Guest Author Brian Tierney – Vitalism and Mechanism; Linguistic Biodynamics

My most recent guest on Episode 20 of The Craniosacral Podcast was Brian Tierney. In the interview Brian shared with us about his journey through the healing arts and influences in the field of craniosacral therapy. He is currently completing doctorate work in psychology and teaches for Body Intelligence. Here are two short writing samples from Brian relating to craniosacral therapy:

Vitalism and Mechanism

In my recent researches within the field of somatic psychology, I got excited about finding the concept vis medicatrix naturae, “the healing power of nature” attributed to the work of Hippocrates. It was exciting to me because it seemed like an additional term in our western lexicon to describe the organizing, intelligent, and potent forces that shape and sustain life. So often we turn to eastern concepts such as qi and prana to describe the ineradicable vital force of life that flows through us and it was refreshing to be reminded that the Hippocratic tradition has parallel perceptions.

Interfacing with the scientific community, however, about life force conceptualizations such as these can be tricky at best and disastrous at worst. I call this difficult interface the wall of vitalism because science has more or less discredited any references to life force by filing them away in a category called vitalism, synonymous with quackery. Any idea that seems to reference an organizing force that cannot be landed in immediately measureable corporeality is subject to being labeled as quack-tastic vitalism. So where does that leave us if notions such as breath of life, potency, vis medicatrix naturae, and qi elicit skepticism or even downright hostility?

I find it helpful to think of vitalism as a polar opposite to the scientific method, which could be thought of as a form of mechanism. Mechanism necessitates measurement, quantification, and corporeality. Vitalism deals with forces that may not be quantifiable, but have qualitative realities which influence us in powerful ways. One could say that mechanism deals primarily with objectivity whereas vitalism can be correlated with subjectivity, with a person’s inner experience. I think it is useful to think of vitalism and mechanism as two polar extremes on a continuum of attitudes that make sense of the world. These attitudes can be envisaged as lenses through which we view reality. Being aware of which lens you are wearing when, and where it is on the continuum is essential to avoiding losing rapport with someone who inhabits a different part of the spectrum. Vitalism and mechanism are two common lenses to interpret the world, yet radical multiplicity is closer to the mark of reality: a million tiny lenses instead! Thinking and perceiving through multiplicities gives us an opportunity to exercise flexibility, humility, and interest so that we do not fall into the trap of coercing others into the shapes of our habitual lens.

Linguistic Biodynamics and the Primary Respiration of Language

One of the embryological axioms that finds traction in Craniosacral Biodynamics, found throughout the teachings of our work, is the principle of outside-in differentiation. As explored in the work of Erich Blechschmidt, outside-in differentiation is a developmental fact fundamental to the metabolism of the human embryo and later growth dynamics throughout the lifespan. It is the process by which metabolic forces, fluid gradients, and extragenetic materials both outside and inside the living cell begin, in the words of Blechschmidt, “penetrating toward the nucleus” while initiating vectors of tissue growth and type along the way. Epigenesis is a related dynamic that has been mobilized by the scientific community to explain how cellular differentiation and propagation require a complex dance between DNA genetic material inside the nucleus of the cell and the milieu of physico-chemical structures, processes, and movements outside the cell nucleus. Blechschmidt called the study of these dynamic processes kinetic morphology, defined in the same paragraph in which he names the functionally-forming forces at play in development biodynamic forces, he writes: “In any phase of development, changes in form and structure must result from the complex movements of particles of a molecular and submolecular nature. At all times, such movements, which are the manifestations of physical forces, are the direct causes for those changes in position, form, and structure that lead to differentiations.” Blechschmidt called the biodynamic forces that shaped anatomical position, form, and structure respectively topogenesis, morphogenesis, and tectogenesis.

Blechschmidt dedicates a chapter to how these functional forming forces, operative in our prenatal growth, lay down a psychosomatic grid for more complex human behavioral patterns such as speech to grow out of. He uses the phenomenon of shrugging as an exemplar of a somatic form of communication that contains a natural psychological meaning pre-exercised in the functional movements of the developing embryo. Blechschmidt writes that shrugging puts the body in a “particular configuration so that the shoulder joints no longer permit the arms to be used freely for “hand” –ling.” Anyone who imitates the gesture in response, posits Blechschmidt, will immediately grasp or “handle” the meaning conveyed by the somatic posture of the shrugging gesture: “I don’t know, I can’t grasp an answer.” He goes on to suggest that the sociology of civilization is shaped by the biodynamic sociology of our cellular ensembles: “If we were incapable of making gestures with our bodies, then no language, no use of language for thinking, and no social order would have developed. What we call sociology is based on the ontogenetic development of a “sociology” of cells and cellular ensembles.”

