Continuum, from late Old English, of the armsIntransitive sense become doubled upon itself, 1300 c. (of the body); earlier give way, fail (mid-13c.). Sense of to yield to pressure is from late 14c.


Folding is a daily dance that largely goes on unnoticed. Our hands and bodies partner easily with the quotidian moment. Through folding, we readily create the right fit with the material world. Sometimes, we need to move like cake batter, readily relaxing into soft folds on our couch for a good read or snuggling under the bed covers.  We also alter the size and quality of our folding depending on whom we embrace whether.  At other times, flat folds are called for, as in creasing letter paper or crimping a collar.


The origin of these daily familiar gestures lies deeper, however: Folding is how we got here. It is a record of our biological history, a lived and living archive of our prenatal existence. From conception to birth, the fundamental pattern of growth is the fold. During the first two to eight weeks of life, the embryo is busy shaping a body plan through enfolding and unfolding — without a brain, without thinking, or without breathing as we know it.

How does the embryo do this? The main central fold, the body’s central axis, appears around day 14 during a developmental phase called gastrulation. This phase frequently is cited as the most important time in your life (Wolpert). At this point, the embryo is a foamy, streaming mass and the midline is induced when cells become dynamically charged and begin to migrate. The cell march from the right and left sides of the embryo towards the center. As the cells meet and dive down into the depth of tissue, a fold if formed, called the primitive streak. The cells continue to travel together in swirling patterns, creating the primitive head and tail. In an unbelievably rapid time frame, the streak continues to fold in (invaginate) on itself, forming a tube which gives rise to our brain and nervous system, our heart, circulation, and gut systems.


Developmental biologists call this vibrant dance of attraction of cells, the Polonaise Dance. As a young girl, I remember the thrill of dancing to the Virginia Reel, the American version of this European social dance. Two lines are formed, one of women, the other of men. At one point, the caller asks each couple to join hands and travel down the line together. The the rest of the couples follow one by one.  When the first couple arrives at the top of the line, they raise their arms to form the archway for the next couple behind them to go underneath. Each couple in turn goes under the human archway and and travels back to their original place. This dance always evokes an atmosphere of exhilaration, perhaps evoked by a deep memory of these patterns.


What gives rise to these dynamic patterns in the embryo? Scientists still find the concept of induction mysterious. What spark, what phenomena – material and divine — incite the formation of the primitive streak? The act of becoming human defies genetic determinism. It is epigenetic — something meta-physical is part of the code. Nor do these patterns of growth stop at birth. The body topology continues to take shape through folding and unfolding. According to Anthroposophical science (van der Wal; Talbott), the embryo’s gestures are complementary expressions of growth, two polarizing attractions, one an inward folding and the other an expansion outward. By enfolding, the embryo attracts something of the outer environment into its self. Outward expansion not only allows the fetus to reach full term, but also speaks to the developing senses that reach towards the world.
Philosophically, folding and unfolding are not simple reversals of each other; Nor are these expressions a clear cut distinction between interior and exterior. The fold announces itself as a continuum. Phenomenologist Gilles Deleuze writes, The outside is not a fixed limit but a moving matter animated by peristaltic movements, folds and foldings that together make up an inside: they are not something other than the outside, but precisely the inside of the outside…Folding-unfolding no longer simply means tension-release, contraction-dilation, but enveloping- developing, involution-evolution…[M}ovement does not simply go from one greater or smaller part to another, but from fold to fold…the ‘inside’ space is topologically in contact with the ‘outside’ space and brings the two into confrontation at the limit of the living present.


Growth, then is not only physical. This movement continuum is the embryo’s way of knowing itself and the world and the foundation of relational depth — the basis of our becoming and of our worldly and transcendental yearnings. To bring it all back to biology, folding lies at the heart of our belonging. Through folding, we become a porous member of the societal ecosystem, a species being within an implicate universe…something to ponder the next time you fold the laundry.



Cesari, Francesca (2007).  Development: Dancing the polan  naise. Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology 8, 946.

Deleuze, Gilles (1993), The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, Gilles (1988), Foucault, trans. Sean Hand, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Simon O’Sullivan. Deleuze Dictionary.

Stephen L. Talbott. The embryo’s Eloquent Form.

Jaap van der Wal. Embryo in Motion: Understanding ourselves as embryo. Recorded live, Portland, Oregon, June 3-6, 2010, Anthroposophical Society, Portland Branch. Transcript

Wolpert, Lewis. From Egg to Embryo: Determinative Events in Early Development.