The last few years of my private practice has heavily focused on helping people better understand their relationships across different identity lines such as gender, race, class, and so on, in an epochal time, where there has been so much mass proliferation of vocabularies such as privilege, intersectionality, and identity politics.
Using a foundationally neurobiological framework to support people in managing their intimate partnerships, friendships, and collegial relationships, I’ve noticed a recurring confusion about how we see another and how they feel themselves about their identity.
This article outlines what I see to be at the root of this confusion: the cultural somatic paradox.
What does ‘cultural somatic’ mean?
To set up our exploration, I would like to first define a foundational term in the vocabulary I’m using: the cultural soma.
Cultural soma refers to the network-effect that is generated from fields of relationships. I use the term cultural soma because this field can be seen to have a neurological system that has all the same functions as the ones we have in our fleshy bodies.
A simple way to observe the cultural somatic effect is on social media networks. When a person shares a viral piece of content, their nervous system experiences flashes of activity that creates affirmative association patterns in their psyche. This same pattern manifests as a fractal in the social network as a highly stimulated viral sharing behavior.
Having such a neural network means that, just like our own somas, cultural somas can go into survival responses such as fight/flight/freeze/fawn, and consequently become traumatized, as well as access more resourced states of play and rest.
Identity and the cultural somatic field
Understanding the existence of cultural somatic fields is foundational to understanding how we develop cultural identities.
Every cultural group we may identify has an associated cultural somatic field that has unique resourced and traumatized neuro-regulation patterns, with specific embodied acculturated behaviors, which act as centers of gravity that hold the identity of the collective.
What is commonly referred to as blackness, queerness, whiteness, femininity, and masculinity, are all shorthand descriptions that are an attempt to simplify our lived experience of this cultural somatic phenomenon. What these terms principally refer to are the different embodied qualities, such as muscle tension, heart rate, breathing style, spinal fluidity and posture, and so on, through which we may both express and feel our belonging, or rather, gravitation attraction to different cultural identities.
Of course, this does not mean if an individual belongs to a certain cultural group they must behave in a certain contained way to belong to it. Cultural somas are a field; there are no rigid boundaries that define a cultural group in this model. There are only centers of gravity.
Just like how in quantum physics, where an object that appears in front of us might look stable and contained but reveal itself as made of particles that can be anywhere in the universe at any point in time, our relationship to cultural identity can work in a similar way. In social justice theory, this kind of unpredictable and fluid behavior of identity is often referred to as ‘queer’.
In fact, an individual soma can be considered to be a ‘queer’ field of its own, which fractally mimics the diffuse nature of cultural somatic fields, and holds multiple identities that modulate with each other to create each person’s unique expression of self at any moment.
For example, in this model, it perfectly makes sense for someone who is queer in their sexuality and gender to feel comfortable in expressing a heterosexual cis-gendered embodied quality most of the time. In fact, you might even say that people who identify this way actually share a cultural somatic field of their own.
NOTE: The impact of cultural somatic field has certain common-sense limitations e.g. a light-skinned person cannot identify as a dark-skinned person as that is not an internal embodied quality. That said, a white person may take on certain embodied traits of ‘blackness’ through participating in the black cultural somatic field. You often see this phenomenon in white bodies that have been acculturated in communities predominantly made up of black communities and learned the somatic syntax through immersion.
The cultural somatic paradox
Why is it so important to understand the fractal nature of individual and cultural somas in navigating our real-life relationships?
It is because: due to systemic oppression, there tends to be an inverse relationship between the quantity and quality of psychological resources that a cultural soma has and the quantity and quality of material resources accessible to individual somas. This is the cultural somatic paradox.
For example, the Black cultural soma has much more potent psychological resources compared to the White cultural soma, mostly coming from the Black cultural soma’s higher level of access to ancestral-cultural resources such as dance and ritual. Yet, with all other factors being equal, individual Black somas tend to experience more traumatic life events and have less access to resources compared to individual White somas.
Here is a graphic that fleshes out this inverse relationship more, using Black and White individual and cultural somas as an example. (Of course, like any simple model of natural phenomena, such as wave-particle duality, it cannot fully capture the true subtle complexity of the world we live in and needs to be understood as a tool, rather than a dogma.)
Understanding the cultural somatic paradox is important because it gives us insight into the gulf that exists between different cultural groups understanding each other’s experiences. Specifically, when there is vigilance from scarcity, our psyche’s attention tends to fixate on the lack of resources in one’s own individual or cultural soma and the plenty of resources in the other’s individual or cultural soma. This can be highly aggravating for our cross-cultural relationships (which is basically all of our relationships) as it distorts our perception of ourselves and others.
What is behind the cultural somatic paradox?
It is critical to understand that having resources, or a lack thereof, in the cultural somatic field, is a large determinant of one’s wellbeing. This shows through in the resilient cultural psyches of many oppressed peoples.
In fact, what is referred to commonly as privilege is actually a cultural somatic ‘dissociative’ mechanism that exists to protect certain bodies from their comparative lack of resources in the cultural somatic field as they tend to have the least capacity to process traumatic material, i.e. ancestral-cultural trauma, also stored in the cultural somatic field.
