Reflexions on the Concept of Embodiment

In my book on affect logic (1982/1988)¹, I stressed several times that we humans are first and foremost bodies (“from the cradle to the grave”). Everything we think and feel ultimately stems from our body and influences it in turn. Without this embodiment neither our thinking nor our behavior can be sufficiently understood. Feelings, emotions, and affects are primarily physical states that (secondarily) can become conscious. And, according to Piaget, all thinking ultimately comes from action, i.e., from mentalized sensomotoric schemata, which in turn are rooted in the body. Omitting this genuine embodiment from my reflections on how and why everything in my life turned out as it did would mean overlooking one of the probably most important underlying factors behind many other influences.

A wonderful tandem for coping with reality

I have always imagined the brain and the body to be a kind of double system that lies between a physical, material, and extended pole – the “peripheral body” (the res extensa according to Descartes) and its “contraction” and reflection in something maximally dense and compact, namely, the brain (the res cogitans). Both work together inseparably and with equal importance: The body can neither function nor develop meaningfully without mentalization (or, some would say, spiritualization); the brain, on the other hand, would be incapable of adapting to ever new circumstances without the countless somatic sensors and effectors that provide the contact with the outside world. The body moves about and suffers within the physical world at the cost of a (relatively) great energy expenditure, encountering resistance and learning according to the method of trial and error. The brain, for its part, registers, coordinates, and thinks (“figures out” or “imagines” virtually) with minimal energy expenditure (Freud: “Thinking is testing action with minimal energy,” though one can and must also understand that all action – and clearly all scientific experimentation – is a way of “testing thought” with a high energy consumption). Both poles complement and mirror each other; through their interaction they form a wonderful tandem for coping with reality, i.e., for surviving in a constantly changing environment.

It is precisely this fact that the developers of artificial intelligence (i.e., of algorithms capable of learning) seem to be recognizing more and more clearly: It is no surprise that many of them plead for an “embodied intelligence,” which is also the reason for my skepticism about completely computer-based brain simulations, such as the billion-dollar international Human Brain Project, which was initiated here at the EPFL² in Lausanne and is already in serious turbulence.

What is the “primary phenomenon” - subjective experience or neurobiology?

A completely different aspect of the same problem came to mind recently on the occasion of a lecture on possible connections between vulnerability to stress, emotional hypersensitivity, and abnormal brain metabolism in people at risk of schizophrenia, given by the winner of the Luc Ciompi Prize 2017, the English-Catalan neurobiologist Gemma Modinos. The question is whether it is more the brain and its metabolism or more our conscious subjective thought, experience, and communication that is the primary and essential phenomenon in our normal or disturbed mental functioning?
In other words, is it really true what modern neurobiology seems to take for granted, namely, that the roots of both our mental experiences and its disturbances are to be found in brain biology (or, as some critics say, in brain mythology ...)? In this sense, everything else – thinking, feeling, subjectivity, consciousness, behavior, communication – is nothing but epiphenomena of the cerebral biochemical molecular events. And a mental disorder – say, a “mental illness” of the schizophrenia type – would thus be satisfactorily explained and understood if only we could understand the neurobiological mechanisms underlying this disorder. This, of course, would also imply that causal therapies too could be determined only in this manner, namely, in the form of new psychotropic drugs to normalize the disturbed brain functions.

If, however, it is correct what I have been claiming for decades, and what I have also explained in much detail in my book Die emotionalen Grundlagen des Denkens (The Emotional Foundations of Thinking, published in 1997³), namely, that we primarily “think with the body” (formulated in an extremely condensed way), then the above conclusion is a reductionist short-circuit: Our actions and thoughts are determined primarily by our bodily experiences. And the state of the body – whether tense or relaxed, hungry, tired, joyful, or sad – depends crucially on its environment. Environmental influences are capable of changing the brain metabolism profoundly, as we know today much better than we used to, thanks, among other things, to recent research on stress and traumata, on epigenesis (the effects of the environment on hereditary factors), and on neuronal plasticity (the changes in the cerebral structures provoked by environmental influences). All of these alleged epiphenomena are not only at least as important (if not more important) than their neurobiological effects, but one can also develop truly causal therapeutic approaches by influencing the environment. A striking example of this is our Soteria project for the treatment of patients suffering from acute psychosis, which strives to create a “causally” effective emotional relaxation not primarily through psychotropic drugs, but in a much more natural way through a relaxing social milieu and an empathetic human “presence.”

The same question becomes even more complex (and interesting) if we also include my earlier discussed ideas⁴ about the essence of the mind and its connections with the phenomenon of abstraction. There I claimed that the mind is primarily something relational and thus consists of immaterial, relational aspects that are necessarily connected with all material things. Through the preeminently mental phenomenon of abstraction – the perception of hidden commonalities between various concrete elements – the mind also becomes capable of influencing matter. For example, grasping the fact that all apples, pears, and plums are fruits greatly facilitates working, in many concrete situations, by reducing the command to “Bring me fruits!” instead of the complicated “Bring me apples, pears, and plums.” Developing an understanding of the infinitely more complex connections between countless physical phenomena, which led to Einstein’s formula e=mc2, made it possible, among other things, to build an atomic bomb ...

Of course, such abstractions also somehow become seated in the brain, for example, in the form of new neuronal connections. Whether the process of abstraction primarily takes place on the cerebral level (e.g., through synergistic molecular biological attractions or repulsions) or on the mental level of communication and consciousness (e.g., as sudden intuitions, discoveries or enlightenments) is unclear. It is conceivable, and indeed even probable, that mutual interactions exist between the material and the mental proceses, something that has been proven, for instance, for the above-mentioned stress and trauma reactions.

Either way, it is not correct to simply consider deviations in cerebral metabolic processes, such as those recently found thanks to modern research methods in people suffering from schizophrenia or at risk of schizophrenia, as the “causes” of these disorders. They could just as well be the result of unfavorable environmental experiences – or of some other external influences.

Personal implications

To return from this excursion on some of the perhaps trickiest questions of the mind-matter problem to my initial question about the significance of the body in my own life: There is no doubt that my entire physical experience (and in particular my almost lifelong robust physical health), including sexuality, has decisively shaped the history of my life. Physical activity, in particular hiking, mountaineering, alpinism, was a central interst and passiom throughout my entire life. What I owe to these activities – also on the interpersonal level – is immeasurable. Despite the occasional interruptions from illness or accident, my good health has reminded me again and again of the fundamental importance of “embodiment” for all our mental life.

Of course, this is especially true also in old age and the very perceptible physical and mental aging process I am going through during the last years, which inches incessantly toward death: Everything that still functions well in my body and mind gives all my recent experiences something of a final and uniquely sweet touch.


Luc Ciompi (born 1929), Swiss psychiatrist, Schizophrenia researcher, pioneer of integrative psychiatry and founder of Affect-Logic celebrates his 90th birthday. He lets us participate in his personal, scientific and ideological reflections. It shows, that even an old age can be a fascinating time full of unexpected highs and lows.


¹ Ciompi, L. The Psyche and Schizophrenia. The Bond Between Affect and Logic. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London,1988 (1982).

² EPFL – École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne.

³ Ciompi 1997.

⁴ See the blog “On Spirituality and Science”

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