Excerpt 1 – Introduction
Emotions are first and foremost experienced in relation to the body, and it is via the body that they are expressed.
- Rhawn Joseph, The Naked Neuron
Seems self-evident, no? When you feel love for someone, you have a warm, open feeling in your chest -- perhaps over your entire body. But when you feel fear, your breath becomes short, your stomach constricts, your arms and legs may tremble. When you're angry, you feel the steam rising through your gut, neck and shoulders until you're close to bursting. In contrast, when exuberantly happy, your smile beams a mile wide, your eyes sparkle and you may even find yourself jumping for joy. And when you get sorrowful news, your face becomes downcast, your throat tightens, and tears pour from your eyes.
This is called being human.
Feelings -- the perception of them, the decisions of what to do about them, their roots, their consequences and, above all, their unparalleled reality -- are the stuff of our lives. They're also, undeniably, the stuff of our bodies.
Contemporary neuroscience is making leaps and bounds in understanding feelings. Brain scan technology reveals flickering images showing which circuits in your head are processing the electrochemical messages that are the neural substrate of emotion. The more we learn, the greater the promise for controlling -- or at least mitigating -- longstanding demons that have plagued the human condition such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and epilepsy. And, taking a broad view, our ability to peer into the brain is spawning a remarkable new discipline, neurophilosophy, which is concerned with answering the Big Questions that have long been the hallmark of Western philosophy. Questions like "What does it mean to be conscious?" "What are the roots of the self?" and "How are human beings different from the other animals?" Patricia Churchland, a professor at the University of California - San Diego, puts it this way: "What's so exciting is that the philosophical questions raised by the Greeks are coming within the province of science." (Lemonick, Michael, "Glimpses of the Mind," Time, July 17, 1995)
Exciting indeed. But, be careful what we wish for.
Emotions -- that phenomenon of the body -- are increasingly being seen through the lens of the brain. And the body is being given short shrift. That in itself is not surprising, since neuroscientists are doing the looking and, by dint of their profession, are concerned first and foremost with the brain. But the palpable truth of what happens in our bodies when we're upset, when we're joyful, when we're lustful, enraged, lonely, guilt-ridden, surprised or terrified, is being relegated to an afterthought. Literally. So fascinated are neuroscientists with the functioning of the brain, they take the operation of the body as a consequence of brain activity. The servant yoked to its master. The faithful companion.
Case in point: in 2002, I attended a lecture at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, by the eminent neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinas (whose work will be mentioned in this book). Llinas put on a dynamite show. He made his theories, assumptions, and research accessible to a lay audience by stating them clearly, understatedly, with a touch of humor, never condescension. Throughout, his focus was on the brain: how various perceptions, misperceptions, and aberrations come about; and how they might, someday, be corrected. Discussion of this kind was exactly why people had come to hear him. Nonetheless, during question-and-answer, a woman, perhaps 70 years old (and quite unlikely to be taken for a neuroscientist-in-training), asked: "Dr. Llinas, do you ever have to go to the bathroom? Get the call of nature in the middle of a presentation like this one?" Now, this was, shall we say, a bit off the wall. Llinas, not the least bit thrown, responded, "Sure, sometimes." "Then," the lady responded, "you know that it's not always the brain that does the signaling."
Here's another illustration of how the body knows. A year earlier, I had put on a high-level conference for about 150 people. As principal organizer, I worked behind the scenes, including signing up speakers and firming the agenda. The morning of the event, the room was filling, a faint buzz of expectation was in the air, and a less faint chorus of butterflies warmed up in my stomach. I was ready for 'showtime.' A scant 20 minutes before the conference was to begin, my co-organizer heartily recommended that, in recognition of my labors, I ought to take the podium and present welcoming remarks. I was, of course, flattered -- and also flabbergasted. Yet, keeping on my 'game face,' I managed to gracefully agree. I then strode with utmost urgency to a nearby chair, opened my portfolio, and scribbled some notes (since I am not the kind of speaker who is terribly comfortable being extemporaneous - especially not at the start of a program). Five minutes before the hour, I had my notes in hand and was ready to go. I felt excited, but also reasonably well collected. It was then that I walked past a colleague, and she took me aside. "You look panicky," she said. "Calm down, you'll be fine." Thank goodness she said that. For the moment she did, I realized I'd been kidding myself. I wanted to feel calm and cool, but my face gave me away. Hearing from another about the state of angst I was in helped me gain perspective. Where my brain had been sending me messages of "A-OK," my face -- and probably my entire body -- spoke otherwise.
It is ironic that, in neurology's pursuit of the electrochemical processes of emotion, the role of the 'host' body is being snubbed. For centuries, science has stressed the mechanical, the material, the predictable. So Western scientists dissected cadavers to identify the placement and deduce the workings of bodily organs, the circulatory system, etc. Emotion itself was not considered a fit subject for investigation, given its ephemeral and apparently irreproducible nature. Today, as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and similar methods are showing the precise pathways of emotional signals, the brain is worshipped as king. Not the entire Dominion -- granted -- but most powerful sovereign.
Consider the following statement, which seems to sum up this momentous shift:
The thoughts and emotions that seem to color our reality are the result of complex electrochemical interactions within and between nerve cells. The…feelings of worthlessness and self-hatred that accompany depression, although they seem to be based on reality, are no more than distortions in brain electrochemistry.
(Lemonick, Michael, "Your Mind, Your Body," Time, January 20, 2003, p. 63)
Now, in contrast, consider some of the things you say about your own (and others') feelings -- and state of mind -- sometimes:
"That scene in the movie made my skin crawl."
"I was so moved by what you said."
