Working with Our Somatic Intelligence

Joe the horse (see previous blog) demonstrated his emotional intelligence by identifying and responding to tiny physiological changes in those around him. These changes occur largely unconsciously and are a result of our somatic intelligence responding to the world around in ways programmed by our previous experience and our beliefs.  Our somatic intelligence speaks a different language from our cognitive intelligence. It is one not of verbal language and socially constructed thinking but one of ‘felt sense’ or ‘embodied knowing.’ We acknowledge its presence when we refer to having experiences such as a ‘gut feeling’, a ‘weight lifted’ or a sense that something ‘sits right’. Because we have become less familiar with and ‘tuned into’ this type of intelligence, we are often deaf to its more subtle nudges, often only responding when flooded with unwanted psychosomatic symptoms.

Our emotions, thoughts and behaviours are intricately connected, and as we, as therapists, work with our clients to engender change in any one one of these so we might see their whole system begin to shift. Often it is a change in a way of thinking or behaving that is the catalyst for this type of change and this is the stuff of the behavioural and cognitive therapies. However, this kind of approach can have limitations if the cause of our distress is largely out of our conscious awareness.

Increasingly these approaches are acknowledging and integrating approaches from more ancient and traditional wisdoms. Mindfulness, meditation, hypnosis, and the use of metaphor, gesture and movement, allow us to tune in to the more subtle language of the somatic intelligence and to utilise it in ways that complement our cognitive intelligence. These approaches seem to allow us to widen our consciousness, giving us access to, and allowing us to adjust, learnings that he have hitherto been stored unconsciously. We begin a dialogue between the different parts of our intelligence and are able to make subtle adjustments to bring them into an alignment. Shifts and insights are made and healing allowed to occur. When we seem have sudden moments of insight, or creativity, when things suddenly seem to ‘come together’, a process of learning has been going on much of it consciously but often the crucial step unconsciously. In a similar way our journey of self-development or therapeutic change might be largely a cognitive, intellectual process, and yet it may be our unconscious mind or somatic intelligence that facilitates us in taking our most crucial steps.

Clever Joe and Emotional Intelligence

I was reminded recently of the story of Clever Joe. Clever Joe was a horse who became famous some hundred or so years ago, on account of his astounding intelligence (well, astounding that is for a horse!) His ability to follow simple instructions, such as ‘go to the lady in the hat’, and to apparently solve simple sums, stamping out the answer with his hoof, amazed people, all the more so because he was able to achieve these feats whether it was his owner or a stranger giving the instructions. However, when the person instructing him stood out of view behind a screen Clever Joe was no longer able to perform, and actually became rather agitated. His abilities, it seemed, were not due to his ability to understand human language or to do mathematics, but rather to his extraordinary talent for observing non-verbal cues from those around him. By observing the tiniest of signals, a twitch of the corner of the mouth, a flicker of tension in the shoulders, the horse could tell that this was the right person or number. Clever or not? Maybe not in the sense that it was first thought, but in another, Joe was more intelligent than most humans. He was, and many animals are, extremely emotionally intelligent.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise and respond to emotion in ourselves and others. Since emotion is expressed physiologically, this means being aware of ourselves as physical beings, and of the subtle changes which happen, as the physical and chemical changes that constitute emotion occur in our bodies. Sometimes our emotional response to situations can seem to be at odds with our reasoning or thoughts about it, for example feelings of nervousness in a situation which we know rationally to be safe. In these situations emotional distress can occur because different parts of our intelligence seem to giving us different information. The famous psychiatrist Milton Erickson, regarded by many as the father of modern hypnosis, said that clients come into therapy when their conscious minds are in conflict with their unconscious minds. Uncomfortable emotions can often indicate to us that there is something we need to attend to or revise, perhaps a generalised rule, assumption, or response which was once helpful to us, but is now no longer so. The therapeutic space is one in which we can learn to recognise our emotions, and choose how we wish to respond to the feedback that they give. Thus we can start to utilise different parts of our intelligence in a complementary way, in moving towards our goals.