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Corporeity in Psychotherapy


By Genovino Ferri

I wondered a few years ago how it might be possible that the fetus could know “the flavour of the relationship with the mother” while immersed in a liquid environment, given that the introduction of sweet substances into the amniotic fluid led to an increase in deglutition (swallowing), while the intro- duction of bitter substances led to a reduction.

I believe the answer lies in Ludwig Jacobson’s (1813) vomeronasal organ, which is situated just above the incisors and is capable of transducing the aroma of substances in liquid solutions into taste in the embryonal-fetal period. This organ atrophies after birth, but, during our intrauterine time, it permits us to know the flavor of the primary object relationship, which is ‘a mirror taste’, which is to say that it already informs us of a primary intercorporeity that may prepare the ground for later subjectivity and intersubjectivity, and even psychopathology.

This sense of a primary intercorporeity lead me to consider corporeity’s place in general in psychotherapy and how it interacts with what I consider to be the two main ingredients in the psychotherapeutic setting, namely the relationship (between therapist and client) and therapeutic embodied activation.

What is Corporeity in Psychotherapy?

The concepts of corporeity—bodily experience—and in turn intercorporeity were initially introduced by Merleau Ponty, a French phenomenological philosopher known for his work on embodiment and perception. Ponty (1962) proposed that through our bodies we can share and extend our bodily experiences thus expanding the concept of social cognition to focus on the relationship between one’s body and that of the other.

Looking at corporeity in the relationship between the analyst and the person being analyzed, one sees an extraordinary foundation in the structural coupling between their respective character traits—it might resemble the arrangement of the double helix of DNA. The relationship, in fact, represents a new, third, complex living-system beyond the two, which will have its own self-organization, its own self-poiesis, its own development, and its own staging-areas (Ferri & Cimini, 1999). It is a third presence that expands the dialogue into a trialogue, which can be useful for the psychotherapist.

Embodied Simulation

In the Theory of the Mind, simulation is defined as comprehending others by putting yourself in their shoes (Goldman, 2006), whereas Gallese (2007) proposes we enlarge this to a bottom-up interpretation as embodied simulation. He writes: “Firstly and as the basis for the reading of the Mind of the Other is Intercorporeity as a principal source of awareness, a direct form of understanding others from within… an intermediate level between the mirror neuron system and empathic resonance” (Gallese, 2007, p. 659-669).

In addition to the already well-known concepts of transference and counter- transference in the relationship, I bring alongside other structural parts of the relationship: the transference and counter-transference of trait itself.

In the psychotherapeutic setting, ‘simulation’ can be transformed into therapeutic embodied simulation via the countertransference of trait, or rather the collocation of the trait of the analyst’s own personality and corresponding relational bodily level, which is appropriate to reach and contact the floor, or staging-area, inhabited by the other’s trait mind.

Therapeutic embodied simulation is fundamental in psychotherapy to be able to draw near to and modify certain, specific, disharmonic patterns of inter- personal relationships in the life-story of the person (Ferri, 2017). A com- plex, bottom-up reading of living systems, which includes the body-to-mind emergence of subjectivity, offers three prospective clarifications to, perhaps, achieve greater appropriacy.

The first is the verticality of the person’s real relational history, from the ex- plosive moment of their conception to the here and now, and of the life that has been experienced and marked even in their bodily expression.

The second is that the observative time, in which to read the incised marks (etymologically “character” means “incised mark”) left by the real story of their relationships, is spread over the entire arrow of time of their existence, from the intrauterine to maturity even on the bodily relational levels.
Indeed, to grasp the intelligent meaning of a person’s psychocorporeal narration, it is appropriate to take the anamnesis back to the project implicit in the scene in which they arrived in the world.

The third clarification is that it is important to clearly identify, along the arrow of time, both the staging areas of time, which is to say the floors of the building of our personality, even including those which are disharmonic, and the “how” we have inhabited them.

To clarify further we can take as an example the staging-area of the time of the myelination of the ventral vagal circuit and the contemporaneous relationship with the mother. Stephen Porges’ (2014) research permits the unveiling of the ventral vagal circuit (V.V.C.), which is the most recent development and is present in humans as a modulator of relational communication, which is to say inter-corporeal communication, and which defines the informative contents of verbal communication. The visceral-motory component of this circuit, in fact, regulates the heart and the organs above the diaphragm, and the somato-motory part regulates the neck and expressive facial muscles, through which the emotions “appear” on our human faces, as well as regulating those producing suction and smiles, and those coordinating sight and vocalization.

It is further defined as being a modulator because when the V.V.C. is active, the sympathetic nervous system, which is necessary for attack/drawing near and for defense/moving away, is kept inactive, as is the dorsal-vagal circuit which is even more archaic and is demyelinated, being responsible for immobilization (which is clearly present in fish and amphibians).

In this process, at this staging area of time, we are at the end of the intrauterine relationship, in the time of the birth and the subsequent oro-labial stage… intrauterine liquids, placenta and funicle and the umbilical area in- side; eyes, lips, milk and air outside (Ferri & Cimini, 2012, p.33). These are the peripheral relational bodily areas, which bear the marks incised by the patterns of the intercorporeal-intersubjective relationship and of the ventral vagal circuit of that time.

In our case, these become possible portals for the ingress of the two active ingredients of psychotherapy for this ontogenetic time, and they provide the opportunity to reach the central areas. The importance of this contribution is evident in the search for greater appropriateness in psychotherapy and psychopathology, for greater understanding of the implications of countertransference and of therapeutic bodily activation in this specific evolutive area.

As well, this information is useful for psychotherapy and body psychotherapy in that it allows us to look more deeply into the question of ontogenesis—the development of the individual—or in our case the I-Subject.

To read the rest of Dr Ferri’s paper, please CLICK HERE for the complete PDF.


Genovino Ferri, is a psychiatrist and Reichian Analyst trained by Federico Navarro, is the Director of the Italian School of Reichian Analysis (S.I.A.R.), Rome, Italy. The school is accredited by the EABP FORUM of Body Psycho- therapy Organizations. He is a member of the New York Academy of Sciences and the International Scientific Committee for Body Psychotherapy. An International Trainer of Reichian Analysis, he holds Training Courses for Supervisors in Europe and South America. During his professional career he worked as director of the psychiatric unit of Atri Hospital, Italy and as Director of the Public Departmental Psychotherapy Service. He is the President of the Italian Association of Body Psychotherapy.

He is the founder of ‘Studio Analysis’ a social-centred psychotherapeutic clinic. He published Psicopatologia e Carater: a psicanalise no corpo e o corpo napsicanalise; Escuta Editora, Sao Paulo do Brasil, 2011, published in Italy as L’Analisi Reichiana La psicoanalisi nel corpo ed il corpo in psicoanalisi; Alpes Editore, Rome, 2012 and in Greece in June 2015; Eumaros Editor. He published Il Corpo Sa, Alpes Editore, Rome, 2017 and the English translation “Body Sense” was published as an e-book by Alpes Editore, Rome, 2017. He is the Editorial Director of the CorporalMente series published by Alpes Editore.