The philosopher William James (1890) understood that the body shifts after perceiving a provocative object, whether internal or external. The author proposed that this physical shift creates an embodied emotional excitement. These physical changes create the experience of feeling. In other words, we perceive something, which in turn causes a physical reaction, and this physical reaction is the emotion. Damasio (2000), a modern neuroscientist, has shown that although James is correct, his hypothesis is incomplete. The author states that the body is not the only theater for emotions, and adds that changes to the neural processing in the brain “constitute a substantial part of what is perceived as feeling” (p. 288). Damasio has found that the bodily reaction of emotion can also be virtual where the brain is able to process the body state “as if” it was experiencing a bodily reaction, when in fact it is not. Therefore, we can see that it is necessary not only important to consider the mind in relation to emotions, it is also important to examine the body’s reaction to emotional stimuli. We can do this by using somatic mindfulness to communicate with the body.
How the body creates emotions and feelings
The process of evolution created and molded emotions. Although the order and method of physical and mental-emotional processing may seem counterintuitive and even counterproductive this is the mechanism with which we work. Often the evolutionary process creates unwanted side effects, illogical processes, and suboptimal outcomes (Morsella et al,). Emotions exist firstly, to elicit a specific reaction to certain stimuli, and secondly, to regulate the organism’s internal state to prepare it for the necessary reaction. These reactions are often central to the survival of the organism. Because of the limits of mental awareness, the conscious brain is unaware of many of these reactions, and for the most part has no control of them (Damasio, 2000). In fact, awareness of the object is not necessary to create an emotional response in the body. These unconscious emotional reactions occur in the somatosensory system which combines neural activity with hormonal changes to elicit changes to three divisions of sensing in the body: the internal milieu and visceral division, the vestibular and musculoskeletal division, and the fine touch division. The internal milieu and visceral division experiences emotion by sensing chemical changes in the cells. These chemicals not only have access to the tissues in the body but can also affect select areas of the brain through neuropeptide receptors found throughout the body, and select brain areas that are not protected by the blood brain barrier (Pert, 2010 & Damasio, 2000). Pert (2010) writes that these chemicals, specifically neuropeptide ligands, direct the attention of the brain. These neuropeptide ligands prompt the brain to remember emotionally charged events, and increase recall ability in similar emotional situations. This sensory division also utilizes neurons to create sensations such as pain, and monitors the autonomic structures of the smooth muscles. Some of these autonomic processes, such as Oxygen and CO2 levels, are dually mapped in both the body and the brain. The musculoskeletal division informs the central nervous system about the state of the striated muscles that connect to bones, and creates kinesthetic signals. The final division conveys fine touch information monitoring changes to the sensors in the skin that convey information about the texture, weight, and temperature of an object. From the information gained from these three division the brain can create a biological sense of self in the moment. As stated above, this sense of self is not necessarily conscious, in fact there is much more information gathered than the aware brain could process at a given time (Damasio, 2000).
How these feelings and emotions are stored and in the body
The brain functions and thinks by taking the consciousness of the body, the stimuli received from the senses, and translating it into information about the self and the external world. In this way, thinking is not possible without the body functioning as “an adaptively autonomous and sense making system (loc. 399)”. The body is not simply taking and receiving orders from the brain, but instead it is creating information in relation to the external stimuli, and modifying itself to fit the environment, all while relating this information to the brain (Varela, Thompson & Rosch, 1991). This process stores the information of past experiences and emotions in the body creating habitual muscle contractions and movement patterns of which we may not even be aware. It has been shown that early childhood trauma sets the stage for specific somatic states and sensory motor amnesia (Hanna, 2004). Trauma late in life also creates negative outcomes. A study of 4,467 persons between 60-84 found that those exposed to elder abuse reported higher instances of exhaustion, musculoskeletal pain, gastrointestinal distress, and heart distress than those that were not exposed to abuse (Soares et al., 2014). The exact mechanism for this emotional storage system is unclear, but Pert (2010) believes that the neuropeptide ligands are involved. The author states that repressed emotions and memory could be stored in the body’s neuropeptide receptors, and perhaps through the release of these neuropeptide ligands, the body can also release the stored emotional memory.
Damasio (2000) has found that the chemical reactions and input from the five senses only tell part of this story. The author states that in addition to these sensory signals, the body needs data from the adjustment of the body in space to fully perceive. This, he points out, happens in the vestibular and musculoskeletal division discussed above. This kinesthetic memory holds information about how we adjusted our body to obtain the perception of the object and includes the emotional reaction that occured in that time and space. Keleman (1975) wrote, “Without a body we do not resonate with experience. Each of us is a uniquely embodied field of oscillating excitation which resonates in the field of that biosphere” (p. 115).
