Body, Mind and Energy

© Bill Palmer 2009 – Please ask permission before copying or printing.

This interview with Bill Palmer explores how philosophy and science have been investigating the connection between Mind and Body and explains how Movement Shiatsu grew from the observation of babies in the process of developing their Body-Mind.

Q. To start, can you tell me how you see the relationship between Body and Mind?

Bill:  I believe everything is Mind. We perceive solidity, our bodies and the material world through sensations, feelings and models which are part of Mind. The actual reality is very different, being mainly made up of invisible force fields and empty space. This is not to say that we can control these force fields with our Minds, I believe they have an independent existence. Instead, I think that the division we make between body and mind is illusory. They are both models we make of our experience. If one is going to make a distinction, I think that we could say that our experience of sensations is what we call the Physical World, while our responses to and interpretation of other experiences is what we call Mind. Even with this definition, the boundary between the two is very blurred.

Q. What other philosophers say about Mind and its relationship to consciousness?

Bill: In my opinion, the philosopher who has done most to explain the phenomenon of mind is Daniel Dennett. There are two books he has written that are particularly worth reading. “Kinds of Mind” [1] and “Consciousness Explained” [2].

Both books are firmly based in scientific research, rather than the rather woolly and introspective writings of previous generations of philosophers. Kinds of Mind explores the idea that consciousness evolved, and so it must occur in some form in other creatures. Dennett argues that the particular kind of mind that we humans have is not qualitatively different to the ‘mind’ of a dog, or even of a worm.

The central idea he presents is that the nervous system evolved as a way of recognising  patterns in the flow of sensations, thus learning from experience. This process of encapsulation abstracts certain properties from the experience, forming a ‘concept’. For instance, if we touch a red-hot coal, it hurts and we reflexively withdraw our hand. The nervous system abstracts the property of glowing red and encapsulates that into the concept ‘danger’. When this concept is activated in the future by something that is glowing red and warm at a distance, we tend to be careful, or withdraw, without having to try it out again. It doesn’t matter that, this time, the object is an electric fire rather than a coal.

All animals learn in this way, even ones with very simple nervous systems, so one could say that even these creatures have a concept of danger, i.e. something that causes them to withdraw. However, at this level, the concept is very concrete; it is tied to the exact stimulus that first caused the pain. This means that the being has to learn by trial and error, trying things out and getting hurt, thus learning a conditioned and automatic response. Dennett calls this type of response system a ‘Skinnerian Mind’. As nervous systems evolved more, they developed the ability to abstract more sophisticated concepts. For instance, dogs and wolves have a concept of a ‘pack’, to which they belong, but this is quite an abstract idea because a dog can think of a human family as his pack, so the concept is not concretely tied to a fixed physical entity.

A further level of sophistication is seen in chimpanzees, who have shown that they develop models of Other. They can create complex models, which abstract the behaviour of other beings. This means that they can predict how another chimp will behave in different situations and allows them to act strategically and to trick them.

This internal model of another chimp is only one step away from creating a model of self, which is the basis for our sense that we are conscious of ourselves. A large part of our consciousness of self is made up of labels similar to a chimp’s model of another: I am a man, I like spicy food, I am passionate, I don’t like being given advice. The other aspect of self-awareness is produced by sensations that come from our habitual postures. For instance the sensations of tense shoulders, weak legs, shallow breathing, tight jaw. We combine both these aspects into a sense of subjective self – a sense of consistency:  a sense of identity. We can recognise ourselves through sensation and behaviour and know who we are.

Q. How is this idea of consciousness useful in therapy?

Bill: Our model of ourselves is often wrong, and this causes confusion and distress. For instance, a spoilt child may grow up with the model of self that says “I always get what I want”. In the worlds of school and later life this will probably be strongly challenged and if the person can’t adapt, then they will have problems. One of the functions of therapy is to transform the model of self to match reality.

The other cause of confusion and anxiety is the fact that we all have many different models of self, developed at different times of life. The problem is that we label all of these models with the same name – “I” – which gives the impression that we only have one self.

For instance, a man may have a model of self, which was developed as a young child, that views the self as ‘vulnerable and soft’, ‘wanting cuddles’, ‘cry when hurt’. Another model, developed in the locker rooms of school rugby may view the self as “tough and independent”, “the team is more important than me”, “shrug when hurt”. Normally, these multiple models are not problematic because they are activated in different situations and they all have a chance to come out and play. For instance, if the ‘tough’ man is hurt, he may shrug it off at the time and then get cuddles from his girlfriend.

