A Body of Emotion

A recent post explored the mind-body relationship and named the prefrontal cortex (PFC) as the brain region that houses ‘mind’. This makes sense if we think of ‘mind’ as the function that watches things in order to discriminate, judge, and plan. In fact, there is a style of ‘watching’ that feels expansive and wordless, without critique or strategy; this mode may unfold more globally in the brain. But in ordinary terms the ‘mind’ that relates to the ‘body’ is a more limited watcher, prone to categorizing, analyzing, and deciding. In other words, It isn’t a stretch to imagine it harbored—at least in part—within the PFC.

What about our experience of ‘body’? Are there specific areas that shape it?

First, let’s be clear that from a MindfulBiology perspective, we can sidestep questions about the philosophy of mind and awareness. Evidence suggests the PFC harbors qualities that comprise ‘mind’, but whether it can be said to generate them or not is unknown. Most neuroscientists are convinced brain activity creates conscious awareness, but they cannot prove it. The alternate hypothesis—that consciousness inhabits the brain but isn’t produced by it—remains tenable though equally unproven. No matter the source of consciousness, we can profit from learning how its functions are organized within the brain.

For instance, the insula appears important to a person’s sense of living within a body. This area of neocortex (folded tissue on the surface of the brain) becomes active in tandem with inner-body sensations, especially those from vital organs: in other words, gut feelings. Knowing the insula organizes visceral sensations is useful: if inner sensations map to their own higher brain region, maybe we should pay more attention to them.

The vagus nerve connects internal organs with the brain and insula, and psychiatrist Stephen Porges has shown it’s very important to our emotional lives. Back in the 1980’s, when I was in medical school, the vagus didn’t sound too interesting. We were taught it carried signals from brain to intestinal tract but weren’t told anything about traffic going the other direction. Porges says eighty percent of the nerve is devoted to carrying sensory information from the gut to the brain, providing much of the input to the insula.

Now that psychologists know about the vagus and the insula, they are reconsidering a hypothesis William James advanced a hundred years ago. James believed emotion comes from the body; for instance, clenching in the stomach is felt by the brain and recognized as anxiety. The idea fell by the wayside as psychologists focused on neuroscience rather than somatics in the latter half of the twentieth century. It became fashionable to insist that emotions felt in that body are illusions; heartache only seems to come from the heart. But if bodily sensations occupy a large region of cortex and are served by a nerve mostly dedicated to their transmission, then James might have been right after all. Perhaps emotions feel centered in the body because that’s where they arise.

If emotions emerge from the body, even if only partially, MindfulBiology’s aim of improving the mind-body relationship takes on greater importance. After all, most of our suffering is emotional and so is most of our pleasure. We all want to feel better, and if feelings are somatic, then the soma is where we should focus our efforts.

Befriending the body make sense for many reasons. But if the body generates our emotions, an improved relationship its not just sensible, it’s essential. By opening the lines of communication, we can work with feelings at their source. There, in the body, they aren’t encrusted with interpretation; as pure sensation they feel richer and easier to embrace. Feeling the flow of emotions in the body—without worrying about what they mean—invites them to resolve. It’s the surest way to reduce suffering.