Where truth intersects with meaning: Somatic awareness as explained by neuroscience viewed through a phenomenological framework




Where truth intersects with meaning: Somatic awareness as explained by neuroscience viewed through a phenomenological framework

Presented at

Society for Phenomenology and Human Studies Annual Conference

Arlington, Virginia

October 30, 2009

Luann D. Fortune

School of Human and Organization Development

Fielding Graduate University

Luann Fortune, LMT, MA, is a doctoral student in the School of Human Development at Fielding University. She can be contacted at lfortune@email.fielding.edu

Where truth intersects with meaning: Somatic awareness as explained by neuroscience viewed through a phenomenological framework


Somatics has long been a topic of conversation in phenomenology. Recently, biological science treatments have evolved to expand these conversations from describing the Brain to suggesting how the Mind operates to construct reality. This paper builds on the framework provided by neuroscience to explore potential partnerships with phenomenology for investigations of embodiment. Invoking operational descriptions of how somatic awareness is constructed, the discussion attempts to reach beyond the more simple metaphor of the brain as a master control tower. It considers aspects of somatosensory processing that can integrate body-based perceptions into consciousness, memory, intentionality, and other higher mental aspects of individual identity through a novel interdisciplinary approach to understanding experience from inside the body.

Keywords: body awareness, embodiment, somatosensory, interoceptors, interdisciplinary, phenomenology


In the animated film Wall-E (Stanton, 2008), what remains of the earth’s human population is confined to a hovering spacecraft, supposedly waiting for the earth’s eco-system to be restored sufficiently to support planetary life. Over 700 years of confined outer space living, the humans have evolved into blobs of flesh and brain. They live cradled in mechanized hover chairs that provide them their only mobility and offer them stimulation and pleasure via a virtual life on an attached flat screen.  Amongst the myriad facets of their cluelessness, they don’t even realize they cannot ambulate unassisted. In this regard at least, they are missing somatic awareness.

Bodily sensations intermingle with consciousness to create somatic awareness. Tied to the body’s alert system, it is foundational to individual and evolutionary survival. Recent developments in neuroscience attempt to explain the biological operations attached to somatic awareness through cognitive science (Damasio, 1999, p. 13-14). But directing and cultivating this body-centric awareness is ancient. Somatic cultivation figures in many therapeutic and spiritual enterprises, such as tantric yoga (Morley, 2008) and tai chi (LaFountain, 2008). In addition, since somatic function is foundational to all inquiries concerned with living human bodies focusing on its awareness affords an intersection for social science discussions from various perspectives.

Yet, a disconnect between the concepts of physiological science and philosophies of the mind contributes to linguistic inadequacies for mind-body exploration (Gendlin, 2000, p. 113). The contemporary proliferation of neuroscience data and findings (Kandel, 2006, pp. 7-8; Shermer, 2008) does not examine the quality of somatic experience. Phenomenology offers both the theoretical framework and practical approach to fill knowledge gaps (Rehorick & Nugent, 2008, p. 33) by directing attention to the essence of somatic experience.

In this paper, I consider how somatic experience is constructed in the brain and how the results can get channeled into conscious awareness. I allow for aspects of somatosensory processing that can integrate body-based perceptions into memory, intentionality, and similar higher mental aspects of individual identity as they interact with perspectives from psychology, sociology, and transcultural perspectives. I suggest that using phenomenology as a vehicle for inquiry, the constructs from neuroscience, and language borrowed from social science perspectives can interweave to suggest an interdisciplinary paradigm for exploring somatic awareness.

Brain Science on Somatic Awareness

Receptors and managing the incoming

In neuroscience parlance, somatic awareness results from an integration of the somatosensory system and consciousness to create active and passive responses. Tracing any given response begins with a stimulus. Stimuli attributed to both internal and external origins construct somatic perception (Damasio, 1999, p. 149). Identifying and describing these elementary building blocks will be useful when we consider how to apply neuroscience tenets in other disciplines.

Different sensors recognize interior and environmental stimuli. Environmental receptors monitor external data through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2007, pp. 34-35). Receptor functions are highly specialized, allocated to detecting variations of light and color, ranges of auditory waves, myriad and intertwined scents and tastes, tactile pressure, relative temperature, and vibration. But the receptors alone do not constitute vision, hearing, or any other sensory experience (Schwartz & Begley, 2002, p. 26-27).

Internal perception occurs in similar steps. Sensors monitor balance, proprioception, or kinesthetic, and interoception, including a sense of energy, vibration, or vitality (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2007, p. 204) and detect sensations of pressure or temperature (Damasio, 1999, p. 150). Movement and posture are sensed through vestibular and muscular-skeletal receptors that inform consciousness about movement and placement in space of body organs and parts (Damasio, p. 153).

Since the nervous system is hard-wired to perpetuate the organism’s survival, it must continually differentiate between signals emitted from our external environment and those internally generated (Damasio, 1999, p. 136). The physical body provides the living object with boundaries, especially important with humans equipped with limitless mental animation driven by higher capacities (Damasio, p. 143). But whether any given sensation actually results from external factors or whether it is internally initiated is less rigidly delineated than traditionally thought. Research concerning phantom limb sensation (Ramachandran & Hirstein, 1998) demonstrates how the brain can construct sensation without external stimuli and parallels discussions in philosophy.

