The body and the mind - a 400 year-long mistake

Imagine you are walking down the street. It's a normal day, and it's just getting dark. Traffic is passing as people head home from work. A large, angry man runs up to you shouting. He's right there, inches from you. His face is red and snarling. He's blaming you. He starts jabbing his finger into your chest.

Does your body feel any reaction when you read that? Do you feel a tension across your shoulders, or the beginnings of a frown? Perhaps your hand or foot is tapping nervously. If you do notice anything, stop reading and take a couple of deep breaths. Feel the breath as it flows in, and as it flows out, let go of any tension you find. So, what happened?

Thinking and feeling

We assume the mind and the body are separate entities. That thought is separate from feeling. That the body is a machine piloted by the brain. This is, in part, because of René Descartes and his assertion that the mind and the body were made of two separate substances. In his view, they may be joined together, but they are fundamentally separate.

This view has been at the heart of western thinking since the 17th century. It still underpins much psychology today. The problem is that evidence suggests it is wrong. The picture that is emerging is that the mind and body are part of the same, inseparable system.

The reason reading the first paragraph of this post makes you anxious is because the brain is preparing the body for action. Imagining things activates the same neural pathways as experiencing them. We respond as if we were experiencing what we imagine, though with less intensity.

Information flows the other way, too. Our emotional level is felt in the body. What seems to be an emotion is, underneath it all, a collection of bodily sensations. You feel tightness, a quickening of the heart rate, or your breathing becoming shallow. A considerable part of how we think is dictated by the way our body feels.

By increasing your awareness of your body you can help understand your emotions better. This can help you better able to manage your response to difficult situations. It can make you more attuned to the needs of others. It can also help you become better at making calculations.

Even logical and mathematical decision-making is underpinned by emotion. You've likely experienced all rationality evaporating when you are stressed or angry. There are also more subtle emotional effects at work, too. In a recent study researchers looked at how chess players decide between the huge range of options the game presents them with. They found that chess experts use their emotional reaction to various possible scenarios to decide which approaches to consider consciously. Being more attuned to your own emotional state can help you make better rational decisions.

The mind and body are the same system

How we think and feel is influenced by two forces; what is going on in the world around us, and what is going on in our internal world. Thoughts influence feelings, which influence thoughts. Cognition is entirely embodied.

This opens up new ways of being responsive to what happens. This requires an awareness of what's going on around you and your own internal state. When you only have awareness of one or other of these, you are not responsive. You are reactive. You get pushed from one thing to the next without being able to align your reaction to what you're trying to achieve.

If you are a knowledge worker, by definition, you have to do a lot of thinking. Over time, you can end up entirely in thought. You can lose awareness of your body and how it feels. This leads to all sorts of problems. You sit awkwardly and feel uncomfortable during the day. You don't notice subtle emotional signs that things aren't quite right. You feel disconnected and frustrated.

There are many techniques you can use to reconnect with your body. Mindfulness and yoga are perhaps the most popular. Over time they are transformative. They can fundamentally change your relationship to reality. These approaches work by helping you align and better integrate the mind and body so they can work together smoothly. By paying attention to things you increase your ability regulate them. You learn to balance your response between information coming in, and your own internal state.

This regulation makes you more attuned to your own needs, and those of others. You will feel more comfortable both physically and mentally. You will be more present and aware of what's going on in the moment. You'll be less distracted and more able to focus. You'll be able to connect to your authentic voice when doing creative work.

A colleague and I are running an hour-long online workshop to explore this on Thursday 20th December at 12pm GMT. We will take you thought some exercises you can do at your desk to start building embodied awareness throughout the working day. Please join us.

Matthew BellringerComment