ACT and physical and mental health

Themes from the week

Over the FRA3 meeting, I’ve been wondering largely how an ACT approach to health might make contact with biology and psychotherapy. With regard to the first of these, we seem to have a willing target audience already forming:

We foresee great promise in the application of the mathematical framework of category theory…, which provides the conceptual and formal tools needed to model the relationships between arbitrary spaces. Any of the spaces discussed here, together with the search operations acting within that space, can be considered a category. The theory provides, in this case, rigorous tools for determining whether multiple paths through the space yield the same outcome and, even more interestingly, whether paths through different spaces, such as a path in a morphological space or a path in a 3D behavioral space, yield the same outcome. We defer such analysis to future work. (Fields and Levin 2022, Competency in Navigating Arbitrary Spaces as an Invariant for Analyzing Cognition in Diverse Embodiments)

Not only is there navigation through spaces at multiples scales of organization, but also constraints acting down through the system:

All complex biological systems are hierarchical; macromolecules are organized into larger-scale structures and pathways, which are organized into functioning cells, which form tissues, organs, and eventually whole organisms, which are then organized into societies and ecosystems, etc. A crucial aspect of this is that the hierarchy (modularity) is not simply structural. Each level contains its own agency, with agendas in various appropriate spaces. The robustness and plasticity of life may be due to the unique and powerful ways in which the lower levels’ activities (microstates) are harnessed toward the higher levels’ goals. Agents at higher levels (e.g., organs) deform the energy landscape of actions for the lower levels (e.g., cells or subcellular machinery)… This enables the lower systems to “merely go down energy gradients”, or to perform their tasks with minimal cognitive capacity while at the same time serving the needs of the higher-level system, which has exerted energy (via rewards and other actions) to shape its parts’ geodesics to be compatible with its own goals. This is a very powerful aspect of multi-scale competency because the larger system does not need to micromanage the actions of the lower levels; once the geodesics are set, the system can depend on the lower levels to do what they do best: go down the energy gradient. The paths of least action in any space are implemented by the paths of least action (i.e., VFE-minimizing paths) in the overall manifold of the internal state probabilities. (Fields and Levin 2022, Scale-Free Biology: Integrating Evolutionary and Developmental Thinking)

Clearly, an important topic is to understand how the integrity of the whole organism is maintained through this top-down modulation regulating the cooperative and competitive action of each level’s component elements:

It is imperative to understand the developmental algorithms and signals by which tissue-level agents incentivise lower-level subunits (e.g. cells and molecular pathways), distorting their option space so that simple, local descent down free-energy paths (short-sighted self-interest) result in higher order adaptive activity (long-term collective interest). The key to being an individual is to have a functional structure in which diverse experiences across its components are bound together in a way that generates causal relationships and composite memories that belong to the higher space of the individual and not its components. (Richard Watson and Michael Levin, The collective intelligence of evolution and development)

This “scale-free biology” also points up to similar questions concerning healthy societal organization:

Given the ability of human subunits to merge into even larger (social) structures, how do we construct higher-order Selves that promote flourishing for all? The multicellularity-cancer dynamic … suggests that tight functional connections that blur cognitive boundaries among subunits is a way to increase cooperation and cognitive capacity. However, simply maximizing loss of identity into massive collectivism is a well-known failure at the social level, always resulting in the same dynamic: the goals of the whole diverge sharply from those of the parts, which become as disposable to the larger social Self as shed skin cells are to us. Thus, the goal of this research program beyond biology is the search for optimal binding policies between subunits, which optimize the tradeoffs needed to maximize individual goals and well-being (preserving freedom or empowerment) while reaping the benefits of a scaled-up Self at the level of groups and entire societies. (Michael Levin, [Technological Approach to Mind Everywhere: An Experimentally-Grounded Framework for Understanding Diverse Bodies and Minds] (

Levin frequently appeals to the active inference program, where ACT has begun to stake a claim (cf. Toby Smithe), but we also heard plenty about other approaches this week to hierarchical systems. I enjoyed speaking with David Spivak about a way to consider how entities sense positive engagement with each other, when an applied “force” is perceived to do “work”.

Not only do we need to consider positive inter-level regulation, but also dysregulation. I’d love to have some kind of sketch of what’s happening with the beneficial and adverse effects of mind on body that I mentioned in my talk. In particular, how on earth was Albert Mason able to cure a case of congenital ichthyosiform erythroderma by hypnosis (BMJ 1952)?


I didn’t mention this in my talk, but Mason, after several years working with hypnotherapy for skin complaints, allergic reactions, etc., decided to retrain as a psychoanalyst. He came to see a psychological commonality in those who allowed themselves to undergo this radical form of suggestibility, such that symptom-removal by hypnosis generally left him unsatisfied.

Scores of schools of psychodynamic therapy exist today, along with a host of mind-body healing practices (thanks to James and Enrique for the discussions on these). It would hugely interest me to consider what, independent of jargon-heavy theory, is common to success here. Some have certainly thought in systems terms, where simple patterns of repetitive interaction learned in childhood are found to be no longer appropriate for adult life. E.g., a child might learn that it’s better to behave so as to cause their carers to exclude them, better to be lonely but safe than in the danger of proximity to dangerous adults, and then carry this schema through to adulthood.

Hearing Philipp and Vincent on their erotetic theory, and then James on tracking back reasons people attribute to their actions, perhaps there is an overlap here. Cure may work through re-enacting this pattern in the patient-analyst relation, and then careful examination of the implicit logic. The prospect can be raised and realized in the analytic relation that proximity is possible without danger.

I learned so much from everyone at FRA3, my thanks to you all, and a special thanks to the organizers for arranging such an enjoyable event.