But assuming an exclusively internal reality espouses solipsism and leads to the trap of subjective isolation (Sokolowski, 2008, p. 68-69). In this paper, both internal and external stimuli are allowed for and pertinent to somatic awareness. Developing somatic awareness to a higher level of consciousness, to better appreciate the complexities of distinguishing the internal from the external, could contribute to improved individual survival skills. This point is germane to multi-disciplinary application.

Processing incoming data

Constructing perception begins with collecting, relaying, and managing signals from the body. Constantly relayed messages that stream to the appropriate collection sights and processing centers are like foot soldiers updating bodily status (Damasio, 1994, pp. 87-88, 1999, p. 151). Conventional biology states that integrating incoming signals to achieve perception takes place in various areas in the brain, with simple sensory and motor functions localized within specialized cortical areas (Gellatly & Zarate, 2005, p. 27).

Modern neuroscience continues to seek the ultimate goal of identifying each brain area responsible for each function: brain mapping (Schwartz & Bengley, 2002, p. 23-24). Using recent technological advancements, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (Damasio, 1999, pp. 82-83), Descartes’ image of the brain as the thought machine (Schwartz & Bengley, p. 32) can be fully diagramed. The mapping paradigm attempts to assign specific folds of cortices to functions as well as to behaviors (pp. 62-73). Recent brain maps show regions located in the parietal and temporal cortices that are thought to parse and map somatic experience (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2007, p. 204). Evidence demonstrates that brain maps are malleable and can be reoriented through a process called plasticity (Ramanchandran, 1998, p. 1851).

A. Damasio (1999, 2002) does not dismiss brain mapping, but rather adds an explanatory dimension. He says thoughts, experiences, and memories are dynamically constructed and reconfigured with each incidence of experience. The concept that complex thinking and behavior is assembled and involves multiple areas of the brain is traceable to J. Hughlings-Jackson (1835-1911) (Gellatly & Zarate, 2005, p. 27). The same activity can be assembled at lower or higher levels, a concept still resident in distinctions and labels used for somatosensory mapping (Blakeslee & Blakesless, 2007, p. 81). Russian neuropsychologist A. Luria (1902-1977) posited that dynamic brain assembly has a temporal dimension. Different brain area “ensembles” (Gellatly & Zarate, p. 29) working together on different occasions achieve the same function. K. Lashley (1890-1958) suggested that there is no single site of particular memory (Gellatly & Zarate, p. 99), although current thinking holds that memories live in specific circuits (Damasio, 1999, p. 21). The concept of neuroplasticity (Schwartz & Begley, 2002) whereby brain cells continue to create new alliances throughout the life-cycle, offers a remodeling mechanism for substituting and expanding particular sites in any given circuit (p. 15-16).

Progressively dynamic, the brain serves not only as a receptacle for stimuli, but intertwines with the body to create new stimuli. This applies to multiple layers of consciousness, including somatic experience and awareness (Damasio, 1999, p. 21). According to the Damasio (1999) some areas of the brain are flexible and can serve multiple purposes in mental functions. However, those areas responsible for mapping the internal body condition are dedicated and unchangeable (p. 21-22).

Sensory somatic subsystems

According to Damasio (1999), the somatosensory system is a complex series of responses, and not one single system (p. 149). Three subsystems operate in parallel to construct somatic-sensory experience: the internal milieu and visceral, the vestibular and muscular-skeletal (Damasio, p. 86), and the fine-touch subsystem (p. 151). Each subsystem deals with particular information, but they also work in tandem to create whole images and experiences.

The internal milieu and visceral subsystem monitors the chemical state of the body’s cells and baseline functions. The bloodstream serves as the transmittal channel, conveying neuro-chemical signals such as hormones that are triggered by generically termed interoceptor reactions (Damasio, 1999, p. 150-151). These are collected and interpreted at central sights including regions of the brain stem, hypothalamus, the sub-fornical organs located at the cerebral hemisphere level, and the telencephalon (Damasio,  p. 150) . Subsequent neural activation can then initiate responses. Since these regions can also initiate transmission of signals along the neural pathways, they are critical to the nexus of body-mind connection with application to cultivating somatic awareness and passive practices such as meditation and biofeedback.

The muscular-skeletal and vestibular subsystem conveys information on the state of voluntary, striated muscles and associated skeletal structures. Kinesthetic data collectors, also called proprioceptors, carry signals along neural pathways (Damasio, 1994, p. 88) to monitor movement, posture, and internally sensed bodily position from the internal perspective (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2007, p. 11). The vestibular system, linked to devices in the inner ear, monitors balance, equilibrium, and motion, and helps convey sense of dimension and perspective. The muscular-skeletal and vestibular subsystems work in tandem to provide continual information about where the body and its parts are in space. This subsystem is invoked in active somatic practices such as yoga.

The fine-touch subsystem relies on skin receptors to detect specific stimuli, such as deep or light pressure, heat, or cold, and is primarily concerned with describing objects and stimuli external to the body and sensed through the skin’s surface. Tactile practices, such as massage, rely on this subsystem. Scientists recently speculate on the existence of a peripersonal space, an area off the skin and around the body that is annexed by the nervous system (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2007, pp. 3-4).