Problems arise if some of these sub-personalities cannot accept the existence of others, it is then difficult to maintain a sense of integration. I like to view the personality as a group, we do not have one self, but all our selves are members of one group. The point of therapy is to create a healthy group in which all the sub-personalities are valued and given a chance to satisfy themselves.

Q. So far you have been talking about Mind. How does this relate to the Body?

Bill: The best way to answer that is to talk about some interesting recent research into emotional pain. Brain scans of people in emotional pain have shown that exactly the same areas of the nervous system, in the anterior cingulate cortex, are activated as in physical pain [3]. Pain almost certainly evolved as a way of avoiding physical harm. Biologists now hypothesize that emotional pain evolved as a way of avoiding harm to society, the tribe, our relationships. We are group animals and other group animals, such as dogs, seem to experience emotional pain. In this evolutionary process, the generation of emotional experience just re-used the parts of the brain that had evolved to generate physical experience.

What has particularly interested me is whether you can process emotional problems through physical activity, and maybe the other way round too. Brain scanning is starting to show that, like emotional pain, other mental phenomena are generated by the same neurons that create a physical action. For instance, some part of language processing uses the same part of the brain that controls fine movements of the hand [8], possibly because language evolved out of signalling. Maybe, the mind evolved by reusing parts of the brain that originally controlled a physical process. We didn’t grow new parts of our brain to develop the human mind, we re-used and developed bits that already had a physical function. If that is the case then working with the body will affect the same part of the brain that is involved in the psychological issue and provide a way of working with mental issues through the body.

Q. Is there more evidence for this, apart from brain scanning?

Bill: There is. It comes from developmental biology and psychology. Darwin hypothesised that embryological stages in one species correspond to a stage in the development of a related species. This theory is well accepted now, although Haeckl’s theory that embryos re-traced the evolution of adult forms is disproved [18]. One of the first things to develop in all vertebrates is a notochord, which is a stiff structure running the length of the body. This stage of evolution is still exhibited in adult archaic bottom feeders such as the lancelet. The notochord develops into the spine while the embryo is still without proper limbs, echoing a fish embryo. When the limbs develop, they first grow out to the side like reptile embryos and then rotate into their mammalian positions.

Development before birth thus echoes the process of physical evolution. What is now becoming clear is that the development of movement in the young infant echoes the development of mind and shows how mental capacities may have evolved from physical skills. Movement in the young infant mainly consists of primitive reflexes, stimulated by particular sensations. These reflexes activate neural pathways, showing the brain how to use muscles to move the body. In the process, they not only learn how to move voluntarily but also develop cognitive skills.

If certain types of movement are not learnt then the related mental capacities may also be disabled. Through observation of brain damage and its effect on both motor and cognitive capacities, it has been shown that in some cases, the area of the brain involved in physical actions is the same as is used for mental skills. This seems to show that, just as is the case for pain, other cognitive functions have just re-used parts of the brain originally developed for physical movement.

Q. How is this relevant to Shiatsu?

Bill: Firstly, the concept of Qi in Oriental Medicine forms a bridge between body and mind. Qi is said to manifest in both, so if both Western and Eastern cultures are describing something that makes a body-mind connection, it may be that they are talking about the same thing.

However, the way Oriental Medicine talks about the body-mind relationship sounds to the sceptical western person like primitive magic, because it explains through analogy and metaphor. For instance the link between digestion and thinking through Spleen Qi is often justified by saying that thinking is like mental digestion. Although the connection may be a real one, this type of analogy would not be viewed as an explanation in western science because the evolutionary reasons for the development of thinking are different to those for digestion of food.

To be honest, Chinese culture does not help the situation. Many people in China still believe that tiger bones will give strength and vitality because tigers are strong and that plants with heart-shaped leaves are good for the heart [6]. But, even if the Chinese are wrong about tigers, the research into development shows a rational reason that some analogies should describe a real connection between mind and body because, as we have seen, evolution is opportunistic and tends to re-use existing structures for functions that are analogous instead of going to the bother of inventing something completely new.

