To complement the MASSAGE Magazine article, “Explore Somatic Memory & Body Narratives: Somatic Archaeology,” by Ruby Gibson, in the March 2012 issue. Article summary: The term somatic refers to the body, and archaeology to the study of ancient cultures through examining their remains. When we bring the two words together, Somatic Archaeology, we denote the capacity to excavate familial and cultural memory imprints buried in our body.

by Ruby Gibson

It is only fairly recently that the concept of generational recovery has made its way into the therapeutic fields of contemporary bodywork. The crucial need to look back in order to move forward intelligently, consciously and innovatively is becoming more apparent in health care and human service work fields due partly to emerging research that helps us better understand how memory, relationships and stress shape our health and behavior.

Neuroscientist Robert Scaer, M.D., author of The Body Bears the Burden, validates the critical importance of discharging the freeze response in order to complete a stressful experience. The freeze response is the biological reaction that happens in the brain and body when an overwhelming fear experience is not addressed or relieved. Fear causes our body to flood with endorphins, inducing a fight/flight/freeze response, facilitating survival—stress-induced analgesia inhibits pain behavior and immobility promotes survival. The dilemma is that old traumatic procedural memories are actually experienced in the present moment.

How these procedural and emotional memories are inherited or passed forward is the subject of many studies. In utero and in childhood, a child receives emotive messages and a role expectation that she will fulfill or avoid. Projected onto her are incomplete wishes or goals of the lineage, emotional temperament, belief systems and cultural scripts—designing a future wrapped up in a weighty and somatic unspoken language. This silent transfer of this influential and recurring behavior has been termed epigenetics.

Epigenetics refers to heritable changes that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence. If your genetic inheritance is written in ink, your epigenetic inheritance is written in pencil, meaning that it can be erased or expunged from the body when it is remembered. Christian Flèche, French author of The Biogenealogy Sourcebook, writes, “Everything that does not rise into consciousness comes back as destiny and it comes back as a symptom, as an illness, as an accident, as a failure, as a discomfort; and everything that rises into consciousness no longer comes back as destiny, as fate, as illness!”

Unresolved fear-based events establish somatization of DESNOS (disorders of extreme stress not otherwise specified), which can include digestive complaints, chronic pain, cardio symptoms, alterations in systems of meaning, despair, hopelessness and previous sustaining beliefs.

Jack Shonkoff, a Harvard pediatrician and director of the National Council on the Developing Child at Harvard University, describes these generational physiological changes as part of a “subconscious biological memory” and says knowledge of them represents a major breakthrough. “Now we have a scientific understanding of the biology of adversity–how these bad experiences get into your body, under your skin, and into your brain,” he says.

Massage therapists can play an important role by connecting the dots between physical symptoms, epigenetic transfer, and cause and effect. Recognize the impact that safe touch provides: Once a felt sense of safety is established, our body moves into a parasympathetic, relaxed state, allowing our hippocampus to open the gateway to release stored, intrinsic, subconscious memories.

This commonly happens during the relaxation response that occurs during bodywork, and more specifically with the skill set of Somatic Archaeology™. We will always have influential memories, but we can learn to awaken procedural memories that exacerbate stress, and find relief in expression.

The integration of standard massage practices and the knowledge of the biology of adversity will change our minds, our physiology, our epigenetics—and hence our massage practice.

Ruby Gibson, L.M.T. (, holds a master’s degree in theology, is a doctoral candidate, international educator, author and Certified Somatic Therapist in private practice for 30 years. She developed Somatic Archaeology and is the author of My Body, My Earth: The Practice of Somatic Archaeology. She provides healing outreach through Freedom Lodge, a nonprofit organization in Colorado.