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Learning and Human Growth

by John Lawson © 1987, 2014

Body and Mind

The Need to Learn

    As human beings, we are capable of reflecting consciously on our individual growth and development.  To some extent this ability is a defining characteristic of our species.  The price we pay for self-consciousness, however, is a prolonged state of dependency during infancy and childhood and an increased sensitivity to adverse circumstances during the formative stages of our development.  By the same token, favorable circumstances during the first years of life help the young child to develop toward a state of freedom, responsibility, creativity, and awareness that seems to be uniquely "human."  It is understandable, therefore, that the question has been posed: "In what soil does the plant man grow best?"  To answer this question, we must give serious consideration to the classification of the human species as Homo sapiens.  If we are really the animal that is capable of knowledge, what is the relationship between learning and human growth?

    Certainly, the degree to which humans are capable of learning is a distinctive feature of our species.  Moshe Feldenkrais and others have suggested that the capacity to learn is linked in the human animal to a comparative lack of instinctual behavior.  According to Feldenkrais, an instinct is "... a complex integration of inborn, unconditioned reflexes, as distinct from acquired and conditioned ones." [1]  Another way of putting this is to say that an instinct is "... an involuntary response by an animal to an external stimulus, resulting in a predictable and relatively fixed pattern of behavior." [2]  Whatever one's views regarding the fixity of instinctual patterns in human beings, it seems clear that the degree to which specific instinctual patterns are present in humans is relatively less than in other animals.  This paucity of predetermined responses is related to the comparative helplessness of the human infant over a prolonged period of time in contrast to the condition of so many animals that are ready soon after birth to assume a substantial degree of self-support.  The wildebeest stands moments after it is born, and in a matter of minutes it is running with the herd.  The just-hatched baby turtle will make its way to water and will swim gracefully without any instruction.  The newborn human, however, must be nurtured and guided during a lengthy period of dependency throughout which he or she looks to the adult members of the species for care and tutelage.  Thus, Feldenkrais and others argue that the dependency situation during infancy and early childhood - anchored in a nervous system that is still in a process of growth and adjustment throughout a considerable period following birth - is the basis for the unique significance of learning in human beings.  According to this perspective, one could almost propose, paradoxically, that in human beings it is learning that is instinctive.  Hence the appropriateness of the term Homo sapiens.

    If we accept that human beings are born with a relative scarcity of instincts, does this mean that there is no basic direction of development in human growth that is right or natural for the species?  Such a conclusion, which has been advanced by some, does not seem to be realistic.  Though the role of unconditioned reflexes in human beings is comparatively minimal, there are nonetheless certain needs of a biological nature that human beings bring into the world.  There is much evidence to substantiate, for example, the importance of warm and loving skin contact between mother and infant.  The positive significance of such contact can be confirmed practically by the parent who succeeds in calming a crying infant by responding to the child's need to be picked up, held affectionately, and attended to with a spontaneous and genuine positive regard.  With justification, we may argue that in this case what the infant needs is love.   Alexander Lowen, along with others, has argued that the basic needs with which humans are born represent, in effect, "biological expectations."  One such expectation is that the breast of the mother will be there to nurse.  Lowen writes: "I believe that we and other organisms are born with a sense of the rightness of things, stemming from the evolutionary history of the species." [3]  Certainly, human beings are born with strong needs, the satisfaction of which leads to pleasure and the frustration of which leads to pain.  It is this fundamental nature of human needs that helps to explain the significance of learning in human growth.

    One way to understand human needs is in terms of tension.  Feldenkrais expresses this view succinctly when he writes: "Urges to essential action can be traced to body tension.  We eat because we are hungry, we rest because we are tired, we dance because we are impelled to muscular activity.  In each case the activity produced dissipates tension." [4]  Thus, human beings may be said to share with other animal organisms a basic need to resolve states of biological tension.  These states of tension take on various configurations, depending on the species.  The increased significance of learning in humans is related to the fact that there is a greater variety of forms of gratification in the human group than in other groups of animals.  This does not mean, however, that all forms of behavior related to need gratification are equally satisfactory.  Some attempts to resolve the basic biological tension of a given need will achieve only partial success.  The incomplete nature of the response to a stimulus (e.g., hunger) will be reflected in the incomplete dissipation of the tension.  There may be an absence of complete gratification even if the response is sufficiently adaptive to insure survival.  If partial gratification becomes a pattern, a conditioning process will take place whereby the organism learns to expect less than optimal satisfaction of needs as a basic fact of life.  Thus, a person may learn that life is difficult, desires are frustrating, and that a certain gnawing sense of emptiness is synonymous with existence. [5]  Such an attitude may be learned in the absence of any verbal instruction. [6]  Indeed, the groundwork for such an experience of life is usually laid before the child learns to speak.

