VR and Somatic Inquiry: Visualizing or Somatizing Balance?

The use of visualization within the healing art form of Somatic Movement Education and Therapy has expanded rapidly over the 20th century, in large part beginning with the system of Ideokinesis developed by Mabel Todd, author of The Thinking Body.[note]. Ideokinesis evolved from the work of Mabel Ellsworth Todd and her students Barbara Clark and Lulu Sweigard.  Sweigard invented 9 “lines of movement” that when visualized through the body result in improved alignment (mechanical balance) and movement performance.  There are no specific training programs in Ideokinesis per se.  However Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Anna Halprin’s, Nancy Topf’s and Eric Franklin’s programs have their roots in it to varying degrees. Glenna Batson, Irene Dowd, Pamela Matt, Marsha Paladin, and John Rolland as well as their students have taught or still teach in Europe and throughout North America.  It is important to note that Ideokinesis provides the underpinning for the dance anatomy and kinesiology laboratory sessions in several universities (e.g. New York University, the New School, Teachers College and Julliard).  [/note] The use of Virtual Reality (VR) is controversial and much newer. Where do Ideokinesis and VR meet on the somatic path?  

Ideokinesis has been defined as a form of motor learning based on visualizing components of movement (either literally or through images evocative of human movement).  Mental practice guides the brain to stimulate muscles to organize for a specific movement. The images selected are based on principles of biomechanical alignment and efficient muscular functioning. The premise is that by imaging movement clearly, the felt or seen image will help the brain form a plan to help the muscles execute the actual movement with more efficient timing, sequencing, balance and force. The imagined movement experience stems from two types of cognitive processes  – either a kinesthetic or visual reference.  

VR  is another visually dominant system that impacts and interacts with the human body thereby including a kinesthetic component. VR has blossomed into an everyday word, concept and experience. First it was only available for those privileged enough to access the technology, but now VR glasses are available for $20 and VR experiences are available online and in diverse settings.  This makes it a potent influencer. 

What is the link between Ideokinesis (and the many derived somatic approaches that use it) or other forms of visualization within somatic movement and VR?  First of all, visualization has morphed in the somatic domains into the more multi-sensory experience of “somatization.”[note]Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Basic Neurocellular Patterns: Exploring Developmental Movement. Burchfield Rose Publishers (2018).[/note] During somatization we hear, feel, smell, see into and through our brains as an inroad to experiencing the body more deeply. 

If bodily involvement creates the intersections between visualization and VR, the further connection to somatization (or mental engagement with the senses) still needs consideration.   How does VR allow us to go deeply within and FEEL our bodies?  This is a tricky question because it is highly individual.  For some it’s an instant entry – whether a road away from being the couch potato with little proprioceptive or kinesthetic awareness or a chance to dance, ski, create with virtuosity. For others, it’s a “no-go”:  the experience of nausea or dizziness that may ensue when inside a VR experience can be overwhelming and completely demotivating. 

I postulate that the visual-auditory channel, with its strong tie with the inner ear, is overloaded for most people when they first experience VR. If people don’t stimulate their inner ear on a regular basis with tilting, swinging, running, accelerating and decelerating, when they try VR they are often more thrown off than people that are already accustomed to this kind of regular inner ear stimulation.   For individuals who are not in the habit of stimulating the inner ear (through intentional movement, exercise or play), or for those that have a pre-existing inner ear or balance problem, some sort of guidance is needed for them to “get the experience.”  This is also because despite the kinesthetic impact of VR, it is more generally what I like to call “visually hegemonic.” This means other sensory systems can easily get overwhelmed while the eyes and the visual cortex take in huge loads of information.  The recuperation or successful engagement comes when the VR program has preparatory exercises, or carefully guides “the Viewer” to feel into the body more deeply. This is best done with pacing that allows a person to “center within their own soma”, grounding through the feet as well as relaxing and being gentle with the organs of equilibrium (the semi-circular canals). On a psychophysical level, from a Dynamic Embodiment[note]Dynamic Embodiment (DE) is strongly influenced by the experiential anatomy and neuro-cellular developmental theories of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s Body-Mind Centering and the Space Harmony scales of Rudolf Laban as taught by Irmgard Bartenieff.[/note] perspective, this pacing is enhanced by our relational attachment.  Our early relationships, and how we relate today, have been affected by how each of  our inner ears perceived the movement of our biological mother, while we are “relating” in utero. If this is practiced, moving in relationship to another person, or responding to movement that is evocative of our early developmental experiences allow us more adaptability of speed, off-verticality, and change. Positive VR experiences emerge once a person is able to find pleasure in the experience as well as “mine it” for new physical, visual, cognitive and perhaps spiritual information. Practice, embodied in movement and relationship helps this.

In Mindful Movement (Eddy 2016)[note]M. Eddy, Mindful Movement – the Evolution of the Somatic Arts and Conscious Action. Bristol, England: Intellect Press (2016).[/note],  I outline basic tenets of somatic education as 1) slowing down to feel 2) accessing deeper breath 3) releasing tension, often by lying down on the floor and 4) experiencing one’s three-dimensionality and 5) engaging in novel coordination.  VR fits into the model of somatic movement education precisely because it brings varied stimuli into the body – it stimulates novel coordination at a whole new level.  The problem is the bodily experience along the way, one’s degree of preparedness.  For some it is completely disorienting and over-stimulating, causing dizziness and nausea.  Somatic awareness can help teach the skills to make VR absorbable – an experience that moves beyond excitation and over-stimulation to learning, pleasure and meaning-making. 

This somatic pursuit of slowing down to feel in a pace that is absorbable helps the viewer to avoid falling, dis-ease, and (re)traumatization and allows for emotions and physicality to link up.  The theme here is self-care versus overly intense or abusive stimulation.  This shifts the focus on asking VR to be designed in such a way that it meets our psychophysical needs and nurtures our humanity. 

Access to VR has all sorts of implications for health and healing inclusive of transcendent artistic expression. There are artists and scientists separately and together using computational systems replete with VR to make biology-based art, neurological rehabilitation programs, and physically informative journeys.  My own experience in the past two years has included being part of a team at the MECI conference in Toronto at York University. This team engages in VR to learn about the intestinal system, as well as other integrative computations systems to allow a dozen humans to create body-based music with their beating hearts (Mark-David Hosale, York University).[note]http://ndstudiolab.com/meci – 2016, York University//accessed March 20, 2020.[/note]

Each of these practices are also informing AI – Artificial Intelligence.  These are exciting times, but ethical issues arise from the technological – the particulars of bodily use, issues of addiction, the role of sexualized experiences, and the impact on human mutation. Katie Couric tackles some of these in her recent documentary on technology – “Your Brain on Tech.[note]America Inside Out – “Your Brain on Tech” 2016. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/tv/shows/america-inside-out-with-katie-couric/episode-guide/season-01/episode-03-your-brain-on-tech/vdka10906942  accessed March 20, 2020.[/note] As we move forward with the development of sophisticated visualizations within the somatic field and/or Virtual Reality games/strategies/educational tools, I offer two questions of caution: (1) To what extent does going inside (the world of oneself and or into the world of a machine) avoid the development of the felt sense, interpersonal growth, and responsibility for the planet?  (2) Can the use of either visualization and/or VR be the entry point to greater environmental awareness and self-care of the body, mind, psyche, and spirit?  Cases can be made for each, simultaneously.  Ultimately it is our humanness, buoyed by our felt sense as living creatures, and our caring consciousness that is aware of our interdependence that shifts the needle.