wider framework of interpersonal pragmatics, which can be characterized as second-person embodied interactions with other persons perceived as others.
The basic claim that I will defend is that in most intersubjective situations we have a direct understanding of another person’s intentions because their intentions are explicitly expressed in their embodied actions, and mirrored in our own capabilities for action. For the most part this understanding does not require the postulation of some belief or desire that is hidden away in the other person’s mind, since what we might reflectively or abstractly call their belief or desire is expressed directly in their behavior.
Many who argue for the theory or simulation approach acknowledge that for either a theoretical stance or a simulation routine to get off the ground some understanding of the context and behavior of the other person must be had first. Otherwise I would have nothing to simulate or to theorize about. This suggests that before I can develop a theory of mind I must already have an understanding of the other person and his/her experience—including an understanding of the other as the subject of intentional action. Prior to the possibility of knowing another person’s mind in either a theoretical or simulation mode, one already requires
1. an understanding of what it means to be an experiencing subject;
2. an understanding that certain kinds of entities (but not others) in the environment are indeed such subjects;
3. an understanding that in some ways these entities are similar to and in other 
ways different from oneself; and
4. a specific pre-theoretical knowledge about how people behave in particular 
One way to summarize these pre-theoretical conditions is to say… that the understanding of others in terms of their mental states requires a ‘massively hermeneutic’ background. This suggests that there is much going on in our understanding of others, in excess of and prior to the acquisition of theoretical and/or simulation capabilities. How do we get this background understanding? Some theorists answer this question by pointing to capabilities in infants and young children that they consider ‘precursors’ of theory of mind (Baron-Cohen 1995; Gopnik and Meltzoff 1997; Meltzoff 1995, 2002; Nadel and Butterworth 1999).

Primary Intersubjectivity

Pre-theoretical (non-conceptual) capabilities for understanding others already exist in very young children. Children, prior to the age of 3, already have a sense of what it means to be an experiencing subject; that certain kinds of entities (but not others) in the environment are indeed such subjects; and that in some way these entities are similar to and in other ways different from themselves. This sense of others is already implicit, at least in a primitive way, in the behavior of the newborn. We see evidence for it in instances of neonate imitation … which depends not only on a distinction between self and non-self, and a proprioceptive sense of one’s own body, but also on the recognition that the other is in fact of the same sort as oneself … from birth, actions of the infant and the perceived actions of others are coded in the same ‘language’, in a cross-modal system that is directly attuned to the actions and gestures of other humans. In the case of imitated facial gestures, one does not require an intermediate theory or simulation to translate between one’s proprioceptive experience of one’s face and the visual perception of the other’s face. The translation is already accomplished at the level of an innate body schema that integrates sensory and motor systems. There is, in this case, a common bodily intentionality that is shared across the perceiving subject and the perceived other.

Intermodal experience is characterized as phenomenologically transparent

… the sensory-motor process does not require an internal copy (a mental simulation) that the infant consults in order to know what to do. Neonates, as we have noted, perfect their imitative actions. They improve the match between their gesture and the perceived gesture. They therefore register the difference between themselves and the other. But to do this they need no internal plan to consult, since they have a visual model right in front of them, namely, the face of the other, as well as a proprioceptive model, namely, the gesture that is taking shape on their own face. Even in those cases where the infant has cause to remember the presented gesture in order to imitate it after a delay (see Meltzoff and Moore 1994), it is difficult to construe a sensory-motor memory as a theory of action.
body schema is not representation
Accordingly, the body schema does not function as an ‘abstract representation’.... If … the body schema is an innate system designed for motor control, it seems more appropriate to understand it as a set of pragmatic (action-oriented) capabilities embodied in the developing nervous system. In the human infant this system accounts for the possibility of recognizing and imitating other humans.
To the capabilities implicit in neonate imitation, we need to add a number of other early interactive capabilities that constitute what Trevarthen (1979) has called ‘primary intersubjectivity’. … In effect, this kind of perception-based understanding is a form of ‘body-reading’ rather than mind-reading. In seeing the actions and expressive movements of the other person, one already sees their meaning; no inference to a hidden set of mental states (beliefs, desires, etc.) is necessary.

