The Psychoanalyst Says Your Gut Says…

by Marc Abrahams, Improbable Research staff

Some psychoanalysts can find meaning in the most ordinary-seeming bits of your life. Some discern it even in your intestinal rumblings. There’s a technical name for those digestive sounds: borborygmi. Several published studies tell how to interpret people’s gut feelings—how to translate those borborygmi into common everyday words.

In 1984, Prof. Dr. Christian Müller of Hôpital de Cery in Prilly, Switzerland, published a report called “New Observations on Body Organ Language,” in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomics.
“New Observations on Body Organ Language,” Christian Muller, Psychotherapy and Psychosomics, vol. 42, nos. 1–4, 1984, pp. 124–6.

Müller paraphrases a 1918 essay by someone named Willener that “concludes that the phenomenon generally known as borborygmi must be regarded as crypto- grammatically encoded body signals that could be interpreted with the help of [special] apparatus.” Müller laments that Willener’s “attempts to follow up on his theory were thwarted by the defects of recording techniques at that time.”

Happily, Müller himself had access to later, better equipment. “We have been trying at our clinic since 1980,” he writes, “to combine electromesenterography with Spindel’s alamograph, and in addition to use digital transformation for a quantitative analysis of the curves via computer.”

Müller reveals his greatest interpretive triumph:
The presence of a negative transference situation was not difficult to deduce from the following sequence: ‘Ro… Pi… le… me… 1o…’. The following translation is certainly an appropriate rendering: ‘Rotten pig. leave me alone.’

This lovely piece of deadpan, intentional nonsense, I am told, was swallowed whole by some readers, and perhaps also some journal editors.

A few years later, Guy Da Silva, a Montreal psychoanalyst, published several apparently quite serious papers about the psychoanalytical significance of borborygmi.

The most accessible (in my view, anyway) is his “Borborygmi as Markers of Psychic Work During the Analytic Session: A Contribution to Freud’s Experience of Satisfaction and to Bion’s Idea About the Digestive Model for the Thinking Apparatus.” This professionally dense monograph appeared in a 1990 issue of the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. Freud is Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalysis pioneer who lived in Vienna, Austria. Bion is Wilfred Ruprecht Bion, director of the London Clinic of Psycho-Analysis in the 1950s, and later president of the British Psycho-Analytical Society.
“Borborygmi as Markers of Psychic Work During the Analytic Session: A Contribution to Freud’s Experience of Satisfaction and to Bion’s Idea About the Digestive Model for the Thinking Apparatus,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol. 71, 1990, p. 641–59.

“The Emergence of Thinking: Bion as the Link Between Freud and the Neurosciences,” Guy Da Silva, in M. Grignon (Ed.) Psychoanalysis and the Zest for Living: Reflections and Psychoanalytic Writings in Memory of W.C.M. Scott, ESF Publishers, Binghamton, NY, 1998.

“Le Modèle Alimentaire dans la Théorie de la Pensée de Bion: Suivi d’une Application de ce Modèle dans l’Analyse d’un Patient,” Guy Da Silva, Symposium of the Société Psychanalytique de Montréal, Spring 1992.

Guy Da Silva digested a little Freud together with a little Bion. He writes: “Borborygmi may signal the process and acquisition of new thoughts (symbolization) and the free associations derived from borborygmi often provide the key to the understanding of the session by linking the verbal flow of ideas to the underlying sensory and affective experience, thereby providing a ‘moment of truth’. Within the primitive maternal transference, borborygmi are often accompaniments to the fantasy or the hallucination of being fed by the analyst.”

The name Guy Da Silva will be familiar to some readers as the star of hundreds of psychologically gut-wrenching films, among them Beyond Reality 3, The Lube Guy, Attack of the Killer Dildos, and Porn-O-Matic 2000. But Guy Da Silva the actor and Guy Da Silva the psychoanalyst are not the same person, no matter how similarly stimulating their work may be.

(Title image credit: Flickr user threefatcats. Captioning via Speechable.)


This article is republished with permission from the September-October 2009 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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Um, as far as I've ever heard borborygmi is straight from a George Carlin routine. I was always under the impression that he made it up, but I could be wrong...
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