    In order to clarify the process of growth and development in human beings and the role of learning in this process, it is necessary to distinguish between needs and instincts.  The use of the term "instinct" has varied during the past century.  Wilhelm Reich pointed out that in the psychology of Freud's time, "... there were as many, or almost as many, instincts as there were human actions." [7] 
By understanding instincts in terms of unconditioned responses, and basic needs in terms of tension and relaxation, it becomes possible to comment with increased precision on the fundamental developmental processes of the human species.  We can then attempt an evaluation of the conditions that best promote healthy human functioning.  This is particularly true with respect to the question of learning in relation to personal growth.

    When we speak of learning, typically we have in mind the acquisition of specific skills and the accumulation of information.  This definition, while meaningful within its limited scope, does not adequately convey the fundamental nature of learning in human growth.  Learning is, in a certain sense, a mystery.  The amoeba that contracts in the presence of a negative stimulus and then repeats this behavior after successive administrations of the negative stimulus, until it no longer expands, may be said to have learned to withdraw into itself in a protective maneuver.  The amoeba, however, has no known nervous system.  How does it learn to behave as it does?   May we say that at the basis of all reflexive activity is the tendency to extend ourselves in the direction of pleasure and to withdraw from pain? [8]  Such a tendency surely predates in evolutionary terms the emergence of nerve tissue.  Perhaps it is in the consideration of biological needs that the issue of learning as a basic aspect of human nature can be clarified.

    With respect to human needs, there appear to be two basic functions which can be sharply delineated.  They are the alimentary and the sexual needs, the functions of which are energy increase and energy discharge.  Simple self-observation confirms that both needs involve tension and relaxation.  Hunger, for example, is experienced as a tightness and an aching in the gut.   Hunger drives the infant to cry, a behavior which is itself a means of releasing tension.  The complete release of the tension associated with hunger is adequately achieved, however, only through the process of eating.  The result of feeding is an increase in the energy level of the organism.  Eating is a specific biological process. It characterizes the activity of phagocytosis ("cellular eating") at the microscopic level as well as the activity of eating a ham sandwich.  Fritz Perls, the originator of Gestalt therapy, considered the process of the ingestion of food to be a central, formative aspect of human growth on a psychological level, especially with respect to the healthy development of self-assertion.  The title of his first book was "Ego: Hunger and Aggression."

    It was Wilhelm Reich who first raised systematically the issue of the resolution of biological need-tension as the basis not only of human growth, but of the development of life in general.  The foundation of Reich's perspective was his study of the sexual orgasm, which he concluded to be expressive of the specific functional pattern of life.  Reich pointed out that living organisms produce a higher quantity of energy than is necessary for the maintenance of a state of static equilibrium and that the accumulation of such energy produces tension, which must be discharged.  Reich's contention was that the sexual orgasm is the specific functional process in human beings allowing for the thorough release of accumulated biological tension and that subjectively it provides the greatest degree of somatic and psychological gratification.  This conclusion led Reich to suggest that the basic pattern of sexual, energetic functioning represents the life process itself.  In Reich's words, "The orgasm formula shows itself to be the life formula as such." [9]  The orgasm formula is linked to and expressed in a broad spectrum of biological, pulsatory phenomena that are central to living functioning in humans.  The most obvious example is the process of respiration.

    Strictly speaking, respiration is not a learned function.  In human beings, the respiratory centers are located in an older part of the brain (medulla oblongata); breathing is an autonomic process.  Nonetheless, a disturbed pattern in respiration may be due to conditioned responses and thus be a consequence of learning.  Indeed, where there has been a significant functional disturbance in personal development, an individual will be faced with the task of establishing more securely the function (in this case, breathing) that has been inadequately acquired.  Put another way, an individual will be faced with learning to undo the damage that has been done.  Stated positively, this means that one is faced with the challenge of learning more adequate responses.  This involves learning to allow the natural respiratory process to occur. [10]

    In human beings, the respiratory process is subject to significant debilitating alterations of a functional nature that may take place during the course of personal growth.  After birth, there is a whole series of factors that enter into the development of adequate breathing.  Many of these factors are of an emotional kind.
  During the early years of a person's life, the satisfaction of emotional needs comes under the heading primarily of support and nurturance.  This is a period of dependency, and in the language of psychoanalysis it is referred to as the oral period of development.  The use of the term "oral" refers to the need of the infant and the young child to nurse at the mother's breast and to the pleasurable (or frustrating) experience associated with this activity.   Any parent who has observed his or her child with empathy will be aware of the powerful force of the infant's oral needs.  The gratification of these needs is directly related to the respiratory function.  Suckling stimulates the action of the infant's mouth, face, throat, and diaphragmatic area, as well as other muscles, all of which are significantly active in breathing.  The cranial joints (sutures) may be exercised during the process.  Loving contact between the child and mother during nursing gives the child a sense of well-being and deep satisfaction that is not attained in a comparable way - all else being equal - by means of bottle feeding.  Pleasurable nursing involves tactile contact between the body of the mother and the child.  If satisfactory breastfeeding is permitted to continue until the child's capacity for verbal expression is sufficiently realized, the child will confirm in words the joy and pleasure derived from nursing.

