Reviewing the concept of embodiment and its clinical

applications: beyond the boundaries of the body

Analizando el concepto de embodiment y sus aplicaciones clínicas: más allá de los límites del cuerpo


Psicólogo Interno Residente

Hospital Gregorio Marañón, Madrid


Alejandro Muriel Hermosilla







          This paper considers the evolution of the embodiment idea throughout history and the different theories that analysed the relationship between mind and body, highlighting Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological approach. A cultural, sociological and psychological view on the experience and peculiarities of being embodied in the body is provided. Finally, clinically relevant issues derived from the concept of disembodiment are also tackled.

          Keywords: Embodiment. Body. Experience of self.



          Este artículo ofrece la evolución de la idea de embodiment a lo largo de la historia y a través de las diferentes teorías que analizaron la relación entre mente y cuerpo, subrayando el enfoque fenomenológico de Merleau-Ponty. Se ofrece una visión cultural, sociológica y psicológica de la experiencia y particularidades de estar “encarnados en nuestro cuerpo”. Por último, se abordarán asuntos relevantes desde el punto de vista clínico, que se derivan del concepto de disembodiment.

          Palabras clave: Embodiment. Cuerpo. Experiencia de self.


Recepción: 24/02/2016 - Aceptación: 06/04/2016


EFDeportes.com, Revista Digital. Buenos Aires - Año 21 - Nº 216 - Mayo de 2016. http://www.efdeportes.com/

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Revisiting the idea of “being embodied”

    In light of studying Merleau-Ponty’s theoretical framework and the implications of recent neuroscience, anthropological and socio-cultural studies it can be concluded that the mind and the body, once separated, are tightly intertwined in a bidirectional relationship and located within a world shaped from our perspective. However, to fully understand the developments that led to this conception, a brief historical approach should be provided.

    Probably one of the first people who analysed the relationship between body and mind was Plato in the 5th century BC. In his opinion, truth existed only in pure forms, therefore it was not in physical objects and so bodies were situated at a lower level (MacLachlan, 2004). A similar idea of bodies is deduced from Descartes’ approach to the issue. The author of the statement “I think, therefore I am” believed that “pure knowledge” could only be achieved through disregard of the senses. Hence, the body is positioned again in an inferior level in relation to the mind. (Cavallaro and Vago, 1997).

    Yet today certain ideas of cartesianism are supported perhaps in a more subtle way. Paradoxically, neuroscience is one of the fields that commonly show this conception. It is often claimed that mental processes only occur in the brain and their nature is completely different from bodily processes. As such, body is considered as a secondary object or at best as a peripheral part of the nervous system (MacLachlan, 2004).

    However, as a consequence of the new findings in different fields such as neuropsychology, anthropology and sociology a revolutionary perspective arises within a society that is increasingly concerned about mind-body relationship and the lack of answers about it. This conceptualization supports the idea that there is a constant and inexorable interaction between body and mind and the world. As Merleau-Ponty states “seeing body and mind not as two sides of the one coin but perhaps in denying the possibility of the shape of the coin existing without the metal that constitutes it” (MacLachlan, 2004).

    Therefore, following the phenomenological perspective provided by Merleau-Ponty, other philosophers –Sartre, Heidegger, Maurice-, and taking into account the new findings, it could be claimed that we are embodied in our bodies. Our experience, our consciousness, is grounded in a physical entity: the body. Nonetheless, the body should not be understood as an object, not even a “medicalised” object -consisting of cells, tissues, etc.- but as a subject (MacLachlan, 2004). Our being, our experience is mediated by our body that relates ourselves with the world in an idiosyncratic way through our senses, but also occurs in the opposite direction: physical traits -shaped by the psychosocial filter- are part of the subject identity. Indeed, some studies have shown that, for example, being black is linked with a feeling of inferiority in some cultures (Weiss, 1999). Hence, we experience the body from the inside and not from the outside, which is what Heidegger calls être-au-monde. This is one reason of having an inner perspective of the world. It is also essential to focus on how the world is seen and not how it should be seen, as it will be discussed later on. Finally, it should be stated that despite living within the body, the lack of awareness of the body is the main way in which we experience our body (MacLachlan, 2004). This could be explained from many perspectives, although cognitive economy principle, using as less cognitive resources as possible, could be a successful approach. It is claimed that when you learn a new behaviour –i.e. riding a bicycle- the allocation of attentional resources to the body and to different stimuli is high. However, after a few successful trials, this behaviour becomes increasingly automatic, in order to have more cognitive resources to cope with daily life situations (Maldonado, 2008). Conversely, when it is necessary, the body can become more salient to the mind. For example, to prevent dehydration the thirst sensation arises, although it can become a problem if the sensation becomes chronic e.g., in chronic pain. As a conclusion, it could be claimed that the body and the mind have a constant and bidirectional communication in relation to the world experienced and both can shape in certain ways the functionality of each other.