This is one of the ways in which scientific research may provide an explanation of how working with the body may directly effect the mind and thus provide a rational mechanism for Shiatsu. There is definite evidence that acupuncture effects parts of the brain that are not obviously neurologically connected to the acupuncture point and which may have such a dual mental and physical function. [7]

Q. What would a rational explanation of Shiatsu look like?

Bill: To explain Shiatsu, you need two understand two things. One is the details of how the mind and body are connected. That is my particular interest. The other is to understand why touching a meridian can have an effect on the body-mind.

I am trying to explain the anatomy of the mind-body connection. How did it develop? Why do meridians run where, traditionally, they are said to? There is other scientific research investigating how Qi functions to regulate and heal the organism. That research is exploring what Qi is. I am more interested in why it connects this part of the body to that part of the mind, because that is therapeutically useful.

Q. What do you mean by the anatomy of the mind-body connection?

Bill: Until the 1970’s the knowledge of child development described the motor skills and mental capacities that the baby develops at different ages but no-one seemed to make an explicit connection between them. I’m not saying that people did not realise there was a relationship, but the knowledge was fragmentary. For instance, several therapists observed that if a child did not develop manipulatory skills with their hands (for instance in Rhett’s syndrome), then their ability to process language was also impaired. However, it is only with the invention of brain scanning techniques that this interdependence has been demonstrated. [8]

During the 1970’s several developmental therapists made a detailed study of these connections, mainly through working with children with learning difficulties. In particular, Bertha Bobath (a physiotherapist) and her husband Karel (a neurophysiologist) developed an approach to working with brain damage through movement.[9] The Bobaths’ work was equally applicable to body-problems and cognitive problems. This approach has become so widespread that it is difficult to remember how revolutionary this was at the time.

Excellent example of working with babies. Imagine working with adults with the same playful mood

The Bobath concept was developed further by Speech Therapists like Kay Coombes [11] and Movement Therapists like Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen [10], both of whom were key influences in my research. I collaborated with and learned from first Kay and then Bonnie for more than a decade, ending up specialising in working with children with learning difficulties and adults with chronic issues.

Q. How did this help to explain meridians?

Bill: The first hint of the link between the Bobath technique and Shiatsu came in 1982 when I was making a video of Kay working with a baby with Cerebral Palsy. Brain damaged babies are often ‘floppy’ which means that their muscle tone is unusually loose. In particular, when a normal baby is held face down, a reflex called the Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR) tonifies the muscles on the front of the body and flexes the limbs. In a floppy baby, the limbs remain loose and the muscles on the front of the torso are collapsed.

A floppy baby

The normal Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex

Kay was working with the Rooting Reflex, which turns the baby’s head towards a touch at the corner of their mouth (around Stomach 4). This reflex helps the whole process of feeding by stimulating a reach for the nipple, followed by sucking and swallowing. I was excited to notice that, as the baby started to respond to her touch on his face and mouth, his limbs started to flex and he gained muscle tone down the front of his body.

Later observation with other babies showed that this development of tone precisely followed the line of the traditional Chinese Stomach meridian.

A baby showing both the rooting and tonic labyrinthine reflexes.

I already knew, though the practice of Contact Improvisation, that the ability to receive support needed positive muscle tone. (If you collapse onto someone, you are stuck to them and cannot use the contact to move.) So, I realised that the tone normally provided by the TLR along the Stomach meridian was a way in which the baby used support from the ground to lift their head and body. Anterior muscle tone makes the process easier, like riding a bicycle with inflated tyres rather than flat ones.

Finally it dawned on me that the whole meridian was involved in the more general theme of teaching the baby to receive and use support from the outside world, both through feeding and through toned contact. This corresponded closely to the traditional function of the Stomach in Oriental Medicine.

Q. Can you tell us another example?

Bill: Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen was once demonstrating how she helped babies to align the push from their legs to the spine by stimulating the Babinski reflex. This reflex activates the peroneus muscles to spread the toes, starting with the little toe. It leads to an eversion of the foot that rotates the knee in such a way that the leg can bend without tilting the pelvis. This means that the force from the leg-push can travel straight up the spine creating a clear forward movement during the development of creeping and crawling.

I realised that the entire process followed the Bladder meridian: from the stimulation of the Babinski reflex in the little toe, to the eversion from the peroneus muscles, to the specific release of the menisci in the knee by the popliteal muscle, to the containment of the force up the spine by the tone of the muscles running up the Bladder meridian in the back.