    Another aspect of the dependency period of early childhood is the gradual development of motor skills.  In the course of approximately the first year after birth, the child becomes capable of walking and standing, and this is a significant achievement.  The acquisition of a sense of balance adequate to the requirements of an upright posture and carriage involves the coordination of many different groups of muscles and corresponds to the establishment of necessary patterns of response in the nervous system.  That there is a close relationship between respiration and locomotion is well known.  The abdominal muscles, the diaphragm, the structurally significant muscles of the lower back (e.g., quadratus lumborum), the deep pelvic muscles, as well as other myofascial units are central not only to upright posture and locomotion, but to organismic pulsation and motility.  A disturbance in one aspect of functioning will impinge on other, related aspects.  The roots of this interdependence of functions extend back into the evolutionary development of the human species.  Mabel Elsworth Todd observes: "The relation of breathing to general body balance is significant, as the systems of breathing and locomotion developed simultaneously." [11]

    It is an inescapable fact that the various developmental landmarks in each individual's history will correspond to significant stages of development that are characteristic for all members of the human species.  For example, the need for nurturance and support during the early months and years of life is inevitable; all of us are dependent as infants.  Likewise, sexuality manifests itself as a strong biological drive at puberty, a time when secondary sexual characteristics emerge.  Growth of the bony structure of the body continues for many years; and the rate of development of the bony structure, as well as the fixity of articulations between the parts of this structure, varies according to a set pattern.  Nonetheless, the quality of the growth process differs from individual to individual, not merely as a result of genetic endowment, but also owing to the influence of environmental factors.
  It is this relationship between the needs of the developing person and the forces of the environment that constitutes the educational factor in human growth.

    Given these considerations, it is clear that, to a significant degree, all of us have been educated to become who we are, even in the most basic matters of life.  Feldenkrais has spoken of this fundamental level of education, in which certain typical patterns of behavior and experience are educed (i.e., drawn out) as a form of apprenticeship.  Following Feldenkrais, I believe it is possible to view the life process itself - in its entirety - as an ongoing apprenticeship.  In this respect, it is not without significance to speak even of an apprenticeship in the womb, since it can be argued that intrauterine conditions affect postnatal experience and behavior. [12]  What are the implications, however, of speaking of apprenticeship in this expanded, organic sense? 

    Apprenticeship means learning, and we may define learning as the process of making relatively enduring adjustments to our experience and behavior in response to the demands of the environment.  Viewed in this fashion, the learning process for human beings is coterminous with the life process itself.  Feldenkrais comments: "Organic learning begins in the womb and continues the whole of the individual's period of physical growth." [13]  Indeed, when conception occurs naturally, we begin as a fertilized ovum in a fallopian tube of our mother.  We implant ourselves in the uterus, and we grow until we are ready to be born, at which point we leave the womb and enter the postnatal world.  This is not to suggest that such events and processes are under voluntary control.  Yet such events and processes are part of the history of each human being who is conceived and born according to natural circumstances.  This relationship of learning to human growth - understood in terms of an organic apprenticeship - can be comprehended to greater advantage by focusing attention on the phenomenon of biological pulsation, which Wilhelm Reich judged to be a primary aspect of living functioning. 

Apprenticeship and Pulsation

    What is the relationship between human growth, learning, and the basic processes of life?  To answer that question, it is necessary to reflect on the nature of living functioning.  Such reflection, however, leads directly to the realization that "life" is an undefined term.  Carl Sagan comments that, despite the vast fund of information that each of the biological specialties has provided, "... it is a remarkable fact that no general agreement exists on what it is that is being studied.  There is no generally accepted definition of life." [14]  The reason that there is no generally accepted definition of life is that life cannot be comprehended analytically.  The word "analyze" refers to the process of separating a material or entity into its component parts.  Life, however, is experienced and apprehended as a unified whole, as a basic and integral phenomenon.  We may identify and enumerate certain characteristics of living functioning, but life itself is irreducible.  It is only because we share at least some basic, minimal experience of what it means to be alive that human beings are able to attempt a definition of life. 

