Thursday, July 28, 2016


Abuse is about bodies, even emotional abuse since emotions are bodily states.  One of the great values of embodiment cognition theory is that is explains starkly what abuse does to children: it shuts down their intake of sensory information that is the basis of thought and understanding.  It makes them numb and dumb.  This is quite apart from invasive violence  bad enough that it causes the brain to skip to another “reality” which is called “dissociation.”

I could say that abuse makes children less human, makes them robotic zombies.  But that just adds more abuse, more blaming the victims.  It neither explains the causes and mechanisms of self-protection-by-shutting-out-feeling, nor gives any guidance for how to remedy the problem, so as to begin to feel again.  Nor does it help us recognize which behaviors are insulation, self-protection:  uproar, overeating, fighting, drugs, secrecy, denial, bullying, staying asleep, hoarding.  Not more wicked things to be stamped out, but things that were meant as protection.  Once we focus on what’s happening in bodies, we can see how adult predators use and encourage these emergency defensive behaviors for their own ends, maybe because they’ve been using them personally all their own lives.

If one is pretty successful at not-feeling, pretty soon the body itself begins to crave some kind of stimulation and what actually gets through the insulation must be more and more intense, surprising, forbidden, in order to get in there.  Until stimulation gets to the point of being scary, which means wanting more protection.  Until the protection itself becomes a source of death. 

Most body functions waver back and forth between extremes that could cause death, but sometimes the flow of variation in something like body temperature or blood sugar or sleep is wide and other times it is narrow, depending on the environment and the specific variable.  Managing oneself means constant monitoring.  The good news is that the brain itself seems pretty good at adding back neurons, connectome workarounds, and new tricks.

The first step in remediating the effects of abuse is safety.  Though the safety will have to be present and felt for quite a while before a traumatized person can trust it.  It may come in the form of attachment to another person they take to be protective.

The next step is recognizing and changing the behavior imprint, the games one has learned to play without knowing it — but change by replacement rather than erasure.  This means generating options, alternatives.  The more physical and sensory the better.  Skill-generating, success-providing.  And often one-on-one close contact and communication with someone skillful, but maybe over a game board like Parcheesi or a small task like washing the dishes.  Think speech therapist.

Someone somewhere is probably figuring out how to use emotional judo to block, disarm and re-interpret the domination games people play.  I wish they had more publicity.  Eric Berne’s book, “Games People Play,” is terrific and so is Steiner’s “Games Alcoholics Play.”  “Triangle theory” that shows how the offender/persecutor/rescuer/ structure of relationships is rigid and yet passes the roles around the triangle without ever revealing an exit.  As a theory this works as well for the whole culture as for families or other groups, esp. marriage.

In fact, kids raised by abusive adults become supersensitive to mood and devise a lot of techniques like distraction, abasement, disappearance, until they are big enough to blast back, maybe with fists or a baseball bat.  With all the thought going into training horses and pit bulls, there must be some of those techniques that will work with the mammals called human.

What I’m working from here is not some counselling handbook, but the study of thinking based on feeling which is rooted in cell systems — not some famous guy’s theories, but just ordinary experience in the world, that old Piaget and Montessori stuff about putting clothespins in milk bottles and stringing beads by tens.  But not excluding what we find out by watching closely people’s faces, sometimes in videos.

We learn how to be ourselves by confronting our environments and having reciprocal impact on it while it strikes us.  The most important part of our environments is always people.  From the beginning to the end they are the difference between life and death.

All this makes Mark Johnson’s “The Meaning of the Body” absolutely crucial in terms of helping youngsters traumatized and distorted by abuse.  There is always something in the “class” of helpers at the master’s level and above that prevents them from grasping that getting a kid clean, dressed properly, and at a higher reading level is not all there is to it, that there is something intractable, maybe ungraspable, about those “hard to reach” kids even when they are in plain sight at the same table.  Johnson explains that their different world-view is deep in the atoms of their cells, not just metaphorically but actually.  They are residual Romans, dazzled by the Enlightment and unable to look farther.

Then Johnson comes to what he considers both a remedy and a social solution:  art (pictures) and music, both of which can create meaning.  He spends some time vividly describing how Western thought, particularly philosophy of a certain kind, beginning with Plato and most emphatically and effectively through the Enlightenment, has scorned the arts and insisted that only logic, syllogism, words and propositions have qualified as thought.  That’s where all that theology comes from.  It is in the assumption that math-based science is “better” than the “soft” sciences.  It is gender-assigned: men are objective, women are subjective.  Anything “corticolimbic” is primitive, animal, and decadent.  One must be linear.

As it happens, my “ponder room” (the one with the throne) is always equipped with a big fat book worth pondering sentence by sentence.  Currently I’m beginning “The Silk Roads: a New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan.  His premise right away is that when trade opened between Pacific Asia and Atlantic Europe, Rome and Greece were stunned by the luxury of silk, spices, and slow-paced elegant living.  They had sought survival in Spartan endurance of hardship and focus on results beyond all else.  Now, in self-preservation, they stigmatized all luxury and specifically luxurious sex.  Art got caught in that contempt and near-criminalizing.  It was the Devil’s work.  And so seductive if you had enough money to buy admission.  Fleshly pleasures.

The social workers, formerly straight-A English majors who knew their grammar and even a bit of semiotics, are Spartans without thinking about it, earning virtue by confronting the sly camel traders from far away exotic realms where life is known to be a gamble.  Which one would you bet on?  Embodiment Cognition Theory addresses both.  

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