Le bâillement, du réflexe à la pathologie
Le bâillement : de l'éthologie à la médecine clinique
Le bâillement : phylogenèse, éthologie, nosogénie
 Le bâillement : un comportement universel
La parakinésie brachiale oscitante
Yawning: its cycle, its role
Warum gähnen wir ?
Fetal yawning assessed by 3D and 4D sonography
Le bâillement foetal
Le bâillement, du réflexe à la pathologie
Le bâillement : de l'éthologie à la médecine clinique
Le bâillement : phylogenèse, éthologie, nosogénie
 Le bâillement : un comportement universel
La parakinésie brachiale oscitante
Yawning: its cycle, its role
Warum gähnen wir ?
Fetal yawning assessed by 3D and 4D sonography
Le bâillement foetal
Biographies de neurologues
Nouvelle Iconographie de La Salpêtrière
 L'histoire des neurosciences à La Pitié et à La Salpêtrière J Poirier
The history of neurosciences at La Pitié and La Salpêtrière J Poirier 
haut de page
haut de page
haut de page
haut de page

mise à jour du
20 novembre 2005
Psychiatric Quaerterly
Archaic behavior and the communicative act
The Meaning of Stretching, Yawning, Rocking
and Other Fetal Behavior in Therapy
Joost Meerloo
New York
Télécharger l'article intégral en PDF


In a former study on archaic communication (1949) the author found a relation between the communicative act and a more general biological adaptive phenomenon connected with separation and individualization, both of which increase the need to transfer inner occurrences and the need to bridge the space between entities. If no direct physiologic conduction of stimuli is possible, alarm signals have to be used. In therapy, the fact is experienced that a person makes use of a varied combination of communicative means, of innate, biological, and archaic signs and of cultural, acquired ones: symbols, myths, verbalizations, and so forth. On special occasions, the hidden archaic signs and responses come to the fore as, for instance, in impending danger; in an increased mating urge; after broken interhuman relationships; in a difficult transference relationship; in the re-establishment of broken contact.
Eisenbud, Ehrenwald and others have proved and particularly emphasized-following Freud's suggestion-a direct unconscious exchange as experienced in the phenomenon of telepathy. One may look upon this as a part of a usually repressed, archaic instinct of communication. Everything that lives communicates, often along mysterious pathways, unexplored as yet by physical science.
This paper aims to call attention to another group of archaic responses, an innate signal code not so hidden and repressed, more directly observable, yet related to the former phenomenon. In psychotherapeutic sessions, various movements and gestures come through, part of which must be explained as originating in an earlier-archaic or even intrauterine-existence of man. Up to this time not much clinical attention has been given to these involuntary signals. Yet, knowledge of fetal behavior and its adaptive responses is of importance for the knowledge of later patterns of behavior.
This discussion will be clinical, surveying the known symptoms. Further research will bring deeper insight into these manifestations of early human existence. Increased attention will provoke better observation of phenomena that are so easily overlooked.
The simple adaptive responses in fetal life have been called to attention in particular through the work of Minkowski, Christoffel and collaborators. Fodor's intuition and observations added psychological data to this new field of exploration. Physiological observations of abortions and prematurely born babies, and study of the normal infant during the first days of life have increased our knowledge.
In short, we may now say that, from the eighth intrauterine week, the embryonal organism lives in a total rhythmic behavior, and reactive and protective movements are noted. The rhythmic heartbeats of both mother and child dominate all other motions with their rhythmic movements. This may be of importance because some schizophrenics in analysis or hypnosis spontaneously show these forms of rhythmic movements. Gradually however, other non-co-ordinated movements, as responses to external stimuli, come to the fore, such as general mass action, a bending of the axis and a folding together. In respect to this, one may already speak of an early adaptive response and a primitive intelligence.
In the second half of intrauterine life, it is possible to speak of spontaneous behavior, there is active rotation, flexion, and stretching. Every mother knows about this lively life of her child within. There is skin sensitivity, especially around the mouth and nose, drinking of amniotic fluid, hunger and thirst. Bowel movement and defecation of meconium can take place before birth.