    The question - What is life? - has been posed over the centuries, and in the context of recent scientific methodology, there has been a tendency to attempt a definition of life in terms of molecular and genetic processes and specific biochemical reactions.  This is a method that is essentially analytic and focuses strongly on identifying the constituent elements of living beings.  This approach has, in the view of some investigators, been improved upon by the development of a systems-oriented perspective that seeks to delineate the interrelationship between the parts that make up the whole.  While such an approach may provide us with considerable insight into the operation of living systems, the focus is on the interrelationship of parts rather than on the whole.  This observation applies equally to the attempt to view life in terms of cybernetics or "feedback" relationships.  How, then, does one approach the whole, which is to say the undiluted and unrefracted phenomenon of life?

    One method of studying life is to rely on the relatively undisturbed sensations of one's own experience as the means of apprehending the subject of inquiry. [15]  The foundation of such an approach is the understanding that life is identified by means of sense experience.  One of the stated goals of a strictly "objective" scientific methodology, however, is precisely to eliminate the tendency toward error based on the unreliability of sense experience.  While concern along these lines is warranted, and adequate controls are needed, it remains true that when such a methodology is carried to extremes it becomes impossible to study living functioning effectively, owing to the fact that living functioning is disclosed directly only by means of the senses.  Thus it is important not to relegate sensation to a secondary role in the investigation of life, just as it is important to reflect rationally on sensuous experience in order to place the meaning of such experience in a reasonable context. [16]  Therefore, rather than focusing exclusively on physico-chemical reactions and interrelationships in the life process, it may be fruitful to examine and reflect upon the fundamental functional aspects of life, taken as a whole.  When such an examination is undertaken, the phenomenon of biological pulsation emerges as a basic feature. 

    In 1938, Wilhelm Reich published a book which contains the following observation: "... no analysis of the individual functions, no matter how detailed, can succeed in explaining the functioning of the whole that characterizes life." [17]  The basic life function, according to Reich's understanding, is pulsatory in nature.  It involves a process of alternating expansion and contraction occurring in terms of a four-beat formula: mechanical tension leads to bioenergetic charge which leads to bioenergetic discharge which leads to relaxation.  It is interesting that this basic life function, observable in human beings as well as in simpler life forms, is scarcely mentioned in standard biological discussions.  In fact, one will find a discussion of biological pulsation absent from major works in biology - whether mechanistic, vitalistic, or organicist in orientation. [18]  Nevertheless, if we consider the various instances of pulsatory movement within living organisms, it becomes evident that biological pulsation encompasses a broad range of living functioning.  Reich addresses this issue in the following words: "The living process in man is fundamentally the same as in the amoeba.  Its main characteristic is biological pulsation, the alternation of contraction and expansion.  (Reich's italics)  This process can be observed in single-celled organisms in the rhythmical contractions of the vacuoles or the contraction and serpentine movements of the plasma.  In metazoa, its most obvious manifestation is the cardiovascular system, where the pulse beat is clear evidence of pulsation." [19]

    The basic biological functions of human beings, such as the heartbeat, are not "learned" in the conventional sense; however, the quality and overall integration of such functions, in terms of pulsation,
is greatly variable.  Because the phenomenon of biological pulsation in human beings develops subject to the influence of the environment, it can be said that the life function itself undergoes an apprenticeship.  This can be seen clearly by examining some of the basic stages in individual human growth, focusing on the needs of the organism and the manner in which the gratification or lack of gratification of these needs is expressed in the quality of biological pulsation.  In this endeavor, it may be best to "begin at the beginning."

    The question, "When does life begin?", when asked in relation to individual human beings, generally is meant to pose the issue of when a specifically "human" identity emerges.  Frequently, this is understood to occur after the first eight weeks of gestation, when the growing human being ceases to be termed an "embryo" and becomes known as a "fetus."  During the embryonic stage of development, the human being cannot easily be distinguished from other vertebrate life forms at a corresponding stage of gestation.  Strictly speaking, however, the question - When does life begin for the individual human being? - must be answered by going back at least as far as conception.  It is in the act of conception that the new being results from the merging of the sperm cell and the ovum, both of which are independently alive and functioning.  In conception, the two cells merge to form one cell, and thereafter, the newly formed cell divides, following which there is a continuing cell division accompanied by tissue differentiation.  In Reich's view, this process of cell division and intrauterine growth is an expression of biological pulsation.  In his description of this process, he compares the fertilized ovum to an elastic bladder: "When the egg has been fertilized, when it has absorbed the energy of the sperm cell, it first becomes tense.  It absorbs fluid; its membrane becomes taut.  This means that the surface tension and the inner pressure increase simultaneously.  The greater the pressure... the more difficult it is for the surface to 'hold' the system 'together.'   There is only one possibility of resolving this inner tension (apart from bursting): the 'division' of the one big bladder with its taut surface into two smaller bladders, in which the same volume content is surrounded by a much larger and therefore less taut membrane.  The egg division corresponds to the resolution of a tension." (Reich's italics) [20]

    Is it possible to argue that human beings are already learning to function at the intrauterine stage of development, or even earlier, at conception, in one of the fallopian tubes of the mother?  Is there a functional apprenticeship which begins at such an early phase of individual growth? [21]  Based on the perspective suggested by Reich, I believe that such a conclusion is warranted. 