The body and the brain both react to emotional stimuli and create a feedback loop that continuously passes information back and forth from the brain, spinal cord and body (Damasio, 2000 & Hanna, 2004). At times, this loop can avoid the brain altogether and simply send a signal to the spinal cord and back to the body. This sensory motor pathway is involved in automatic actions and reflexes, which are very useful if you touch a hot stove, but can be detrimental if this system malfunctions. Dysfunctional sensory motor pathways can cause uncontrolled muscle contraction that eventually cause damage to the body on many levels. Damage to the sensory motor pathway occurs through trauma and stress. The body’s feedback loop has now stored this trauma in the form of contraction. Trauma can also affect the the neocortex which is a large brain center that controls adaptation and learning. As we mature and learn, this brain structure gains more and more complex abilities and movements. Though sustained stress and traumatic accidents the voluntary cortex becomes sidetracked from its normal control of the sensory motor system. When that occurs, the lower, more primitive regions of the brain take control. The brain move into a state of regression into involuntary reaction, and this can cause sensory motor amnesia where the body loses voluntary control of specific muscles (Hanna, 2004). In other words, our body becomes fixed, maintaining the state of the memory, embodying it until we are able to release it. Overtime, the body becomes a reflection of our mind and our mind in turn becomes a reflection of the body (Keleman, 1975).
Techniques to bring somatic consciousness into mental consciousness
Pert’s (2010) work with neuropeptide receptors has revealed that the unconscious process of neuropeptides to store memory and trigger recall can be shifted and brought into conscious awareness. The author believes that the use of intentionality and visualisation are key to this process. The author goes on to state, “The unconscious mind of the body seems all-knowing and all-powerful and in some therapies can be harnessed for healing or change without the conscious mind ever figuring out what happened” (p. 146). Varela, Thompson and Rosch (1991) discuss an enactive perspective where mindfulness is used to train the mindbody into certain states and behaviors. Rather than simply observing the self, mindfulness becomes an active process used to foster beneficial states that can bring harmony to the body and the mind. This embodied mindfulness, often referred to as somatics, is not just a physical or mental approach, but is integral, taking into account both the internal and external components of the individual and culture (Knight, 2014).
Somatic mindfulness therapies use an embodied approach to psychology. Through conscious employment, one becomes aware of the body as it relates to and shapes the self (Knight, 2014). There are many different somatic therapies being used today to enable this type of embodied mindfulness. The Hakomi Method uses Taoist principles, integral approach, and mindfulness to support individuals in healing. In this method the therapist/client relationship is one of unconscious cooperation. The present experience is the focus, and embodied expression is encouraged. Once the emotions have been processed only then is meaning probed. The therapist encourages the expression of emotion and facilitates the embodied release of the somatic reactions. During this release, the therapist utilises a “taking over” method where the client is supported in somatic embodiment by the physical touch and support of the therapist. This can be in the form gentle touch or even full physical support. Once the release is complete, the client is encouraged to find the meaning in the event and interaction (Kurtz, 2014).
Peter Levine (1997) discovered that through mindful embodiment patients with PTSD could complete the physical somatic experience of a traumatic event, and thereby release PTSD symptoms. The therapy, called Somatic Experiencing, encourages patients to feel the physical manifestation of their trauma, thereby allowing the body to complete the natural trauma cycle. Levine believes that PTSD symptoms are not caused by the event itself, but rather the energy that is still in the body as a result of traumatic event. This unprocessed energy remains trapped in the nervous system until full embodied processing can occur. Many symptoms of trauma are a result of the body releasing the energy, but because it is not fully embodied, the larger portion of the energy remains and continues to cause symptoms for months, even years after the initial event. Through the mindful embodied recall of the event, along with the support of the therapist, all of this trauma energy can be released and the symptoms will disappear. This method also encourages the use of continuous mindful embodiment practices that will help individuals better process traumatic events as the occur (Levine, 1997).
Somatics is a physical approach to healing that uses mindful movement to heal sensory motor amnesia, and in the process can often unearth and heal the trauma and stress that created it (Hanna, 2004). Other approaches such as hypnosis, meditation, pranayama, bioenergetics, chiropractic, massage, and therapeutic touch may allow for the release of unwanted unconscious emotions without ever bringing them into the conscious mind (Pert, 2010).
Simply because human beings are not fully aware, or able to experience the consciousness of a thing does not necessarily mean that it is not conscious in its own way. James (1890) was highly criticized for his thoughts on the embodied response to emotions. Over 100 years later, modern science was able to prove that his ideas were at least in part correct. Scientists are beginning to uncover the mechanisms by which we are affected not only by the conscious thoughts of the mind, but also by the knowing of the body. Hanna (2004) observed “Our biological process- expressed as moving, feeling, perceiving, and making patterns of meaning- forms our field of experiencing that which we call knowing” (p. 18). Our emotions regulate and form our reality. The way we move though the world reflects our inner state of being. Using psychosomatic techniques we can begin to bring the unconscious knowing of the body into the conscious mind, which can help heal the body mind of both trauma and disease (Pert, 2010). “When we value our bodies and listen to them more closely, we become more connected to ourselves and the world around us” (Johanson & Kurtz, 1991, p. 54).
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