Secondary Intersubjectivity

Trevarthen shows that around the age of 1 year, infants go beyond the person-to-person immediacy of primary intersubjectivity, and enter into contexts of shared attention—shared situations—in which they learn what things mean and what they are for … . Peter Hobson nicely summarizes this notion of secondary intersubjectivity. ‘The defining feature of secondary intersubjectivity is that an object or event can become a focus between people. Objects and events can be communicated about. . . . the infant’s interactions with another person begin to have reference to the things that surround them’ (Hobson 2002: 62). Children do not simply observe others; they are not passive observers. Rather they interact with others, and in doing so they develop further capabilities in the contexts of those interactions.
Given the capabilities that are available under the title of primary and secondary intersubjectivity, I propose what is, in relation to theory theory or simulation theory, a revised, and in some sense enhanced or extended developmental claim. Before we are in a position to form a theory about someone, or to simulate what the other person believes or desires, we already have specific pre-theoretical knowledge about how people behave in particular contexts. We are able to get this kind of knowledge precisely through the various capabilities that characterize primary and secondary intersubjectivity, including imitation, intentionality detection, eye-tracking, the perception of meaning and emotion in movement and posture, and the understanding of intentional or goal-related movements in pragmatic contexts. This kind of knowledge is the ‘massively hermeneutic’ background required for the more conceptual accomplishments of mentalistic interpretation. It derives from embodied practices in second-person interactions with others long before we reach the age of theoretical reason. As a result, before we are in a position to explain or predict the behavior of others, to mentalize or mind-read, to theorize or simulate, we are already in a position to interact with and to understand others in terms of their gestures, intentions, and emotions, and in terms of what they see, what they do or pretend to do with objects, and how they act toward ourselves and others in the pragmatically contextualized activities of everyday life.

The synergy of ‘embodiment’ and ‘intersubjectivity’: ‘primary intersubjectivity’ and its challenge to ‘mentalizing’

Part 1: “Cartesianism is not so easy to escape”

The initiative for our conference arose partly out of the sense that especially in their synergy, the two notions of ‘embodiment’ and ‘intersubjectivity’ have not yet been plumbed to their depth or addressed to their full potential. As Shaun Gallagher has suggested in some of his writing (“Understanding others through Primary Interaction and Narrative Practice” 1), it is the combination of ‘embodiment’ and ‘intersubjectivity’ which challenges Cartesian principles at the core.
Most of us interested in these topics have some shared notion that Cartesian dualisms are a fundamental background problem for psychotherapy, going back all the way to Freud’s discoveries within the zeitgeist of the late 19th century. And most of us have struggled in different ways to liberate our theory and practice from the grip of these dualistic assumptions (to use an emotive phrase).
However, as Shaun says: “Yet it seems that Cartesianism is not so easy to escape and often, implicitly, the idea that the body has little to do with cognition continues to haunt all claims to the contrary.” (p.134 How the Body Shapes the Mind).
Shaun is referring to the cognitive sciences and philosophy, but I would think the same point is true for psychotherapy: the ‘talking therapies’ are pervaded by historical legacies, rooted in the assumption that “the body has little to do with cognition.”
The paradigm shift in neuroscience (which has largely transcended mind-over-body dualism in principle) has been influencing psychotherapy for a couple of decades, and I think there is now a fair consensus across the field that in general terms the body has been neglected – the amorphous phrase of ‘implicit relational knowing’ has acquired much traction and is frequently invoked to explain how ‘therapy works’. However, as a supposed significant ingredient in ‘therapeutic action’, there is very little detailed, nitty-gritty idea in practice of how it actually works.
So in my view we are coming to a much more tricky point in our development as a field: having established that ‘the body matters’ and ‘it’s the relationship that matters’, we now need to put some flesh on the bones of these notions which are in danger of degenerating into mere sound bites, subscribed to by all, but diluted to the point of insignificance.
So Shaun’s point that Cartesian dualisms are not that easy to escape, even by those of us who are in principle opposed to them, is becoming really important. For me, it’s one of the main purposes of the conference to address this.
Having established ‘embodiment’ and ‘intersubjectivity’ as essential therapeutic ingredients, which supposedly transcend Cartesian dualisms, even those of us who officially subscribe to these notion, or define our work through them, arguable want to pay attention to the philosophical and meta-psychological underpinnings of our work: in subtle ways many essential therapeutic ideas which most of us rely upon every day (e.g. theory-of-mind and ‘mentalising’), arguably still retain remnants of Cartesian dualisms. And Shaun has been at the forefront of clarifying this conceptual territory.