    Yet, the embodiment essence could be better understood if we take into account how different standpoint studies have led to the current embodiment idea.

    From a biological point of view, the intertwining relationship mind-body is supported by Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis. In his book Descartes’ Error, the author explains that during the decision making process, emotions create bodily states that help us identifying the most favourable behaviour to choose. The importance of this discovery consists of the reconceptualization of daily decision-making, a classical cold-cognitive process, as a behaviour that depends on both cognitive processes –mind- and emotions with their bodily display (Damasio, 1994). Another interesting approach to mind-body relationship is Paul Ekman’s research on micro-expressions. His investigation proves that we can express what we think through universal emotions that involve some facial micro-movements that we are not able to control willingly. (Ekman, 1992).

    In the same perspective, it is known that positive bodily states induce recovery of positive memories (Baddeley, 1998). Furthermore, research in pychoneuroinmunology also shows the interlinking of mind and body. On the one hand there is a positive effect of good experiences in the immune system response but on the other hand negative impacts can be found for example, in the stress response, the person’s perception of lack of resources to cope with a situation. The stress reaction produces dramatic body changes in biochemical levels of some hormones and neurotransmitters. The prolonged effect might also involve impairing of cognitive processes like memory or attention as well as damages in several organs (Sapolsky, 1998).

    In addition, communication, apparently a simple behaviour, is a good example of an embodied act since it is the expression through the body -verbally and non verbally- of an abstract idea. Indeed, it is possible to find multiple references to the body in our daily speech (MacLachlan, 2004).

    On the other hand, society and culture has an increasingly effect on body sculpting and on the personal values assumed. As a result, the population of the western world are now more concerned about their appearance and, for example, the increase in the number of cosmetic surgery reinforces this idea (Kalp, 1999). Nevertheless, it should be noted that the effect of socio-cultural factors in the body differ from one culture to another. As a result, while in some countries we may find mutilation of body parts to blur sexuality, in others bodily sexuality is magnified through surgery. Furthermore, the body may be used as a way to express self-identity. Thus, clothes, tattoos and piercings communicate inner information of the self to others (MacLachlan, 2004). It can be argued that the cause of this behaviour is grounded on the mechanism of imaginary identification, a psychological resource shown firstly during the mirror stage (Lacan, 2003). The infant has seen his body, which is originally perceived from the inside, from the outside. The same logic is used when someone shows an internal attribute through the image “reflected in the mirror”.

    At this point, phenomenology gives us the clues needed to fully understand the complexity of embodiment idea. This philosophical movement focuses on subjective experiences, but why are such experiences important for the embodiment concept?

    “The body is not an object within the world, the body is the subject of perception” Merleau-Ponty (as cited in Weiss, 2008).

    As it was stated before, our experience is grounded in our bodies. The body is not experienced from the outside as an object but is experienced from the inside as a subject. Here, the importance of the experience is to focus on an active subject embodied in his body, which is used to make contact with the world (MacLachlan, 2004).

    The schema is: (Subject-Object) ↔ World. Hence, if we were to provide a complete analysis of the body, it would not be possible without taking into account the subject, apart from the body as an object-organism and the society within the body (MacLachlan, 2004). Thus, those medical approaches that attempt to objectify the body are at best incomplete. This reductionism does not take into account the fundamental part of the body: the subject embodied. Moreover, provided that the body is also a subject within the world, our experience shapes our perception of the world. Thus, the world experienced is different for each person as well as the impact of it on the person, an important issue that must be regarded to fully understand the aetiology of the different mental disorders.

    Once it is explained how the body is experienced, it is essential to know what is internal for the body (subject-object) and external to it. However, it should be noted that such philosophical question has been treated during centuries from different perspectives. Here, a phenomenological approach will be provided, grounded mainly in the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. Given that the body is experienced from the inside- internally- as a subject, an inner experience would be one in which the subject could identify himself. Since we are talking about experiences, the subject can identify himself beyond bodily boundaries, which refers only to the objectified part, as once happened in the mirror phase referred to before. For instance, Lacan quoted a case of a woman who identified herself in another person. As a result, an outer experience for the body in the terms referred above would be one in which the subject does not identify himself as subject. Here it might be found the genesis of the symptoms as a certain form of relief for human suffering (MacLachlan, 2004).

When suffering becomes unbearable: feeling disembodied

    It has been explained how bodies are experienced in common life but, are they always experienced in the same way? Are we always embodied in our body? In what circumstances can this change? And, ultimately, is it something pathological?

