Further Explorations of the Mind-Body Relationship

UntitledDown in the body we have masses of nerve tissue around the vital organs. Up in the brain we have this region called the insula, upon which is mapped our visceral landscape, and through which the prefrontal cortex can tap into the body’s doings and feelings. Between brain and body runs the vagus nerve. This picture, though highly simplified, is a useful sketch of a major communication channel between mind and body. It allows us to picture what’s going on when we mindfully attend to bodily sensations: the PFC scans the insula to gain information about inner feelings in the same way it scans visual or auditory maps in the brain to learn about the surrounding world.

From the PFC’s perspective, there isn’t much difference between inside and outside. In fact, we often feel more familiar with our physical home than we do with our bodily one. Sitting here at my desk, I can picture my kitchen vividly, but I have only a vague sense of what’s going on inside my body. My PFC can tap into many memories of making tea, preparing meals, and feeding my dogs in the kitchen—I’ve done all those things countless times. But even though I do my best to tune into bodily sensations and feel my vital organs, my mental picture of them remains vague. Although physically they are closer, mentally they seem farther away. In effect, the PFC views both my kitchen and my body cavity from the outside, and their apparent distance is a function of clarity rather than proximity.

In the case of the kitchen, my PFC can imagine—in  clear view—a space in which stuff is arranged categorically: utensils in drawers, glasses in cupboards, raisins in the pantry, etc. The PFC understands this way of organizing things (after all, it did the organizing) so it feels at home. It has a much harder time making sense of my body. To the PFC, my body cavity feels vague and confusing, with lots of heat but little light. And there’s so much instability…a feature that felt cozy yesterday might feel threatening today. My PFC never walks into the kitchen to find things completely changed; it never exclaims: “Oh crap! The teakettle has turned into a buzz saw!” But the body surprises like this all the time.

MindfulBiology promotes friendliness toward the body. This requires familiarity. So despite the challenges, the PFC must peer inward. No longer can it turn away from the chaotic, hazy, and scary terrain of the body. No longer can it seek refuge solely in structured, logical modern landscapes, where roads, shopping malls, and computing systems are laid out in ways that make sense to the PFC. Even when our technology gets so complex we can’t understand it (how many of us really know what the heck’s going on inside our computers?) we feel confident someone does.  We can call a technician. But when it comes to our own inner workings, we’re at a loss. We visit medical centers, and if we’re lucky the doctors can explain our symptoms in biomedical language. But we don’t come away feeling like they understand our experience of them. And even though our closest companions care and do their best, in some deep sense we feel alone in a mysterious body.

But that’s where a little reframing can help. Yes, our experience within the body is unique and unsharable, but no, we are not alone. Our body is not a thing, it’s a being, so how can we be alone? And if you doubt your body’s being-ness, how do you explain its powerful feelings, its sensitivity and adaptability? After all, things don’t feel. The living body is a companion, not a contraption. As we gain more familiarity with it, we begin to feel held rather than trapped. We begin to feel loved.

With this reframing, the inner world no longer feels so fearsome. Granted, it still seems baffling, but in a charming way. It’s very much like a good marriage, in that I find myself asking, what did I ever do to deserve the love of this amazing being?

What’s going on inside my brain when these thoughts arise? It’s hard to know for sure. Maybe the PFC scans the insula while bathing in a soup of oxytocin (the so-called love hormone); maybe it sends wise, calming signals to the amygdala (a region of the brain that alerts us to threat) and forestalls the dread that used to color inner sensations. However it happened, the result is a much improved inner life.

Notice I began this essay with these phrases: ‘down in the body’ and ‘up in the brain’, wording that implies a hierarchy. It’s worth remembering that our mammalian ancestors walked on four legs; for them, brain and body were on the same level. That’s the natural state, in other words. Our belief that brain is superior to body is mistaken. In fact, the organism is a seamless whole. A body without a brain cannot function, but a brain without a body cannot survive. The two are intertwined. In a certain sense the brain leads the body (even in quadrupeds), but it is also dependent on it. In fact, it is only the PFC that feels superior to the rest of the body. The remainder of the brain keeps on doing what it has done through all those millions of evolutionary years: working with the rest of the system to perpetuate life. Imagine how healing it would feel if the PFC could find its way back to that primordial state of cooperation: no longer beleaguered and isolated, but beloved and embedded in this warm, living body.