The Silver Thread: Embodied Cognition

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By Michael Abramsky

Everyone knows we think with our brains. In my training, the brain was the executive, directing thoughts, solutions, and the body to act. But in the last 20 years, neuroscientists have discovered that we also think with our bodies.

To understand, let’s think about the fear of mice:
A group of people is in a room, and a mouse runs in. Many people panic. Some jump up on a chair. Why? When questioned, they know that a mouse can’t hurt you. The brain is baffled.

Let’s look at phobias. Many people are afraid of odd situations like walking under a ladder. They” say it will cause “bad luck, “but the brain knows that’s absurd. There is no causal relationship between walking under a ladder and evil things happening.

A universal example is the queasy feeling we get from being at great heights, even when we are safely ensconced in an elevator.

Anxiety is classified as a pathology. Anxiety occurs when people get nervous thinking of future catastrophic events. Note that nothing has occurred. It’s only the mind imagining what might happen. However, the fantasy of eminent disaster occurs because the body responds with tension.

All these are an example of our second brain. The second brain has no language; it is a brain associated with feelings. In other words, our brain anatomy has certain architecture and functions which facilitate the autobiographical brain, and we have other brain architecture which generates bodily sensations. We call this embodied cognition. Embodied cognition is the “gut” feelings of fear and anger which control us and precede in milli-seconds the brain’s narrative.

The brain’s narrative makes up a story consistent with the feeling state: “I am angry because he ignored me”, “I fear rejection if I apply for that job”. The narrative brain correlates with the embodied brain, creating powerful feeling states.

There is little communication between these two brains. The key to communication, and hence integration, is self-awareness, or mindfulness. The ability to observe, to engage the observational mind, and bodily sensations addresses both brains:

Observing the patterns of the biographical mind is called insight. Insight is the central healing dynamic of Freudian psychology. When we recognize dysfunctional patterns, we can change them. For example, when we observe that we reflexively say yes to people’s demands and then feel angry about acquiescence, we can then consciously learn to be reflective of consequences and say no.

The observational mind can also be used to be conscious of our bodily states, its tensions, and the ebb & flow of emotions. And through relaxation and breathing techniques, we can “let go” of dysfunctional tensions.

Feelings are a blend of thoughts and bodily sensations. When we are angry, our mind forms a narrative of hostility, and our bodies join in with feelings of tension. When we relax the body, the narrative of anger dissipates. When we empty the mind, the body relaxes.

Thus, self-observation, through mindfulness and meditation, when developed, becomes the bridge to integrate both body and mind. Mindfulness practices are the key to removing dysfunctional behaviors and emotions.

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