It’s convenient to think of your mind as part of your brain. After all, without your brain, what kind of mind could you have? The mind must live up there somewhere. You may have done just fine for most of your life without worrying about the location of your mind, or where it goes when you seem to lose it, but let me trouble you a bit, in the hopes of bringing you closer to the people who count for you.
Picture what happens to your brain in a crisis, such as taking a fist in your solar plexus or suddenly sensing the crushing chest pain of your first heart attack. Your mental action moves to the scene of the physical crime, outside the brain, where pain fibers fire in a frenzy, stress response hormones surge into the bloodstream, blood seeps through torn tissues, and the inflammation process jumps into action like a fire brigade, triggering the clotting cascade.
Your “mind” is now centered in the middle of your chest. Your cerebral cortex can’t sing a nursery rhyme or recite Pythagoras’s theorem or tell me your mother’s phone number. You are speechless, relatively thoughtless, possibly also breathless, meaning your brain is low on oxygen or soon will be. In the hours that follow, your conscious brain will play second fiddle to the action in your chest. You are excused from making complex decisions and balancing your checkbook for a few days because we expect the cortex of your brain, where your conscious and rational mind operates best, to be unreliable, while the more unconscious parts of your central and peripheral nervous systems to do their work of guarding and healing. Your mind is focused on recovering the synchrony between your heart and your brain.
That’s one kind of crisis that moves the mind outside the brain. What happens to your mind when your bladder fills to the point of feeling like it’s going to pop? For a while you can fake it in the board room meeting, until the time comes when you just can’t make that persuasive argument because you can’t think of much of anything other than wetting your pants. The reflex arc in your pelvis is trumping all that education in your cortex. A tactful bathroom break restores your mind from that reflex arc to your frontal cortex—then you can pitch your argument.
And what’s going on when the new hire sits down with you at the cafeteria table and suddenly you lose your appetite and start looking for an excuse to excuse yourself? Is it the way his mustache hides his mouth or the leering look in his eye or the way he sits on the edge of his chair leaning too close to you? If you’re willing to listen, your gut may be telling you this guy is not to be trusted. You can’t tell why, but you know that your favorite beet soup suddenly lost its deliciousness. Your vagus nerve is sending you signals of visceral disgust. That’s your gut telling your emotional brain that danger just sat down for lunch. Your career may depend on your properly interpreting these signals and having the moxie to say, “Excuse me.” Your gut, if you read it right, can make you smart where it counts.
And the same sentinel dramas about strangers take place on the molecular level, outside your brain, mostly in your bloodstream through the intelligence work of your immune system. This army of organs, blood cells, hormones, and sophisticated protein markers is sensitive to foreign body antigens, archives past exposures, manufactures highly specific antibodies for your lifetime—how’s that for an intelligence operation! Housed far from your brain, your immune system can take over your mind when mounting acute inflammatory responses with a potency, complexity, and accuracy that makes you smart about the safety of your environment in a way our brains alone could never figure out.
And the by-products of chronic inflammation, commonly called cytokines, can turn bright minds into dullards, depressing the most vigorous of us into sloth and hopelessness. Pain will do the same. That’s the peripheral brain overruling the central brain. Hormones, particularly in adolescents and sex addicts, can relocate the mind from the brain to the crotch, where there’s less room for judgment.
The line between the brain and the body is a fiction. The mind lives everywhere, moves where it must go, expanding and contracting as the needs demand. The vagus nerve connects our brainstem to every organ in our bodies and provides the information highway for our emotional brain to translate body states into feelings, then into thoughts and words and finally actions, like “Excuse me” and leaving the cafeteria table. What would our mind do without our vagus nerve informing us about visceral distress? How smart could we be without our immune systems alerting us to dangers, without our guts telling us to avoid toxic food and toxic characters, without our reflex arcs telling us where the internal crisis lies?
How smart are you about the signals from your body? How quickly can you distinguish nausea associated with indigestion from nausea associated with fear? Anxiety from hunger? Wouldn’t it be helpful if we could know our somatic IQ’s as well as our intellectual IQ’s! Wouldn’t it be helpful if we could improve our somatic intelligence where it is lacking? Perhaps systematic daily logging of puzzling symptoms (Have you bought your FitBit or AppleWatch yet?) or regular practice of meditation would improve our capacities to attend to the patterns in our bodies, just as psychotherapy helps us attend to the patterns in our thinking and feeling.
And if we can be smart about the minds in our own bodies, how much smarter could we be about the minds in the bodies of those we love, or fear, or have to work with? Try this for a compassion exercise: imitate the gait of someone you know and see how it makes you feel. Now imitate how she smiles and how she talks and how she sit in a chair twisting her fingers. Bodies shape minds as much as minds shape bodies. For a glimpse of how being overweight affects how your brain works, try carrying an extra 20 lbs around for a few days and see if it changes how you think or what you think about. And when you lose that weight, what a load off your brain!
So if you want another way to understand the people who count in your life, pay attention to how the mind in their body is talking with the mind in their brain. My next post will cover some of the tricks that mental trauma plays on the body, as told to us by Bessel van der Kolk in his latest book, The Body Keeps the Score.