How Matter is Influenced by Meaning

In the book ‘The Essential David Bohm’ is a chapter called Soma-significance and the Activity of Meaning, which was very interesting in how he thinks that mind and matter interact.

Well, actually he says that interacting is not the way it works. And therefore the word ‘Psycho-somatic’ is not right, for explaining what he meant to say.

So he came up with two different words that should better reflect what he saw as the process of this ‘mind and matter exchange’.

In this post I want to write down Bohm’s differentiation between those three words: Psycho-somatic, Soma-significance and Signa-somatic.


The reason for Bohm to come up with two different concepts is that he is not satisfied with the common concept of Psycho-somatic. Psycho-somatic indicates that there is a relationship between the mental (psycho) and the physical (somatic) but they are separate.

The term psycho-somatic suggests two different kinds of entities, each existent in itself – but both in mutual interaction. In my view such a notion introduces a split, a fragmentation, between the physical and the mental that doesn’t properly correspond to the actual state of affairs.

So that is why he suggests the introduction of a new term that he calls Soma-significance.


This concept emphasizes more the unity of the mental and the physical. The meaning of the body.

To bring out how soma and significance are related, I might note that each particular kind of significance is based on some somatic order, arrangement, connection and organization of distinguishable elements – that is to say, structure.

Then he goes on with an example.

The printed marks on this piece of paper carry a meaning which is apprehended by a reader. In a television set the movement of electrical signals communicated to an electron beam carries meaning to a viewer. Modern scientific studies indicate that such meanings are carried somatically by further physical, chemical and electrical processes into the brain and the rest of the nervous system where they are apprehended by ever higher intellectual and emotional levels of meaning.

But it also works the other way around, which he gives a different name.


Signa-somatic is the other side of the same process. Every meaning at a certain level is affecting the body at a more manifest level.

Consider for example, a shadow seen in a dark night. Now if it happens, because of the person’s past experience, that this means an assailant, the adrenalin will flow, the heart will beat faster, the blood pressure will rise and he will be ready to fight, to run or to freeze. However if it means only a shadow, the response of the soma is very different. So quite generally the total physical response of the human being is profoundly affected by what physical forms mean to him. A change of meaning can totally change your response.

So the meaning of something (shadow), affects the physical (metabolism). Which is different from something physical (marks on a piece of paper), that affects the meaning (mind of the reader).

A change of meaning is a change of being

So this is different from psycho-somatic. With psycho-somatic you say that mind affects matter as if they were two different substances. But there are no two different substances, there is only one flow.

But if the meaning changes, so does the flow.

Therefore any change of meaning is a change of soma and any change of soma is a change of meaning.

As a given meaning is carried into the somatic side, you can see that it continues to develop the original significance. If something means danger, then not only adrenalin, but a whole range of chemical substances will travel through the blood, and according to modern scientific discoveries, these act like ‘messengers’ (carriers of meaning) from the brain to various parts of the body. That is, these chemicals instruct various parts of the body to act in certain ways. In addition there are electrical ‘signals’ – they are not really signals – carried by the nerves, which function in a similar way. And this is a further unfoldment of the original significance into forms that are suitable for ‘instructing’ the body to carry out the implications of what is meant.

Bohm talks about levels. Levels of somatic unfoldment of meaning. Each level goes toward a more manifest somatic state. And this goes on until the action finally emerges as a physical movement of the body that affects the environment.

So there is a two-way movement of energy. Each level of significance acts on the next more manifest somatic level. And the perception carries the meaning of the action back in the other direction.

How matter is influenced by meaning

Image: Source


  1. I so much appreciate the summaries of these models into “bite-sized” pieces. I too study Jung, appreciate Larry Dossey, and curious about Wayne Dyer.

    I would like to hear about your thoughts concerning addiction in regard to the mind-body interchange.

    1. Hi Michael, I haven’t specifically thought about addiction in regard to the mind-body interchange, but it is an interesting item indeed. Maybe I have to read some of Bohm’s work again with that in mind. What are your thoughts on it?

