Back in school we were all taught that intelligence is a brain thing, mind is entirely a brain thing, and that mind is housed only in our brain. With advances in the new field of embodied cognition, this view of body, brain, and mind, is now out of date.
Our bodily selves are systems—a technical term describing the behaviour of wholes. Modern neuroscience talks the language of systems analysts; of the body-brain as a Complex Adaptive Dynamic System (CADS). The brain is now considered contiguous with other body tissues, receiving as much information as giving out. In short, the brain is embodied; embedded in an ever-changing visceral soup of somatic information. Much of this has been uncovered by technologists trying to refine robotics with artificial intelligence. One of the first things they discovered was that a centralized brain does not do as good a job as a distributed intelligence. Natural selection worked this out a long time ago. We do not have a body and a brain. We are a body-brain system.
“Research confirms the view that the brain is not just in the business of telling the body what to do. Bodily activity is influencing brain activity just as much as the other way round. Body and brain are tied together so intricately and so rapidly that it makes no sense to locate all the ‘intelligence’ in one and none in the other,” Professor Claxton, University of Winchester.
Thought and action are so interlinked that, when we sleep, our body releases a hormone to block muscle contraction so that we don’t act out our dreams. Athletes employ this link by mentally rehearsing actions they want to improve because thinking about an action causes imperceptible physical simulation of that action. Repeated thought-rehearsals create physical changes in the nerve-muscle pathways involved making the entire action easier and quicker when performed fully, later. Emotions also involve physical changes. We cannot completely hide our emotions because emotions are a bodily event. Even if we try to disguise our emotional expressions, others can unconsciously pick up the meaning of subtle micro-expressions on the face lasting less than a second. Thoughts and emotions are therefore said to be embodied; that is, they are physical events. What is fascinating, and relatively new to science, is evidence that the embodiment of thoughts and emotions is bi-directional.
Smile, and you feel happier. Walk tall, and you feel more confident.
As a system, the body-brain needs to collate and prioritize incoming information. Internal sensors provide information continuously to the brain (as well as to subsystems within the whole) about where we are, how we feel, what we need or don’t need: what is our blood pressure like? how hydrated are we? do we need any particular nutrient? what position are we in? do we need to sleep? are we in danger from anything? etc. The incoming is a cacophony of huge proportions. This interoception (internal sensing of conditions) provides a constant flow of information which needs to be collated moment-to-moment, sorted, and prioritized so that we can form an overall (system-level) impression of how we feel right now. Neuroscientists think this assessment of 'how we are' takes place mainly in a part of the brain called the insula.
Any change in the incoming information will change our (system-level) perception of 'how we are'. This means that any change in the interoception of how/where/what the body is doing will change the overall status of how we feel about ourselves.
Being happy, we smile, but the act of smiling—contraction of muscles involved in smiling—informs the brain that the muscles associated with happiness are in action. So, if we artificially create the act of smiling, we feel slightly happier (because of interoception).
The reason for this two-way relationship is important. Neuroscientists now understand that the brain is informed by the body as much as the other way around and that the parts of the brain collating how we feel physically and how we feel emotionally are interlinked. This two-way flow between body and mind is not news to bodyworkers but is still not appreciated by many scientists outside of neuroscience.
Higher mental processes, such as 'thinking', sit on top of a mountain of unconscious processing of internal and external information coming in all the time. What we think and feel results from the collation of information much of which is coming from our physicality. Our sense of how we are, right now, is constantly being updated. If the information coming from the body changes, then, associated thoughts and emotions change.
This means that we can change how we feel and think by changing information from the body to the brain.
Already, we can see one way by which bodywork can influence our well-being.
If we take a very simple example. A massage client is frowning because she is annoyed. She has a deep groove in her forehead created by facial muscle contraction but feedback from those muscles is also updating her brain that 'annoyance' is in progress. But as a massage therapist stretches the contracted forehead muscles, their contraction lessens. The sensors in the muscles telling the brain how contracted they are, now sends less information about contraction associated with annoyance and so the sum total of 'annoyance' information reduces and the client starts to feel slightly less annoyed. Just as we cannot feel an emotion without our facial muscles responding, so we cannot change our facial muscle contraction without feeling a corresponding change of emotion.
The bi-directional flow of information occurs at the larger scale of posture too. Amy Cuddy and Dana Carney of Harvard University established the importance of this feedback loop. They realised that humans display power through open expansive postures and express powerlessness through closed contractive postures, and demonstrated that this relationship works both ways. People assuming a ‘power pose’ for just one minute increased their perceived levels of power and tolerance for risk—in other words, the posture made them feel more confident. Again, the reasons for this change in confidence are to do with the continuous updating of interoception. When the body is in a posture associated with confidence, the brain's updated collation of information is that we are currently experiencing confidence.
Movement therapies (including Qigong, Pilates, yoga) also change information flowing from body to brain. As the ‘power pose’ research showed, even changing how we hold ourselves for one minute can influence how we respond to the world for hours afterwards. With regular movement therapy, we can bring about long-term changes in our well-being by changing our perception of how we feel. Currently, fascinating research is in progress looking at how movement enhances emotional and psychological function and can therefore optimize mental function.
Amasiatu, A.N. (2013) Mental imagery rehearsal as a psychological technique to enhancing sports performance, Educational Research International, Vol 1 (2) 69-77.
Claxton, G. (2016) Intelligence in the Flesh: why your mind needs your body much more than it thinks. Yale University press.
Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21, 1363-1368.