Body image is the subjective or “inner” experience of self confirmation. Because the function of the image is to reflect the disposition of the self relative to any and all possible exigencies, the image is constantly shifting to provide the ground or context for coping behavior.
In the ordinary day to day experience of most people “body image” is rarely if ever uppermost in consciousness. Lithe now somewhat outmoded concepts of the “id” and the “superego” the validity of the concept rests upon its operational existence. Certain consistent effects are observable which can be explained by it.
One of the most convincing arguments for the existence of a functional body image comes from the field of linguistic research. Buman language offers definitive documentation for the assertion that the perception and the conception of reality is impossible without a central body orientation. In this retard psychologist Theodore Tass Thienemann makes the following observation:
First: The human body and its functions are the primary frame of reference in naming objects of the perceived world. Man speaks a body language even if he refers to objects.
Second: This reference to the human burly is seemingly absent, totally unconscious to the modern speaker (1)
As a result, the world is divided up into subject and object, “me” and “not me”. Theoretically the distinction is neat. Practically, the problems created by this insistence upon duality are the very ones we are attempting to clarify by the use of the term body image. Actually, there appears to be an ambiguous area between the “me” and the “not me” which gives greater latitude to the self, the possibility o growth and change, and at the same time greater opportunity for misapprehension, for uncertainty.
From a different point of view, Valerie Hunt has described body image in terms of its role in integrated functioning:
“Body image is the memory of experiences we have had with our bodies and the organization of these experiences into a kind of wholeness which gives us information about ourselves as living, moving organisms. Without it we cannot move purposefully… The body image represents: the reality of the body as we know it; all of the sensations that come in to the body; the defined body surfaces; the sense of the vertical and the horizontal; the feeling of body weight; the vision of body shape, size, color; and the sounds the body makes, all organized into a body wholeness, which is “me”. (2)
Hunt’s definition lays emphasis upon the dynamic quality of the body image, Its importance in purposeful movement. Schilder, likewise points out that the postural model is continuously changing in conformity with both sensory and motor stimuli. Impulses move from the center to the periphery, and from the periphery to the center in a continuous stream. All the impulses which reach the center (here “center” refers to the central nervous system, and more specifically to coordinatinq centers within that core) at the same time are fused or grouped into a whole picture, so that image follows image. By virtue of this process “the postural model is in perpetual inner self construction and self destruction.” (3)
What we have in the concept of the body image is perhaps a key to understanding the constructive energies of the psyche. To Schilder the postural model is a physiological entity, an’ the body image is the psychological entity that corresponds to it.
While ordinarily not present to consciousness the body image is potentially available to consciousness since all of the sensations from muscles and tendons, viscera, skin, and other sense organs which specifically go to make up the composite reality which is “me” can be explored introspectively. Margaret Washburn called all phenomena “psychic” which can be observed by the individual for himself alone. Such psychic phenomena are of primary importance in “the acquisition of new ways of acting.” (4)
Writing in 1916, some 40 years before Schilder, Washburn proposed the somewhat astonishing theory that all consciousness is directly related to movement. Why should this be astonishing? Because in spelling out the mechanism by which motor behavior is related to mental imagery she was laying the groundwork for a means or method for individuals to get in touch with their own inner resources and to respond more effectively to the challenges and complexities of daily living. Let us examine Washburn’s theory and its implications briefly.
Washburn asserted that all behavior is movement whether present to the observation of all, or merely present to introspection as some form of awareness of thought. Behavior is unconscious (reflex) when a sensory stimulus produces a motor response with no inhibition from hither centers. Consciousness arises when, as a result of resistance at the neural synapses, a motor response does not follow the stimulus. When a motor response is inhibited or partially inhibited, consciousness is the result! The term “consciousness” here refers to all states of mind ranging from simple attention and awareness to more complex forms of imagination and thought, even dreaming — but not dreamless sleep.
What happens to the motor response when it is blocked or inhibited? Does it just disappear? According to Washburn, the kinetic energy of motor discharge takes the form of potential energy in attenuated or incipient movements which use associative pathways in the central nervous system. An “image” or “centrally excited sensation” then, is a tentative movement which “depends upon the simultaneous excitation and inhibition of a motor pathway.”(5)
Thus the structure of the nervous system itself has its psychic counterpart in the structure of the body image. A creature with a nervous system capable of suppressing or inhibiting the full movements would be capable of tentative movements, of imagery and thought. He would be “capable of resting apparently motionless under the influence of a stimulus which is nevertheless producing an invisible effect.(6)
Just as complex movements are built up out of similar ones, whether performed simultaneously or in succession, so the tentative movements of thought (including memory and recall) are elaborated according to systems which amount to predispositions to movement.