Minkowski in particular indicated that various sensory activities are going on before birth. The skin is sensitive, there is a localizing response to touch, the limbs move in the direction of the cutaneous stimulus. There is mnemic function and a primitive pain sense in the fetus, a moving away of a limb after too strong stimulation. There are labyrinthic responses, the olfactory function is ready-very vivid olfactory impressions are present early, as is known from dream analysis. The fetus reacts to loud noises and before birth there is a well-developed auditory receptor (Carmichael, 1951). From analysis of dreams, it must also be concluded that there are various intrauterine sound reminiscences; this means that there have been general auditory impressions without the means of putting them in a verbal mnemic pattern. Strictly speaking, man's daily return to sleep and the fetal attitude belong to this chapter on fetal behavior. However, that subject would require a more elaborate neuropsychiatrie investigation.
Another future subject for study is the manner in which these archaic responses may be used in the sum total of innate, acquired adaptive behavior of the individual.
Psychopathology has already taught that these functions may be used variously by the individual, depending on his personal history. They may be causes of unconscious reminiscence, as is often seen in psychotherapy. They may be used as defense against maturation, they may be displaced toward other functions, physiologically and psychologically; they may be employed to deny that a person is functioning adequately. However, to keep the subject as simple as possible, the present paper will stress only the reminiscing and communicative action of the regression to archaic functions.
Through postnatal psychology, we have become familiar with the concept of the mouth as an organ of reality testing. The outside world is brought into the mouth to be tested and swallowed. From the fourth intrauterine month, a slow muscle contraction, comparable to those found in mollusks, is going on. From time to time, the fetus opens its mouth and swallows amniotic fluid. This has been repeatedly observed, through the abdominal wall of the pregnant mother, as a slow-frequency, rhythmic contraction of the oral end of the fetus. This archaic process is not in the service of accumulation of food; some explain it as a primary wet inhalation, perhaps a reaction to some discomfort. Remnants of this oral wet inhalation, however, are found also in the yawning reflex.
Breathing in general is perhaps our most archaic active contact with others-we all breathe the same air. The child in utero breathes in a fetal way; in the meantime, it is yawning, stretching, drinking the amniotic fluid, which means drinking the mother. In any later form of contact, breathing, pneumatic union, absorbing the other one, drinking from the same air plays a role, especially in fantasy life. Pathological variations of this pneumatic contact are found in asthma where we may sometimes speak of the fantasy of pneumatic incest.
Oral Incorporation
Oral incorporation is mentioned here only because its impact on the psyche is well known, as described in an elaborate psychoanalytic literature.
Psychologically we know that yawning has to do with reminiscences of sleep; but, beyond that, it may indicate also hunger and boredom and even pleasurable leisure. It is a very contagious movement. One person is easily induced by another's yawning to yawn himself. Sometimes compulsive yawning is indulged in with pleasure-orgastic pleasure. Some people yawn when they glide in their rapidly speeding cars, behind the wheel, through the landscape. The word "yawning" is direct onomatopoeia; this makes us aware that it is part of a deeply-founded body function. Yawning pleasure is seen in the infant, not only when he is sleepy but also when he is satisfied.
Yawning represents yearning for something archaic; it is a remnant of a fetal response. The reflex may last for many seconds, with deep inspiration and expiration. It may be nearly unexpressed behind the hand before the mouth.
Clinically, the writer found yawning in one patient to be an initial sign preceding an epileptic fit. In the analysis it was associated with a yearning for the breast, or for something even more deeply nirvanic, and was then followed by a furious epileptic attack because of the denial.
How deeply yawning and yearning are related came to the fore in a manic-depressive patient who went through twilight states in which he experienced complete union with the prenatal mother. Consciously, this was a frightening experience for him. However, it always announced itself by periods of compulsive yawning, making it possible for him to go home and surrender more freely to his reminiscences. In such a twilight state, the patient had all kinds of telepathic experiences, described in a former publication (Meerloo, 1949).
Yawning plays a greater role in the therapeutic situation than is often realized. The therapist also yawns. One cannot always interpret this as a form of negative transference, because the increased communication in the therapeutic situation may easily lead to a common archaic fantasy.
Sighing Ordinary sighing and compulsive sighing are reminiscences of early infantile escape reactions in which birth panic plays a role. Sighing in analysis means a reminiscence of an. escape from fear.
Thumbsucking Thumbsucking is found in fetal life and compulsive sucking may, in its mnemic roots, go back even earlier than the breast-infant relation. The same is true for sneezing.
Smiling Smiling is generally recognized as an automatic transmitter of an infantile mood. It is related to the infant's satisfaction after being fed, when it withdraws its lips from the breast and falls asleep.