"He just makes my blood boil."
"She's comfortable in her own skin."
"That stinks to high heaven."
“I’m shouldering a lot of responsibility.”
“Don’t step on my toes!”
“Get a backbone, will you?”
"I can feel it in my bones."
"He finally got that off his chest."
"It left a sour taste in my mouth."
“I just can’t stomach that.”
“I must admit, I go all weak-kneed when I see her.”
"My heart is full."
"That sure was a gut-wrenching experience."
"What a truly breathtaking view."
Of course, these comments are metaphors, but they also reflect real, sensate bodily experience. That experience -- from the time we are in the womb onward -- shapes our mental life, our perceptions, our judgments, our likes and dislikes, our theories and ideologies, including, yes, our speculations on what consciousness is or isn't. Cognitive scientist George Lakoff, of the University of California – Berkeley, puts it as follows:
Our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think…the mind is inherently embodied …this is what we have to have to theorize with.”
(“Philosophy in the Flesh: A Talk with George Lakoff,” March 9, 1999, on http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/lakoff/lakoff_p1.html)
My contention in this book is that feelings are not merely manifestations of various brain states; they exist in their own right as the product of interaction between raw sensation, on the one hand, and mental activity on the other. Put another way: we must first be sentient (capable of sense perception) before we can be conscious (self-aware). And, as we will see, the premier component of consciousness is feeling -- not, as you might guess, thinking. Feeling preceded thought in our evolution, and it continues to underscore most everything we ponder, chew on, react to, learn, extrapolate, and pontificate upon. To be conscious requires that you notice, first and foremost, what you're feeling. And what you're feeling has much to do with the body -- of which the brain is a part. A major part, to be sure…in many respects the lead actor…but a part, nonetheless, of the bodily troupe.
Now, why should you care about any of this? Aren't the arguments immaterial to your own life? They're a conversation among scientists, and pretty obscure ones at that. What do you care if consciousness gets defined this way or that way? The world will survive.
Yes, the world will survive. But the guiding assumptions may not be to our liking. And the consequences may be distasteful, if not altogether bitter. By downplaying the reality of the body -- or casting it as an extension of processes in the brain -- something essential gets lost. Namely, you. Your feelings don't get hurt, they get shunted aside. Your aches, pains, stresses, insecurities, glories, conflicts, repressions, loves, fears, and exaltations get 'explained away' neurologically. Or they get 'fixed' pharmacologically. Or both. In that transaction, your body -- which is the underpinning of your self -- loses. It loses the standalone validity of its own feeling.
Something else stands to get lost. Something that has been held at the margins of science, something seemingly far removed from the topics at hand: emotions, the body, selfhood, consciousness. I'm speaking here of a type of experience that people tend to have occasionally, all around the world, in every age and at every age, but are effectively told to ignore, doubt or dismiss. These are the 'anomalous' perceptions: the feeling of a presence nearby; an image, a sound or a scent that registers clearly but somehow intangibly. All of these vanishing as quickly and as mysteriously as they arrived, and leaving the person who perceived them baffled…shaken…or stirred.
What to make of such perceptions? Should we dismiss them out of hand? Tempting. After all, like feelings, they come and they go. Generally they do no harm -- and sometimes can be looked upon as helpful, meaningful, or spiritually uplifting. They're unsettling, though. We don't know their cause, and we don't know their purpose. And, with the exception of a sympathetic friend or family member, anyone we might choose to confide in is likely to look down their nose at us, wince, or shake their head and sigh. What, are you a nutcase? Come on, get real. Back to business, TV, or whatever.
Because we have no real answers (we don't even know what questions to ask), such experiences understandably get marginalized. Out of step with the March of Science, anomalous perception gets labeled as superstition or stupidity, fable or delusion. It may be these things -- or it may not be. In any event, it is a real feature of the human condition. Gallup surveys consistently show that anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of the American public say they’ve had mystical, apparitional, or extra-sensory experiences. (Lukoff, David, “From Spiritual Emergency to Spiritual Problem: The Transpersonal Roots of the New DSM-IV Category.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology (1998), Vol. 38 No. 2, pp. 21-50)
My contention is that new light can be shed on anomalous experience through our rapidly advancing brain science. Just as our knowledge (if not our understanding) of emotion will increase as we gather new insights about the brain, so, too, should we be able to gain much-needed awareness of what exactly is happening during anomalous perception. And not just awareness of what is happening in the brain. Ideally, we should also be able to determine what is happening in the body. Because, like emotion, anomalous experiences appear to be a product of felt perception and mental activity combined.
Again, why should you care -- especially if you are someone who has never had such an experience? My reply: anything that helps us understand what it means to be human is ultimately beneficial. If not beneficial for me then for you; if not for you then for your friend, neighbor or associate. If not for them, then for their children -- or for society at large. The gain is in the learning. And from that prospect we should not turn away.
Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker of Harvard University has remarked:
A lot of times there'll be these embarrassing facts that you tuck away, thinking there's got to be an answer to them if only you had the time to look into it. But what you don't realize is that sometimes those facts are the ones that hold the key to a mystery, and so you've got to take those facts seriously because they change everything.
("Pinker and The Brain," profile in Scientific American, July 1999, p. 34)
The “embarrassing facts” we ought to take seriously in this regard are the reports of anomalous experience by ordinary, sane individuals from every walk of life, around the globe, not all of whom can be hallucinating, mentally deficient or lying. Might they share some characteristics -- in the dynamics of their body/brain interaction -- that could help explain what they claim to be experiencing from time to time? You will see that the answer is ‘yes', and learn why emotion holds the key.