A baby tries to crawl forwards because she is trying to reach something interesting she has seen. So the interest starts in the eyes, raises the head, tones the Bladder meridian in the back. At the same time, the meridian in the leg is preparing the skeleton to smoothly transmit the force of the push, so the whole body is engaged in facilitating the movement into the same direction as the baby’s visual interest. In other words, muscles along the Bladder meridian align the body so that the baby’s excitement can drive them forwards without inhibition or confusion. This seemed to correspond very closely with the traditional view of the Bladder Meridian as a channel for the Will.

These are only two examples. Over years of detailed observation and experiment, I found that other groups of developmental reflexes collaborate to teach the baby a motor skill that also is an energetic or body-mind capacity. [13, 14] The connection between these groups of reflexes followed the Chinese meridians uncannily and precisely and the body-mind capacity learned through the movement was closely related to the traditional function of the corresponding Zang-Fu Organ. It was, for me, a very exciting and satisfying explanation of meridians: they are the lines along which we learn to use our bodies as babies and are also the physical foundation of our mental capabilities.

Q. Masunaga also related meridians to evolution, what is the connection?

Bill:  I think Masunaga’s explanation [15] comes from a different angle. He was talking about why broad zones of the body are related to functions of the organism. For instance, the activity of catching something, holding it and eating it involves flexion along the front of the body. On the other hand, the expression of need is a lengthening of the front, a reach of the mouth towards the nourishment.

His ‘amoeba’ image of the Stomach meridian is thus a general picture of an organism’s process of reaching for and taking in nourishment and explains why the Stomach meridian should be on the front of the body rather than the back. However, it does not explain why the meridian runs past the side of the mouth rather than over the centre of the lips, which would be consistent with the amoeba picture. It also does not explain why the traditional meridian runs nearer the centre-line in the abdomen than in the chest. The developmental theory explains the details of meridians, while Masunaga’s images explain their location in broad zones of the body.

When I was developing this theory, I was practising Zen Shiatsu, and naturally tried to fit my observations to Masunaga’s meridians. It never quite worked, maybe because his map is drawn with a less detailed brush, and works at a more purely energetic level. It was only when I started to use the traditional Chinese system that the observations fitted the map. In fact, to make the theory really consistent with observation, I found that I had to combine movements facilitated by two meridians simultaneously, one in the arm and the other in the leg [12]. These pairs exactly corresponded to the Six Combined Channels (the Six Divisions) described in the Nei Jing Su Wen. [16] This was a surprise, and the fact that it was unexpected reassures me that I might have been observing something objective.

For instance, the movements of the Bladder Meridian aligning the skeleton to transmit the push of the legs up the spine were accompanied by a complementary release of the shoulder blade and neck to allow the arm and head to reach forward, completing the movement (see picture).

This picture exposes the whole of the Tai Yang. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen showed how the eversion of the back foot (using the peroneus muscles along the Bladder meridian) aligned the pelvis and the spine to create a straight line of force up the Bladder meridian from legs to spine to eyes.

You can also see the wholehearted reach of the liberated Small Intestine meridian, starting with the little finger and extending through the shoulder blade and the Latissmus Dorsi muscle right down to the Small Intestine Shu points on the sacrum. The Tai Yang is like an arrow, straight and true, flying towards its single target.

This explains the Tai Yang in terms of movement, the Bladder meridian guides the force up the spine while the Small Intestine facilitates a reach from the arm giving a clear direction to the whole movement. If the arm meridian is tense, it has the effect of inhibiting this force by retracting the shoulder blades.  The Bladder and the Small Intestine together make up the Tai Yang Channel whose holistic function is to give clarity to our actions and to align our movement with our will. [12] 

I was puzzled for a while as to how this movement related to the traditional function of the  Small Intestine in Chinese medicine.  The answer came to me by looking at how we often inhibit our spontaneous impulses because of the disapproval of others. We usually inhibit ourselves with thoughts like ‘I shouldn’t do that!’, which are accompanied by stiffening of the shoulders and neck. We are really saying “I want to do this but I mustn’t!”.