Coughing and Defecating and "Breaking Wind" Coughing, defecating and "breaking wind" are observed as fetal rejection and evacuation of intrusion into the body. We know that some mothers describe such sounds as made by their unborn babies. This is interpreted as fetal crying. The simplest explanation is that it is fetal evacuation.
A schizophrenic explained his compulsive passing of flatus as an omnipotent destruction of the outside world. For him it was a throwing out and a soiling at the same time-and an imitation of the omnipotent voice of father.
In these matters, one finds again that the archaic reminiscence has a tremendous power of contagion. Listen, for instance, during the intermission of a concert. One person coughs, and this archaic sign starts others coughing.
Christoffel traces the smoking compulsion back, not only to reminiscence of infantile smiling after oral satisfaction, but also to a repetition of infantile wet-breathing.
In the motoric field, there is tremendous fetal activity. Massbehavior that is comparable to tantrums and epileptic fits in postuterine life has already been mentioned.
Stretching by the fetus is observed as early as the second month of fetal life. It is generally interpreted as an infantile joy, a being free of fear, a pleasant reaction, a similar feeling to the one we have when we stretch as adults.
One of the writer's patients - a case of anxiety hysteria-started to stretch himself repeatedly during the analytic hour, exclaiming with feelings of joy and pleasure. In the course of the analysis this stretching was related to feelings of liberation from the maternal domination, to an experience of new activity, to stretching and going out of the womb. Later on he experienced spontaneous new associations in which the stretched body represented the erect penis.
Peculiarly enough, the unconscious sexual meaning of stretching, of this pleasant orgastic manifestation of the body, is kept alive in social taboos. The German word for it, "rekein," the Dutch word "rekel," and the English word "rascal" are all derived from a similar origin (Christoffel, 1951). Stretching, erection, hypnotic catalepsy (as seen in Yogi), belong to a common regressive womb-fantasy.
Bending and huddling up represent the opposite fetal reaction. A remnant of this hiding position may be found in the background of many a fright reaction, and it is seen in the usual "fetal" hiding position under the blankets in bed. In some catatonies, this attitude is even continual.
One sees, on the couch, from time to time, the same defensive, regressive attitude of patients, especially in borderline cases.
The stereotyping of movements, the remembering of rhythmic archaic responses can also be seen in frustrated animals, as one observes them for example in the zoo.
The sudden relief brought by laughter has to do with the intrauterine defensive mass-reaction already mentioned, and is psychologically related to epileptic fits. It is an ambivalent response to a stimulus in which something is conquered (a traumatic experience) and in which one originally let go of something-aggression, urine, stools. In special neurologie conditions, laughter comes to the fore as sham-mirth, as one sees in cerebral paralysis or in narcolepsy when hypothalamic centers are affected. This is an example of the way disinhibition of mental functions may simply provoke motoric outbursts and fits of laughter.
It may seem strange to consider unexpected laughter (to be distinguished from laughter expressing comedy and humor) as part of an intrauterine defense reaction. However, in pathology, one experiences this type of laughter as a tremendously contagious bodily reaction. Primitives, listening to a phonograph recording of roaring laughter, begin to laugh themselves and cannot stop. We all sometimes experience the way in which sudden laughter causes a feeling of paralysis-we are put "hors concours."
In psychotherapeutic treatment, fits of laughter play a peculiar role. One patient, a manic-depressive, got laughing fits when he was tired and warm. Once, as a result, he had an epileptic fit, but mostly he laughed himself into a paralytic state.
A schizophrenic girl started to laugh purely as a defense mechanism; her laughter was mocking and hiding at the same time, although in her movements it was also converted to more orgastic satisfaction.
For the present purpose, it is sufficient to know that part of the basis of laughter is a regressive reminiscence, and it is this that makes it so tremendously contagious. The joke that calls forth an outburst of laughter relieves deeply repressed feelings suddenly. One of the writer's friends could not stop laughing after a joke which concerned anthropophagie tendencies.
The more a human expression partakes of an undifferentiated infantile or archaic nature, the more unconscious is the communicative value which goes out from it. Laughter, crying, yawning, stretching, shivering, may evoke in us the same kind of archaic re-sponse. There is something in the observation of an archaic activity that pushes us back into our own pasts, so do music and smells and colors, dancing and artistic creation. The repetition of primary archaic expressions provokes, as it were, a deep resonance in everybody. The common regressive fantasy leads to more intense communication and direct identification. In a study of the transference function, the writer pointed to this communicative need as an important part of the therapeutic situation (Meerloo, 1952).