    Functionally, the growth of the fetus may be viewed in terms of the "tension > charge" formula.  Thus, the unborn child can be compared to the nucleus of a cell. In the womb, the baby is connected to the mother via the umbilical vein through a flowing environment of amniotic fluid.  Wastes are discharged via the umbilical artery to the placenta and thence, by diffusion, to the maternal bloodstream.  The growth of the unborn child involves a continuous concentration of increased mass and energy within the womb.  Tension created by this concentration entails an expansion within the system from the center (fetus) to the periphery (uterine wall).  Finally, this expansion leads to the series of contractions that result in the discharge of energy and the reduction of tension: the child is born. 

    If we accept that the process of fetal growth is pulsatory, then there are grounds for postulating the development of a "functional disposition" in the fetus as a basic biological phenomenon.  During the initial stages of intrauterine growth, the embryo is much like an amoeba, in that it lacks a developed nervous system.  There are other similarities between the amoeba and the human embryo, when viewed with respect to basic life functions.  Embryonic cells "... move by amoeboid motions." [22]  In terms of a functional perspective, any significant interference with the process of pulsation can be understood as a basic disturbance of the life process.  If the unborn baby does indeed function in many ways like an amoeba, and if the unborn child's basic life function is characterized by alternating expansion and contraction, certain conclusions logically follow.  Let us return to the pulsatory behavior of the amoeba. 

    Mabel Todd writes: "An ameba [sic], as Jesse Fering Williams points out, shows, among others, the essential qualities of excitability, conductivity, and integration.  Thus, 'if a needle pricks the amoeba, it is excited, the stimulus is conducted throughout the cell, and the protoplasm shows an integrated action by withdrawing from the offending needle.'" [23] 

    Elsworth Baker observes that, when disturbed repeatedly with a sharp instrument, the amoeba responds with a certain characteristic pattern of behavior.  "After a single prick, the amoeba soon expands as before.  After several attacks, it becomes 'cautious' and expands anxiously and incompletely.  After repeated attacks, the amoeba remains contracted, and for practical purposes we can say that it is now armored and experiencing a state of anxiety.  It has defended itself from its environment by reduction in size, but at the expense of lowered motility and increased inner pressure." [24]

    Is it not possible, or even likely, that the same pattern of disturbed functioning that appears in the amoeba may occur under certain circumstances in the developing human within the womb?  If so, such a basic alteration in life functioning might carry over into postnatal development, expressing itself in specific patterns of growth and affecting such fundamental factors as a tendency toward definite somatotypes and emotional structures.  [25]  Baker has commented that the fundamental pattern of response demonstrated by the amoeba in the face of repeated environmental threats is "... comparable to the basic mechanisms of emotional disorders - however complex they may be and in whatever animal they may occur." [26]  The basis for such an assessment is rooted in the identification of biological pulsation as a fundamental life function.  It follows that any enduring pattern of disturbance in pulsation betokens a fundamental disruption in growth and development.  In this regard, the comparison of the amoeba to human beings, with respect to basic functioning, can be carried further.

    In his study entitled "The Basic Antithesis of Vegetative Life Functions," published originally in 1934, Wilhelm Reich describes the behavior of the amoeba in terms of two fundamental directions of plasma movement.  One direction corresponds to the expansion of the amoeba and the protrusion of the pseudopodia.  Reich calls this direction "toward the world."  The other direction, which Reich identifies with a contraction of the amoeba, as in the example of a pinprick, he calls "away from the world."  Reich argues that these antithetical directions of movement, which can be equated with pleasure and anxiety on an emotional level, represent "the two primordial forms of psychic tendencies." [27]  Such a basic antithesis, present in the amoeba, must be equally present in the human zygote (i.e., fertilized ovum), embryo, and fetus, operating according to the same principles.  There is no reason to suppose that the developing human inside its mother's womb responds in a fundamentally different way to negative or positive stimuli than does the amoeba functioning in the womb of nature.  The human embryo may "learn," just as does the amoeba.

