Archive for February 15, 2013

Wired for Harmony

You’re on my mind when you and I in the same pew recite the same words to the Nicene Creed, once again.  You and I and the other sixty voices in the congregation on this morning join in one voice: “We believe in one God….”  I’m not sure I believe in one God, or in the same God you believe in, but I love the sound of your voice in step with mine, and ours following the lead of our priest’s.  We all know the cadence and the volume and the inflections that make this Creed resonate.

I wonder if I’m the hypocrite for mouthing these words while you believe all that you’re saying, as must our priest. Or maybe you’re a doubter too.  Whether you’re a believer or a doubter, I’ve grown fond of your voice and the ragged mix of voices around us, fond of the vibrations that run through my body and sometimes my soul. I love the safe intimacy of our prose chorus.

So why do we come together like this to say these words?  If you think it’s for the content of the holy word, watch what happens when the Gospel Choir launches into their hand-clapping, body-rocking “I’ve been saved.”  I can’t tell you all the lyrics, and I’ve never been saved in that way, but I sing along anyway. When the melody is irresistible, we make up the words.  Voices in unison penetrate like no sermon ever can.  It’s what we come for and what we take away.  We go home feeling moved down deep, in the marrow.

The secular way of understanding this phenomenon is that as a species, we humans are wired for harmonizing with others.   The hardwiring of our auditory neurons and our auditory cortex defines what we consider pleasing tones or grating noise, according a recent study . The best proof of the universality of this fact about the human central nervous system is the existence of The World Choir Games.   Even when we can’t speak to each other, we can sing to each other.  Across all barriers of language and culture, we can sing to each other.  The beauty of harmony may be rooted in its survival value.

We have such an instinct for language and communication that we can hardly live without it.  We celebrate our most powerful moments in song, chant, and cheers.  We torture our enemies and our sinners by depriving them of contact, through solitary confinement—breaking the tough minds with silence. For me, as a form of worship, as a celebration of what helps us survive week to week and over the eons, it’s enough to join voices with you.

What’s a Feeling?


What’s a Feeling?

You’re on my mind lately each time you talk about a feeling, because I’ve just learned a useful distinction.  For the past thirty years of my career as a psychiatrist I’ve used  “feelings” and “emotions” synonymously.   Semantically loose, maybe, but until now, no one has challenged me to be more precise about the difference between feelings and emotions.  Now that I’ve been challenged, I’m challenging you to join me.

This lesson in semantics comes now because neuroscientists  finally have learned what feelings are in the mind, brain, and body, and how they differ from emotions.   I’m taking this lesson from two senior voices in this arena, Eric R Kandel, the Nobel Prize winning author of The Age of Insight   and Richard Davidson, author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain .

The first event in the sequence that leads to a feeling is a perception, say the sight of a snake or the whiff of her perfume.   The second event is so automatic and quick that we don’t know it’s happening: a constellation of physiologic responses in our bodies, such as a tightening in the lining of the stomach and a shortening of the breathing cycle, or a relaxing of the nostrils at the same time as blood rushes to the genitals.  This unconscious constellation of physiologic responses is the emotion that drives reflex reactions, such as a startled jump back or a swooning forward, well before the mind is consciously aware of these physiologic events.

The third event, the conscious awareness of the feeling, terror or carnal excitement, comes later—seconds, sometimes minutes, sometimes never, because the pathways to the cortex of the brain are longer than the pathways to the emotional brain, and  many signals come together to add up to the awareness we call a feeling.

This transformation of a constellation of signals from the body into a conscious feeling happens primarily in a patch of cortex the size of a postage stamp, called the insula ), located just over the ears at the place where the sensory cortex for the skin meets the temporal lobe.   It’s a close neighbor to the amygdala and the hippocampus, where we remember previous emotions.

The most fascinating feature of the insula is that it contains a map of the organs of the body.  Signals from the gut come to one part of the insula, the heart another, the lungs another.  Here is where the constellation of responses from the internal body meet signals from the skin and muscles of the face.  Add them all up and call them terror, lust, or call them nothing at all and down a stiff drink instead.  Then, if you’re still not sure what’s going on in your insula, write a poem.

So the semantic lesson is this.  Use “emotions” for those lightning fast, unconscious sets of physiologic responses to perceptions that later lead to feelings.   Use “feelings” for the subtle variations on the primary feelings of grief, rage, love, fear, and joy—the more conscious awareness of a particular  state of your body, one of our most powerful guides to action: emotion tempered by memory and reason.   Does knowing  better what a feeling is make it easier to talk about it?