Damasio (1999) proposes that the intersection of the somatosensory subsystems does not occur in one region of the brain, but “emerges dynamically and continually” (p. 154) out of multiple orders of neurological processing. At least a portion of the brain area designated as the somatosensory cortex is involved. Brain stem nuclei, the first nexus point in the central nervous system (CNS) are believed necessary to interpret and regulate homeostatis and map body signals. The hypothalamus and the basel forebrain are interconnected with the brain stem by their common ability to circumvent the blood brain barrier and respond to chemical indicators, such as levels of hormones, glucose, various ions, pH in plasma, and oxygen. Therefore, each of these areas is able to receive signals via both neural and bloodstream pathways, and also discharge neural signals to each other as well as elsewhere in the nervous system.

Monitoring the body’s state is not the same as experiencing and interpreting body awareness. Damasio (1999) suggests that multiple brain structures beyond the designated somatosensory cortex are invoked to construct even the most elementary self-awareness (pp. 154-156). Full integration involves activity in the forebrain, in the medial cortices and regions of the insular cortices known as S2 (Damasio, p. 156). Regions located in the parietal and temporal cortices are thought to parse and map somatic experience (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2007, p. 204). The myriad areas involved in this operation illustrate the various permutations of any single experience of consciousness, including somatic perception.

For example, seeing and recognizing an external object is the result of complicated and variable coordinated processing efforts (Damasio, 2003, p. 198-199). In a hypothetical instance, signals captured in the retina are integrated with information in the visual cortex in the occipital lobe (Damasio, 1999, p. 334), the dimensional perspective supplied by the vestibular system (p. 146-147), memories from the hippocampus (p. 157-158), and emotional associations from the amygdala (p. 61-62). Monitoring the internal state is equally dynamic, although possibly less at the forefront in the consciousness.

So, it is arguable whether our internal experiences are universal. Without viewfinders into another’s awareness, the most benign of sensations could be perceived with highly individualized variations.  For example, an estimated five percent of the human population (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2007, p. 119) has synesthesia, a biological condition where sense perceptions get mixed up. It is often not diagnosed until past early childhood.  Yet undiagnosed synesthesians have known a number of deviations, such as smelling their auditory experience or tasting their visual stimuli, for their entire lives, not realizing that this was not everyone else’s experience as well.

Progressing along the consciousness hierarchy presents added layers of complexities. But according to Damasio (1994), all somatic subsystems remain critical to constructing higher order reasoning. Signals from the internal milieu contribute to the construction of emotions and feelings (p. 48). Somatic markers (Damasio, 1994, p. 174) are reactions that result from emotions linked to bodily sensation. They are the “gut feeling” (p. 173) or the danger flag (de Becker, 1997). Damasio’s  (1999) somatic marker hypothesis (p. 41) posits that patients with damage in the somatic related brain regions consistently demonstrate difficulties navigating in their social environment. (p. 41-42). Damasio (1994) hypothesizes that areas in the pre-frontal cortices receive signals from all the sensory areas and integrate these with other information (p. 182-184) in the essential construction zone of human responses.

Various threads of research explore how the body, especially facial expression, can reveal somatic, emotional, and intellectual states. Recognizing such non-verbal cues contributes to intuitive ways of knowing (Gladwell, 2005, pp. 206-214). But in an interesting turn, some research also indicates that bodily expression can exert a reciprocal reaction to intellectual and emotional states. Research findings claim that making certain facial expressions can not only reflect feelings, but create them (Ekman & Davidson, 1992, pp. 342-345). Awareness and intentional direction of somatic markers provides a key for intersecting Damasio’s constructs with other disciplines and offers a potential avenue to explore the anecdotal tenet of where-goes-the-body-so-goes-the-mind-and-spirit.  Application of this construct provides foundational justification for practitioner approaches in multi-disciplines.

An alternate proposal (Panskepp, 1998) to Damasio’s tenets describes a parallel rather than integrated system. The most elementary level of consciousness originates in the brain stem and spans levels of consciousness via a CNS neural-network (pp. 562-582). Affective feelings may be caused by the neuro-dynamics of basic emotional circuits interacting with the neural schema of bodily action plans. According to Panksepp (1998), consciousness is developmentally and evolutionarily connected to both sensory-motor awareness and higher cognitive abilities (Panksepp & Northoff, 2007). Panksepp’s version ascribes importance to somatic awareness; Damasio’s hypothesis suggests a unified holistic mind-body paradigm.

Neuroscience Tenets at the First Degree of Application: Neurology

Similar to the more recent work of Damasio (1999, 1994) and Ekman (Ekman & Davidson, 1992), W. James (1842-1910) proposed that emotions result from bodily states (Damasio, 1999, p. 288). Neurology subsequently discredited that tenet, specifically citing spinal cord transection patients. Case studies describe that although spinal cord severance interrupts signals from the body, such patients still possess emotions. However, deeper examination and several biological factors validate the dynamic construction principles of Damasio and his forerunners concerning the critical role of somatic input for feelings.

Arguments that cite paralysis patients as possessing emotions neglect several critical considerations. First, even if the spinal cord is severed signaling occurs through the vagus nerve that bypasses the spinal cord, connecting directly to the brain stem. Next, signals from the body convey not only via the spinal cord and neuron system, but biochemically through agents such as hormones via the bloodstream. Third, damage to the spinal is seldom completely severed, and some amount of neurological signaling continues. Fourth, sensations from the head and face bypass the spinal cord and feed directly to the brain. Therefore, some incoming sensations are accommodated. Finally, there is indication that spinal cord injuries do result in diminished emotional experience, even after factoring in associated depression and traumatic response (Damasio, 1999, pp. 289-290).

