EMBODIMENT AND HAPTIC SYSTEM
by Marcelo Muniz
Most of the time, when a traumatic process is established in a person the phenomenon of dissociation occurs, which is in general understood as a separation between body and mind. When we observe this phenomenon through somatic lenses we realize that there exists many different levels of dissociation. Dissociation between the senses is a common pattern: the way that information through the senses is captured is alternated and blocked, changing then, the perception of oneself and of the world that surrounds the traumatized person.
In a healthy person there exists an inter sensoriality in which the senses support, communicate and complement themselves in the search for information from the environment. Creating moment-to-moment auto regulation possibilities and also identity and expression. Studies conducted byDrRamachandran (Neuroscientist) demonstrate that a rupture or disorganization on this inter-sensoriality alters also the brain organization patterns, which can be restored through brain plasticity and multisensory stimulation.
Hubert Godard in his studies and research about movement education foundin the work of psychologist James Gibson, the term Haptic System - where motricity and sensorialityare connected. Haptic System speaks about intra-sensoriality and also sensory-motricity. Intra-sensoriality speaks about the capacity of the senses to have a double function, for example to touch and to feel touched, about focal and peripheral vision, focal and peripheral hearing. Which means, I can search for an image with my eyes or I can let this image come to my eyes; I can search for a smell or open myself to receive the present smells. In this way we have a give and a receive, an act and a no act in front of the reality that surrounds us, in order to orientate ourselves through the five senses.
Sensory-motricity is when a motor and sensorial activity support each other to give and to receive information. This implies a presence and a relational attitude with the space and the world that surrounds us. Space is the common language for sensoriality, which is why we speak about the Haptic System, a system of communication and relation.
From the moment of birth up to 4 months of age, a child perceives the surrounding reality as a continuous and undifferentiated flow. Even though this flow varies in it’s intensity, the child cannot differentiate all the many aspects in which this flow is comprehended. The child’s senses do not operate in an integrated and differentiated way in order to offer an analysis of reality. For example: a baby that is breastfeeding feels the taste of the breast and of the milk, smells his mom and the milk, feels the warmth and support of his mom, sees the image and hears the song that she is singing, but he cannot put all these elements together to form one unique image of his mom and perceive the totality of the event. He perceives everything as a flow because he is in a sub cortical and receptive state. Along with that he has to deal with gravitywhich is constant and doesn’t vary. Every time he moves, he has to deal with the motor and the sensorial, and his psychic activity depends on and is interconnected to the motor-sensory. Only when he moves he has psychic activity that will orient him between the continuous flow of images and gravity. He is capable to react to what is comfortable or uncomfortable.
Only after the 4th month the baby is capable to create an analysis of the image, making an anticipated mental relation between the flow of the image and gravity.It is the time when the senses start to differentiate. In this second phase he is capable to analyze and anticipate himself in front of this flow of images. It is the birthplace of the psychic activity as we know it. Up to the 4th month the baby is not able to react to the environment, making choices or moving intentionally. If there is a high intensity of light on him, he will get activated because he is not comfortable getting agitated and crying, but he doesn’t know how to turn, how to deviate from this intense light that is focused in his eyes. He feels and moves together because there is an immediate and radical bond between motricity and sensoriality. In order to get an answer he will have to combine the information that comes from the flow and from the movement in gravity.
Slowly he starts to develop some answers that come from the integration of feeling and movement, which might bring some comfort. There is no way to separate motor development from sensorial development. We can say that there exists a visual kinesthesia. Until the 4th month only the flow exists for the baby, there is sound but not the meaning of sound; there is touch but not the meaning of touch. He can only feel when he moves but there is still no memory. Only later he starts to think while he moves. When he starts to be focal, he is able to start to create images in his mind in case that he needs to move. In this first stage, there is no meaning that corresponds to reality as a mental representation. There is only a peripheral activity that does not separate the modalities.
We have a triangle: The Flow of Images (we consider images all the information coming from the 5 senses), The Tonic Activity in the relation with gravity and Emotion. The baby can only deal with a discomfort like intense light and heat, through Tonic Activity. He gets into a sympathetic activation (fight/flight) of discomfort and dissatisfaction. It takes a while until he is able to analyze and be capable to move and act for himself, in order to get rid of this discomfort.
