Somatic Intelligence

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Somatic Intelligence. Psychology Fanatic
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The other night, anxiety crept in and seized my body. The experience caught me off guard. Usually a string of thoughts proceeds the anxious feelings. However, my mind was at rest while my body felt the rush of anxiety. Our bodies constantly are in flux, changing and adapting to surrounding environments. Sometimes we consciously recognize the environmental forces behind a trigger, other times the process is independent of conscious awareness. A psychological concept that refers to our ability to absorb and learn from these somatic messages flowing from bodily changes is somatic intelligence.

Marion Gilbert, physical therapist and somatic awareness coach wrote, “​all psychological and spiritual experiences take place in and are perceived by the body” (2013).  This thought is captured in an earlier Flourishing Life Society article when T, Franklin Murphy teaches, “living is an emotional experience. We feel. The experience of living isn’t what happens to us but how we feel about what happens to us” (2016).

Spiritual and Psychological Support for Somatic Intelligence 

A google search reveals a wide variety of articles about somatic intelligence. The concept of somatic intelligence is found in psychology, holistic , and fitness circles. Somatic intelligence overlaps with many psychological staples and on-going research. We see many intertwining connections between somatic intelligence, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, emotional regulation and emotional awareness.

​Many modern therapy styles in psychology now include some form of somatic practices. We see somatic intelligence utilized in:

  • Emotion Focused Therapy (Leslie Greenburg)
  • Somatic Experiencing (Peter A. Levine)
  • Focusing (Eugene Gendlin)
  • Interpersonal Neurobiology (Daniel Siegel)
  • Sensorimotor psychotherapy (Pat Ogden)

Research supports these somatic styles of therapy, proving them as effective treatment for many mental health illnesses. Holistic and alternative medicine often use the term somatic intelligence. Many of these practices engage in exercises that focus awareness on internal feelings and physical sensations. We sometimes refer to these as spiritual practices.

Many Somatic Practices Unregulated

However, since many of these practices and teachings are either unregulated or less regulated, it is incumbent upon the patient to scrupulously investigate suggested programming. Many of these practices may safely be used as supplemental medicine not as an alternative medicine.

Many holistic practices include meditation, breathwork and mindfulness. Holistic medicine is a whole-body approach to healthcare, improving health and wellness through the body, mind, and soul. Whole-person wellness is an effective path to a healthier, happier life. Old fitness methodology taught that conditioning the body required a mind-over-matter approach; when there was no pain there was not gain. While growth requires pushing beyond normal comfortable routines, treating messages from the body as the enemy can be dangerous. When muscles and tissues are overused, misused, or abused, our body is vulnerable to injuries.

In a fitness book on core awareness, author Liz Koch wrote, “developing somatic intelligence is not about gaining control. Instead, it is a process of unfolding and awakening an internal strength by accessing integrity” (2012, Kindle location 460).

Traditionally, somatic awareness is associated with eastern fitness, intertwined with practices of Yoga, Pilates and Qi Gong. However, somatic awareness and the integrating somatic intelligence to utilize the body’s wisdom can greatly benefit any fitness endeavor. The runner, the weight lifter, and the swimmer can all learn from the messages emanating from the body, learning and differentiating the sensations of being challenges from being overused.

Somatic Intelligence: an Integrating Practice

Our body is a master learner, soaking in messages from the environment. Learning isn’t always a conscious endeavor. A vast majority of learning occurs outside of awareness. The concept of somatic intelligence is drawing from the bodies storehouse of intelligence, by recognizing the mind body connection. Marion Gilbert explains “our ability to make choices to respond beyond our survival strategies is wholly dependent on our ability to be aware of the felt sense of emotions and beliefs held in our body based on past experience” (2013).

Brain science supports this concept. Several neuroscientists suggest that emotional learning occurs by experiences being tagged with somatic markers. Accordingly, integration of these markers is suggested to a part of our executive functions, largely occurring in the prefrontal cortex.

T. Franklin Murphy wrote:

Integrating is an ongoing process. Much of the integration occurs effortlessly. We have multiple sensory systems because they benefit our survival. We draw wisdom from these sources without intention. However, we don’t utilize everything. We have limited working space, much of the information we pull from the world remains hidden in the shadows of the mind. We compartmentalize experience, only drawing to consciousness small bits and pieces—a fraction of reality—failing to integrate many rich sources of information (2018).

Integration and Wellness

Lawrence Heller and Aline LaPierre wrote that ​”it is widely held in both somatic and psychoanalytic theory that without words to mentalize physical experience, unnamed, overwhelming emotions and sensations remain lodged in the body and its organs and are expressed as psychosomatic symptoms—a somatic encapsulation of unarticulated states” . They continue, “naming an experience brings sensations and emotions into consciousness” (2012, Kindle location 4060).