    In specific situations and as an adaptive psychological mechanism, disembodiment from bodily parts is a relief from suffering. Briefly it could be claimed that disembodiment is the desire of distancing the self from a part of the body that involves an obstacle or damage to the subject. Thus, considering the explanation of outer experience provided above, this part of the body would become an outer-experienced bodily part. The subject cannot be identified in that bodily part since it involves impairment to the self and its goals (MacLachlan, 2004). As Oliver Sacks states: “embodiment is mediated through action or emotion and if both are impaired the person becomes disembodied” (Sacks, 1984). Furthermore, disembodiment usually entails changes in language referred to the self and it is also reflected in the disembodied body part. Thus, it is characteristic the use of the definite article, this or that, to refer to bodily parts, instead of possessive articles. For example, “the hand and not my hand” or “that finger instead of my finger” (as cited in Morse and Mitcham, 1988). Provided that language reflects the experience of the self and its changes, it could be interesting to analyze deeply why these changes take place.

    One accurate approach could be provided by Lacan’s study of language function. In his description of the unconscious as structured as a language, he conceives of language in two ways: the structure of language and the speech. It is also essential to consider the symbolic function of language, which allows the subject to make present something absent. For instance, when the toddler calls her mother, he is making her present in a certain way (Lacan, 2003). Therefore, when a person uses language to show disembodiment, he could be trying to ease himself by the act of speech and he could also be making present something absent, such as his own self-stability.

    As a result, an inner experience might become an outer experience if the subject rejects it. This is illustrated accurately in chronic pain. Although the pain can vary in intensity and qualitatively, the pain is always an unpleasant experience. Chronic Pain can steal the enjoyment of being embodied, it can frustrate personal goals and, ultimately, suffering can arise (Morse and Mitcham, 1998). However, is suffering the same as pain? If not what is the difference?

    At this point, the differences between some concepts commonly thought of as similar should be clarified. Firstly, the malady could be described as an alteration of our relation with the world, the body and the absence of personal achievements. The pain is a symptom of a malady, is the victim’s conscious sensation of their bodily malady. Nevertheless, suffering is the critical concept here, since it involves the impossibility to achieve what is meaningful for each person. Hence, suffering is the harmful experience of pain as a corporal dysfunction and as a subjective-existential failure that ultimately entails disembodiment. Thus, it can be concluded that if the person is able to manage pain through achievements or understanding the reasons of his malady, suffering will be less likely to appear (Van Hooft, 2000). Unfortunately, chronic pain is not often manageable and it affects people’s life in many negative ways. Some of the complaints that patients with chronic pain report are: living with an unwanted self that makes them act in ways they do not want to do, the impossibility of being themselves –identity problems-, feeling inferior to other people, the lack of control of themselves and their unpredictability (Osborn, 2002).

    From another perspective, as it was stated before, one of the symptoms of disembodiment is language changes in reference to bodily parts. These changes can be found even when the person talks about the painful limb before and after the accident that involved the injury. More and Mitcham (1988) performed a language analysis of patients with different wounds and only when the pain was overwhelming a disembodied language was shown. Hence, in relation to the concept of suffering, when the person is experiencing unbearable pain, the subject fails to sustain what is meaningful for him. Disembodiment appears as a way to deal with the agony, refusing self-identification with the body part that damages the self. In addition, it was also found that pain makes the person focus his attention on his body, although it is rare to pay attention to the body in common life. Nonetheless, this was not the cause of the disembodied language, as Morse and Mitcham (1988) reported.

    Using the same logic that underlies disembodied language, hypnosis seems to be a promising way to relieve pain. Indeed, it has been useful for pain produced by ischemia, cancer, migraine, menstruation, etc. The effectiveness of hypnosis in analgesia has been assessed registering changes in skin conductance or blood pressure and comparing the results with an interview (Bowers, 1976). However, the attempt to create disembodied language through hypnosis might be harmful, as reported by a person who felt dehumanized during his disembodiment suggestion (Morse and Mitcham, 1998). Other analgesic techniques that do not involve disembodiment are also provided by hypnosis. One of them consists in the imagination of a colour associated to the pain experienced and, through the instructions and hypnotic suggestions of the therapist, it progressively changes to a colour linked to peaceful feelings (Bowers, 1976).


    The development of the concept of embodiment has been provided, also a conceptual framework where these new findings could be included and it has been explained how the state of embodiment can vary through different situations. However, embodiment has become a deeply studied phenomenon that has been connected to different fields that have not been treated here, such as its role in prosthesis, transplants, therapeutic implications, somatoform disorders, etc. In spite of it all, some questions remain unsolved and might be useful for further investigations. What are the biological underpinnings of disembodiment experiences? And, ultimately, is it possible to relate in any way personality traits and embodiment or disembodiment?


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