  2. Very well written and displayed…I cant see any dates on it..are u still writing on the subject ? Have u concidered the reversed soma-phsycic prosess…as when time manifests itself in your body (by decay) and affects meaning ? Keep writing..ill read :-)

    1. Hi Hans,
      I have not been writing much lately, but I am still very much thinking and interacting about the subjects of this blog.
      I indeed think that material changes (like those of the body) affect meaning as well as the other way around. I think getting sick or not being able to do as you used to, is a very good reason to reflect on certain meanings.
      Thanks for reading :)

  3. Hi Annemieke, Not sure if you got a chance to see Bohm’s view on addiction. I got a chance to see it in the book “Thought as a system”. Here is a gist as I understood it: Thought process has two operating modes: (1) pain-aversion and (2) correctness. When in the correctness mode, thought corrects misinformation in the knowledge map. For example, updating a phone number in your contacts. In the pain-aversion mode, the thought process is finding ways to move away from pain or discomfort. For example, we take morphine (pain-killers) which cover up certain nerves or pain receptors. Similarly, human body releases internal substances such as endorphins which are chemically very similar to morphins. Endorphins are released even we have reassuring thoughts or pleasant thoughts. One of the key sources of pleasant thoughts is the process of “becoming”. For example, “I will become leaner, wealthier, more spiritual tomorrow.” Hence, all addictions including addition to thought are related to pain-aversion mode of thought and they sustain misinformation (never gets corrected). Check out my presentation which depicts this on page 28.

    1. Hi Vinay,
      Thanks for the link to that slideshare.
      I wrote a post once on what Bohm said about this pain-aversion mode you mention. At the time I did not see it as addiction, but I see now it is very much addiction actually. He said somewhere the following about the mind:

      “Either it continues to dart from one thing to another, or it reacts with violent excitement that limits all attention to some triviality, or it becomes dead, dull, or anesthetized, or it projects fantasies that cover up all the contradictions, or it does something else that makes one momentarily unaware of the painful state of conflict in which the mind is.”

      In this one sentence, Bohm gives 4 examples of how we are inclined to deal with this inner conflict. If we want to avoid conflict we can do one of the following:
      1. Go from one thing to another.
      2. Limit all attention to some triviality.
      3. Get dull or anesthetized.
      4. Cover up all contradictions.

      So if what you say in the slideshare, that reassuring thoughts or pleasant thoughts produce endorphins, is true (and I think it is) then indeed it can become an addiction. Actually I think it might even be the most common addiction around. We do it all the time in some way.

      So I guess we could add the following point:
      5. Think reassuring or pleasant thoughts.

      Thanks a lot for getting me into this very interesting subject again!

      1. Yes, that makes sense, Annemieke. There is a bad news here though that Bohm mentions. i.e. the knowledge of how thought works (and how addiction works) doesn’t change anything, just like knowledge of cycling doesn’t help much in cycling. The only way to learn is to observe the process while it is in action. Observe how mind is *automatically* generating pleasant thoughts in order to get away from pain. How the whole thing works like a set of reflexes similar to how a knee jerks when the bone is hit. Thanks for the conversation.

  4. I have become deeply interested in Bohm’s concept of ‘Soma-Significance’ because this idea can be readily related to the concept that material and relation are equiprimordial foundations for existence. That is, that we are deeply entangled ‘physical-relational’ beings. The science of physicality and physical mechanism we know well from conventional science, but what about relationality? Well, there is a science of relationality which has been known about in connection with Scholastic Realism since the publication of a book called ‘Tractatus di Signis’ in 1632 written by John Poinsot (John of St Thomas), a contemporary of Rene Descartes. The ideas of Poinsot which basically propose a
    ‘triadic’ structure for sign interpretation was re-discovered by Charles Sanders Peirce and incorporated into his philosophical system as ‘Triadic Semiotics’ which can be viewed as the science of relationality, or, equivalently, the science of ‘significance’. Unfortunately, Bohm was not aware of Semiotics or I think he would have readily made the connection to his concept of ‘Soma-Significance’ which basically comes down to the recognition that organisms (and, arguably, the physical universe as well) are physically embodied relational beings. And that biological evolution has progressed toward the emergence of creatures with greater and greater ‘semiotic freedom’ or ‘interpretance’ or ‘communicative capacity’ (cf. Jesper Hoffmeyer’s writings on the subject of ‘semiotic freedom’). So that what is unique about the human being–homo sapiens–is that we are, in fact, the ‘Semiotic Animal’ which not only utilizes the process of semiosis in our daily existence, but we have the meta-cognitive capacity to recognize what a sign is and how the ‘action of signs’ (ie. ‘semiosis’) works. There is so much more to be said about what this all actually means, but it is too much to consider here.

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