Case studies describing Locked-In Syndrome (Foer, 2008) further support the body’s influence on the mind.  These unfortunate patients, suffering from full bodily paralysis while still maintaining consciousness, use their only operating body part, a flickering or blinking eye, to report an odd sense of calm. As the body shifts into stillness, so goes the mind (Damasio, 1999, p. 292-294).

Allowing for anticipated emotional dysfunction in neurologically injured patients could contribute to a framework for holism in medical treatment. But treating the mind with the body is counter to underlying premises of western science and medicine.

Brain science meets Philosophy: Why body-mindedness

Separate body and mind systems, called substance dualism (Damasio, 2003, p. 187), are consistent with Cartesian thinking (Hanrahan, 2003, p. 7). Founded in the Church’s influence in modern western civilization (Lipton, 2008), dualism provides the basis for modern western physiology. Consistent with the underlying scientific paradigm, measuring trumps more qualitative ways of understanding. But, in the words of the Merleau-Ponty (1962), science is a “second order expression of the world” that is founded on the first order of how we directly experience the world (p. ix). Phenomenological research provides methods for qualitative inquiry, a discipline for sorting and interpreting subjective accounts, and an intellectual tradition that reveals meaning so as to contribute to scholarship.

Returning to holism by crossing over other disciplines’ boundaries requires clear language. The subject of somatics offers common ground for establishing such a vernacular: “We need to reawaken our experience of the world as it appears to us in so far as we are in the world through our body” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 239). But Merleau-Ponty also observes that the language is elusive: “… language in the notion of sensation…nothing in fact could be more confused” (p. 3). Practitioners who profess to contribute groundbreaking work in mind-body intervention admit that their work needs clearer and more systematic articulation (Johnson, 1997, p. 4).

Beyond scientific exactitudes and debates to define the anatomical structure and functional source of somatic awareness (Sotnikov, 2006), somatic experience begins with a “wordless knowledge” (Damasio, 1999, p. 168). Phenomenology is well suited to investigating experience that “one cannot yet label or name” (Rehorick & Nugent, 2008, p. 33). As a practical consideration, because of its open-ended nature, phenomenological inquiry is useful for topics where research is minimal as it can serve to bridge otherwise incongruent concepts (Gendlin, 2000, pp. 116-117). It promotes understanding as it connects the experience of the one to the experience of an other (van Manen, 1990, p. 54).

Damasio proposes that the felt core self generates a feeling of knowing (1999, pp. 171-172) that comes before verbalization and autobiographical consciousness. This first person perspective, what has been called the “look of a feeling” (Wilber, 1996, 2000, p. 1) is ideal for generating datum on embodiment. A similar concept is found in a Phenomenological construct called being in the epoche (Husserl, 1975, p. 8). Phenomenological inquiry is designed to capture feelings and perceptions at the core of where they live: with the subjective individual consciousness. Sensations mix with memories and emotions to engender higher consciousness to the extent that the actual experience and the thoughts about the experience become fundamentally intertwined (Damasio, 1999, p. 35). In the words of Merleau-Ponty (1962): “A thing is, therefore, not actually given in perception, it is internally taken up by us in so far as it is bound up with a world, the basic structure which we carry with us, and of which it is merely one of many possible concrete forms” (p. 381).

This mixing bowl dynamic (Damasio, 1994, p. 129) substantiates nonwestern views (Nhat Hanh, 1975) that the body-mind is essentially unified. Mental life emerges from the body’s basic functions, rather than being superimposed on a separate bodily level of being (Shusterman, 2008, p. 180). This variance in thinking points to a foundational challenge in integrating positivist science’s view on somatic experience and holistic approaches.

There is also a temporal challenge (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 79-80) to reconcile. As opposed to the ever-changing stream of consciousness, biology sees the body is a source of stability and relative sameness (Damasio, 1999, p. 142). In navigating through the duree of lived experience (Malhotra (Bentz), 1981, p. 111), construction of reality is always a split second ahead of the present (Damasio, 1999, p. 94). By the time consciousness captures and assembles verbal, sensory, and symbolic data to create the present, the flow has carried us beyond the temporally volatile moment. Thus, the present is forever relegated to the past (Barth, 1961, p. 48) carried forward with us as molecules of memory (Kandel, 2006, p. 241; Perth, 1997, p. 143)

But the physical body is always in the present (Blackburn, 2008, p. 2) and provides a touchstone for communications and inquiry. Husserl’s essence of being (Behnke, 1997) is grounded in the physical body’s perceptions (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. xi). Whether consciously or not, every body movement is recognized through a network of somatic sensors (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2007, p. 204). Sensory perceptions, generated by both internal and external stimuli, are building blocks of the in-the-moment experience. Perhaps in some cases, bodies function best when we ignore them rather than mindfully guide them (Shusterman, 2008, p. xi), as when a musician masters a score. But somatic awareness is achieved when consciousness is intentionally directed to mitigate bodily sensation with cognizance.

Like Damasio’s consciousness model, Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit describes an implicit sense of one’s situation, both internally and in context (Gendlin, 1978) . According to Gendlin (2000), the “body as internally sensed” (p. 110), which can reveal a “gamut of responses, feelings” and ways “one becomes familiar with oneself” (p. 110), is akin to somatic awareness: Befindlichkeit reveals authenticity (Gendlin, 1978).