Part 2: Descartes’ isolated mind without a body ("brain-in-a-vat")

The two central assumptions which Descartes’ ideas have been criticised for, especially within psychotherapy, are …
- the ‘myth of the isolated mind’ (to borrow a term from the intersubjectivists Atwood & Stolorow, who explicitly critique the Cartesian underpinnings of psychoanalysis)
- the location of human identity in the rational mind, in self-reflective thought, setting up mind-over-body dualism and the body only as an object of thought (rather than a source of subjectivity)

Shaun discusses in various writings how these assumptions are both maintained and critiqued in modern philosophy and in the cognitive sciences – with the modern Cartesian position most easily captured by the idea that the mind operates as a ‘brain-in-a-vat’ – that reality is created in the brain by neurons firing, without any need for an actual body; and that humans understand each other by creating a theory of the other person’s ‘brain-in-a-vat’, forming a ‘theory of mind’ representing the other.

This dominance of these modern versions of Cartesianism is challenged by notions of the mind as ‘embodied’, ‘embedded’ (socially), ‘extended’ (reaching beyond the brain and the skin) and ‘enactive’ (rather than working by representation).

How does that apply to therapy?

In all kinds of disciplines and from all kinds of quarters, Descartes’ dualistic conceptions are recognised and critiqued for how they pervade and structure and limit our therapeutic ideas about the relationship between body and mind (intra-psychically) and the relationship between minds (interpersonally).
These dualistic conceptions are recognised as having a restrictive and polarising effects on our whole being within the therapeutic position. The far end of that recognition, in simple terms, would be that our Cartesian therapeutic minds cannot help but ignore and override our (embodied) ‘implicit relational knowing’, to the detriment of the therapeutic space we are able to provide, thus actually creating the apparent disconnection and isolation of two separate minds which Descartes postulates in the first place.

Separate historical developments: ‘embodiment’ and ‘intersubjectivity’

Before I summarise Shaun’s paper “Understanding others through Primary Interaction and Narrative Practice” for you, just a brief note on how ‘embodiment’ and ‘intersubjectivity’ have developed separately, with little cross-fertilisation so far.

If we look at the history of these two notions, we find two fairly divergent and unconnected contexts, especially in the field of therapy. I have suggested before that pursuing our understanding of either notion almost regularly ends up at the expense of the other: embodied awareness versus relational depth.
It’s hard to be aware both of the other and our internal process at the same time
Experientially we find, especially in charged relational moments, that it is difficult to pay attention both to the other and the relational dynamic on the one hand and to one’s own bodymind and spontaneous intra-psychic process on the other. So that gives some phenomenological hint why it’s difficult to bring those two notions together as distinct theoretical entities. Ultimately, being able to be embodied and relationally present with the other is of course a key capacity which - I assume - most of us want to develop, for the benefit of our therapeutic practice, but for the sake of all our intimate relating generally.

‘Embodiment’ and ‘intersubjectivity’: two separate communities of practitioners

We find the same difficulty between the communities of practitioners which make either ‘embodiment’ or ‘intersubjectivity’ their special area of focus, sensibility and expertise:
- the Body Psychotherapy tradition in its humanistic origins remained fairly oblivious of relational vicissitudes, especially countertransference, until the early 1990s.
- two-person psychology in the psychoanalytic tradition, as we know it today, especially as it emerged in the US, had little to do with what in that cultural context is called ‘somatic psychology’. It was the Boston Change Study Group in the 1990’s which eventually engendered the phrase “implicit relational knowing” as the first hint of the significance of the embodiment.

