Integrating the Structure of Structural Integration: A Visual Model for Professional, Conceptual, and Biopsychosocial Coherence
This article is based on a transcript from my presentation at the 2018 IASI Symposium. I took that transcript, cut down on the back story, updated the diagram based on audience feedback, and included all the details and citations from the original thesis, which this article is intended to replace.
Akins, D. (2018). Integrating the structure of structural integration: A visual model for professional, conceptual, and biopsychosocial coherence. IASI Yearbook of Structural Integration, 15, 25-39.
People and professions are both systems and integrate according to similar principles. Therefore, understanding and application of the principles by which systems organize can help the SI profession become more coherent, resilient, and better-integrated with society. Defining core concepts such as “structure” and “integration” in modern, relatable, science-based terms is a necessary step in this process. Previous efforts to define these terms are examined, a visual model that attempts to synthesize them is proposed, and applications of this model are explored. This article is based on a transcript of a presentation titled “Integrating the Structure of Structural Integration: A Visual Model for Reconciling Fascia-centric and Neuro-centric Explanations of Our Work” delivered by the author at the IASI Symposium, April 28, 2018, in Vancouver, WA.
I find it ironic that we’re so good at integrating people, yet we struggle to integrate as a profession. We’re disintegrated from within—from long-standing rivalries between schools to more current divides around which body tissue or system is our favorite. We’re disintegrated from the outside world to the point where most people think a structural integrator is a sort of engineer or, if they have any familiarity, have heard it’s a form of painful massage.
Despite this public relations problem, the vast majority of our profession doesn’t support the institutions that are designed to help us integrate with the outside world. There are several thousand structural integrators in the world, but only a few hundred are IASI members or have taken the exam for the BCSI credential. Some have earned the credential, but don’t display it. IASI and CBSI both struggle to find volunteers.
Despite our historical tensions, we’ve managed to make it to the point that SI is a somatic profession with a professional organization and a legitimate board certification. Lots of money and countless volunteer hours have gone into building these institutions which are designed to help us integrate with the outside world, and if we don’t support these organizations that could all go to waste—but I believe there’s hope. We had this heyday in the 70s, and our time will come back around but we have to be here and ready for that. Momentum is in our favor; we must take advantage.
People and professions integrate by the same principles
Human beings are systems and professions are systems; we can apply the same principles by which we help people find more resilience through better-integrated structures to help our profession find the same. A system is comprised, in the most fundamental sense, of an organizing principle and boundaries. Considering professions as a system, professional organizations should provide organizing principles and boundaries that facilitate our integration with the social and legal realms. For our profession IASI and CBSI are those organizations, but—even though support has been increasing over recent years—many of our own practitioners and schools still don’t fully support them. We’re denying ourselves the organizing principle and boundaries which could allow our profession to function coherently in society and protect it from the vulnerabilities of change.
As it stands, our profession isn’t so much a coherent system but a loose aggregate of schools. These schools are closed, vertically-integrated systems unto themselves; but society, technology, and the global economy are in what seems to be the early stages of a long-term trend towards openness, lateral scaling, and collaboration, and away from proprietary secrets and competition. Our profession, as currently organized, is out of step with these trends. This leaves us with a choice: either remain closed in a scarcity- based competitive model and risk disintegrating or rigidifying; or open ourselves to each other, to the world, and to the possibility of seeing our work more profoundly influence a culture that needs what we offer. We have an opportunity to collectively define ourselves in a way that stabilizes our profession and allows us to interact with the outside world from a place of security, leveraging the resources of our past to meet the challenges of the present.
This article presents a model that attempts to explain “integration,” the apparent goal of our work, in science-based, physiological terms. It uses a visual diagram that reveals integration not as a goal or state, but as an emergent adaptive process that is complex and dynamic. Later, we’ll look at how we might apply the systems principles upon which that model is based to help address some of our collective challenges and advance SI as a profession.
