Monday, September 11, 2017


Sometimes the announcements and previews of high-falutin’ meetings and papers of the privileged and highly focused people of academia or the medical world — esp. the psych folks — are more interesting or at least intriguing than the final workshops and so on.

Following is an announcement from “The Psychoanalytic Educational Forum of Boston.”  These groups of highly trained people are almost like religious denominations, each with a slightly different focus and dogma.  I thought this conference sounded pretty intriguing:

“Felt experience, especially traumatic emotional experience, is held by people in their bodies. If one listens, there is a music to this bodily configuration. For two people to experience together, there is a visceral, musical, bodily connection that allows often dissociated felt experience to emerge into a mutual play-space.  In this presentation we will wrestle with the psychoanalytic dilemma of getting next to another’s felt experience through attention to the embodiment and music of that experience.  In particular we will consider non-verbal and implicit forms of meaning making. Clinical material from the analyses of two adolescents in which music was literally involved will be explored in detail.  Music can help two people live together in a shared place, a play space, and in turn this transforms the shape of held emotion.  The musical play modality will help us explore the overall dilemma of joining another in felt bodily experience.

“Felt experience” in terms of human understanding, especially in relation to each other, is a familiar term.  Maybe the idea of a “play space” is a little more specialized.  It refers to the bubble of attention between two people who are interacting in a trusting, intimate, change-allowing way.  Winnicott talked about it happening between a mother and her baby.  It happens between lovers or between two people in close interaction like argument or learning.  Somewhat related is the idea of a “holding community” which is about a whole group of people in agreement and acting together in a way that supports their identity.  Maybe on a dance floor.

Mircea Eliade is a crucially important religious thinker but he did not write about “holding communities” or the use of music or play space.  In his most famous book he spoke of “The Sacred and the Profane”, pointing out that the felt experience of everyone could distinguish between a place that was ordinary or one that was significant, even thrilling.  This became linked in my mind to the cutting edge discovery that specialized single cells scattered through the body are capable of detecting things like when a person (or even a rat, which is where it was discovered) is near a precipice or along a wall.  In fact, the theory is that the body can sense almost two hundred qualities in the world outside their skin without consciously thinking about it or having any control — maybe not much awareness except a vague intent to change directions.

We know abstractly that the body does not have direct access to whatever it is that forms the world around us, all the sights, sounds and surfaces that come to us through various coded means:  vibrations, light-waves, the pull of gravity, the dance of atoms that create molecules that appear to us as wood or stone or streams.

The brain cannot think without the body.  “Thought” in the sense of logic and math and other well-developed systems are not the core of being alive.  They are not the “highest.”  The body was not invented to carry the brain around.  That’s all backwards.  Most of what the body is doing — 98% is unconscious, simply managing the code coming in and sending responses back. Organizing, interpreting, remembering the information the senses are coding and providing, plus sending back instructions if necessary.  This is physical work, if you consider electro-chemical interactions physical.  This key excerpt from a long George Lakoff talk describes three functions of the brain:

Framing, the structure of ideas (or what I’ve been calling “hallucinations”) which is built in the brain, physically.  There are a lot of YouTube video explanations, mostly in terms of business and advertising.  Lakoff is talking about the deepest part of the brain, the foundation of all other thinking in that person, the part they refuse to ever go “outside,” the part that was laid down with neural connections before birth.

Institutions have frames and boundaries, suggesting scenarios.  Language is based on these scenarios and draws meaning from them.  In Lakoff’s use here, an “institution” is a context of living, a situation.  When I use the word, I mean an organization with a purpose, formally authorized, part of a culture.

Metaphors are the means of language.  They establish connections (associations and physically joined neurons) between two things close enough to use them interchangeably as a part for the whole, or to merge them as concepts in the brain.  This happens through experience in every animal.  Humans are the only ones who can understand a previously unknown metaphor by using the ones they already know.  That is, you can’t explain to a monkey how to peel a banana by telling him about it.  He needs to see it.  Once.

Almost all of the messaging and coding going on in the body is mammal business: breathing, heart beat, metabolizing, immune system, and lots of other stuff that would overwhelm a person if they were conscious of it.  There are only some parts of it that CAN be made conscious, like breathing.  

BUT “religion” can use framing and metaphor to bring unconscious forces into some kind of subconscious harmony because they can control the neurochemicals and images of the bodily brain.  You’ll feel it, whether it is a call to peace or a declaration of war, or surge of love.  Something like this can be achieved by introducing outside forces: new molecules, movement, raw input like electricity or magnetism, blows.  But also stroking, patting, temperature change which are the kinds of things that one hopes a baby could build into it’s basic foundational frame about intimacy.

Then the feeling can be rekindled with words if they are the right metaphors.  Metaphors aren’t so hard to recognize or even to manage, but FRAMING is very deep, much of it formed in childhood and to challenging a frame of conviction can be sanity threatening.  Remember the torture of Islamic tribal people who had been taught to fear and hate pariah dogs that eat corpses in the street or menstruating females. . If you say “reaping the whirlwind” to someone who has just survived Irma, it will have a strong effect on them.

Institutions like church or psychoanalysis seminars are meant to provide supporting or “holding” communities that can reinforce frames and provide helpful or delightful metaphors for a growing experience — as the announcement notes, not necessarily in words.  Music can be expressive metaphors and so can dance.  Art is this work, but only if it is using the frames and coding in ways that can be responded to in the receiver.  Challenging their frames of receivers can be as valuable as confirming them, but first, as the workshop announced in the beginning, that means “getting next to their experience,” in this case by sharing music.  Boldly, they declare that this has been successful with adolescents.

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