    By focusing on pulsation as a basic life function, and by examining the conditions which are positive for this function, it is possible to understand how life may be seen as a learning process in an animal with the degree of plasticity, malleability, and flexibility found in humans.  For the purposes of the present discussion, the word "learning" is used to refer to the process of growth and development that occurs in terms of individual patterns of adjustment to environmental factors over a period of time.  For example, the appearance of a rudimentary nervous system in the human embryo is not, in the framework of this discussion, an example of learned behavior.  Neither is the emergence of arms, legs, and feet.  These are phylogenetically acquired patterns of development which, except in the case of genetic disturbance or structural damage, occur invariably in all members of the human species.  Deformation in structure, due to a disturbance in pulsation, however, is another matter.  We may hypothesize that such a deformation may occur as a response to environmental factors, such as a chronic state of constriction of the embryo and fetus in the womb. [28]   A response of this nature may be said to have been "learned" by the individual and may be viewed as specific to the history of that individual.  This is true, even though similar responses may occur, under similar conditions, in other individuals of the same species.  Such responses may not be
passed on genetically, though they may be acquired by offspring under the pressure of environmental influences similar to those encountered by the parents.  Such an outlook is in conformity with contemporary biological thinking.  In the words of Salvador Luria: "... the genes set the intrinsic tendency of the organism; the actual outcome is determined both by the genes and by the environment." [29]  Viewed in this manner, learning may be seen to reach deep into the experience of the individual.  Feldenkrais remarks that, "...any activity that has needed apprenticeship may be used to investigate the process of learning in an individual.  Similar results are obtained whether we examine the successive stages and forms of the libidinal urges, social adjustment, somatic expression of the emotions, or whatever group of acquired responses we may choose..." [30] 

    In the same vein, Rupert Sheldrake writes: "Learning can be said to occur when there is any relatively permanent adaptive change in behavior as a result of past experience." [31]  In the context of intrauterine development and growth, this definition of learning is relevant.  Given the framework established by Reich, the apprenticeship of the human being during the intrauterine stage of development can be seen as anchored in the variability of the biological function of pulsation as it comes under the influence of the environment.

    The example of intrauterine growth has been given to illustrate that learning in human beings may be seen to be a process that is deeply rooted in the life function itself.  Learning at this fundamental level is an aspect of the growth process.  Obviously, the learning process extends beyond the stage of intrauterine development, and the basic pattern of functioning which the newborn infant brings to the world is not complete.  Upon emerging from the womb, the baby begins its existence "in the world" by initiating the breathing process, which is itself an instance of biological pulsation.  Numerous examples of alternating expansion and contraction in the various organ systems can be cited.  The basic elements of vegetative movement, such as cellular streaming, also continue to occur and to develop as the human being grows.  All of the pulsatory phenomena in the human organism are subject to environmental influence throughout the course of postnatal development.

    The conclusion suggested by the above considerations is that there is a functional continuity in the life process of the human being irrespective of the particular stage of growth, whether prenatal or postnatal, embryonic or fetal, juvenile or adult.  The additional issue concerning the functional identity of the basic life processes as they cut across species boundaries - and perhaps across more elementary boundaries of life's "kingdoms" as well - constitutes a subject deserving further attention.  For the purpose at hand, the important consideration is that human life - even during its earliest stages - appears to function in terms of pulsation.   Such pulsation of a biological nature involves a basic pattern of alternating expansion and contraction according to the four-beat formula: tension > charge > discharge > relaxation.  This fundamental pulsatory pattern is the subject which Wilhelm Reich took as his particular field of research.  Reich's concern was to find an adequate approach to promoting individual growth and change so that disturbances in functioning could be prevented and, failing this, reversed or at least ameliorated.  In the present context, it can be seen that for human beings such an endeavor involves a process of organic learning.  Quite literally, this raises the issue of self-education. 

Education of the Self

    If it is true that human beings are sensitive to the influence of their environment to such a degree that organic learning is a major ingredient in human life, the question arises: What type of knowledge is vital to human beings, and in what way can such knowledge be effectively attained?  The answer to the first part of this question is "knowledge of life"; the answer to the second part of the question is "by living."  The problem that most human beings face - indeed, this may be viewed as the central problem of the human species - is that there is among individuals in today's world a generalized, chronic disturbance of autonomic functioning.  This disturbance of autonomic functioning extends to voluntary behavior as well.  The nature of this disturbance has been characterized by Reich and by others as involving patterns of restricted and diminished respiration, a decreased level of personal energy, unbalanced muscular functioning and coordination, disturbed sexuality, and stereotyped and limited responses of the nervous system, all of which are reflected in characteristic, problematic ways of viewing, understanding, and living in the world.  Such disturbed functioning has its origins in the innate sensitivity of human beings to environmental factors and is rooted in the dependency period of early growth and development. 

    Viewed in terms of biological pulsation,
the early dependency situation of human beings involves near universal disturbances in key areas of personal functioning.  Reich indicated that the basic regulatory processes of the body are energetic and that any chronic disturbance in pulsation will affect the process of self-regulation.  In human beings, the most obvious instance of biological pulsation is respiration, which is instrumental in providing the metabolism with the oxygen necessary to maintain and feed the fires of life.  The sexual function, which provides an important avenue for the discharge of energetic tension in the body, is another central element in the pulsatory rhythm of life.  It follows that in human beings any functional disturbance in pulsation will be manifested in patterns of restricted respiration and disturbed sexuality.  Such functional disturbances are learned, and a considerable fund of knowledge is now available to explain how healthy patterns of growth and functioning - as well as disturbances - are established during the early years of life, throughout adolescence, and beyond.  The process of stimulating renewed growth and development, of loosening and removing the chains of armor that limit and distort human functioning, requires that - at a deep, organic level - more satisfactory and more satisfying functioning be learned.  This is a task of educating or eliciting one's true self.

