Why the laboratory metaphor is so insidious

Sofia Batalha
4 min readNov 21, 2021
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

A few months ago I registered for an online somatic event, ritual moving and dancing. And then the facilitator kept calling our bodies laboratories. My body disliked it, a lot, here is why.

Today, the laboratory metaphor is a pervasive one in therapeutic and “self-development” worlds, regarding observing, learning, or experiencing, from any given context — family, workplace or relations—, with the unspoken promise of gathering pure understanding or clear conclusions, collecting absolute meaning, or having closure.

So, we equate our bodies, homes, or relations to the laboratory metaphor, evoking fields of objective experimentation. Expecting an ideal cleaning and limiting what we cannot fit into this model of mechanistic “learning” and resolution.

In our modern cartesian gaze, the threads that weave into this metaphor send us into the depths of hyper-individualism and utter objectivity, where reality is made of soulless isolated objects. In our current understanding and practice, laboratories are aseptic rooms filled with technological instruments to measure or weigh bits of extracted materialities, expecting to turn reality into universal facts. These are necessarily contained places where there is no contamination from the multiple sets of relations that compromise living reality.

The environment around cannot be polluted or corrupted in any way, focusing and measuring physical or chemical reactions, isolated from noisy and tainted contexts. Healing, saddly, is expected to only occur through this “pure” form.

The laboratory concept has been around since the 1600s related to any room or building set apart for scientific experiments. And here I want you to notice the “setting apart” need because this is at the center of what “laboratory” really means today. And why it is so dangerous to equate our bodies or living environments to these enclosed, sterile, and highly regulated conditions. Observing and studying in these settings, mistaking them with reality itself, means that things are always taken out of context, scrubbed, washed, and whitened; parts are disentangled from the whole, severing and separating, spreading them apart from their system, so they can be observed and quantified objectively.

These laboratorial metaphors exile the natural and essential diversity of life itself, always contaminated and cross-fertilized. This metaphor is a linearization of the folds and creases, the meta-messages, the tenderness and the rage, all the bread-crumbs and spots, seasonality and emotional awareness, of every muddy, stained, unregulated living contexts.

Our sacred porous bodies are not laboratories, for we are ever entangled in a multitude of living connections, intermingling, and embodied. Our chemical, electrical, magnetic, biological skin, microbiome, muscles, or neurons are all responding and balancing dynamically to each other and changing throughout. We are not exiled and never were.

Using the template and metaphor of the modern laboratory as the reference to our life and learning processes is a dangerous mechanistic thought.

The medieval Latin “laboratorium” means a place for labor or work, which relates to “laborare”. The word labor has been around for so long, and since the 1300s, it refers to tasks or projects, and later to exertions of the body, trouble, difficulty, or hardship. This word is also connected to a mother laboring a child, the sacred and intense moment of potent body exertion in delivering babies. So, this verb, labor, relates the body in powerful action, with its intention, presence, and strength, using its vigor. Today, in Portuguese, is related to plow, lavrar, referring to a deep ancient relation of the body with the living and nurturing land.

The broader modern concept of these words got stuck in the mind, the body taken out of the picture, with all its efforts, depletion, pain, fluids, and subjectivities. For instance, we think “elaboration”, a word related to labor and laboratory, is a work of the mind, a rational endeavor, just a logical pursuit. Although in 1570 the word “elaboration” was related to physiology, incorporated in living tissue growth when membranes reconnect and the wound is no longer open. This biological endeavor is only possible through the whole body.

In this fragmented and reductionist view, we forgot that “elaboration” and life itself are, in fact, a practice of the whole body, in all its porous identity, flows, cycles and interchangeability.

Let us feel deeply into all the consequences of the metaphors we use to name and categorize reality. What are we really naming? Reality, or just a cultural reductionist gaze?

[Disclaimer: all these words and weaved concepts are birthed through my lived, biased, and always limited perception of things, not supposing to bring any absolute truth.]

By Sofia Batalha
Mammal, author, woman-mother, and question weaver. Awkward prose-poet with no grammatical knowledge. Pilgrim through inner and outer landscapes, remembering ancient earth practices, in radical presence, active listening, ecopsychology, art, ecstasy, and writing. Author of seven books, editor of the free online magazine, Wind and Water, Re-member the Bones Podcast, and Beyond the Sea Conversations — all in Portuguese.
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Sofia Batalha

Journeying 🌿 between inner and outer landscapes, remembering ancient earth practices, radical presence, active listening, ecopsychology, art and writing.