Consideration of bodily experience is fundamental to the work of M. Merleau-Ponty, who refered to the internal total awareness as body schema (1962, p. 113-114). Phenomenology’s relationship with body-based inquiry continued in the work of T. Hanna (1928-1990) who coined the term somatology and later somatics (Behnke, 1997, p. 664) to describe his multi-disciplinary inquiries that intersected physiology and subjective perception. Subsequently, E. Gendlin developed the concept of focusing (1978) to investigate the body’s felt sense (Behnke, p. 645), giving rise to practice applications used today. A related technique, the body scan (Shusterman, 2008) offers one potential research tool for collecting data from non-verbal sources (p. 162).

In multiple modalities, the therapist, doctor, or coach often asks the client to report on their immediate internal body sensations and experience.  Questions like, “where do you feel discomfort, tightness, aching, or tension inside your body right now” are used to solicit input for designing intervention. In the technique called Body-Scanning this line of questioning is structured into an extended inspection of the internal body experience. Verbal prompts guide the participant through a journey of their real-time felt response (Olsen, 1998, p. 17).  The instructions are geared to direct awareness and presence, beginning with differentiating between external and internal stimuli and focusing on the breath. Prompts continue to direct attention through the inner body, and ask the participant to notice what is sensed. The subject’s internal observations engender words and metaphors that provide a starting point for description (Shusterman, 2008, p. 164). Based on Damasio’s constructs (1994, 1999, 2003), somatosensory input intertwined with educated intentions will progressively increase the richness and clarity of the descriptions one can produce. The whole being can be trained to better appreciate, capture, and communicate their internal bodily experience.

Phenomenological methods provide substantive techniques to record the essence of an experience as it is unfolding (Van Manen, 1990; Bentz & Rehorick, 2008). Though not identical to the actual lived experience, protocol writing, a crisply descriptive text describing an experience, (Van Manen, p. xx) gives lived experience a voice. Text, capturing the body-scanner’s vooice, can then be interpreted. As a practice and a research tool, the body scan can be applied in multiple disciplines to collect data on lived somatic experience.

Spiraling Deeper into Multi-disciplinary Inquiry

At a pivotal point in the story line of Wall-E (Stanton, 2008), the ineffective bodies of the exiled humans hijack their space craft and return to earth, ready to rebuild their terrestrial home. Their blossoming somatic awareness, which develops gradually through the film, is intrinsic to the eventual empowerment that fosters their rebellion. According to Shusterman (2008), somaesthetic feelings that can be named can then be trained and ultimately lead to transformation (p. 130).

Whether their pari-mobile physical condition is permanent, the reported micro-gravitational bone loss due to some genetic mutation, or a reversible response to environmental circumstances that will be remedied with medical science, proper diet and exercise, remains unknown to the viewer. Will the landed people continue to reverse their lack of somatic awareness? Will improved awareness lead to stronger, more mobile bodies? Will better bodies contribute to personal fulfillment and further expansions in consciousness? What we can predict for them, as they strive to overcome or reverse their embodied circumstances, can draw from other knowledge areas.

Arguments to consider span various paradigms. These range from whether the time lapse was sufficient for a permanent change according to Darwinian evolution, to the premises in sociology and trans-cultural studies that suggest that group values act as change agents (Aronson, 1972). Biological realities affecting the body influence individual consciousness and collective cultural factors. Politico-socio environments become embodied in our being. Somatics further plays a role in spiritual enrichment, and thus serves as a source of core nourishment.

Body awareness is rich territory for interdisciplinary exploration as already demonstrated by inquiries appearing in various fields. Socio-cultural ethnography describes how norms affect the experience of body awareness (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2003, p. 109). Psychology offers evidence that somatic awareness can be cultivated through body-based therapy (Price, 2005). Embodiment issues are now emerging in the Interdisciplinary field of Organizational Development in the applied practice of Somatic Coaching (Flaherty, 2005, p. xv). Today, bodymindfulness (Nagata, 2008, pp. 149-150) is discussed in social science venues as varied as cultural communications studies (Nagata, pp. 143-147) and trauma treatment protocol (Rothschild, 2000, p. 3).

Striking a balance between choosing a focus and deploying a multi-dimensional framework is key to effectiveness. While too much focus leads to a reduction in complexity, too little focus results in minimal direction and insipid insights. Using phenomenology’s approach and biology’s constructs provides a concrete platform for diverse questions. A foray into possibilities begins with considering how Damasio’s neuroscience allows insights into discipline specific interests.

Somatic Awareness and Psychotherapeutics

Psychotherapeutic practices are interlinked with somatic awareness. Psychology’s attention to bodilyfocused attention and practices can be traced back to the early 20th century and the work of W. Reich, F. Perls and the Gestalt movement, and C. Jung (Davis, Eshelman, & McKay, 1988, p. 15). Progressive relaxation, a technique to internally release muscles, has its roots in E. Jacobson’s work (1938), as a method to manage stress by controlling body tension. In the mid-1970s, A. Lowen introduced Bioenergetics, to treat anxiety by focusing on internally constricted muscle patterns (Lowen, 1975). Damasio’s (1999) model provides a language for communicating the mechanics of these practices: each involve signals from the muscular-skeletal subsystem, as do the practices of martial arts, yoga, and dance-movement therapy (Behnke, 1997, p. 664). Neuroscience’s principle that controlled movements can affect feelings (Ekman & Davidson, 1992, pp. 342-345) allow an additional avenue for describing how body can shape emotional states. This scientifically based hypothesis furthermore supports the arguments proposed by T. Brennan (2004) that affect is transmitted from person to person through nonverbal channels (p. xx). This suggestion can be further explored using neuroscience’s constructs of paripersonal space (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2003, p. 3).