The historical precursors of these discussions

In the UK, there have been two parallel branches of Embodied-Relational Psychotherapy: ERT as developed by Nick Totton, and the Chiron Centre for Body Psychotherapy. In both contexts the combination of embodied and relational perspectives has been at the heart of the practice for about 20 years (at Chiron we produced the second and final version of the Training Prospectus with the subtitle integrative-relational, with the ‘embodied’ perspective being taken for granted as part of the integration, in 1996, although by that stage we must have been thinking about it for at least a couple of years).
So in the UK we have an established therapeutic tradition, fairly unknown elsewhere, which has been developing, conceptualising, discussing and practising a combination of embodied and intersubjective principles, and it is no accident that this conference has evolved out of that community of practitioners.

The notion of the ‘body-mind split’ in Body Psychotherapy

Within that tradition, what Shaun calls ‘Cartesianism’ would have been - much more amorphously and generically, and less philosophically informed - referred to as the ‘body-mind split’, an idea that covers a multitude of sins, and arouses strong passions. At some point we will need to make explicit that much of traditional Body Psychotherapy was operating under the banner of healing that ‘body-mind split’ - a project which has generated intense controversies, and is likely to do so on the conference, too.

These controversies were intense during the 1990’s and the conference takes me back to those stormy days. I remember eventually venturing a contribution to that discussion in 2000 – a piece I wrote called “On bodymind integration – the integrated bodymind’s view”, after what was a fairly disastrous AGM presentation on my part. That piece may be of historical interest, but large stretches of it I now can no longer identify with, or at least they would need to be formulated very differently now. It was a stepping stone towards finding a position that persists in Reich’s original impulse and intuition to get beyond Cartesian dualism (way ahead of his time), but without indulging the same degree of zealous idealisation of the body and of the idea of bodymind integration which had characterised my thinking in the 1980s.
To my mind these polarisations were left somewhat unresolved then, with all of us gravitating towards separate communities of practitioners.

‘Resolving’ traditional polarisations?

I am imagining that we can come back to these polarised controversies now, 20 years later, and - with the help of Shaun’s ideas and conceptualisations -come to a deeper understanding within ourselves and between different positions along the spectrum; not to resolve all differences but engaging with them more creatively.

Many of you will 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)").

I can’t find a better or more straightforward formulation than Shunryu Suzuki (‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’): “Our body and mind are not two, and not one. If you think that your body and mind are two, that is wrong. If you think that your body and mind are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one.”

This is the embodiment angle - the same could be said for intersubjectivity in terms of self and other.

But this kind of ‘resolution’ can be articulated in words only on a fairly abstract level – it does not help us much in the nitty-gritty of practice.

That we have been struggling with these questions as therapists, and especially as Body Psychotherapists, is not surprising: after all, the body-mind problem is considered one of the hard problems in philosophy. Schopenhauer called it ‘the world knot’. So all the more reason to finally invite a philosopher rather than a neuroscientist, especially at a time when one “of important marks of the contemporary cognitive sciences is the explicit and nearly universal rejection of Cartesian dualism.”

But what embodied, integrative post-Cartesian position can convincingly replace it?

After all, Cartesian dualism is a forgivable fallacy when on introspection we frequently do seem to find an internal conflict between mind and body. And many of our clients appear to be tortured, and torturing themselves, in body-hating and body-objectifying patterns that dominate their waking lives - a theme that our panelist Susie Orbach has managed to bring into the public domain loud and clear (her recent contribution to Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour on the topic was one of the most successful podcasts of the programme of all time).
So some kind of war seems to be being waged on the body, and who internally is capable of perpetrating such a war other than the mind?
It could be argued that such hatred of the body is the post-modern, late-capitalist, alienated manifestation of rampant Cartesianism, embedded in long-standing patriarchy, and squared by narcissism in the celebrity culture, multiplied by social media.
However, on the other end of the spectrum, it could be argued that such a conceptualisation (the mind waging war on the body) is part and parcel of very sickness which it is trying to cure - that it is a little bit like putting out a fire by adding more fuel.

