Veranstaltungen / Events

BIOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS ON ROLFING®

BRUNO D'UDINE
CARLA VAN VLAANDEREN 

Lecture given at the European Rolfing Conference 1986,
Fattoria di Baccareto, Italy, March 1986

Since I am not a rolfer myself, but simply rolfed during the classical ten sessions, it would be presumptuous if I were to pronounce on the technique itself, how it works, and why it works. That it can have strikingly beneficial effects I can, like many others before me, testify on the basis of changes I have observed in several acquaintances and in myself. I feel therefore more competent to talk about some general biological aspects of organisms and try to relate them to the theoretical body of the structural integration technique.

When we see a random and disordered corporal being we have to ask ourselves what causes or has caused patterns of faulty posture and movement that rolfers are trying to bring back towards a more ordered pattern. What is difficult to understand is whether misuse is a relatively recent phenomenon or if perhaps all preceding generations have had just as defective use which remained unnoticed until we started to be more concerned about it. The question I feel is relevant for our understanding of what rolfing does. The explanation for several people of the faulty alignement of our body can lay in modern living conditions, a changed style of life, an increasing level of stress put on us. If this were true, we would have to do with a relatively recent, nongenetic deterioration, for a genetic change of this magnitude would take an infinitely longer time. For other people the explanation can lay in the fact that man's evolution as an upright walking, bipedal primate has not yet been completed; we are not yet perfect and minds must so to speak "take over" from genetic evolution that has moulded us until now. But then, how would the ideal body be that we want to see emerging as a butterfly from the caterpillar? Is the perfection of the classic body represented in greek or roman statues our ideal? What then about human races with very different structures and postures? I think that the message from rolfing is that we have to look for a much more subtle unifying principle as the base of our physical and mental integration.

In general biologists are equally concerned with all organisms and often like to cast their nets wide. Before continuing I guess it is time to introduce myself and my interests in the field of biology. I am working on animal behaviour; according to the european tradition I would be labeled as an ethologist, according to the americans I am a comparative psychologist. Ethology as an independent discipline emerged from the work of zoologists and was dealing mostly with several aspects of animal behaviour. Ethology started as very empirical field‑work but ended up rather theoretical, since it deals also with animal awareness and minds in general. One of the most eminent ethologists, the Nobel prize winner Nico Tinbergen, gave a neat an vivid immage of the four major theoretical concerns of ethologists when they try to make sense out of the behavioural patterns they observe. The first question for an ethologist is what causes, what promotes or triggers a certain pattern of behaviour. In doing so they deal with the general problem of causation. The second question is how did that behavioural trait develop, how does it go into action? They deal in this case with development or ontogeny. Then they pass to another issue: which is the function of a certain behaviour? Why does the animal need it? So function is the third point of attention. The last question in relation to behaviour is how did it evolve? That is behavioural evolution, and evolution is also the central point of biology in a broad sense if we have to understand our life and its biological history. In the next section I will mainly deal then with some points in evolution.

To avoid to be dropped from the bandwagon of evolution and therefore disappear, an organism must be fit, be adapted, have the ability to do the right things at the right time and in the right place. The expressions fitness, adaptedness, being right, refer roughly to the same thing, they are biological shorthand for a statement about fundamental properties of living beings. They are not quite complete, for they don't mention what an organism is fit for, what it is adapted to, what it is right for. The opponents to the condition of being fit, adapted etc., continuously challenging and threatening us, are the environmental conditions in which we are fully immersed. If we look closely to evolution on our planet we see that two lines of evolution developed. One has led to the present non‑living systems, the other line produced organisms, living systems. Now after several billion years living and not living things are strikingly different. Not living things proceed towards a increasingly simple, increasingly probable and stable states while living things do exactly the opposite, their development being oriented towards the complicated, the improbable, the unstable. An example can help us to visualize what I mean. If I release a stone mid‑air it will fall, it will simply obey the external force of gravity. On the contrary, if I release a bird in mid‑air it will fly away. It defies gravity or rather it counteracts it, while remaining subjected to it. Alive or dead infact the bird has the same weight. What the bird does is a special case of a "life process", typical of what all living things do. Gravity is one pressure, a very relevant one since we can not escape its field. But every organism faces a number of other pressures and has to counteract each of them in one way or another if it is to stay alive. One can characterize living organisms by saying that they can stay alive and reproduce only by performing, with continuous vigilance, a tightrope act, so to speak a multidimensional tightrope act in which they cope all the time with not one, but with a number of environmental pressures and the surviving capacity is the adaptedness to roll through the life path. Waddington, an eminent geneticist and immaginative scientist, described individual development as a ball rolling across what he called an epigenetic landscape. The landscape he visualized consists of a series of parallel valleys departing from the top of a mountain from which a ball starts to roll down. Gravity will propell it towards the final stage across one valley but the choice of which valley it takes will depend on a lot of other perturbations and environmental influences or constrains. While going down through one valley, the ball can encounter a small rock and be pushed up again and roll into another valley and so on. I think this is a very nice description of what we mean by a developmental process and its plasticity. But on the concept of plasticity I will come back later.