    In the profound sense of the word, "self" refers to a unity of behavior and experience that cannot be broken down into its component parts without bringing about "self-destruction."  The relationship between experience and behavior has long been a subject of controversy.  In scientific circles, the problem has been raised principally in terms of the debate concerning vitalistic versus mechanistic perspectives.  In philosophy, the issue has traditionally been formulated as the opposition between idealism and materialism.  In psychology, the dilemma centers on the relationship between mind and body.  In all of these controversies, the real problem may be that the original, underlying unity of experience and behavior has been severed.  Once such a split has been effected, emphasis must then be placed either on the mind or on the body, on spirit or on matter.  In terms of this divided perspective, the extremes of naive mysticism and compulsive mechanism represent opposite sides of the same coin.  It is possible, however, through education of the self based on functional principles, to reach beneath the mind-body split and to establish contact with the basic unity of life.  In this endeavor, the fundamental unity of mind and body must be addressed, not merely in theory, but in practice.  The avenue taken by such an approach leads to increased self-awareness, improved self-expression, and enhanced self-direction.  Achieving a greater degree of sensory appreciation is a necessary aspect of this enterprise.

    The place of enhanced sensory appreciation in organic learning has been addressed by F.M. Alexander, who states: "Sensory appreciation conditions conception - you can't now a thing by an instrument that is wrong." [32]  In Alexander's view, which was also Reich's view, knowledge cannot be dissociated from the experience - from the sensory appreciation - of the person who knows.  The challenge of learning, then, entails the task of establishing a basis in personal functioning for evaluating and integrating the ongoing experience of life in all of its many facets.  This task involves stimulating the capacity of the individual to breathe, move, think, feel, and sense in a fashion that is, as much as possible, free of the restrictions imposed by patterns of chronic muscular tension, inhibited respiration, stressful posture, and self-defeating inner conflict.  The orientation of this approach is toward establishing improved conditions of sensory appreciation and self-awareness that can serve as the basis for continued, independent personal growth and learning.  To say this is to suggest that improved human functioning can be brought about in spite of an individual history of disturbances that interfere with such basic and crucial aspects of personal well-being as breathing, sexuality, movement, structural alignment, postural attitude, and sensory integration. 

    The subject of human learning is vast, encompassing many levels.  Many of these levels - involving both voluntary and involuntary functioning - must be addressed if constructive changes in humans are to be fostered.  The purpose of the present discussion has been to indicate the fundamental relationship between biological pulsation, individual development, and personal learning in human beings at the deep level of living functioning.  Such functioning, in spite of its depth and in spite of the presence of significant disturbances, is amenable to positive change.  Such change, however, can only take place if the nature of human problems is seen in the light of a clear understanding of the requirements for healthy and satisfying living.  Somewhere in one of his books, Nietzsche poses the question: "In what soil does the plant man grow best?"  Functionally, the answer to that question is: in the deep soil of the satisfaction of fundamental human needs.  It is here that human beings must seek the answers to their problems and establish the direction for their growth.

[1] Feldenkrais
, M. Body and Mature Behavior (New York: International Universities Press, 1975), p. 83.

Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th edition (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 1981), Vol. V, p. 370.

[3] Lowen, A. Narcissism: Denial of the True Self (New York:
Macmillan Publishing Company, 1983), p. 147.

[4] Feldenkrais, M. The Potent Self (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 14.

[5] See, for example, Horney, K. The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1937).

[6] See Klein, M. Envy and Gratitude & Other Works 1946 - 1963 (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1975).  Klein's description of disturbed infantile phantasy life is revealing.  I disagree with her views concerning the instinctiveness of such inner experience, as well as with important aspects of her discussion of the developmental staging of such experience. 

[7] Reich, W. The Function of the Orgasm, trans
. V. Carfagno (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), p.27. 

[8] "When a stimulus strikes an amoeba, it behaves either as though it likes or dislikes it. If it likes it, it moves toward it or at least it goes on undisturbed. If it dislikes it, it moves away... The movements toward or away from the stimulus are called 'tropisms.'" Newman, H. Outlines of General Zoölogy (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930), p. 126.  (The amoeba reacts to a variety of stimuli, including light, heat, physical contact, electrical current, chemicals, and gravity.)