Self-help somatic practices of biofeedback, and sensory integration therapy (Behnke, 1997, p. 664) involve Damasio’s (1999) internal milieu and visceral subsystem, focusing intentionality to control bio-chemical signals. Massage therapy’s effectiveness originates by invoking signals in Damasio’s (1999) fine-touch system. Yet each of these practices demonstrates that irrespective of which subsystem manages the initial signals, the responses are integrated and perpetuate subsequent responses in the other subsystems. For instance, massage therapy starts by initiating fine-touch signals, which in turn contribute to internally generated relaxation of muscular-skeletal structures. Proprioceptive signals from relaxed musculature trigger responses in the internal milieu to release hormones to activate the para-sympathetic Relaxation Response (Benson, 2000). Hence, neuroscience offers both a language and scientifically grounded mechanics to triangulate principles garnered anecdotally from clinical practice.

A contemporary approach to psychological counseling, aptly named Body-based psychotherapy, involves interweaving talk with physical interventions such as touch and movement (Price, 2008, pp. 47-48; Staunton, 2002, pp. 107-108). Beyond channeling attention internally to collect information, the body-based psychotherapist employs soma-directed tactics for presumed inherent benefits. By intentionally cultivating client attention to their inner experience, the psychotherapist promotes recovery and personal evolution through improved self-awareness (Price, 2008, p. 51). Using the body as a staging area for self-revelation, such therapy claims to also support personal growth (Blackburn & Price, 2006, p. 68). Various case studies report memories, emotions, and trauma as being revealed and released in body memory (Damasio, 1999, pp. 118-119; Elmen, 1997, p. 109; Hall, 1997; Olsen, 1998, pp. 15-16). Hence, the in-the-present body is not only the staging area for experience, but reflects development as it serves as a resource for healing and transformation (Price, 2008, pp. 1-6).

Study participants report feelings of empowerment through improved somatic awareness (Price, 2005, p. 52). This finding suggests a useful factor for our imaginary returnees to earth in Wall-E (Stanton, 2008). Perhaps a series of body-based psychotherapy sessions would support and motivate them to the higher level of personal development needed to address their environmental challenges. Scientifically based mechanics for perception development are available in the expanding theories of plasticity and epigenesis (Lipton, 2008, p. 36-39). Lipton (2008) further suggests that perception effects belief that underlies self-agency and actualization.

Applying Brain Science in Sociology

Cultivating increased somatic awareness could have a “profound influence on all therapeutic modalities” (Blackburn & Price, 2006, p. 68). But a full appreciation of somatic awareness requires contextual consideration. For instance, neuroscience abounds with clinical benefits of touch (Field, 2001). But some cultural norms create prohibitions against touching. Sociology traditionally addresses issues of collective norms and behaviors, including those involved with somatics.

In I. M. Young’s Throwing like a girl (1980/2005), the author posits collective elements that shape bodily experience (p. 142-143). Young (1980/2005) contends that the feminine experience is not based in biology, physiology or female essence, but rather in the “particular situation of women as conditioned by contemporary society”  (p. 153). Women’s perception of themselves, resulting from socially constructed self-concept, underlies them not fully engaging their physical strength (p. 143-146). Data claims women are more prone to tentativeness (p. 146), have less motility (p.146-153), and harbor a fear of getting hurt (p. 146). Women’s underestimation of their capacity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (p. 147) and carries over into external aspects of life (p. 152-153). The “girl learns to hamper her movements” (p. 154) and see herself as being “physically inhibited, confined, positioned and objectified”, “rather than as a living manifestation of action and intentions” (p. 155).

In addition to feminist theory, bodily experience tends to generate discussion concerning factions that are marginalized. In an essay on disability sociologists B. Hughes and K. Paterson (1997) claim “sociology has discovered the body”, and at the same time, studies have “seen fit to dispense with it” (p. 326). To convey theory into practice, sociology will benefit from clearer language, and concrete methods, techniques and approaches for bringing the body into text.

Internal feelings, which can be identified and captured in body scanning (Shusterman, 2008, p. 162-164), reflect habits learned from our sociocultural formations (p. 130). They can thus be relearned (p. 130). Biologist B. Lipton (2008) agrees that perceptions, not genes, control the construction of behavior (p. xx).  Whereas social structures, such as education and parenting practices, will instruct Young’s genderbased norms, neuroscience describes a mechanism for changing such perceptions on an individual basis. Integrating recent findings from research in neuro-plasticity can offer hope for reshaping women’s experience of body, including the kinesthetic experience of throwing. Additional perspectives more aligned with applied psychology invoke visualization to re-orient team sports performance (Sheikh & Korn, 1994, p. 23). But re-orienting collective norms to shape individual experience requires more than understanding how the tools work.