This means that bodies with the least amount of resources in their cultural somatic fields, such as cis white middle-to-upper-class white men, are going to tend to be the most vigilant about controlling their environment and securing material resources for themselves in a distorted way. This is why the cultural somatic paradox, the inversion of resources I mentioned above, is such a common phenomenon. What is referred to as White colonialism is essentially a collective historical manifestation of this mechanism and is reflected in the fact that the colonial project was essentially driven by the needs of the white cultural somatic field to secure stimulants such as sugar, caffeine, refined wheat product, and so on.
Of course, the inversion of the cultural somatic paradox doesn’t always easily apply. There are, for example, highly resourced Black groups and lowly resourced White groups. One way to understand this is that highly resourced Black groups are likely able to access those material resources for factors other than their racial-cultural identity. These can include factors such as educational background, intergeneration wealth, and so on, which are also still identity markers of their own.
On the other hand, in the case of lowly resourced White groups, you might see them as actually experiencing racial-cultural poverty that is tied to things such as being a white body of a certain locale and/or shared ancestral-cultural history. In fact, White groups that are under-resourced as individuals often suffer a ‘double whammy’ because they also tend to lack resources in their cultural somatic field.
In light of this, the recent outburst of white nationalism in North America can be attributed to white men’s declining access to material resources through job loss due to automation in the industrial sector, combining with their latent lack of psychological resilience, which originates centuries prior in the historical imperialization of Europe that decimated smaller ‘local’ cultural somatic fields, along with their associated healthier neuro-regulation states, and sent many poor traumatized white bodies into the exile of the ‘New World’.
Understanding the existence of cultural somatic fields and their paradoxical behavior adds critical dimensions to what has been known to us as social justice. No longer can societal change be merely about redistribution of material resources and reduction of trauma to marginalized bodies. Reconciliation requires to be a holistic relational process that is rooted in the realities of human neurobiology, based on sharing and integrating resourced states between different cultural groups, under sociopolitical conditions where access to material resources and proliferation of traumatization as individual bodies belonging to cultural somas are distorted in a mostly inverted way.
This is critical because it is exactly the under-resourced cultural somatic fields that tend to have the most amount of access to power in our culture because of the cultural somatic paradox. In general, nervous systems resist trauma resolution and opt for stabilization through dissociation if there is a lack of psychological resources available. Refusal of governments to change racist policy and police brutality at protests are both impacts of this cultural somatic dissociation mechanism. Because of this, sustainable long term solutions to the problems we face today necessitate the knowledge transfer of healthier embodied states to under-resourced cultural somatic fields, in order to support them in resolving their ancestral-cultural traumatization and releasing metastasized power.
In facilitating this process, my recommendation is to first look to create a ‘secure base’ that allows cultural somatic fields and individual somas to bring their nervous system activity into thresholds that are manageable, also known as the Window of Tolerance. In any soma, bringing neural activity within a workable bandwidth produces a natural circulation of principle resources throughout the system.
At the governmental level, the creation of a secure base may look like bringing forth holistic economic policies such as a basic income, which can be interwoven with more targeted support that addresses specific identity issues, which are more akin to allopathic measures.
This kind of holistic-allopathic approach, where holism occupies the foundation, is key for sustainable social change. Since identity itself is largely a diffuse phenomenon that is a field-effect, strictly relying on targeted approaches that see identity markers as containers, rather than centers of gravity, such as grants and bursaries for individuals of particular racial and gender identities, inevitably misses the granular complexity of how resources flow in and out of the cultural somatic fields that generate our identity, which are themselves infinitely blended on top of each other in a modulated way. In such a system, individuals will always feel left out of the process and this can become extremely aggravated if there is pervasive hyper-vigilance of scarcity in our individual and cultural somas.
Because of this, holistic approaches that provide a stable base of universal resources, such as access to cash and healthcare, that reduce vigilance in ALL somas, including ‘privileged’ ones we identify as white, male, or wealthy, are critical as foundations for mass change. It is much easier to redistribute resources in targeted ways that do not require means-tested filters but rather operate through open opt-in systems based on empowered self-selection when there is more general resourcing and alleviation of scarcity.
Behind such a blended approach is the fundamental understanding that we, as a collective of somas, also form a singular cultural somatic field, which may include all forms of non-human existence. Following, the systemic violences that we see around us, from racism to ecological destruction, can be truly understood as expressions of the traumas in this collective cultural somatic field, fractally mimicking how we as individual somas may experience headaches or organ failures as localized expressions of chronic problems within the entire system.
This also means that our best knowledge of how to resolve trauma and restore health on an individual level is completely transferrable to transformation at the cultural level. The key to being able to harness this latent wisdom is to not get caught frozen in confronting the contradictions of the cultural somatic paradox that evades our common moralistic sensibilities.
I hope the above notes provide change-makers at all levels of scale with tools and skills to understand the work they are doing.
Special thanks to Dare Sohei, who has often been a supportive comrade in my tinkering around these ideas.