In this first phase, regulation comes from the other, which welcomes, nourishes takes care and brings back the comfort. The baby finds his auto-regulation through the support and regulation of his mother or from the caregiver. Tonic dialog can happen in many levels: it builds bonds, limits and the containment for spatial safety for the baby. In this phase emotion and tonicity are the possible answers to discomfort. The capacity to create a psychic anticipatory activity happens when the baby can sit up straight and hold his head up. When he starts to create images he can anticipate (recognize). Due to the fact that he can recognize/anticipate, his emotional level can lower in intensity. He can be faced with the environment and there won’t be so much of an emotion, and a kinesthetic answer of deviating through movement can occur.
But at the same time, in order to develop new relational and motor-sensory abilities, baby and adults must open again to this continuous flow of images. If this opening doesn’t happen, anticipation/projection wont allow the experience of the new to take place and the repetition of the known path will happen. Subjectivity starts from this organization. The baby’s development individualizeswithin the relation of time/space.The phases ofhis development will depend of the context. This is also the time when the system of defense starts to being built in regard to what is comfortable/uncomfortable, safe/unsafe, dangerous/trustworthy. That is why it is so hard for an adult to change his somatic-emotional organization. Building a learnt pattern in coordination and also in the sensory-motor perception creates an automated orientation, which will only let go and open again for a new learning if we turn to a non-projected relation towards the environment and to the other. We must be able to go back into a receptive, peripheral and vulnerable state which allows a renovated relation between Tonic Activity (gravity), Limbic System (emotion) and Environment (continuous flow of images).
We cannot acquire new competencies without returning to this initial state. An opening of the Haptic System allows us to go back to a dialog with the flow and also with the capacity to receive and move with the flow and to find, in this interaction, new answers and new possibilities of self regulation, which creates a new paradigm in stability. When we say that in order to heal emotional trauma we need to find stability, we are not speaking about the capacity of stabilize our selves, but we are speaking about establishing an appropriated dialog which will allow continuity and fluidity in the relation with gravity, with space and with the other, being it the environment, an object or another person.
What we will find in this relation is that behind the regulation of tonicity there is expressivity and impressivity. The Haptic Systemwill be cut or inhibited, in places where the defensive system organizes itself through inhibitions, and where there is no relation of fluidity and continuity. We will see blockages and restrains, fixations of attitudes and perception. Tonic regulation happens inside gravitational organization. We have the feeling of weight and the pressure mechanoreceptors of the feet inform us about the relation with the ground. The inner ear and otolithswill informus aboutour relation with space. Spindles are regulators of muscular tonus and they can be activated by different kinds of neurons: Alfa Motor Neuron (cortical/pyramidal/voluntary) or GamaMotor Neuron(sub cortical, comes from the brainstem, connected to emotion and spatial orientation).
Gama Motor Neuron is highly affected by the limbic system, hippocampus and amygdale. So being, our emotional state affects the Gama function. Muscles that are responsible for core stabilization are connected to the Haptic System through our feet, hand and sub occipital muscles. These are body areas with a high quantity of spindles that function as sensory organs taking and bringing informations. To fell touched and receive the flow is the first step to rehabilitate the haptic function. To be touched is to allow the presence of the other.
When you feel touched there occurs an emotional activation. Gama activity sustains the basic tonus of attitude and the posture of being in front of the other and in relation with him. The reticular formation in the brainstem initiates gama activity; then the Gama Motor Neuron will be under the influence of the hippocampus and amygdale. This activates muscles of core stabilization that govern our motor coordination and allow balance and fluidity in gravity.
Gama activity depends on our emotional state. The act of stretching for example depends totally on our emotional state. When you try to stretch via a voluntary/alfa command the answer is always smaller then when you open yourself to the relation with space coming from the haptic: from the feet, hands and sub occipitals, which in fact can double the stretch from the alfa command. You open yourself into the relation with space and immediately a modulation of the limbic system occurs. Gama activity allows a longer stretch reflex, changing the tonus and allowing the stretch to occur with a low resistance. In reality, movement happens in neuron alfa through 2 ways, one direct and one indirect which uses neuron gama.
We can say that in voluntary straight activity (Alfa) we have a controlling agent, and in the relational activity with space, using the emotional (Gama) we have in opposition a receptive agent. When the Haptic System is not active and functional, there will be a loss in fluidity and stability. This will generate an alfa function of grabbing oneself (holding oneself up) in relation to gravity and in relation to the other. This is initiating a defense and inhibition process and a blockage in expressivity and in impressivity. This is a process that is linked to body image and to the image that I want to project to the world; an image that I perceive as being correspondent to what I am as an identity but that in reality is a projection.
