Somatic Apathy

Body Disownership in the Context of Torture

in Journal of Phenomenological Psychology
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Muselmann was a term used in German concentration camps to describe prisoners near death due to exhaustion, starvation, and helplessness. This paper suggests that the inhuman conditions in the concentration camps resulted in the development of a defensive sense of disownership toward the entire body. The body, in such cases, is reduced to a pure object. However, in the case of the Muselmann this body-as-object is felt to belong to the captors, and as such is therefore identified as a tool to inflict suffering and pain on the Muselmann himself. In this situation, lacking cognitive resources, the Muselmann may have no other alternative than to treat his body as an enemy, and then to retreat or disinvest from the body. This response is a form of somatic apathy, an indifference that is tied to a loss of the self/non-self distinction. This may, in turn, lead to suicidal inclinations, even after liberation from the camp.

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Marcel (2003) suggests in these kinds of cases, a progression from a loss of a sense of “reliable effectiveness” to a lack of incentive motivation, leading to a learned, or as we phrase it, an induced helplessness.

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