Science of Self - Feelings and the Bodymind

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Whenever we feel a feeling, chemical changes take place within us. Hormones released into the bloodstream and neurotransmitters emitted from the brainstem reflect a continuously shifting state of affairs – but a state of affairs within a unified organism. Just as our most vivid memories are clearly visceral as well as cognitive, the line between the brain and the rest of the body is really no line at all. Chemical messengers are crossing it all the time. While science speaks of the nervous system, or the immune system (or, for that matter, their constituent parts), we should note that the concepts are metaphorical. Scientists used to believe there were separate components, separate working systems…but not anymore.

The nascent field of psychoneuroimmunology is shedding light on the connections. The more that is learned, the more insight is gained on how extensive the overlap really is. Psychoneuroimmunology – the term itself – reflects this interface: psycho for mind; neuro for the neural and endocrine (hormonal) systems; and immuno for the immune system. (Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1995, p. 167)

That the body's immune system could be influenced by the brain – a truly seminal discovery – was first brought to light in 1975 by psychologist Robert Ader at the University of Rochester. He and his colleagues later advanced the idea that cells are lined with many specific receptors to which only specific molecules can attach themselves. These chemical messengers circulate throughout the body and are the vehicles through which the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems communicate.

Such communication goes well beyond the immediate physical connection of neuron to neuron. Within the entire body, a variety of ‘information substances’ are constantly transmitting innumerable messages. (Pert, Candace B. Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel. New York: Scribner, 1997, p. 139) Among these substances are peptides: chains of amino acids that are themselves the building blocks of proteins. A given peptide’s message is relayed through receptors – sites on the surface of nerve cells through which a given message is transmitted to the cell nucleus. (Part, Candace B., Dreher, Henry E., and Ruff, Michael R., “The Psychosomatic Network: Foundations of Mind-Body Medicine.” Alternative Therapies, July 1998, Vol. 4 No. 4, pp. 30-41)

Now, anyone who has ever noticed that one consequence of feeling ‘blue’ for an extended period of time is the greater likelihood of catching a cold or infection has also noticed, perhaps without realizing it, how our state of feeling influences immunity. Stress likewise suppresses immune function through the action of adrenaline and noradrenaline along with other substances released by the adrenal glands. (Goleman, p. 168) Psychoneuroimmunologists have found that such chemical messengers act reciprocally on the brain and the rest of the body -- and that their receptors are most dense in the neural areas affecting feeling. Candace Pert, a molecular biologist formerly at Georgetown University, determined that the limbic (emotional) portion of the brain contains upwards of 85 percent of the neuropeptide receptors her team studied.

Furthermore, Pert and her colleagues noticed a high concentration of these receptors "in virtually all locations where information from any of the five senses…enters the nervous system." The entire body can thus be characterized, in Pert’s view, as a single sensing and feeling organ: a far-flung, unitary, psychosomatic network. (Pert, pp. 142-143) Depending on the precise external or internal stimulus taking place at any given moment, a particular ‘information substance’ will flow through our body and bind to specific receptor sites. When this binding takes place, we feel a given feeling, encode a given memory, or are prompted to emote a certain way. (Schoen, Allen. Kindred Spirits. New York: Broadway Books, 2001, pp. 44-45) Pert goes on to conjecture that our bodily organs 'store' emotional memories based on the specific receptors they possess and the nature of the chemical messages they receive. Memory, she posits, resides in virtually every part of our body. (Pert, ibid; also O’Connor, Richard. Undoing Perpetual Stress. New York: Berkley Books, 2005, p. 331)


As appreciation for the complex and integrated nature of our perception has grown, neuroscientists are realizing that the head is not at all divorced from the heart or the gut, and that our bodily feelings actually underlie and support more ‘advanced’ thought processes. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, opines that "emotions and feeling provide the bridge between rational and non-rational processes, between cortical and subcortical structures." (Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1994, p. 128) Pert is inclined to put it in more metaphysical terms, asserting that emotions are “at the nexus between matter and mind, going back and forth between the two and influencing both." (Pert, p. 189)

It seems increasingly apparent that our very definition of mind must change. Science and society continue to speak of the ‘mind-body’ relationship; that hyphen, alas, perpetuates the outmoded distinction assumed by Descartes. A view of mind and body as two divergent categories is not just inaccurate but decidedly unhelpful if we truly wish to progress in understanding the human animal. Ader puts it this way: “Nobody working in this field believes there’s any separation between [mind and body]. It’s all one.” (Piano, Marina, “Mind-Body Connection.” San Antonio Express-News, March 21, 2004, p. 1 of Life section)

A comment here about the word psychosomatic. In the past it’s been used pejoratively, as in ‘those symptoms are all in her head; they’re not really real – they’re psychosomatic.’ Used this way, the word assumes that something either has material reality or is made up, irrational, imaginary. The false Cartesian duality is maintained. But ‘psychosomatic’ literally refers to the whole of who we are: psyche (mental, emotional, psychological) and soma (molecular, bodily, material). Understood properly, it becomes clear that everyone is psychosomatic! Psychosomatic is normal. (O’Connor, Richard. Undoing Perpetual Stress. New York: Berkley Books, 2005, pp. 330-332)

Ken Dychtwald, through the title of his pioneering 1977 book Bodymind, expressed a valuable and highly relevant concept. (Dychtwald, Ken. Bodymind. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1977, p. xii) The mind, let us say, is the combination of brain and body: every aspect of us and everything we feel, think, know, intuit, remember or have forgotten. Within this conceptualization, the body is central to mind. Feelings are actually paramount because, as Damasio so aptly expresses, they allow us to “mind the body.” (Damasio, p. 159)

Feelings are nothing less than the biological substrate of the mind. They are inseparable from our health and the quality of our lives – and absolutely essential to any consideration of what it means to be an embodied human being.

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