These movement systems are actually established through repetition and experience like pathways through a field. Washburn distinguishes between static and phasic systems as follows: Static movement systems involve prolonged states of contraction and relaxation of muscles, while phasic movement systems involve actual translations in space.
These distinctions form the basis for a greater understanding of posture and gesture respectively. Even though posture is seen as a static movement system, nevertheless it is still basically movement, and relates to consciousness in that static systems can also he sensed as tentative configurations, i.e. images and thoughts. It is true, however, that static systems are harder to perceive by virtue of the fact that they do not change readily. Any thorough discussion of body image must include them because of their importance in the formation of emotional attitudes. In a very literal way, they form the ground out of which other activity proceeds, for they involve the stabilization of the central body area-the trunk, including pelvis and torso. As Hunt states: “Movement always starts in the middle of the body … If you are sitting down, and raise your little finger, the movement had to start in the center. You are not about to move any part of your body without first stabilizing the middle.” (7) Such stabilization results from a static movement system. The gesture itself results from a phasic system. Both are prearranged patterns.
Body image can now be seen as the total set of images which could arise as a result off the partial inhibition as motor impulses specifically connected with bodily sensation. Body image becomes especially important when the individual is unsure how to act in a given instance. When the reflex, habit or practiced response is not37 immediately forthcoming, the individual engages in an act of self assessment, or self definition with retard to a particular task or situation. These rapid tentative movements involved in thinking or contemplative are based on associative recall o cast situations in an attempt to construct an appropriate response to an unfamiliar set of circumstances. The appropriateness of the final behavior will depend largely upon the individual’s ability to use the kina esthetic introspection which reveals to him an image of which he is, and what he wants, and what he is capable of in the present instance.
There is, however, another very specific sense in which the term body image may be used. In a given instance the body image (here synonymous with “self image”) may be elaborated even more extensively. Temporarily all outward activity ceases and the process of psychic self-construction is dramatized: an image is sought which reconciles both the heretofore tried and untried selves. The image may be sought as an end in itself (creative imagination), or it may be sought for its value in solving some problem in the external world (conceptual projection), or in acquiring a new response pattern (creative behavior).
Often this intensely vivid kind of imagine takes place in sleep, for there motor responses are naturally inhibited. The result is a dream. However, it can take place in a willed act of meditation or contemplation as well. In order to distinguish this specific use of body image phenomena from the semiconscious use in daily life, I call upon the term “body metaphor” to denote the self-symbolization process that goes on in dreams and in active imagination.(8)
An analagous us distinction is made in language between prose and poetry. While the daily language of prose may often be colored by images, the structure of poetic language is greatly condensed and intensified to provide a more unified vehicle or channel of thought: a symbol. Every symbol that man has evolved, he has evolved out of his own bodily metaphors. Is not the human body the prime subject for all pictorial art as well?
In our discussion of body images o far, we have shown a physiological basis (at least in theory) for a psychic “entity”. It is this writer’s conviction that the concept is extremely useful in suggesting ways and means for the individual to sense a better response pattern, one which is more efficient of energy, which takes into account past behavior, but which is not limited to that alone.
Such behavior is, in its essence, creative. It is more elegant and aesthetically satisfying because it allows the individual to behave as he wants to be, which is somehow closer to who he really is, in his innermost being.
If motility (i.e. the total individual capacity for movement) is indeed the raw material of consciousness, then “expansion of consciousness” and the growth of integrative capacity must depend upon an assurance of motility, and certain principles regarding the inhibition of that motility. How does one go about increasing, improving and assuring movement capacity? In the child the problem may be one of guaranteeing him the greatest possible range of movement experiences. In the adult, the problem may involve extending his present range. However, motility is not the whole answer. For consciousness to arise, motor response must be inhibited, The problem is, in promoting the full potential of the individual, how to inhibit automatic responses Without destroying creative ones.Towards a Psychology of Integration