The clinical importance of all this is in the elaboration of clinical observation. Not always will one find out to what regressive fantasies the communicative acts of the patient are related; but the moment they are discovered-through a peculiar muscle rhythm during his silent resistance, for example, or through a tendency to assume the fetal position-the field of observation enlarges.
Other phenomena, too, may be throwbacks to archaic responses. For example, the echopraxy in schizophrenics may be compared with the imitative lattah symptoms in panicky primitives (Meerloo, 1950). Just as all of us are contagiously affected by yawning, these patients have, in a more extended field, the compulsion to imitate. As a reaction to danger and fear, they lose the differentiative distinction between the outside and the inside world. They feel, as it were, equalized with the therapist, as if living in a big womb. The same phenomenon-described in the literature as reactive depersonalization-is evident in people after escape from tremendous danger (bombing, concentration camp). If one observes them well, it will be seen that they behave like the unborn and that they show many fetal responses.
As the best example, I can give my own memories of such a day; they were repressed and only came back to memory years later. After I escaped from German imprisonment and certain death and, in disguise, had passed the enemy cordon safely, I roamed around in the Paris subway all day long. I hovered in a corner, jumped up sometimes, changed trains, yawned all day, did not eat and, only when night came, did I get out of this archaic hiding spell in Paris' womb. Very symbolically, I went to a barbershop and felt reborn after a shave and a haircut.
A survey has been presented of some fetal responses to stimuli and of how one may find them revived in more differentiated, mature behavior. The fetal response may be looked upon as one of the initial adaptive acts which are automatically transmitted to the unconscious. A person's archaic response provokes intensified communication through mutual identification with the pre-birth
situation. As Bolk has explained, man in his biological retardation and fetalization remains dependent on his parents. That is the reason why he sticks to his unconscious identification with his Intrauterine existence. It is this common hidden fantasy that makes the communicative element so intensive. Mutual regression leads to the unconscious fantasy of unification and participation. The significance of these phenomena for an elaboration of clinical observation is emphasized.
Bolk, L.: On the problem of anthropogenesis. Proceedings, Koninklyke Academie Van Wetenschappen. Amsterdam. 1925.
Carmichael, L.: Behavior during fetal life. In: The Encyclopedia of Psychology. Citadel Press. New York. 1951.
Christoffel, H.: Ghnen und Sich-Dehnen. Schw. Med. Wschr., 1951.
Christoffel, H.: Skizzen zur Menschlichen Entwieklungs-psychologie. A-Z. Press Verlag. Aarau. 1945.
Ehreuwald, J.: Telepathy and Medical Psychology. Norton. New York. 1948.
Eisenbud, J.: Telepathy and problems of psychoanalysis. Psychoan. Quart., XV, 1946.
Eisenbud, J.-: Analysis of a presumptively telepathic dream. PSYCHIAT. QUART., 22, 1948.
Ferenczi, S.: Begattung und Befruchtung. Psa. Almanach. Wien. 1926.
Fitzherbert, J.: Some further observations on headbumping. and allied behavior. J. Ment. Sci., 98, 1952.
Fodor, N.: Telepathic dreams. Am. Imago, III, 1942.
Fodor, N.: New Approaches to Dream Interpretation. Citadel Press. New York. 1951.
Freud, S.: Dreams and telepathy. Int. J. Psychoan., III, 1922.
Groddeck, G.: Das Buch vom Es. J. Psychoan. Verlag. Wien. 1926.
Hooker, D.: The Prenatal Origin of Behavior. University of Kansas Press. 1952.
Meerloo, J. A. M.: Communication and Conversation. International Universities Press. New York. 1952.
Meerloo, J. A. M.: Telepathy as a form of archaic communication. PSYCHIAT QUART., 23, 1949.
Meerloo, J. A. M.: Father time. PSYCHIAT. QUART., 22, 1948.
Meerloo, J. A. M.: Patterns of Panic. International Universities Press. New York. 1950.
Minkowski, M.: Neurobiologischeu Studien am Menschlichen Fötus. Hdbuch Biol. Arbeitsmethoden, Bd. 5, 1928.
Róheim, Géza: Telepathy in a dream. Psychoan. Quart., I, 1932.