Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Animal Feeling

Sensations Across Mind-Bodies

It was getting late for my roommate's flight as we pulled into unexpected traffic.  I immediately felt frustrated, accompanied by a tingling in my wrists, impatience embodied as sensation.  I've been exploring these embodied sensations in myself and the animal kingdom.  I'm coming to believe that sensation is fundamental to understanding how we hurt, communicate, and live an inspired life.  Let's examine the role of sensation in herds of cars, gazelles, and humans.
Car animals
While driving, we treat our car as an extension of our body, a virtual car-animal.  The same way we walk wider around a corner when we have a backpack on, we intuitively expand our body to our car's length and width, knowing it well enough so that we don't hit things.

As we got over the next hill, we saw the end of the traffic jam.  In fact, there was nothing wrong on our side of the highway.  We, the group of car-animals, were reacting to a standstill on the other side of the highway. "Rubber-necking", we simultaneously slowed traffic with our curiosity and felt frustrated that we were going slow.  The traffic jam was not the cause of a conscious decision any one person or car made, but an emergent dynamic that caused particular (e)motions to be repeated throughout the group.  We car-animals were like a herd of gazelles who stopped grazing to focus on a potential threat.  While animals usually communicate threat through physical posture, we used brake lights.

Gazelle on alert
Postural resonance
Gazelles will not react when they first see jackals on the horizon.  It's not efficient to start running every time they see the first hint of danger -- they'd never stop to graze or relax.  But when jackals penetrate a certain radius, the threat is real.  Likely one gazelle will raise it's head first, it's posture stiffening in response to threat.  Then a cascade of other gazelles might stiffen in a similar manner, something Peter Levine calls "postural resonance."  Wordlessly, gazelles transmit the sensation of danger throughout the herd by mirroring body posture, activating a hypervigilance that could save lives.  The eyes of the collective all scan for threat.  If the jackals leave, the gazelles will relax.  If the jackals advance, the flock will run for life.

Empathic mirrors
With no help from an ethologist, you will be able to identify when a gazelle's posture changes from relaxed to threatened.  Likewise, when a human tenses up, you often know they are feeling anxiety.  Neuroscientists suggest mirror neurons mediate this form of empathy.  Mirror neurons fire whether you do a particular action or you observe someone else doing it.  For example, if you see someone raising an arm to strike, you'd perceive their anger.  If you see someone tensing their neck or jaw, you'd guess they were about to run.  Interestingly, mirroring someone's posture can put them at ease, likely by signaling empathy.  

For gazelles, the body posture of the gazelle next to them is enough to communicate the sensation of threat.  Notice that the message isn't passed via a verbal cue nor an emotion.  Body posture is the archetypic currency of empathy, buying a sympathetic sensation in its neighbor. Humans use postures to communicate with other humans, and even themselves.   Although our rational mind can be trained to work with emotions, it rarely cooperates directly with sensation.  So the time lag between body sensation and consciousness of the related emotion or action becomes important.

Free willy
Free Willy
Image by Oatsandsugar via Flickr
Neuroscientists and philosophers are busy duking it out over free will.  Neuroscientists contend that particular brain activity can predict an action (like pressing a button) 500 milliseconds or so before you consciously know you will do it.  If you've already made the choice at some (brain) level before you know you did, so the logic goes, you ain't makin' no choices.  Philosophers rebut that just because it takes you a while to become conscious of it doesn't mean you aren't controlling the action, and by the way pressing a button is a bit different action than robbing a bank.  Leaving this impassioned debate, let's instead try to explain what's going on during the delay itself.

Sensation vs. emotion
From his research in trauma and somatic psychology, Levine believes the fateful 500 milliseconds before action are full of body sensation, but not of emotion.  Not only is there a time lag before action, but emotional causality is inverted.  Studying fight-or-flight, pioneering psychologists James and Lange claimed it's not because you are afraid of the jackal that you run.  It's more that you see the jackal, adopt a threatened posture, start running, and then you feel fear because your body is running.  Levine draws an additional distinction between the initial body posture-sensation and the emotion you feel later.  The danger sensation is primal, empowering, and embodied, where the emotion of fear is a less empowering meaning your mind infers from the resultant activity of running.  

