by MJ Ryan
When I was younger, I really thought of my body as a taxicab for my brain. Then as a senior in college, I hurt my back very badly, which sent me on a painful journey that included a year lying down. I came to experience that what we think of as separate aspects of ourselves—the mind and the body—are actually one. Their separation is an illusion. I came to know this through my experience, but only recently has there been brain research to show how true mind-body oneness is. That’s why I was so excited to read David Brook’s November 18, 2019 column in the New York Times. This week I’m sharing the part that focuses on the gut brain and how we are constructing our own emotional realities through the labeling of our physical responses. Next week, I’ll explore the implications for our interconnectedness that Brooks also highlights.
“[I]t’s interesting how many scientists are now focusing on the thinking that happens not in your brain but in your gut. You have neurons spread through your innards, and there’s increasing attention on the vagus nerve, which emerges from the brain stem and wanders across the heart, lungs, kidney and gut.
“The vagus nerve is one of the pathways through which the body and brain talk to each other in an unconscious conversation. Much of this conversation is about how we are relating to others. Human thinking is not primarily about individual calculation, but about social engagement and cooperation.
“One of the leaders in this field is Stephen W. Porges of Indiana University. When you enter a new situation, Porges argues, your body reacts. Your heart rate may go up. Your blood pressure may change. Signals go up to the brain, which records the `autonomic state’ you are in.
“Maybe you walk into a social situation that feels welcoming. Green light. Your brain and body get prepared for a friendly conversation. But maybe the person in front of you feels threatening. Yellow light. You go into fight-or-flight mode. Your body instantly changes. Your ear, for example, adjusts to hear high and low frequencies — a scream or a growl — rather than midrange frequencies, human speech. Or maybe the threat feels like a matter of life and death. Red light. Your brain and body begin to shut down….
“Lisa Feldman Barrett, of Northeastern University, also argues that a main purpose of the brain is to read the body, and to regulate what she calls the body budget. You may see a bully on the playground. Your brain then predicts your next action and speeds your heart rate and breathing to deal with it. You experience these changes as emotion — oh, this is fear or oh, this is anger — because your brain has created an emotion concept to make those physical changes meaningful.
“`You might think that in everyday life, the things you see and hear influence what you feel, but it’s mostly the other way around: What you feel alters your sight and hearing,’” Barrett writes in `How Emotions Are Made.’
There is so much to unpack about mindset in these few paragraphs. Here’s just two. The first is the one I opened with—that our minds and bodies are one entity, with neurons existing throughout the body. That alone requires a profound mindshift. The second is that the reading of our bodies’ reactions by our brains is how we each construct reality. Since first working with everyone on a team, I’ve known we each make up our own reality—one person says it was a great meeting, another says it was terrible, everyone leaves with a different sense of what has been agreed upon…it’s a wonder we can work together at all! But now we have research to explain more of why this happens. Brooks puts it this way, “When you step back and see the brain and body thinking together, the old distinction between reason and emotion doesn’t seem to make sense. Your very perception of the world is shaped by the predictions your brain is making about your physical autonomic states.”
For each of us, our mind/body is creating its reality moment to moment based on its past history. And so is everyone else. How would your response to yourself and others change if you truly took that truth to heart?