Going back to the concept of fitness or adaptedness, two general points must be made about it. Firstly adaptedness of behaviour is not a matter of movement alone, of reacting to the environment through action; structure is always equally essential. Movements can be therefore seen in a more appropriate way as the result of "functioning structures". Second, the survival of animals, as of ourselves, depends on competence, on a sufficient good fit between the subject functioning and the environmental pressures. But it is worth to underline that competence is something quite different from perfection. No single human or animal functions perfectly and two reasons can be given for this fact. When we have to cope with a number of pressures the demands put on us can be internally contradictory. Organisms meet such a situation with a compromise. In the structure of living beings the compromises are often visible at glance. The legs and feet of geese and gulls are very good examples. They are well suited to swim but not equally efficient to walk. To use a technical analogy: an amphibious vehicle is neither a good boat nor a good car. The second reason for a not existing perfection in humans or animals is the presence of what we could call an "evolutionary restraint" or "historical load". Our evolutionary past is still often with us. For example when our ancestors left the thick forest where they were probably swinging from one tree to the other, bipedalism was an essential feature to survive in the savana and it seems likely that this new upright stance evolved rapidly. Protohominids would never have evolved other human characteristics such as bonding, kinship, language and culture, or a highly developed brain ‑ if not for bipedalism. It is well known that bipedalism led, of necessity, to major changes in the hominid skeleton. It seems a forgotten point, however, that a by‑product of that anatomical revolution was a reduction in the size of one and perhaps two major diameters of the pelvic inlet ‑ the birth canal. This change in the birth canal provided a key basis for human neoteny. Neoteny is a slowing down, a retardation of development for selected somatic organs and parts and according to Gould neoteny has been a major determinant and probably the major determinant of human evolution. The effect of reducing the birth canal's diameter would create obstetrical difficulties, for the head of the hominid foetus would be too large to pass through. This obstetrical difficulty could have been solved by the foetus being delivered at an earlier stage of development when the bones of the skull are more flexible. Probably among the protohominids there were a few females with the ability to bear their young at an earlier stage. Normally this would have been a deleterious trait. However, at this critical moment in protohominid history, these females who bore premature infants, whose heads could easily navigate the shrinking birth canal, survived and so did their young. Thus these females bred disproportionally and slowly the genetic trait for premature parturition predominated among females of the protohominid population. Thus in hominids born prematurely, development that would have occurred in the less stimulating uterus environment occurred outside the womb. A selection for slower ‑ neotenous ‑ in utero growth led to a trajectory of hominid evolution wherein ontogenetic changes, previously completed before birth, were extended well into the years following birth. Gould has indicated that humans have evolved to be born with "immature" brains, brains that undergo continued development perhaps across life span, brains showing a high degree of behavioural and morphological plasticity.

This example has introduced us to the next concept: how the programming for fitness occurs in living organisms. If a species is to survive, a suficient number of its young must grow up, survive and reproduce. The growth of the equipment for this equipment in this case embraces both structure and function ‑ is the result of two types of programming. Although these interact, support and supplement each other, they must be sharply distinguished conceptually and loosely they can be called "nature and nurture" even if I don't specifically like the use of dychotomies in biology since operating through concepts of continuity is much more appropriate and rewarding. As to nature a new born organism carries a genoma with informations on how to grow and how to function. But development in general presents us with the most challenging obstacles since growing brings into the scene the dimension of time. We have to remember that a developing organism functions properly while it grows and it is always well equiped to its tasks. Nurture, the other pole of our dyadic reasoning, is a totally different but in functional terms supplementary process. While an animal grows up and this growth can be a life span process, it interacts with the environment and changes as a consequence. The best known example of this individual modification is "learning" in its many forms but the phenomenon is really much broader. This kind of individual modification is called phenotypic change distinct from genetic change and it can not be transferred to the genoma, the basic structure of inheritance, in a straightforward way but each generation has to acquire its modifications anew. But the changes that an individual acquires by modification are not random. Contrary to what psychologists have long believed, such changes are adaptive; in the natural environment they supplement, continue, polish what the genetic instructions are achieving. We can say furthermore that genetic and experiential programming interact with each other. In the words of Ida Rolf we can say that we need to focus on processes and on the fact that something more than an aggregate of discrete parts is needed to see function, to see meaning. Also Waddington, the well known geneticist I mentioned before, was very much concerned with the possible biases originating from analyzing nature from the point of view of "things" or discrete parts instead of looking at it in terms of processes. These alternative views go back to the earliest Greek philosophers who lived before Socrates. The "things" view is usually associated with the name of Democritus, who actually used the word atom as the name for the basic thing. The classic spokesman for the other view was Heraclitus, who argued that it is an essential feature of things that they are always in the process of change, as the water along a river is never the same. Democritus' things view has been the most common in the mechanistic vision of biology but reasoning in terms of processes is now gradually taking over. Reasoning in term of processes is also the approach to living systems in rolfing.

Going back to the nature and nurture dychotomy we are likewise far from understanding why the proportion of genetic and environmental or experiential programming differs so much from one species to another and from one behaviour pattern to another. But we do have indications that natural selection has to do even with the subtleties of development, that they make functional sense. In the meantime ‑while the genoma, our genetic backbone, keeps evolving in its slow way in humans the cultural evolution, a fundamentally new type of evolution, started to interfere with genetic evolution. Cultural evolution emerged through the cultural transmission of the individually acquired knowledge and it is without doubt also very slow but since long it outpaced the genetic changes. Both socially and physically we live in a world very different from that which genetic evolution has adapted us to. But to what extent are human beings capable of changing their physical characteristics and behavioural patterns over the course of their lives? This question has engaged scientists for decades and the fundamental issue is plasticity, a constantly recurring concept also in the thinking of Ida Rolf.

A multidisciplinary approach to the problem of human plasticity started at the end of the seventies challenging long‑held views about the nature of human development. These views assumed that early experience virtually immutably shapes the entire life course; that development is essentially a within‑the‑person phenomenon, largely unaffected in quality or quantity by the context of life and that by large all people develop in fairly standard, normative ways. Recent studies indicate that people are more resilient to early, often quite negative experiences than was previously thought, that the events of early life do not necessarily constrain developments later on; these studies indicate again that there are multiple paths through life. As people age they become increasingly different from each other and, again, these different life paths are linked to general historical or personal life events. Finally the active role of the person in promoting both changes in self and context has been identified. These findings pressed many studying human development towards a new life span perspective. Those taking this perspective emphasize that the potential for change exists across life, that life course is always characterized by the potential for plasticity, that is, systematic changes within the person in his or her structure and/or function. The existence of plasticity is not a point of minor practical significance. If all levels of life are open to change, then there is great reason to be optimistic about the ability of intervention programs to enhance human development.

Perhaps the best summary description of the components and implications of this emerging view of the science of studying human behaviour has been given by Roger Sperry, corecipient of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Sperry indicated that among the more important results of his split‑brain work on brain‑behaviour relations was the derivation of a revised concept of the nature of consciousness, of an understanding of its fundamental relation to brain processing, and of a fundamental revision of what science stands for. He explains:

"The key development is a switch from prior noncausal, parallelist views to a newcausal, or 'interactionist' interpretation that ascribes to inner experience an integral causal control role in brain function and behaviour. In effect, and without resorting to dualism, the mental forces of the conscious mind are restored to the brain of objective science from which they had long been excluded on materialist‑behavioural principles.

The spreading acceptance of the revised causal view and the reasoning involved carry important implications for science and for scientific views of man and nature. Cognitive introspective psychology and related cognitive science can no longer be ignored experimentally, or written off as 'a science of epiphenomena' or as something that must in principle reduce eventually to neurophysiology. The events of inner experience, as emergent properties of brain proceses, become themselves explanatory causal constructs in their own right, interacting at their own level with their own laws and dynamics.

The whole world of inner experience (the world of the humanities) long rejected by 20th‑century scientific materialism, thus becomes recognized and included within the domain of science.

Basic revisions in concepts of causality are involved, in which the whole, besides being 'different from and greater than the sum of the parts' also causally determines the fate of the parts, without interfering with the physical or chemical laws of the subentities at their own level. It follows that physical science no longer perceives the world to be reducible to quantum mechanics or to any other unifying ultra element or field force. The qualitative holistic properties at all different levels become causally real in their own form and have to be included in the causal account. Quantum theory on these terms no longer replaces or subsumes classical mechanics but rather just supplements or complements."

The concept of plasticity is central to the research and conceptual analysis associated with the perspective illustrated by Sperry, Huxley, Schneirla, Siman etc. We can say that at any time we measure development or behaviour of a subject in response to a stimulus we are measuring plasticity. Plasticity implies variations that entail structural and functional changes of qualitative nature. In the work of Ida Rolf the concept of plasticity is a keystone and she constantly refers to it.

I would like now to finish with some personal considerations on Ida Rolf's ideas in relation also to my work. As I said already at the beginning, not being a rolf teacher, I don't feel entitled to speak of the technique itself.

A central interest of my research on animal behaviour has been a specific aspect of the more general problem of plasticity that I just outlined. In animals specific social and sexual preferences have been thought established at an early age and to remain stable through the life span. These preferences being relevant also for the choice of the right mate, are central for the reproductive success of the individuals and therefore for the survival of the single species. These preferences were considered as being well radicated in inborn mechanisms having therefore a small degree of flexibility and to be very stable through life. Imprinting was the term largely used to describe this early learning mechanism that was considered to operate only during some sensitive periods. Imprinting is not any longer considered to be such a rigid process as before and the idea of a more plastic mechanism in the shaping of the individual experience has been gradually introduced. The question in my work was then: does the possibility exist to modify established preferences later in life? Is it possible to reintroduce a certain degree of flexibility and plasticity in the system? The problem of reinducing plasticity in animals if it could have been proven is relevant also for the literature on human plasticity. In my experiments mice were used to test the hypothesis of renewed plasticity in their social‑sexual preferences. In the same period a striking evidence came from a group of scientist working in the field of immunology at the Sloane Catering Institute in New York. The male mice they were using for immunological experiments showed a mating preference for females with a high level of hystocompatibility, a high level of acceptance of transplanted tissues from their male partners. A link of extreme interest was therefore established between a complex behavioural pattern as social‑sexual preference and a very subtle immunological recognition. When we were planning to test our hypothesis of redirecting established preferences, we used as a visual model a representation of the possible process based on the basic mechanism of immunology. From immunology in fact we know that foreign substances called antigenes, that enter into our body are attacked and blocked by antibodies with the formation of a complex. We thought then of a certain pattern of behaviour as of a locking mechanism, that needed an external input, matching its lock as a key, to close the system and build a stable unit formed by the two different pieces of information as in the case of the stable preferences we wanted to analyze. This visual model was simply a way to think about the possible process. The goal of our experiments was to find a way "to warm up" the interaction surface so to speak between the two pieces of information forming the complex, to make it loose again, and reestablish subsequently a different combination with a new incoming stimulus. If this would have been possible a certain degree of plasticity could have been introduced in a rather important biological mechanism. From the scientific literature we knew that emotional arousal or mild conditions of stress can reintroduce a degree of flexibility in the nervous system at the behavioural and ‑‑morphological level due to the production of a number of different neurotransmitters or modulatory agents like endorphynes, nor‑adrenaline, enkephalins etc.. Our experiments were positive and we are still working on this subject.

While I was busy with this sort of problems, I got in contact with Bert Schmitz and asked him to be rolfed. I didn't know much about rolfing and my curiosity was mainly triggered by a previous experience with the Alexander technique, when I worked in Edinburgh some years ago. I don't know if I have been a good subject for rolfing. After few sessions I broke my arm while at work in the laboratory. We carried on for some sessions with a plastered arm. The healing of the fracture, not an easy one, was perfect, and I attributed part of this success to rolfing. I deliberately waited until the end of the ten sessions before I started to read about the rolf technique. Then I read the book by Ida Rolf and I found the chapter where she deals with function as a relationship of great interest. In general terms the central intuition of Ida Rolf is the fundamental role of the myofascia that originate from the mesoderm and extend through the body as an intricate web and with the body economy requiring the use of several types of connective tissues. All these tissues are basically structered from collagen and are constructed from the same units but in different proportions. In the words of Ida Rolf: "...the universal distribution of connective tissue calls attention to the likelyhood that these colloidal gel is the universal internal environment. Every living cell seems to be in contact with it and its modification under changes of pressure would account for the wide spectrum of effects seen in the structural integration". In the same chapter she goes on saying: "In the linear world, where a specific effect is linked to a specific cause, vital psychic function has usually been attributed specifically to the nervous system, rather than to other somatic components. In the structural integration it becomes increasingly apparent that appropriate interaction of the several systems rather than optimal function of any single one is the key. It means specifically that training the nervous system in an effort to produce a superior person cannot be succesful. On the contrary his nervous system must somehow be brought into balance with other somatic potentials even though it may be demanded downgrading the apparent competence of the nervous system". This is the message of Ida Rolf.

From the work of another Noble Prize winner Jerne we know that our body reacts to the external and internal environment through the nervous system but also through the immunological system. The nervous system shapes our life by defining our mental processes and provides us with a psychological self, with a mental identity. It is a system that reacts extremely quickly to the environmental changes and provides the flexibility and plasticity we constantly need in a fast moving environment. It is also the base of the higher nervous activity that we call consciousness etc. The immunological system is its twin. It runs almost parallel everwhere in the body and has the extraordinary capacity of storing chemical information to remember and identify our external ennernies, bacteria, viruses and other environmental hazards. It is the core of our biological identity and it maintains the delicate equilibrium with our internal environment, it copes with the millions of hosts and parasites we carry with us. The two systems for a long time were thought to be separate and independent, but fresh evidence and intuition brought them together showing a subtle interaction and interplay. A fast growing field of very promising practical and speculative work is now called psychoneuroimmunology and it deals mainly with how our resistance to environmental hazards is increased or reduced in relation to our emotional state, by feeling well or being depressed.

The association between the connective tissue and the immunological system has been established since a long time from the point of view of physiology. Collagen diseases have been also called autoimmune diseases and the real ethiology is still far from being understood.

Ida Rolf says: "...reactions occur that are outward evidence of changes in the nervous system itself for example electroencephalografic measurements have shown fundamental rhythm changes in brain waves long after manipulative work has been completed". In her book I couldn't find a single reference to the immunological system. Rightly she seems to focus constantly on the field of gravity as a determinant force shaping our whole body. The "feeling better" reported by people that have been rolfed is in her words; "...the man's feeling report of a change in relation between his structural elements ‑ fascia ‑ and the gravity field. This is the something new that has been added, new support for viscera and nervous structures, and improved chemistry".

Has this improved chemistry, as Ida Rolf calls it, anything to do with a greater efficiency of our immunological system? Does a more reactive immunological system feed back into the nervous system and does it give us the positive feeling we perceive after being rolfed? I don't have a straight answer to these questions but only a positive idea and I leave it to Rolfers to look into it.


Bruno D'Udine is a senior researcher in ethology at the Institute of Psychobiology and Psychopharmacology of the Italian National Research Council in Rome.

Carla van Vlaanderen has a degree in linguistics, works at the Dutch Institute in Rome, has been rolfed and shares life and interest for biology with Bruno D'Udine.

  • First Published in Rolf Lines, April 1998
  • Posted on this website (www.somatics.de) with the friendly permission of the author.
  • Anybody interested in copying the digital text of this article into their website – with the author’s permission – a small share of the initial cost for scanning & digitization will be appreciated. Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • Please respect the copyright of the author.
  • The word ‘Rolfing’ is a registered service mark of the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration, Boulder, Colorado