The part of the mind that’s more than your brain is — your body

The emphasis here and elsewhere that the mind is an expression of the workings of the brain sometimes ignores the other player in the creation of consciousness — the body.

Antonio Damasio is very aware of the conjunction of body and brain to create mind, devoting the first parts of  Self Comes to Mind to the idea that the primitive feelings that are the origins of our emotions are largely an awareness of body states, a kind of homeostatic report card.

In “Your Clever Body: Thinking from Head to Toe,” published by New Scientist  October 21, David Robson reports that body states affect more than feelings. The state of your body can also change the way you think in what we generally consider to be “rational” ways.

Robson writes, “In the past few years, discoveries about mind-body connections have overturned the long-held view of the body as a passive vehicle driven by the brain. Instead there is more of a partnership, with bodily experiences playing an active role in your mental life. ”

This view of course is in complete contrast to traditional Cartesian duality, in which the body and the mind were so separate that they could go on happily about their separate businesses without each other.

In the 1990’s, doctoral student Matthew Botvinick had the idea that embodiment — the sense that the parts of our bodies are parts of our “selves” — “emerges from the brain’s need to integrate the information it is receiving from various senses.”

Botvinick demonstrated this idea with the now-famous “rubber-arm illusion,” in which the brain is tricked into accepting an artificial limb as part of the body to which it is attached. (For more on the illusion itself, there are many sources, including here.)

Robson notes, “Importantly, Botvinick also found that the illusion did not occur when brush strokes on the real and fake arm were out of sync, because then the brain was not receiving confused messages that it had to resolve.”

The brain does this by “plotting” incoming sensations onto a virtual “body map” that resides in the brain’s right temporoparietal junction. When there is a conflict, the brain tries to resolve the difference. One result is the misinterpretation of the “ownership” of the rubber-arm. When the integrated information reaches the insular cortex, we perceive a conscious sense of embodiment (“This is my arm”).

There are many experiments that examine “embodied cognition,” and they support the main ideas above. One of the examples Robson cites is research showing that we don’t smile more because we feel happy — we feel happier when we smile more. The body-state preexists the emotion, which preexists the rational awareness of what Gazzinaga calls our self-narrative.

Are people who are more in touch with their bodies more sensitive to their own feelings? Robson thinks so:  “[T]he fact that the same brain region – the insular cortex – handles both interoception and emotional processing supports the idea.”

Almost everyone agrees that emotions are related to body states, but what about more complex rational thinking?

Robson reports that “When people are asked to think of random numbers, they are more likely to come up with smaller ones if they look down and to the left, and bigger ones if they look up and to the right. ”

And language is also affected: “Every time we hear a word, the brain seems to simulate the actions associated with its meaning. When someone says the word ‘climb’, for example, it activates the same neural regions that trigger our muscles to pull our weight up a tree.”

None of the research so far settles the question of whether — or how much of — these body-reason connections are hard-wired vs. learned. The jury is very much out on that question.

Nevertheless, no matter how the individual associations are made, there is little doubt that there is an inherent tendency to associate certain body signals with specific emotions and rational cognitions. In other words, we are likely to be hard-wired to make such associations, even if the particular associations we make are learned.

Once again, we see research suggesting that there is a universal, inherited brain structure, with which we construct the different perceptions of the world in which we live and through which we see ourselves as selves.

In a sense, then, we’re all different because we’re all the same.


3 thoughts on “The part of the mind that’s more than your brain is — your body

  1. Howard Gardner has long held in his multiple intelligences theory that body awareness is important enough to be considered a separate intelligence. Would that make dancers the most intelligent and internet nerds the least?

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