Dissociation, Body Maps, and Pain

I tend to describe the failure to inhabit the body as dissociation. There are a whole continuum of responses, from complete withdrawal/ catatonia (this is what the psychiatrists focus on) to the inability to feel your toes. Frequently in cranial work I notice people are working from incomplete body maps, for example often a limb is missing or there is a big hole in the belly. I strongly relate fragmented body maps to the experience of chronic pain – when people can map the whole of their body effectively and safely then the pain nearly always goes.

There is some amazing new writing and research on pain and body ownership around at the moment.

On Body Maps

Body Matrix paper (abstract only) from Lorimer Moseley


‘We propose that a network of multisensory and homeostatic brain areas may be responsible for maintaining a ‘body-matrix’. That is, a dynamic neural representation that not only extends beyond the body surface to integrate both somatotopic and peripersonal sensory data, but also integrates body-centred spatial sensory data.’

So we can include more in our sense of self. When we dissociated we include less. I would offer pain is associated with the sense of less. The authors of one of the first papers on shifting the sense of self outside of the body seem to agree, (unfortunately they do not develop on the idea in the paper):

‘We have begun to realise that there could be a link between pain perception and the feeling of ownership of the body.’

Petkova VI, Ehrsson HH (2008) If I Were You: Perceptual Illusion of Body Swapping. PLoS ONE 3(12): e3832.

A sense of more is usually the result of skill and presence. Great examples of an expanded self are when we become one with the car we drive or master the tools we use (think of a chef and a knife, or a conductor and his baton, maybe the conductor is the whole orchestra?). Here is the ultimate quote from Ayrton Senna on driving:

‘Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my teammate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. ….. I was just going and going, more and more and more and more. I was way over the limit, but still able to find even more.’ Artyon Senna



This is great book on body maps that discusses in detail how plastic our body maps are and how we have a multitude of ways of inhabiting our body.


Here is a recent article covering the same territory, ‘Extending the self: some cold truths on body ownership.’


On Pain

Chronic pain nearly always involves meaning and emotion, the pain experience gets divorced from what is actually happening in the tissues. The opening story in the article below is really moving.


I am currently reading Painful Yarns by Lorimer Moseley, he makes pain funny, required reading I reckon.

And finally this guy throws out some great challenges: