Naming The Wilhelm Reich Center

We were inspired to name the Center for the Psychoanalytic Study of Embodiment after Wilhelm Reich because he was the first psychoanalyst to understand that psychoanalytic theory and practice requires a bodily foundation to achieve its potential. Consider what he wrote in 1928:

To begin with: what is meant by ‘analytic material’? This is usually taken to mean the patient’s communications, dreams, associations, slips. Theoretically to be sure, it is known that the patient’s behavior is of analytic importance; but unequivocal experiences. . . show that the patient’s behavior (manner, look, language, countenance, dress, handshake, etc.) not only is vastly underestimated in terms of its analytic importance but is usually completely overlooked. At the Innsbruck Congress [1927], Ferenczi and I, independent of one another, stressed the therapeutic importance of these formal elements. As time went on, they became for me the most important fulcrum and point of departure for the analysis of character. (1933/49/72, p. 31)

In an interview with Kurt R. Eissler in 1952 for the Sigmund Freud Archives, Reich formulated his understanding of an embodied psychoanalysis in the following way:

Psychoanalysis, as you well know, works with words and unconscious ideas. …  Character analysis developed the reading of emotional expression. Whereas Freud opened up the world of the unconscious mind, thoughts, desires, and so on, I succeeded in reading emotional expressions. Until then, we couldn’t “read the mind.” We could only connect verbal associations. (Higgens & Raphael, 1967, pp. 3-4)

Reich also suggested that it is our capacity for automatic, inner imitation that makes what he called “mind reading” possible:

The patient’s expressive movements involuntarily bring about an imitation in our own organism. By imitating these movements, we “sense” and understand the expression in ourselves and, consequently, in the patient. … [T]he language of facial and body expression becomes an essential means of communicating with the patient’s emotions. (1933/49/72, p. 362)

The importance of imitation in human communication has only been appreciated in recent years, thanks to studies of innate imitative ability in newborns (Meltzoff & Moore, 1995) and the demonstration of a mirror neuron system in humans (Gallese, Eagle & Migone, 2007).

Why did it take a hundred years for Reich´s insights to find their way into psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic practice? We believe the fault, to some extent, is to be found in the enduringly strong hold of Cartesian thinking on Western ideology. The influence of Descartes’ idea that bodies are biological and physical entities, res extensa, and that minds are disembodied entities, res cogitans, is still influential in today’s world.

Although Reich fully recognized the centrality of the body, he became convinced that he had to anchor his ideas in biology and physics. This led him to abandon psychoanalysis in favor of what he came to see as orgon biophysics (1933/49/72). The controversial nature of Reich’s “orgonomy” may also account for the neglect of his earlier insights.

While Freud´s followers pursued a mostly disembodied word and concept-based theory, Reich´s followers stayed with a biological and physical understanding of their work. This is reflected in the names of the different schools of post-Reichian therapy such as Bioenergetics (Lowen, 1975), Biosynthesis (Boadella, 1987), and Biodynamics (Boyesen, 1976).

Today, thanks largely to the ground-breaking philosophical writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945) we are better equipped to avoid the Cartesian trap. Merleau-Ponty convincingly demonstrates that mind is constituted by our bodily situatedness in the world.

Many others have contributed to this understanding, among them the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (1994), and the linguist-philosophers, Lakoff and Johnson (1999). In Norway in the 1980s, the post-Reichian psychologist, Rolf Grønseth, also concluded that the body is psychological, thereby radically transforming what Reich had termed “vegetotherapy” (Grønseth, 1998).

We hope that the conversations about embodiment that will take place at the Wilhelm Reich Center will continue to deepen and enhance the understanding of embodiment that Wilhelm Reich pioneered.


Boadella, D. (1987). Lifestreams. An Introduction to Biosynthesis. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Boyesen, G. (1976). The primary relationship and its relationship to the streaming. In: In the wake of Reich, ed. D. Boadella. Norwich: Fletcher and Son.

Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ Error. New York: Avon Books, 1995.

Galese, V., Eagle, M. N., & Migone, P. (2007). Intentional attunement: Mirror neurons and the neural underpinnings of interpersonal relations. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 55, 131-176.

Grønseth, R. (1998). On the shift of paradigms from characteranalytic vegetotherapy, bioenergetic analysis and psychoanalysis to existential charateranalytic vegetotherapy. Energy & Character. Heiden: International Institute for Biosynthesis, 29 (2), 48-67. 

Higgens, M. & Raphael, C.M. (eds.) (1967). Reich speaks of Freud. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh. New York: Basic books.

Lowen, A. (1975). Bioenergetics. Pengin Books.

Meltzoff, A. N. & Moore, M. K. (1995). Infants’ Understanding of People and Things: From Body Imitation to Folk Psychology. In J. L. Bermudez, A. Marcel, & N. Eilan, The Body and the Self (pp. 43-69). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945). Phenomenology of Perception. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Reich, W. (1933/49)/72. Character analysis. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.