Think of a baby. From the first moments of birth, the infant is participating in and learning modes of differentiation and connection; in arm movements, in gaze aversion or meeting, in legs and his own mobility and ability to move toward or away. Downing (1994) refers to them as affect-motor schema. Movements begin to take on motoric ‘beliefs’ a non-verbal but cognitive appraisal that starts to determine how ‘self’ and ‘other’ are perceived. In parallel, there is the emotional component of affective arousal that includes activation of visceral and physiological systems; the autonomic, the hormonal, and central nervous systems are all in play. (Downing, 1994).

“All evidence indicates that these connection schemas play an equally essential role in the structuring of his intersubjective field. The infant must construct a representation of the other as reachable, as accessible, as ‘bridgeable to’. He must construct as well an image of himself as capable of doing the bridging” (Downing, (1994) p169). Bodies interacting with each other, with the environment, are the basis for the infant’s internal psychic structures of relating. The baby learns who he is in the felt experience of moving his arm out toward you. He learns who you are too. Perhaps you are responsive, and you come and something you do makes him feel good and then he learns that you are good, that he feel good with you, and that when he reaches you come to him.

“Babies imitating adult expressions neither are nor aren’t relating; but they are doing what later takes on relational meaning for them, and already takes on relational meaning for the adults who respond to it - and if it didn’t, the babies might not survive. Everything grows from this act of proto-relating" (Totton, 2014b, p124). Movement is something inherent, we are moved, by hunger, pain, distress, thirst, coldness..... And yet, that movement is also relational in that we are seeking sustenance from the environment within which we exist. It becomes more truly relational in an intersubjective sense as we build the relational meanings through our interactions with our caregivers.

I don’t merely understand these movements and interactions as developing psychic structures of relationships, but that they are, in some fundamental way, the energy and matter that are forming our very basis of meaning making. Something animates us from before birth, before thought, before our fives senses and before we’ve developed any of these complex interactive patterns. Maxine Sheets-Johnstone has turned to movement itself as being the very basis of our sense of selves; our bodies and our movements in time and space are the basis of what later becomes sense-making:

In discovering ourselves in movement and in turn expanding our kinetic repertoire of “I cans,” we embark on a lifelong journey of sense-making. Our capacity to make sense of ourselves, to grow kinetically into the bodies we are, is in other words the beginning of cognition. In making sense of the dynamic interplay of forces and configurations inherent in our on-going spontaneity of movement, we arrive at corporeal concepts. On the basis of these concepts, we forge fundamental understandings both of ourselves and of the world. (Sheets- Johnstone, 1999, p137)

It’s not just that we begin to understand the world based on our experiences of it, but we are actually building the cognitive and perceptual framework that takes in the world. We don’t perceive from a neutral place, we actually have been learning how to perceive based on our interactions with the world. Downing, (1994) pulling from Heidegger (1962), discusses various modes of perceiving, in particular, “in-order-to” spatiality... in this mode, which actually is our more habitual one, we perceive things as organized into practical action pathways. What stands out for us, is not that the table is sitting next to the chair which in turn rests next to and below the picture, but rather that on the table is some object we intend to put to use.....Our readiness for action, or the executing of an action itself, determines what becomes foreground” (Downing, 1994, p214). There is no neutral or objective taking in of reality because every aspect of perception is in fact already sense-making by virtue of what we have learned about intentions and actions. Downing (1994) uses the particularly poignant example of a chronically still-faced mother; not only will the infant not learn to seek out that face for regulation or safety, but in fact the infant does not ever learn to even “see” the face because it has no action pathway response, no usefulness, no relevance to the requirements of the living of the infant. In this way we can see how deeply neglect and relational trauma affects every aspect of our very perceptual taking-in and relating-with the world.

It changes the frame of therapy if we already conceive of the system as dynamic and interactive, a relational system that happens in time and space with another. It affects the "how" of therapy when we realize that meaningful change for a client is often something novel or different that their system is needing or wanting but has never even learned how to perceive or let in. Safety perhaps. Feeling wanted. Feeling valued and seen. Feeling capable, useful, able to contribute. Feeling loved without having to do anything to deserve that love. 

Can words create these feelings? Sometimes. Can mindfulness and interrupting our usual modes of thought change our perceptions? I believe so. But sometimes we need to physically reach out an arm and be met with warm caring hands. Sometimes we need to actually hear or feel the calm heartbeat of another when we ourselves do not feel calm. Sometimes it is our senses and our bodies in motion that can show us a new way of making meaning of the world. 


*much of this was adapted from that big paper they made me write in grad school - So many delicious concepts to chew on! Thanks for reading.


Downing, G. (1994). The body and the word.

Sheets-Johnstone, M. (1999). The primacy of movement. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Stern, D. N. (2010). Forms of vitality: exploring dynamic experience in psychology, the arts, psychotherapy, and development. Oxford University Press.

Totton, N. (2014b). Response to commentaries by Stanley Keleman, David Boadella, Akira Ikemi and Will Davis. International Body Psychotherapy Journal, 13(2), 122-124