How Does the Body Maintain Its Shape? – Part III

Question from Steven Bankes and Siana Goodwin Answer by James L. Oschman, Ph.D.
Pages: 24-25
Year: 1990
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Rolf Lines – (Genérico)

Question from Steven Bankes and Siana Goodwin Answer by James L. Oschman, Ph.D.

This is the third and final article in a series that answers a questions posed by Rolfers about the scientific basis of Rolfing. This question arose in 1983 correspondence between Steve Bankes and Siana Goodwin. Siana is helping us find productive ways of approaching the scientific literature. She asks, “Can we start our literature search from what Rolfers and Rolfees KNOW from experience to be true, rather than starting with what scientists have discovered?” The following question and its partial answer are part of this process.

The Question

My experience with Rolfing leads me to conjecture that the connective tissue system is subject to a number of processes which have the combined effect of expending energy to actively maintain the shape of the body…. If the body is actively maintaining its shape, what are some physiological pathways for this? Such mechanisms may have been noticed by researchers who are working with various animal systems, but not placed in context may not seem so significant.

The Answer

The question of the origin of form in animals is one that has puzzled generations of scientists. The answer as presented in these three installments reveals how deeply we can enter the literature to explore a single aspect of Rolfing. And the insights presented here are but a start toward approaching the question. These insights arise from the Rolfers experience of the plasticity of human structure. This is an experience of the body adapting in response to the way it is used, to patterns of movement, to loads and stresses and traumas, both physiological and emotional. These adaptations are coordinated in the sense that a change in one part of the organism involves other parts. The whole works together to support the activities as a part. The changes are also reversible in that new activities, stresses, loads, traumas can lead to new forms.

The ability of the body to maintain its shape has two seemingly contradictory aspects: shape is remarkably constant, and shape is remarkably adaptable. I immediately recognize my old friend from twenty-five years ago, even though every atom in his body has been replaced several times. In contrast, my other friend looks completely different than he did a month ago as a result of changes in job, attitude, and daily activities. I am convinced that the maintenance of body shape is an important function that is enhanced by Rolfing and by the Movement work.

The first part of this series considered biochemical path ways involved in maintaining the shape of the body. Research done about fifty years ago showed that the structure of the body is never fixed-pieces are being replaced constantly. Each part of the body, from the smallest to the largest, has an average life time, ranging from minutes to years, but all structures are always being recreated. This endless cycle of renewal provides a biochemical basis for plasticity; it enables the body to change its shape in response to ways it is being used. When habitual or practiced movement patterns change, the distribution of tensions and compassions in the structural fabric changes. This leads to appropriate building-up or taking-apart of structures.

In a sense, these processes enable the body to retain a memory of the way it has been used. The “tissue memory” has been eloquently described in the literature by a British authority, J.Z. Young. Collagen is generally laid down along the lines where tissue is under tension. For example, Weiss has described how a wound is healed in a series of steps beginning with the clotting of blood. The fibrin fibers of the blood clots are randomly oriented, but as the clot dissolves, the parts not subjected to tension dissolve first, leaving a web of oriented fibrin fibers. Fibro blasts move out on this web and lay down collagen along the tension lines. This network is also adjusted further with fibers being removed when they are not in the line of tension.

The tension lines in the superficial fascia (also called Langer’s lines)provide another example. In fact, all tissues are repaired or stabilized by appropriately oriented collagen fibers. A microscopic examination of any part of the body reveals a characteristic array of collagen fibers. The fiber geometry tells the story of the way tensions and compressions have passed through that part.

C.Z. Young states,

The hereditary instruction of the genes ensures that collagen is laid down along lines of tension. The stresses of the environment maybe regarded as providing information that selects those sites in which the collagen is produced. The two together provide the organism with a memory in the form of a set of collagen fibers so oriented that the organism can meet the stresses that are likely to fall upon it, assuming that the future stresses are like those of the past. The direction of orientation of the fibers thus provides a fore cast based on past experience of the likely direction of tension stress in the future.1

Young further states,

The connective tissues, although not under the control of the nervous system, nevertheless, carry memories of the situations that have been experienced. Such memories are provided by the arrangement of the collagen and elastin fibers, etc…. By these relatively slow methods of control, the connective tissue is continually adjusted to suit the environment.2

Similar processes take place in bone (Glucksmann, 1942): “The final detailed form of the bone depends on the forces that fall upon it…. The shape of the bone is controlled by a double dependence, partly by the hereditary forces acting from within, partly by the stresses imposed from without.”

For the cells of the body to regulate structure in a coordinated, appropriate, and orderly manner, communication must take place. I suspect that the various cells in the body respond to both the signals that precede an action and to the signals created by the action itself. The signals are not just the neural and muscular action potentials that trigger a movement. These action potentials create both electric and magnetic fields(and light) that spread through and over and around the body (See articles by Reite and Zimmerman, and by Wikswo, et al.) These tissues probably listen to all of these detailed messages that tell the stories of muscle length, tension, velocity, and acceleration of stretch an compassion, pressures on joints, etc.

Finally, cells respond to information from the environment. Running on grass is different from running on pavement, for example, and results in a different set of messages.

The structures that conduct tensions and compassions to and from the environment and that, there fore, make motion possible, are in a sense receptors as well. They both produce and listen to the signals that tell the story of the dynamic relations between the body and the environment.

While we described how signals may be produced within the tissues as a result of activities, we have not discussed precisely how the cells may respond to these signals. One possibility is that the cells respond more or less in the reverse of the way the signals were produced in the first place. Here we are referring to the signals produced by the piezo electric effect. The piezo electric effect is reversible: many crystalline substances will produce electric fields when their geometry is changed, and they will change their geometry in the presence of an electric field. Such form changes can trigger other events such as the activation of a metabolic pathway or the synthesis of a particular protein.


This series of three articles on the control of form has enabled me to assemble into a coherent story some of the growing scientific literature related to Rolfing. I will add to this story because of a realization that the question of the control of form of an organism is central to the future of our biomedicine, which is lacking in a comprehensive understanding of structure.

1.C.Z. Young, The Life of Mammals, Their anatomy and physiology, 2nd edition. (Oxford: Clarendon Press,1975).



Glucksmann, A. “The role of mechanical stresses in bone formation in vitro.” Journal of Anatomy (1942).76-231-239.

Reite, M. and John Zimmerman. “Magnetic phenomena of the central nervous system# A .Rev. Bio phys. Bio eng. (1978). 7:167-188.

Weiss, P. “The biological foundations of wound repair.” Harvey Lectures (1961). 55:13-42.

Wikswo, J.P., J.P. Barach, and J. A. Freeman. “Magnetic field of a nerve impulse: first measurements”. Science (1980). 208:53-55.

Young, J.Z. The Life of Mammals, Their anatomy and physiology, 2ndedition. Oxford: Clarendon Press,1975.

James L. Oschman, Ph.D. is the Chairman of the Rolf Institute’s Research Committee and Director of Research of the World Dolphin Research Project.

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