In 2015, while an undergraduate at Portland State University (PSU), I read a paper that changed my path. That paper described some problems in the psychology profession that might sound familiar: “psychologists had formed separate schools and camps, each with its own vocabulary, theoretical orientation, methods, findings, and adherents” (Tryon, 2012). The author sought to help unite the field of psychology by using systems ideas—organizing around a common vocabulary, core principles, and a general explanatory theory based on physiology—to consolidate the various theoretical camps and become more consilient with biology. The public benefits as both disciplines share resources and help each other advance; psychology benefits by becoming more coherent, stable, and better-integrated socially.
The possibility of systems concepts being useful for SI appealed to me. The PSU Systems Science department homepage defines system science as “the study of general principles governing systems of widely different types, and the use of systems ideas and methods in interdisciplinary research and socio- technical system design and management. It draws on the natural and social sciences, math, computer science, and engineering to address complex problems in the public and private sectors” (Portland State University, 2018).
I started my fourth year by taking Systems Philosophy with Dr. Martin Zwick. Dr. Zwick has a background in biophysics and has been with the PSU Systems Science department since the 1970s. I came to discover that he had been through a Rolfing series; had experience with Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, and tai chi; and early in his career he had an interest in Alfred Korzybski’s work. I’m grateful that Dr. Zwick ended up serving as the faculty advisor for my Honors thesis (Akins, 2016a), which introduced the model that is the subject of this paper. I’ve made some changes to that model over the years; you’ll see the most current version here.
SI works in the grey area between the subjective and the objective. While in our work we are mostly dealing with peoples’ subjective felt sense, human beings are also biological events occurring in the natural world. When choosing which language to use we have to consider our goals: If we want to help stabilize a client’s body then we’re going to use subjective, felt-sense language to help them find their most reliable support; but if we want to stabilize our profession in the world then we want to lead with our most objective, reliable, best-supported information—and that is what science is about.
Ida Rolf agreed. “I bid you to examine your own ways of thinking and looking. What you clearly do know, as long as you can measure it, is on solid ground. The ground becomes less solid in the area of complex relationships and when you get to the area of intuition your feet are off the ground. Your security lies and your ability look at these levels of abstraction and thread them apart. It’ll give you a great deal more security in your intellectual and emotional life if you can do this and not simply say ‘I feel’” (Rolf, 1990).
What we—the SI profession—need is to ground our presentation of the work, moving from vague abstractions about structure and integration to “an exact and scientific metaphysics,” to use a term coined by the philosopher Mario Bunge to describe the systems field (Zwick, 2018). Science isn’t so well-suited for broad questions like the nature of structure and of integration, but it can, and should, inform those questions, grounding them in our current understanding of the natural world and making our public presentation more practical, reliable, and socially-relevant. For us, the assumptions of our past are not enough, nor is science. We have to marry science and metaphysics in a responsible way when presenting our work professionally, and this marriage is exactly what the systems field is about.
Hans Flury (1989) made the most thorough attempt to define structure that I could find from within the SI field; he had a broad definition and a narrow definition. He broadly defined structure as a “mental construct” accounting for the spatial interrelationship of the body’s parts in context of the mechanical forces imposed by gravity, soft tissue, and neuromuscular tension, which he called the “functional element.” His narrow definition, “the soft tissue body which gravity acts upon,” did not include this functional element.
Kevin Frank and Ray McCall (2016) argue that mechanistic views of structure are too simplistic and out-of-date with our current understanding of the body as a complex biological system, so we need to look at definitions of structure from the field of systems biology that have stood the test of time. The first definition of structure they offer is by the founder of General Systems Theory in the 1930s: “Structures are slow patterns of long duration; functions are quick processes of short duration.” The next one is from the founder of cybernetics, the science of self-governing systems: “We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.” Both these views are consistent with Rolf, who said “structure is behavior.” Based on these definitions of structure, Frank and McCall offer their own: “How the system predictably behaves as a response to specific conditions.” Note that this definition of structure may include, but is not limited to, the body’s soft tissue.
Hubert Godard, the French movement teacher, considered four types of structure: physical, coordinative, perceptive, and meaning structure (Frank & McHose, 2017). Note that the latter three are all mediated through the nervous system.
I will not attempt to offer a concise definition of structure, but what is important is that we recognize structure as having both physical and neural aspects. Structure includes our soft tissues as well as our established neural patterns represented by our habits of posture and movement, language, and meaning, all of which might be considered “slow patterns of long duration.” Structure is both the medium and result of function.