In general, this grabbing (holding) act searches for a geometrical correction of the body in order to keepsymmetry. Superficial body muscles are used to create a shape and keep the body straight in gravity. There is a loss in the palpatory activity of the feet and/or a blockage of the sub occipitals. The peripersonalspace orkinesphere of the person is constricted which prevents the relation of give and receive, reinforcing mental projections. Even in a collapsed structure we will see the holding level opposing the opening to space, and haptic function will be cut.
Why does this matter in trauma resolution? Because this adaptive arrangement can be the background where the deregulation of the system has installed, or it can also be what is preventing the generation of new capacity of bonding and connection to life, after conquering a trauma resolution. In order to take a risk I need stability and fluidity, not contention. To move in the world is always a risk, to go to the other, to push away from the other, to meet the other, embrace, deny, say yes and say good-bye, to love…
The first step towards restoring the hapticfunction is to let go of this hold, it is to find a tonic center where I can redirect the relation between ground and spatial orientation, coming from the palpatory activity of the feet, being touched by the ground, opening myself to the continuous flow and allowing the otoliths to lift me towards space. In order to meet the other or receive the other I need to split myself. In a child’s development, he splits first up and down, which is the gravity organization between ground/weight and otoliths/space. After that he will separate front and back, being with himself and with the other.
Only when contra lateral movement emerges, is that we are able to be with ourselves and to reach to the other. When one side is stabilized the other one can go with the world, with the other. This is another of Godard’s concept: phoric that comes from the Greek language and means support, it being understood, in a broad sense like a territory. When we think about the body as a territory, we are speaking about it as an envelope, as a volume, density, interoception, ownership. The part of our body that gives us a sense of presence and territory are the viscera. If I don’t feel secure in my territory I don’t have the trust to move myself.
In a traumatized person, that is a primary aspect that needs to be recovered: the sensation of territory and its boundaries. Only with this territory safety, we can risk ourselves in the body as an agent, to be the one that moves in the world. For a person to move, it is necessary to slip herself: one part stays with the phoric, as a territory and support, and the other part can go to the world, with the space and with the other. For example when we walk, we need one side of our body to give us support in order for the other side to launch itself in space and then we will have an inversion: the side that is acting will be phoric and the other side will be the acting one. To meet the other I need to divide myself. To flow in movement we have the four foundational articulations, that divide us when we create separations and at the same time organizes us in space with the relation to gravity:
1- Up and down
2- front and back
3- side to side
When my otoliths are functioning, I can orientate myself through them into space and free my eyes of the responsibility to support me and grab the world around me. I have the capacity of being near or far in space by using a zoom in my senses, especially with my vision that will allow me to have elasticity towards the other. Vergence is my capacity of evolving the other in my kinesphere or not. When I come back to a defensive movement of postural symmetry (flexion) I lose also my vergence.
In movement terms we first start to perceive the territory, the part of the body that stays and doesn’t move. Afterwards, we realize what we are moving and letting go with the world in direction to space. One of our basic fears is to dismembering or be torn in pieces; our other basic fear is to fall. When our presence acquires a quality that allows the sense of a defined and clear territory, we can divide ourselves with no fear to lose ourselves when we move in the world. We acquire an elasticity that will compose with our vergence capacity.
Gravity as a background is the non-changing factor of our relation with life, it regulates not only our muscular tonus but it also regulates through the limbic system the activity of our autonomic nervous system. The triangle: Tonicity (gravity) x Limbic System (emotion) x Continuous Flow of Images (periphery/receptive)is what allows the reorientation via Haptic System. It is the base for a change towards new possibilities, adaptive and interactive with the other and with the world.
In this sense the limbic system has a fundamental role in embodiment work. Godard speaks about entering a receptive state that will allow a small emotion when we receive the other’s presence through the haptic system.It is a small emotion that is connected to the presence. We create a border between interoception and exteroception, whichallowsvergence and reorientation in space and in the present time, through the revelation that comes from the sensorial in the relation with yourself and with the other. If there is a huge emotion, we will be flooded by activations that come from the past and will be lost in the present. A small emotion allows us to regulate moment to moment, in which embodiment wont be an exercise of well-being or a performance exercise, but a sensorial exploration that is connected to the present, rebuilding the relation between internal and external space in the search of stability and the relation with the other. From the present we will move towards a safer and more stable future, integrating potentialities and creating newer and richer meanings for ourlives.
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