I will argue here that our soma is a necessary prerequisite (but not a sufficient condition) for language acquisition in a way closely akin to how Blechschmidt describes DNA as a relationally-dependent stable structure: “genes are a necessary prerequisite, but not a sufficient condition, for the process of differentiation.” Analogous to how the DNA requires activation from outside biodynamic forces, language operates as an outside autonomous force, mobilized by the ritual assemblages of social interactions, that acts upon the postnatal ontogenetic biology of our brain. Conceived of in this way, language can be considered a biodynamic force that follows the same functional pathways into our body from the outside that the metabolic fields of the whole imprinted upon us during primary embryological development. If this theory has explanatory power then it will contribute to the growing body of neurobiological evidence that the therapeutic alliance between clinician and client is an essential factor in neural re-patterning. It will also highlight the importance of developing biodynamic verbal skills for establishing an alliance that impacts the soma in generative ways paralleling the powerful metabolic forces at play in embryogenesis.

I thought of the axiom of outside-in differentiation when I read the work of anthropologist Terrence Deacon in his text Symbolic Species. Deacon coined the term homo symbolicus to describe the result of the quantum leap in human brain biology that occurred in our evolution as a result of social rituals that exercised the cultural embryogenesis of words: symbolic gestures and vocalizations. Our capacity to symbolize in language has, in Deacon’s terms, co-evolved with our soma, meaning that language itself has operated like an evolving organismic force that has directly shaped our biology:

Symbolic communication . . . created a mode of extrabiological inheritance with a particularly powerful and complex character, and with a sort of autonomous life of its own. It is for this reason that the co-evolutionary process has played such a major role in shaping human brains and minds. It is simply not possible to understand human anatomy, human neurobiology, or human psychology without recognizing that they have all been shaped by something that could best be described as an idea: the idea of symbolic reference.

The symbol was the vehicle by which homo symbolicus arrived at its present somatic form, argues Deacon, a miraculous innovation that generated concrete organic brain material specializing in the transformation of concrete objects of the world into abstractions. If the symbol was the vehicle, then meaningful and repetitive social ritual was its testing ground and laboratory of incubation. Deacon writes: “early hominids were forced to learn a set of associations between signs and objects, repeat them over and over, and eventually unlearn the concrete association in favor of a more abstract one.” Moreover, the capacity to transcend concrete associations through symbolization is at the core of both language and the somatic form that makes our species our species.

Blechschmidt rightly argued against the reductionistic equation that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, the notion that our embryonic development re-enacts the biological evolution of our species from primordial soup through to placoderms, proconsuls, great apes, and finally to our present form as homo sapiens sapiens. However, completely throwing out the concept that phylogenesis influences ontogenesis is going too far. Richard Grossinger suggests that human ontogeny creatively recapitulates phylogeny, not in a linear fashion, but in a hierarchically nested, non-linear, partially lawless, and distinctively human style. Such a conceptualization of ontogenesis allows Deacon’s explanation of our language acquisition as a species to inform how language acquisition and usage can shape the brain of the postnatal individual. If we treat language as an autonomous outside force enacted in social rituals containing gestures, words, facial movements, symbolism, and an activation of the intersubjective social nervous system, then we have another example of how biodynamic activity on the outside affects structures on the inside. Perhaps we can speak like we touch in biodynamics, in a way that follows something so deep and visceral that psyche, soma, and sayings cannot be separated. Perhaps primary respiration can shape our words as much as it does our touch and our bodies.

I think that the effective use of both symbols and the subjunctive mood of grammar are essential biodynamic verbal skills; I would even go so far as to say that the subjunctive mood bears with it potencies and potentialities paralleling the breath of life as a “fluid within the fluid”. Anthropologist victor turner describes the subjunctive mood as a liminal (in-between) force defined as “the mood of maybe, might be, as if, hypothesis, fantasy, conjecture, desire . . . ordinary life is in the indicative mood, where we expect the invariant operation of cause and effect, of rationality and commonsense.” In contrast to the indicative mood, suggests Turner, the subjunctive mood is “a fructile chaos, a storehouse of possibilities, not a random assemblage but a striving after new forms and structures, a gestation process.” My suggestion, following the above authors, is that effectively using the subjunctive mood of grammar and its fructifying symbolic style is a biodynamic language skill that has the capacity to impact the structures of the soma from the outside in powerful ways analogous to Blechschmidt’s axiom of outside-in differentiation. Somatic sociologies are a necessary prerequisite for language, though they need to be operated upon by the outside force of cultural innovation through language for their potencies and potentialities to be fully expressed.

Contact Brian for the full, annotated texts for these articles, or to get a sample of his 60 page piece on trauma.

ryan-hallford-craniosacral-therapistRyan Hallford is a craniosacral therapist and educator. He offers certification programs in basic and advanced cranial work through the Craniosacral Resource Center in Southlake, TX.