Frank and McCall (2016) refer to psychiatrist and neuroscience author Dan Siegel, who says about integration, “The linkage of differentiated components of a system, integration is viewed as the core mechanism in the cultivation of well-being... These integrated linkages enable more intricate functions to emerge.” Siegel also talks about an integrated brain as being flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable (Siegel, 2015). These same integrative qualities could be applied more broadly to include our physical experience.
Ray Bishop (2002) described integration as an “emerging felt sense of order,” a sense of internal coherence he termed “embodiment.” Bishop considered it important for clients to be able to articulate this sense of embodied coherence in their own language. Language could be considered a type of structure, and verbal expression of our embodied experience an integrative exercise.
Hans Flury (1989) considered the body’s or- ganization around a vertical axis to be a defining feature of integration. This definition implies that structure is neurally-mediated—I think of “the line” as an interoceptive concept—but Flury’s model of SI concepts (see Figure 1) doesn’t seem to agree with this assessment. Note that the solid-line arrows indicate processes happening in real-time, while the dotted-line arrows indicate slow processes happening over the long term. This model seems to reveal that Flury saw fascia limiting neural function in real-time and neural contraction patterns influencing the fascia over the long term. While I understand that fascial tissue adapts over longer periods of time, I don’t know that we have any evidence to support the claim that fascia can actually limit the nervous system’s ability to function in any way.
Another problem with Flury’s model is that is shows both the fascia and the nervous system directly influencing movement/posture in real- time, independent from each other. The nervous system cannot drive movement on its own; it can only accomplish this through the medium of the soft tissue. Action potentials drive neuromuscular contraction, which pulls on the fascia, which pulls on bone to create movement. The soft tissue structure relies upon the nervous system for information, while the nervous system relies on our physical structure for expression.
Flury made the most thorough attempt of his time, that I could find, to define structure and integration and account for their relationship. However, his model disregards contributing factors such as vestibular function and the complexities of neural inputs, and is likely inaccurate when considered in light of current scientific understanding.
A Science-Based Explanatory Model for Integration
Here’s a modern attempt to explain integration in science-based terms (see Figure 2). First, I’ll introduce the shapes, then we’ll talk about the arrows and numbers that represent the relationship of the shapes to each other.
The orange box at the bottom (see p. 39 for the full-color diagram) represents the biopsychosocial context within which we exist. This box accounts for all the physical, biological, psychological, and social factors impacting us constantly. Notice that this box is both inside and outside the large shaded area representing the organism, indicating that this context includes both the environment with which we interact and that which seemingly comes from inside ourselves.
We interact with this biopsychosocial context via the physiological processes represented by the brown, purple, and blue boxes. The brown box represents physical processes occurring independently from the nervous system. The purple and blue boxes represent unconscious and conscious neural processes,respectively. The unconscious neural processes of the purple box include sensorimotor, affective, and autonomic processes. The conscious neural processes of the blue box represents our voluntary intentions. These processes occur at the organ, tissue, and cellular levels.
These physiological processes manifest as adaptive functions at the system level of the organism. These functions are carried out by the physical and neural structures of the body. The yellow diamond represents the nervous system’s stimulus informing the behavior of the soft-tissue structure represented by the red diamond.
Our physical structure is the medium through which movement/posture expresses. The green oval represents the integration of movement/posture; it’s an emergent quality of expression by the whole organism. We describe movement/posture as being well-integrated or not, and we assume that a higher degree of integration minimizes the impact of biopsychosocial factors—the better integrated we are, the more resilient we are. This resilience is expressed by the arrow from the green oval feeding back into the orange box representing the biopsychosocial context.
Now, let’s briefly examine the relationships between these elements more specifically. The numbered arrows between each element are referred to as links, indicating a relationship between those two elements, and a group of links representing a relationship between multiple elements is referred to as a path. Each path described here includes references to scientific studies concerned with those elements of our experience. This article is not intended to be the final word on integration or any of its aspects; I’m simply offering a framework, but that framework needs to be developed.