Cultural crossovers: Spirituality and Somatic Awareness

Somatic awareness plays a role in some religious and spiritual practices (Kovach, 2008, pp. 941-942) as well as centuries old yoga poses such as Savasanna (Singleton, 2005, p. 289). In its essence, meditation offers a gateway for deeper self-knowing and holistic mindfulness. However, there is a common Western misconception that Eastern traditions promote somatic awareness (Morley, 2008, p. 154). In actuality, most Yogic tradition transcends somatic awareness (Morley, p. 149). At best, the body is a vessel rather than a focus. Morley argues that Tantric tradition affirms the primacy of somatic consciousness (p.155) Vipassana meditation, which professes body and mind interconnectedness, cultivates body mindfulness as a vehicle to insight through somatic awareness (Holland, 2004, p. 470).

d’Aquili and Newberg (1999) developed a neuroscience model to help explore the brain’s role in religion and mystical phenomenon. Specifically, it claims that the act of meditation serves to suspend temporal and somatic awareness in pursuit of a higher state where physical boundaries are surpassed (pp. 157-168).  However, rather than deepening real-time bodily experience, meditation posits a goal of transcending the physical body to attain an absolute unitarian state (pp. 14-15). Brain science research reinforces practice by triangulating findings with phronesis. In consciousness that is influenced daily by Western paradigms, scientifically grounded substantiation carries authority and can help establish popular acceptance of emerging constructs.

The generation of somatic awareness and meditative state both begin with a common pattern in the frontal cortex, but deviate in their subsequent directions. Recognition and response to both internally and externally generated stimuli occur through sensory receptors in the upper parietal lobe (d’Aquili and Newberg, 1999, pp. 33-36). Intentionality, including construction of somatic mindfulness, originates in regions in the frontal cortex called the Attention Association Area ( d’Aquili and Newberg , pp. 34-35) where firing neurons activate focus and concentration. The vestibular system’s dimensional data, integrated with kinesthetic and tactile perceptions, is parsed by cognitive operations that interpret and assign meaning. Somatic awareness demands focus on bodily sensation, whereas meditation strives to transcend it. Studies that monitor brain activity during deep meditation record a drop in parietal lobe activity, the brain region associated with processing somatic sensations (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2007, p. 122). In a process called functional deafferentation, the brain systematically blocks incoming information, including recognition of internal sensation, while it spirals into self-induced over-excitement (d’Aquili & Newberg, 1999, pp. 41-42).

Whether one accepts the specific technical aspects of the d’Aquili/Newberg model, it serves to further triangulate materialistic dimensions associated with channeling somatic awareness, and the critical role of intention. It also provides vernacular for related conversations important to a deeper question which arises through considering the spiritual dimension of somatic awareness: Cultivating somatic awareness asks me to pay attention and develop a relationship with an aspect of myself that I know will leave me in death. Aside from a discussion of the human versus the divine, why would I willingly go to an awareness that is embodied in mortality? Perhaps the answer lies in acknowledging that anticipated foundational awareness is the basis for all subsequent higher consciousness, and makes this life more than a rehearsal for a hypothetical afterlife. Focusing on somatic awareness requires that the state of being bodily mindful be valued in its own right.

Conclusions and Further Study

Whether somatic awareness can be cultivated or eliminated completely is explainable from multiple disciplinary viewpoints, and now triangulated in neuroscience theories and findings.  In addition, neuroscience offers a framework to construct a common somatic language. A more developed language is foundational to describing the wordless state of the inside out where all perception begins; a vernacular to describe the inner state is under-developed. Exact words fall prey to metaphors and images that are clearly superimposed by some sphere of the higher intellect.  For example, the descriptions of internal organs and soft tissue structures are likely images drawn from an individual’s familiarity with Western anatomy and physiology. This speaks to the value of providing basic anatomical instruction at an early age to support self-care. Science demands exactitudes, including in vocabulary and definitions (Damasio, 1999, p. 27). Other disciplines can benefit from this clarity and also use it to approach cross-disciplinary parity with various theoretical intersections with science and somatics.

Underlying the “So What” question: What I have taken for granted is not so easily named. Why, again, is increased somatic awareness valuable? In addition to therapeutic interventions and self-care, the implications for intimate relationships render wordless images of the satisfied lover, the suckling infant, the empowered warrior. Somatic awareness allows one to take better care of oneself, one’s partners, and by extension, one’s clan. Our fictional Wall-E earth returnees can cultivate somatic awareness to support their individual and collective body developments. It could provide a cornerstone to environmental survival and evolutionary success.

From another aspect, the process of conducting scholarship in body mindfulness (Nagata, 2008; Anderson, 2002-03) can enrich research results. Merleau-Ponty (1962) claimed that the body provides “significance not only to the natural object but to the cultural object like words” (p. 273). Words invoked and received, come through the body with or without awareness.  Making bodily awareness a partner to intellectualization bridges the reflective being with the embodied being.  And when one is lost, somatic mindfulness can serve as vehicle for consciousness re-orientation. “Intentionality would carry us to the heart of the object” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 277). Intentionality must begin from inside the looking glass.

Phenomenology asks us to suspend attachment to permanence. But our biological realities dictate that our body holds memory. Assuming we choose to bracket the assumptions that come with this state, bodily awareness must first be acknowledged and understood. Phenomenology tells us that the core of understanding is in experiencing.

The practical reality is that to access the epoche we must work through the body. In two final scenes of Wall-E, the resilience of human spirit is demonstrated in body-based responses: the captain draws sufficient strength to command his body to stand erect and walk several feet, thus securing safety for his passengers; and the touch of a hand, albeit robotic, restores Wall-E’s soul. Even as scholars, the body we start with is our own.


