Book Review Somatic Psychology: Its Relevance for Psychology and Psychotherapy
A review of Somatic Psychology: Body, Mind And Meaning by Linda Hartley
What is somatic psychology, and why is it relevant for psychology and psychotherapy? In her book Somatic Psychology: Body, Mind and Meaning, British dance movement therapist and psychotherapist Linda Hartley attempts to explain the theories and practices of somatic psychology. In so doing, she does a valuable service by introducing an important dimension of psychology—the psychological body—to health care professionals.
Hartley situates theories of somatic psychology within a "holistic approach to therapy and healing that embraces body, mind, and spirit within a changing social, cultural, and spiritual context" (p. 1). Somatic psychology challenges the traditional models of Cartesian dualism in which contemporary scientific psychology was born. It "calls for a revision of the way in which we address sickness in the individual, as well as the imbalances and conflicts prevalent in our social, political, and ecological environment" (p. 1). Rather than focusing on the reduction of symptoms as the outcome of therapy, somatic psychology (a) seeks to empower and educate people about their bodies, (b) teaches them to sense when there are problems and how to cultivate a sense of well-being, and (c) helps them understand the meaning and the unconscious messages of their symptoms and integrate these into daily life....
Turning to specific somatic practices, Hartley describes how somatic therapy works clinically. First, somatic therapy reveals the "sensory engram" (Juhan, 1987, p. 272) that carries the template of each person's history of learned experiences, as well as the "muscular armoring" that reveals "character type" (Lowen, 1976). Perinatal experiences and separation at birth can bring about both fear of life and fear of death (Rank, in Brown, 1961), which are specifically addressed in therapies such as primal therapy, rebirthing, and holotropic therapy (Grof, 1985). Early experiences of attachment and separation that are critical for mature relationships (Bowlby, 1997-1998) are stored in body memories, whereas traumatic memories are stored in state-dependent learning (Van der Kolk & Van der Hart, 1989). These early learned experiences influence subsequent perceptions and experiences in what is called "preconceived expectations" and "premotor focusing" in body-mind centering (Cohen, 1993, p. 117). Developmental psychology reinforces the idea of a core self that emerges during the first few months of life (Stern, 1985). Energy psychologies that have developed ways to access these bodily memories include core energetics (Pierrakos, 1990), dance/movement therapy, and authentic movement (Whitehouse, 1999). Each of these practices includes a clinical vignette and brief discussion of the therapeutic issues and process. Finally, Hartley discusses the ethics of somatic psychology, including a section on the indications and contraindications of touch in therapy.
Although Somatic Psychology: Body, Mind and Meaning very helpfully introduces concepts, theoreticians, and practices to a psychological audience, it nevertheless has serious flaws. First, its attempt to clarify various terms such as somatic therapy and body psychotherapy leads to further contradictions, redundancies, and confusion. Second, its style reads somewhat like a graduate thesis or dissertation. There are too many quotations, too much reliance on secondary sources, and a lack of clear sequencing in chapter organization. Finally, Hartley over-emphasizes some somatic practices (such as mind-body centering) while leaving out significant areas of other practices (e.g., she reduces dance/movement therapy to one practice known as authentic movement). Although Hartley is British and the professional topography of somatic psychology may be different in Great Britain, she nevertheless should present a balanced and well organized curriculum for all of the students and practitioners of psychology who will read this book.
Somatic Psychology: Body, Mind and Meaning introduces psychologists to the important field of somatic psychology. Psychology students, teachers, and clinical supervisors should read this book so that they may expand their understanding of a growing field and respond appropriately to practices their patients may already be experiencing.