So, from my perspective, the conference is an attempt to nudge that discourse a little further, and to find ways of thinking, and ultimately of practising, which do not perpetuate the very splitting or Cartesianism I am trying to get beyond. Shaun’s thinking and writings have been working in that territory for many years.
At the danger of oversimplifying for the sake of making it more accessible, one of the key points running through Shaun’s writings is that neither embodiment nor relating require a detour via the mind to arrive at meaningful, shared experience.
One of Shaun’s papers which addresses that point, especially in contrast to the idea of ‘mentalising’ (the notion that we develop an understanding of others by forming a ‘theory of mind’ to infer their reasons and beliefs): “Understanding others through Primary Interaction and Narrative Practice” by Gallagher & Hutto. I will summarise that paper and comment on it in another post.

Röhricht, Gallagher, Geuter, & Hutto: "Embodied cognition and body psychotherapy" in Sensoria: A Journal of Mind, Brain & Culture

Radical embodied and enactive accounts characterise cognition as essentially a kind of organismic activity taking the form of sensitive interactions stretching across the brain, body and environment (Dreyfus, 2002; Gallagher & Varela, 2003; Gallagher, 2005; Thompson, 2007; Chemero, 2009; Hutto & Myin, 2013). Inspired by scientific developments in robotics, dynamical systems theory and ecological psychology, the basic idea of cognition as embodied activity finds philosophical support from the phenomenological, American naturalist and Buddhist traditions of thought. The distinguishing feature of these more radical approaches is their wholesale opposition to the mainstream view that cognition essentially involves the collection and transformation of information in order to represent the world; fundamentally they challenge accounts of cognition that “take representation as their central notion” (Varela et al., 1991, p. 172), seeking to move away from the idea that the primary and defining work of minds is always, and at its base, that of representing and computing. Adopting the radical perspective, then, requires a major rethinking in our conception of bodies, brains and minds and how they are related. According to radical variants of enactivism and embodied cognition, the mind is not ”in the head” – nor is cognition primarily a matter of manipulating representations; rather, mental activity is in the fullest sense truly distributed across body and environment.[...] Merleau-Ponty (1962) refers to this as an intercorporeity – an intersubjective embodied interaction that involves proprioception and kinaesthesia. This embodied engagement on the part of therapist and patient, and more generally, the relational interaction between them, forms part of the clinical reasoning and assessment processes, whether the therapist or the patient are reflectively aware of it or not.[...] This is a different model from the standard representationalist one which conceives of intersubjective relations in terms of third-person observation, where all of the important processes occur within the individual’s head. Purely observational judgments made by the therapist on the basis of visual observation of the patient in various bodily postural attitudes differ from judgments made in the context of action or interaction between therapist and patient. Embodied interaction is dynamic, and as such, is not simply something that one or the other individual accomplishes on his own. In the intersubjective context, perception is often for inter-action with others, where perceptually-guided embodied interaction becomes part of the process that allows mutual understanding (De Jaegher et al., 2010; Gallagher, 2009a).[...] The kind of understanding that emerges through embodied interaction depends in part on what Trevarthen (1979) calls ‘primary intersubjectivity’ – the mutual perception of facial expressions, postures, movements, gestures, and the give and take of sensory-motor processes.

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

Current theories of social cognition are mainly based on a representationalist view. Moreover, they focus on a rather sophisticated and limited aspect of understanding others, i.e. on how we predict and explain others’ behaviours through representing their mental states. Research into the ‘social brain’ has also favoured a third-person paradigm of social cognition as a passive observation of others’ behaviour, attributing it to an inferential, simulative or projective process in the individual brain. In this paper, we present a concept of social understanding as an ongoing, dynamical process of participatory sense-making and mutual incorporation. This process may be described (1) from a dynamical agentive systems point of view as an interaction and coordination of two embodied agents; (2) from a phenomenological approach as a mutual incorporation, i.e. a process in which the lived bodies of both participants extend and form a common intercorporality. Intersubjectivity, it is argued, is not a solitary task of deciphering or simulating the movements of others but means entering a process of embodied interaction and generating common meaning through it. This approach will be further illustrated by an analysis of primary dyadic interaction in early childhood.

By |2017-03-07T19:54:19+00:00April 1st, 2015|Michael's Psychotherapy CPD Blog|0 Comments

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