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Filed under Academic papers and publications, essays, research

17 responses to “Where truth intersects with meaning: Somatic awareness as explained by neuroscience viewed through a phenomenological framework

  1. Dear Luann,

    I have read this paper and looked through your blog. I appreciate the personal searching you do, the honesty, and this effort at academic rigor. I have written a couple of papers, excruciatingly difficult for my “right brain” dominated body to complete, using some of the same references you have here. I think you might be interested to look at my site and work. The papers are on
    http://posturereleaseimagery.org/my-articles but the other pages have more direct exposure to my approach.


  2. Luann

    Dear John

    Thank you for reading my work and your comments. I am also pleased to see the perspective of an Alexander worker on your blog. I am currently involved in a graduate course on embodiment, and some of the participants are presenting their research on Alexander. I look forward to sharing your work with them.

    Please continue to keep in touch,


  3. Pingback: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Minneapolis | My Blog

  4. Wendy Roberts

    Hi Luann,


    • Luann

      Hi Wendy,

      As you can see below, your comment got cut off after “Hi Luann, I”. I hope you continue!

      Ephphatha, Luann

  5. I hope you don’t mind that I posted this to the Seers and Seekers Yahoo group.


    • Luann

      Certainly! Glad to many talking about somatics, as well as practicing it. BTW, this paper can be cited as an unpublished conference paper. I welcome discussion,

  6. Reading this reminded me of my experience at Fielding, and why I find academia so constraining and problematic (even at Fielding).

    Your final comment, “Even as scholars, the body we start with is our own,” paralleled and summarized many of my insights. The challenge is to reawaken and reclaim the sensory-kinesthetic dimensions of our experience, and bring our full humanity into the academic domain that has worked for centuries to deny so much of who we are.


  7. Luann

    Yes, we agree. But it is tricky, between language and socio-cultural norms. Who in polite company talks about the vibration or gurgling of their intestinal track, or perhaps even recognizes the sensation or what it might be related to in their physiology. What I am increasingly struck by is that clarifying something as simple as a gurgling stomach, and the challenges in making oneself understood on this base event, brings a fuller perspective to the challenges of communicating across centuries of religious indoctrination or over the West Bank.
    Thanks for the conversation. I also look forward to meeting in person.

    • Luann,

      In your last response, “centuries of religious indoctrination,” passes the buck, I think. Are you skapegoating all religion and religious tradition here? We could probably argue the the problem lies with everything from the advent of farming, industry, or even consciousness (“left” brain development) and language. I like Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory the best. It blames us all, in a sense. And, to me, as a result, it frees us all… to look mostly for the good in all things, including academic persuit.

  8. Luann

    I agree, and was using “centuries of religious indoctrination” as but one aspect of the myriad perspectives that can impact communication. At the heart of my point is that if I cannot be clear in relaying what I am feeling in our my body, it highlights the challenge of communicating how our perception, awareness and consciousness gets intertwined with elements from our environmental context.

    Thanks for the conversation,

  9. That’s true, Luann. I think the best communications require something like this:
    Being empathetic with the listener, which is at best is imagining one IS the listener. Imaginging one IS the other involves many somatic and deeply educational responses. Sort of an intentional use of mirror neurons, perhaps. Then one can pass the communication to the other in a way that will more likely be received. This, of course, works best one on one, but there is a place for a certain level of empathy with a “group,” if they have shared perceptions or “natures.”

  10. Hehe I’m honestly the only reply to your amazing article.

  11. Luann

    Hi Jerry,
    Thanks for the amazing part. Actually, in addition to the comments above, I presented this paper at an academic conference in October 2009 where we had lots of interesting discussions. Although neuroscience perspective is very contemporary, I found that applying biological terms unilaterally to somatic phenomenon can be limiting. In my research, I continue to look for ways to capture non-verbal experience. I welcome your thoughts and suggestions.
    best regards,

  12. I must write to you and thank you for the overwhelmingly useful article/paper slash body of work. It is immeasurably explicit in ways that connect directly to my work as dancer/choreographer and the work of our tribe, the dance community.

    As a researcher looking for a way to “locate” the language “facility” for the purposes of dance making and performance, I am greatly aided by this structure you provide. What a gift.

    I was compelled to reply before I have thoroughly sunken my artistic teeth into it simply because of your last post where by you mention the “capturing of non-verbal experience”.

    It might be ridiculous to ask, but when was the last time you saw a contemporary dance performance? With luck you might see it like “we” do. As an artistic form of exactly that, the capture without taming it…our non-verbal parallel realities as body people, albeit very contingent on subjective styles and historical formal schools. But we dancers are coming your way. Toward science, toward methodologies that aim to increase the ‘truth’ factor in audience perception of our shared sensibilities with our “individual thresholds” of reality.

    A wild loose tip.

    Sincerely grateful,

    Jack Gallagher

    • Luann

      Dear Jack,
      Thank you for reading my work, and your solid suggestion on looking at the experience of modern dance. As I am now framing my final push for my dissertation research on massage therapists, you have offered another body of work and literature that I should consider. As a body-based therapist, I appreciate the many dimensions that collude to create the whole experience. Capturing the somatic piece, and representing it somehow in text for scholarly sharing, continues to be a challenge. But I think it is one well worth exploring; I believe many important insights lie in the land of the pre-verbal.
      thanks again for sharing,

  13. Pretty nice post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wished to mention that I have truly
    loved surfing around your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing
    on your feed and I am hoping you write again very soon!

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