So a hungry attacking dinosaur causes your gut to tighten, giving you the sensation of danger, and eventually the emotion of fear.   What's weird is that if your boss yells at you, and you tighten your gut in the same way, it's perceived similarly in the brain to seeing the dinosaur.  You will likely feel the same sensations and your mind might even interpret similar emotions.  Here's one answer to the tension mystery of why getting yelled at is like being chased by a dinosaur.

Sensational Wholeness
Core to Levine's trauma therapy is finding and accepting disavowed body sensations.  Whether we are trauma victims or not, sensation, as Sankaran said, is the "connecting point between mind and body… [where we] can actually perceive what is true for the whole being." Levine further suggests that hitting out of anger or crying out of sadness actually takes us further from true sensation:
Let's take the example of anger.  The feeling of anger is derived from the (postural) attitude of wanting to strike out and hit.  However, if one begins to attack -- hitting, kicking, tearing, biting -- the feeling of anger then shifts rapidly to that of hitting, kicking, and so on.  In other words, and contrary to common belief, as you execute the preparation for action, the underlying feelings are diminished if not lost.  When we cry, for example, our sadness often "magically disappears."… Some of the fundamental "expressive" therapies may fall into the trap of trying to drain the emotional swamp through undue emphasis on habitual venting.  Yet, what may be visible when the very deepest wells of sadness are touched is a single, trickling tear…. when we allow ourselves to be swept away into uncontained emotional expression, we may actually split off from what we are feeling. (p. 324 of In An Unspoken Voice, author's italics).
Sensation is the domain of body awareness, whereas emotional expression is the domain of conventional psychotherapy, a discipline with a tenuous link to the body.  Addressing expressed emotions and not body sensation, we often fail at behavior change.  We vainly treat the effect without awareness of the cause.  For example, scolding myself repeatedly for my weakness for a piece of cake from the office kitchen has proven ineffective.  It might be more useful to explore the bored or frustrated posture I have at my desk, before it masquerades as hunger.  While many of us are used to deconstructing our emotional world with psychology, Levine suggests we need to know our body sensations at a deeper, intuitive level.  And through awareness, freedom arises.

Getting in our own way
One thing we have that the gazelles don't is a mental barrier to feeling our body sensations.  A gazelle might literally "shake off" a near-death encounter with a jackal, whereas we often fear our body sensations, thereby entrapping us in psychosomatic illness.  Evolutionarily speaking, the recent formation of human societies required that we suppress, even shame, our natural aggressive tendencies or sexual urges.  We fear our fear, making it impossible to bring our sensation to awareness.  And while that's one way to live in society, it's also a way to live outside the body.  Will explore this more soon.


zoe lunch said...

you've been reading peter levine! are you sure you don't want to become a social worker/therapist? what i'm interested in most is how we can "shake off" or release the energy from our traumas. i've been trying more non-verbal activities w/my kids in hopes of changing something in the lower brain stem, but idk what levine recommends since i always have to return the book to the library before i start reading it.

eudae said...

@zoe, yeah, i just read his "unspoken voice" and i like it... dovetails with my past/future theories nicely :-) i've actually seen quite a few people with trauma recently, and been able to help a few of them a little. my next post is probably about body awareness, which i think is ultimately the only path to "shake em off", whether in the context of somatic psych therapy or not (e.g. dance or meditation or drama or something else).

zoe lunch said...

then you should check out there's also the mindfulness groupies; right now i'm reading "emotional alchemy: how the mind can heal the heart". so can you figure out a way to connect bodypsychother w/mindfulness?

eudae said...

@zoe, yeah - connecting body with psychotherapy and mindfulness is what this blog is all about, but i'm taking time to connect the dots. gimme a call if you can't wait :)

thanks for the link - SO MUCH to learn :)

BentonvilleGal said...

Thoughts from a Neuroscientist (who happens to be a good friend) on free will:

eudae said...

Thanks for sharing @Benton! I like his article - the only place I would differ is his point that God might require us to "overcome our brains". I think that's an unfortunate message, whether you believe in God or not. How could God give us a brain only so that we needed to overcome it? Surely it is purpose-built for reaching ultimate potential.

I'm dreaming of a place where living is effortless, for body, mind, and spirit. Even if I don't find it, I'm going to live there anyway.