Some of the expectations from other people can be assimilated without squashing our spirit but others are so alien to our character that conforming to them means denying one’s core self. They can’t be assimilated. The traditional function of the Small Intestine is to discriminate between incoming energy that can be assimilated and that which can’t.  In psychological terms, the Small Intestine helps us to reach for what we really want, rather than be conditioned by these introjects.

In Taoist philosophy, the human being was a bridge between Earth and Heaven, between Body and Mind. The leg meridians rooted the body, coupling with the arm meridians to connect to Heaven [17]. So this combination of arm and leg meridians in the Six Channels expresses the detailed developmental connection between motor skills and mental capacities that the Western biologists, psychologists and physical therapists have been discovering.

Both Ancient China and Modern Science both think of the Mind as being derived from the Physical world. Chapter 30 of the Ling Shu states explicitly “The Mind derives from the refined essence of water and food” [17]. The Mind feels so different to the Body that, for centuries, we in the West have thought that it is another substance, a spirit that comes from elsewhere, and this view still holds sway. In the 20th Century, physicists and philosophers started to see that the division between mind and body was a product of our limited consciousness of both. One of the most famous physicists of the 20th Century, Sir Arthur Eddington, said “The stuff of the world is ‘mind-stuff'” [19]. We are right at the beginning of understanding this statement but the insights of the ancients may have leaped intuitively to realisations which our rationality is just starting to perceive. The traditional meridian map of Qi describes the same Body-Mind connections that science is now discovering.


1. Kinds Of Minds: Toward An Understanding Of Consciousness: (Science Masters Series). Daniel Dennett 1997.

2. Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett (Paperback – Oct 20, 1992)

3. Hitch-hiking Emotions.

4. Medics can mend a Broken Heart.

5. Is Qi the same as Energy? Bill Palmer:  Shiatsu Society News – Winter 2009.

6. Will traditional Chinese medicine mean the end of the wild tiger?

7. Investigating acupuncture using brain imaging techniques: the current state of play. Lewith GT, White PJ, Pariente J. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine: eCAM 2 (3): 315–9. (September 2005)

8. Motor cortex hand area and speech: implications for the development of language

Ingo Gerrit Meistera, Babak Boroojerdia, Henrik Foltysa, Roland Sparinga, Walter Huberb and Rudolf Töpper Neuropsychologia. Volume 41, Issue 4, 2003

9. Adult Hemiplegia: Evaluation and Treatment, by Berte and Karel Bobath

10. Sensing Feeling and Action by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (Paperback – 1 Oct 1993)

11. Facio-Oral tract therapy according to Kay Coombes. Verheyden, G. Facio Society of Neurological Physical Therapists, Cape Town, South Africa, Sep 2004.

12. The Six Combined Channels by Bill Palmer. Shiatsu Society News – Winter 2010

13. The Development of Energy (Part 1) by Bill Palmer. Journal of Shiatsu and Oriental Body Therapy Issue 1:  1994

14. The Development of Energy (Part 2) by Bill Palmer. Journal of Shiatsu and Oriental Body Therapy Issue 3 : 1995

15. Zen Imagery Exercises by Shizuto Masunaga 1987

16. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine edited and translated by Ilza Veith 1949

17. Ling Shu  “The Spiritual Pivot ” by Wu Jing-Nuan 2002.

18. Ernst Haeckel and the Biogenetic Law. Scott F Gilbert (2006). Developmental Biology, 8th edition. Sinauer Associates.

19. Quantum Questions edited and compiled by Ken Wilber 1984.

You Tube Resources Illustrating the Text


Embryological Videos


These two show the similarity between the first stage of embryo between human and lancelet


Ambrioxus (lancelet) embryo development –

Animation of Embryo from egg to human –

This has nice pictures of embryo forms


Foetus animation (French) –

Some Primitive Reflexes mentioned in my Text


Sucking Baby –

Rooting Reflex –

Babinski reflex –

Floppy Baby Demonstration –

Baby Crawling –

Body Therapy Affecting the Brain


Baby Massage with CP –

Baby Massage with CP –

Brain Self- Repair through Walking –

Brain Plasticity – Girl with Epilepsy –

Neurological Development and Brain Anatomy


Axon smelling out growth path –

Normal Neuron Development + Abnormal Development –

Elementary Brain Anatomy –

Longer Videos on development


Lecture on Cognitive & Motor Development –

Neurological examination –