It’s time to abandon this word. It is understandable that some want to narrow the focus in studying certain cerebral activities sited in the frontal cortex, such as reasoning, anticipation, decision, language, conscious memory ... Everything which we call ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’. But there is no reason to isolate these aspects of human behavior, for example in a therapeutic perspective.
Enough with dualism!
We have been living for more than two millennia under the ægis of the Platonic body-mind dualism. In the 17th century this division was even accentuated by the error of Descartes, until it became an abyss. But this outlook does not fit the facts, if only because our brain and nervous system, as part of the body, evolved over hundreds of millions of years to help the body move and act in the struggle for survival.
First to appear was what was to become the seat of our autonomous nervous system, regulating the basic mechanisms below our consciousness and independent of our will. Next came the brain’s development to guide those actions which are at least partly optional, e.g., sleep. Then the brain acquired the ability to store a large memory enabling us to remember elaborate sequences of procedures, or other acts even more complex, connected to our social life by means of the emotions. Finally the neocortex grew up so that the motion of our bodies be directed by information processed in increasingly fine detail.
A harmonious development
It would seem however that our unique cognitive abilities have developed to such a degree first of all, to let us anticipate the trajectory of projectiles that we throw. While our actions become more and more complicated, our emotional system and even the autonomous nervous system have contined to develop alongside, which has permitted the autonomous activity to align itself to the social dimension of our times, as shown in the research of Stephen Porges. Thus, our basic vital functions are regulated (or not!) by our interactions with those around us.
Conversely, our instincts, emotions, memories, intelligence live in our bodies, in our vital organs and in our limbs. And even in our cells to the tip of our fingers, it’s worth saying, and not only the top of the cranium. In sum, our being is a body-mind continuum, not a duality.
Our body shelters the scars of our traumas
This is why the memory of traumatic experiences take shape in our bodies in the form of painful tension or dissociative insensibilities. Our muscles and joints carry the weight of our fears and angers which have found no release when we felt powerless in the face of a perceived threat. Even worse, given the way our systems overlap, the stress which goes along with trauma comes to disturb our whole metabolism, and provokes problems of the immune system, diabetes, heart, cancer...
The heart has its reasons...
Of course, the seat of our pain and dissociation is not in the limbs but in the oldest parts of the emotional back-brain, which controls bodily activity. Nonethelesss, whenever it is a question of the pathologies of human behavior, we usually appeal to our rational brain, the explicit memory, the more or less conscious thought processes. This latter has a role to play, for example, when explaining in words a past trauma to a friendly listener, which can help to deal with the pain, transforming it from an immediate threat into a mere memory.
It is on the emotional level that everything happens, that we undergo the fear confronting us, reducing us to a feeling of such powerlessness in the face of a threat that we feel it constantly present. It is thanks to the emotional impact of these experiences and the strategies our brain has come up with to compensate for them, that our era is is dominated by anxiety, aggression, inability to concentrate, obsessions, addictive behaviors, difficulty committing ourselves, egocentricity, and back to depression... All things which have little or nothing to do with the conscious reason.
Survival instincts are strong
All the above strategies, in the long term pathological, obey archaic forces which escape our rational brain, itself a more recent formation. The rational brain is incapable of resisting the power of the emotional brain when this is unrestrained. But this emotional component was vital for our survival as we evolved, and it emerges in the face of danger and takes command. As an adaptative process necessary for our survival, it is thus the locus for the defensive strategies outlined above; if we continue to perceive past traumas as present and perpetual dangers, our emotional brain does its best to defend, at any cost.
The oldest instincts are the strongest, fight or flight, and they result in a fixation which we had to follow in the past and still in the present. At the heart of all our behavioral problems (apart from those resulting from some organic pathology) lies an instinctive activation, or else a resigned inertia, in the face of danger.
This is why it is first of all necessary to find some self-regulation of our organism, a perception of ourselves in the here and now, if we want to surmount the difficulties springing from all the compensations which have become irrelevant to our present situations, and thus pathological.
We are not alone
This self-regulation is restored principally from our bodies and through the connections we make with others. We are not pure spirits nor solitary beings. Body and mind form a continuum, and through the play of our mirror neurons at the root of our empathy, we form also a continuum with those close to us. It is even possible for our autonomous nervous system to regulate our organism thanks to the soothing or stimulating effects of our social bonds: it is through these that our bodily feelings find their way back to reality, to the here and now, and not to the menaces of the past. The way to cure is lined with the recovery of the movements and rhythms of humanity, and the liberation of the nervous mechanisms formerly stuck in our bodies by some perceived danger. We have also to strengthem our bonds with our neighbors, which is exactly what the rituals marking the stages of our social life have done since the dawn of humanity.
© Matthieu Smyth
Collaboration : Tanit Agency