[9] Reich, W. The Cancer Biopathy, trans. T. Wolfe (New York: Orgone Institute Press, Inc., 1948), p. 3.

[10] Reich describes the inhibition of respiration as "... the physiological mechanism of the suppression and repression of emotion, and consequently, the basic mechanism of the neurosis in general." (Reich's italics)  He remarks:
"The inhibition of respiration, as it is found regularly in neurotics, has, biologically speaking, the function of reducing the production of energy in the organism, and thus, of reducing the production of anxiety."  Reich, W. The Function of the Orgasm, trans. T. Wolfe (New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1948), p. 242. 

[11] Todd, M. The Thinking Body (Paul H. Hoeber, Inc., 1937; unabridged republication by Dance Horizons, New York), p. 108.

[12] See Laing, R.D. The Facts of Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1976). 

[13] Feldenkrais, M. The Elusive Obvious (Cupertino, California: Meta Publications, 1981), p. 29.  Feldenkrais's emphasis is on the role of the nervous system in learning, and it is in this sense that he uses the term "organic."  I believe that the sphere of organic learning is not limited to the nervous system.  It is, therefore, in a somewhat different sense than that intended by Feldenkrais that I use the word "organic" to mean "functional," i.e., having to do with the basic processes of life.

[14] Sagan, C. "Life," Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th edition (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 1981), vol. 10, p. 893. 

[15] This is one of the senses in which a methodology involving "functional thinking" is to be understood.  See Reich, W. Either God and Devil & Cosmic Superimposition, trans. (in part) T. Pol (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), pp. 54-75, passim.

[16] See Laing, R.D. The Voice of Experience (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), pp. 15-34.

[17] Reich, W. The Bion Experiments, trans. D. Jordan and I. Jordan (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), pp. 138-139.

[18] For an interesting survey of vitalism, mechanism, and organicism, see Sheldrake, R. A New Science of Life (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher Inc., 1981), Chapter 2.  The subject of biological pulsation, however, is not addressed.

[19] Reich, W. The Cancer Biopathy, trans. A. White (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), p. 154.   

[20] Reich, The Function of the Orgasm (trans. Carfagno), pp. 283-286.  Compare Ernest Starling's description of the process of mechanical stimulation of smooth muscle tissue, in which the urinary bladder is taken as an example: "The effect of increasing tension on smooth muscle may be twofold: causing in the first place extension and in the second excitation with increased contraction. These two effects may be illustrated by taking the case of the bladder.  If this viscus (which is surrounded by a complete coat of smooth muscle) has all its connections with the central nervous system severed, it is when empty in a state of chronic contraction.  If fluid be injected into it rapidly, there is a great rise of pressure in its cavity due to the forcible distension.  If, however, the fluid be injected slowly, the bladder muscle relaxes to make room for it, so that a considerable amount of fluid may be accommodated in the bladder without any great rise of pressure.   This process of relaxation has its limit.  If the injection of fluid is continued, the walls begin to be stretched passively, and this increased tension acts as a stimulus causing rhythmic contractions of the whole bladder." Starling, E. Principles of Human Physiology, Fifth Edition (Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger, 1930), p. 197.

[21] In consideration of this question, see the film presentation PBS Nova: The Miracle of Life DVD, with the photography of Lennart Nilsson (production year 1999).  Also, see Nilsson, L. A Child is Born (New York: Delacorte Press/Seymore Lawrence, 1977).

[22] Davies, R. and Curtin, N. "Muscle Contraction,"  Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th edition, v. 12, p. 621.

[23] Todd, p. 25

[24] Baker, E. Man in the Trap (New York: Avon Books, 1967), p. 32.

25] See, for example, Sheldon, W. The Varieties of Human Physique (New York: Harper Brothers, 1940) and Sheldon, W. The Varieties of Temperament (New York: Harper Brothers, 1942).  Sheldon differentiates between three basic somatotypes corresponding to the germinal tissue layers: endoderm, ectoderm, and mesoderm.  He does not, however, consider a developmental basis for the distribution of such types.  For a discussion of some developmental factors in embryonic growth, see Keleman, S. Emotional Anatomy (Berkeley: Center Press, 1985), Ch. 1.

[26] Baker, p. 32.

[27] Reich, W. The Impulsive Character and Other Writings, trans. B. Koopman (New York: New American Library, 1974), p. 96.

[28] In this connection, one may wish to give some thought to possible biochemical stress reactions in the unborn child due to fetal contraction in response to disturbed uterine pulsation.  At issue is the emotional state of the mother and its effect on the intrauterine environment.

[29] Luria, S. Life: The Unfinished Experiment (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973), p. 28.

[30] Feldenkrais, Body and Mature Behavior, p. 38.

[31] Sheldrake, p.126.

[32] Alexander, F.M. The Resurrection of the Body, ed. E. Maisel (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1974), p. 11.

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