With awareness of internal changes, movement of life energy, we consciously integrate emotions through words. We name the feeling affects. Without the organizing ability of our prefrontal cortex, somatic happenings may feel fragmented, without purpose, leaving us confused.

The Prefrontal Cortex and Somatic Intelligence

Daniel J. Siegel, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California–Los Angeles School of Medicine, explains the importance of the prefrontal cortex in this organization. He wrote, “​the prefrontal cortex integrates social, somatic, brainstem, limbic, and cortical systems all into one functional whole. This integrative mechanism enables us to function in harmony in our bodies and in our social worlds” (2012, Kindle location 710).​

Linda Graham, marriage and family therapist, mindfulness teacher, and expert on the neuroscience of human relationships, points to a well-functioning prefrontal cortex as the CEO of resilience, providing the emotional regulating ability to process emotional sieges from worry, fear, and panic in our nervous systems. She writes, “once you can use the somatic intelligence of your prefrontal cortex to manage your body’s automatic reactivity to danger or threat and reliably maintain an inner equilibrium, you can act in the world with skill and conscious response-ability. You can carry on” (2013, p 193).

Language and Somatic Intelligence

Our language centers help define somatic experience. This process is known as emotion differentiation. Importantly, the more granular our explanation, the greater the handle we give to the experience to harness the energy and direct it towards our goals and aspirations.

Antonio Damasio, a neurologist and neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, hypothesized that “emotion was in the loop of reason, and that emotion could assist the reasoning process rather than necessarily disturb it.” He explained that “emotions mark certain aspects of a situation, or certain outcomes of possible actions.” Damasio explains that this marking can be achieved quite overtly, as in a ‘gut feeling,’ or covertly, via signals occurring below the radar of our awareness” (2005, Kindle location 160).

Importantly, without delving to deep into brain science, emotion influences everything we do. Basically, we mark encoded memories with importance by associated emotions. Secondly, underlying emotions stimulates logical reasoning, giving one thought precedence over another.

If emotion is such a fundamental source of energy for life, it stands to reason that bringing some of these processes into awareness is beneficial.

Biological and Psychological Obstacles to Somatic Intelligence

While somatic intelligence is a skill, there are several obstacles to enhancing our ability to experience emotion. Above all, early life trauma interferes with a persons ability to connect with emotion. Emotional detaching is a psychological defense often employed to survive these harsh environments.

In addition, there are also biological causes, such as alexithymia, that lead to an inability to experience emotion. In these situations, lack of somatic intelligence is not because we don’t have the skill but because we don’t have the ability. However, therapy sometimes can help in these situations.

Fundamental Life Energy

​”When we work through the body we engage with the fundamental life energy that animates and shapes who we are. When we connect with this core energy we contact a vast reservoir of wisdom, compassion, and intelligence that we’ve neglected” (2014).

Bessel van der Kolk, MD., a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and director of the National Complex Trauma Treatment Network, warns that “the price for ignoring or distorting the body’s messages is being unable to detect what is truly dangerous or harmful for you and, just as bad, what is safe or nourishing.” Kolk continues, “if you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations—if you can trust them to give you accurate information—you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, and your self” (2015, Kindle location 1,833). Basically, we need a healthy relationship with our inner somatic experience.

A Few Closing Thoughts on Somatic Intelligence

In conclusion, The importance of somatic workings within our body is irrefutable. We operate, learn, and survive through this fundamental function of the human body. Accordingly, as we integrate somatic experience with logical thought (the process of somatic intelligence), we function better, achieve our goals. Above all, we flourish in life when we connect with our somatic experience.

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Damasio, Antonio (2005). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.

Gilbert, Marion (2013). Somatic Intelligence: What Our Bodies Know. Published 12-17-2013. Accessed 5-5-2022.

Graham, Linda (2013). Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being. New World Library.

Heller, L., LaPierre A. (2012) Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition.

Koch, Liz (2012). Core Awareness, Revised Edition: Enhancing Yoga, Pilates, Exercise, and Dance. North Atlantic Books.

Kolk, B. V. (2015) The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books; Reprint edition.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2019). Focusing On Feeling. Psychology Fanatic. Published 3-10-2019. Accessed 5-7-2022.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2016). Feeling: the Experience of Living. Psychology Fanatic. Published  2-2016. Accessed 5-5-2022.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2018) Emotional Integration. Psychology Fanatic. Published 12-1-2018. Accessed 5-6-2022.

Siegel, Daniel (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company; Third Printing Used edition.

Strozzi-Heckler, Richard (2014). The Art of Somatic Coaching: Embodying Skillful Action, Wisdom, and Compassion. North Atlantic Books.

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