Brain Pickings

Emotional Anatomy: Stunning Vintage Illustrations of Somatic Consciousness

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Dissecting the pulsating accordion of existence.

What would happen if you combined phrenology, sentics, and Benjamin Betts’s geometrical psychology? You might get something like Emotional Anatomy: The Structure of Experience (public library) — a curious vintage tome originally published in 1985 by Stanley Keleman, director of Berkeley’s Center for Energetic Studies, who sets out to map “the geometry of somatic consciousness” based on the idea that physical human shape is interrelated with one’s emotional and psychological reality — a questionable pseudoscientific model akin to a kind of psychological phrenology. But what makes the book remarkable is the stunning black-white-and-red artwork by illustrator, fine artist and anatomist Vincent Perez, depicting Keleman’s various conceptions of somatic functions.

Keleman begins with a biological primer on the structure and function of cells, exploring how energy and substance move through the body:

He then examines the shift “from animal motility to human movement, uprightness and walking,” identifying three core patterns: reaching out, pulling in, and pushing away — the basic motions of swimming, which begin in the womb.

He then moves on to the somatic structure of the body, examining its layers:

Keleman attempts to align body postures with our emotional response to insults and stress, outlining the stages of stress response:

As we face the world we are upright. The soft front of the body is exposed. We are prepared to move out of ourselves into the world or from the world into ourselves. Insults temporarily invoke the startle reflex; it may be perpetuated as stress. Uprightness and our move toward the world is interrupted. We attempt to preserve our humanity by defending ourselves.

We are programmed with the startle reflex, a series of alarm responses lying along a continuum. The startle reflex begins with the investigative response, followed by assertion, then an annoyance reaction, then anger or avoidance, and, finally, submission and collapse. If the first response alleviates the insult, the event that interrupts us, the organism returns to homeostasis. If not, the first response can invoke the second, the second lead to the third, and so on. In cases of severe threat, the early stages of startle are by-passed and we jump immediately to a more extreme response. Yet the continuum of startle responses does not necessarily occur in an invariable order; neither are the steps sequential. One or several steps could be by-passed.

The body, Keleman argues, consists of pouches that “pulsate in a concert of expansion and contraction,” moving “back and forth between arousal and containment … swelling and shrinking — an accordion-like function.” When stress patterns become permanent, the “pulsatory accordion” locks into an inflamed or inhibited position — “overbound,” with pulsation sped up, and “underbound,” slowing it down.

He proposes four basic types of somatic shape, driven by different directions of pulsatory force and “express[ing] what we have experienced, our satisfactions as well as our disappointments.” He writes:

The emotional organization of the four structures demonstrates how morphology expresses personal experiences and conflicts, how layers and inner tubes are affected, where conflictual contraction occurs, how motility is distorted, what happens to excitation and its currents, and what is the emotional result.

He argues that “somatic reality” combines layers and segments of the different types, producing a kind of inner-outer remixing:

Keleman concludes by reminding us that “human relationships are a dynamic emotional process sustaining and expressing morphology.”

Whether as a cautionary souvenir of what has passed for science or as an earnest celebration of vintage illustration blending minimalist and pop art aesthetics, Emotional Anatomy is a treasure from a bygone era worth savoring in its entirety.

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