Making Sense of Somatosensory Imagery

Let’s take a step back here for a moment. In mapping a feeling state, you had an experience which falls outside most conventional frameworks of explanation. What are we to make of this imagery having such a strong relationship with feeling? After 25 years mapping thousands of feelings for myself and others, I interpret it this way.

We arrive in this world as material beings embedded in a material world. From the time of our first awakening into infancy, (and even before we are born), we find ourselves immersed in stuff and qualities of stuff. As we learn about the world and about our bodies-in-the-world, our senses are saturated with experiences of solids, liquids, gases, light and energy with all their myriad properties. We experience ourselves as these substances, and we experience our environments as these substances. It is this world of substance that our embodied consciousness must first make sense of, navigate, and master in order for us to take on all of our higher functions and awareness.

So it should be no surprise that the fundamental substrate of consciousness is the felt experience of the stuff of our lives. Try this little thought experiment as a demonstration of the ubiquity of the extended felt sense:

Close your eyes. Imagine picking up a hammer or axe, and lightly swinging it. Or choose some other tool more familiar to you. Can you sense the extension to your body, its heft, its rigidity? Can you sense just how you would move your body with this extension in order to accomplish a goal – driving a nail or splitting a log?

Put the tool down. Imagine dipping your hand in a pool of warm water, and swirling it around. Can you sense the weight, the fluidity, the texture of the water as you move your hand through it? Can you sense how you would push the water to create a small current?

Now, how did you do that? I contend that you were able to extend the felt experience of your body into your environment. I believe we are doing this all the time, constantly taking on the objects and materials of our surroundings as extensions of our sense of physical being. We are continually forming a multi-sensory, virtual material representation of our body-in-the-world. The name for this in cognitive science is the body schema.

One of my physical practices used to be a dance discipline called contact improvisation. Contact improv is a practice of taking on the weight and dynamics of another person as an extension of your own body in dance. You move together, communicating through touch and gravity and motion, becoming one expression through opening to one another’s embodied physicality.

Contact improv is one discipline among many which draws upon and refines this power of somatosensory projection. Others include various sports, wilderness pursuits, expressive arts, crafts of all kinds, and many more. In fact, you will see eventually if you dig deeply enough into Feelingwork that even the most abstract and sublime of human pursuits, those we deem spiritual or mathematical for example, rely strongly on this capacity for somatosensory projection.

But why is this central capacity of our consciousness so unacknowledged? I believe it is a case of fish in water. We are immersed in it, so stepping outside the phenomenon to examine it can be difficult. And when you almost always have real, physical things to point to as origins of your somatosensory experience, you attribute the experiences to the things. Counterexamples, as when you experience strong somatosensory images with no physical referents in dream or fantasy, or when you engaged in exercises like the two above, are dismissed as irrelevant, “just in your head.”

What I am saying here is that underlying all of our directly physical experience is a duplicate or shadow representation of our body and its physical environment, generated by the felt sense. The more accurately it represents actual properties of our material surroundings, the more effectively we are able to navigate and manipulate those surroundings. I believe this virtual physical world may be an essential component of the consciousness of all embodied, mobile creatures.

For humans at least, that felt sense has a creative capacity as well, able to generate somatosensory images having no material origin. Our capacity to both perceive and create somatosensory imagery is profound. And I believe it is that capacity which gives rise to the endlessly diverse profusion of actual feeling state experiences we encounter in the course of our living. The diversity is far greater than our current language of feeling accounts for. And because feeling is highly subjective, available to no one but ourselves, it is difficult for us to talk about feeling in ways that accurately communicate to one another about our actual, felt experiences. We have no way to objectively corroborate our descriptions in the way we find so easy to do with visual, auditory, or even kinesthetic/tactile experiences.

The explicit questioning technique of Feeling Path Mapping fills in this gap and reveals astonishing elegance, complexity, and intelligence in the realm of feeling. I anticipate that these questions will also provide the means to scientifically verify the assertions I am making, and to connect them to current theories about embodied cognition and body schema.

Want to participate in conversations about the feeling mind? Over the coming year (2019), depending on interest, I’ll be I’ll be hosting live, group calls where we can go much deeper into the material and practice the skills. If you think you might be interested, please reach out to me.