We often hear about releasing trapped emotions from the body using bodywork and yoga. Whilst we all know that we feel different after yoga, exercise or a massage, this area challenges me.
I think the main difficulty comes from the language itself. We hear that emotions are stuck in the body, and we come from a culture where the body is separate from the mind. For many of us with deep emotions relating to grief or trauma, having the sense of emotions being trapped in an inaccessible place can be quite disempowering.
I imagine going on some kind of Mission Impossible to rescue them. But even if I achieve the impossible, and they are released, what am I dealing with?
Certainly these questions are far from clear for researchers, but the argument I would like to make for the moment at least, drawing on new neurobiology, pain science, and ancient mindfulness ideas, is that attempting to rescue them is not particularly helpful.
Rather, to ensure relevance of body emotions, we should focus on being present to not only body sensations but also two other important aspects of mind.
Before I get started I'd like to point out that this is a speculative and somewhat playful integration of three areas: neurobiology, pain science and mindfulness. I apologise in advance to readers intimate with one of these fields when I borrow concepts that are, no-doubt, far from self-evident in your area.
On we plunge...
The first point to note is that neurons are body-cells. They are specialised to aid communication and cooperation amongst other body cells to support homeostasis for the whole body ecology. Any outputs you feel in ‘in your body’: nausea, pain, fatigue, excitement, are all 'images' created by the neural system to prompt, prepare and protect the rest of the body.
These images of-the-body for-the-body are big currency for the controversial thing we call mind. Nothing we feel is independent of images: our internal body is mapped or imaged in special areas of the brain, as is the external world through our five senses. Some of the best scientists in pain and neuro-orthopaedics associate as the Body in Mind group. It’s a Brave New World.
One Mind, Three Selves. It's not gonna be easy
Although our neural matrix is highly interconnected, scientists propose different domains of mind, each interested in different areas of imaging. Rather than seeing two neural patterns relating to brain function and body function, eminent neurobiologist Antonio Damasio has proposed three assemblages of nested evolutionary self in the mind: Protoself, Core Self and Autobiographical Self (Damasio 2012).
Damasio is describing mind activities that relate to distinct spheres of consciousness: the body in relation to itself (Proto), the body in relation to relevant external information (Core), and the combination self as a coherent relational agent (Auto).
Each is nested in and dependent on the former. If we go back in evolutionary complexity we can see quite functional and conscious examples of organisms with just a Protoself, and more evolved animals with Core, and even later advanced apes and such with Autobiographical Selves.
I am going to use a limited, but I think useful, allegory to help explain these selves: think of driving a fully automatic, a semi-automatic and a fully manual car.
The Protoself is the fully automatic. It is what we typically think of when we talk about ‘getting into the body’, it’s the deep unconscious body that is quite happily doing all sorts of crazy complex activities to maintain homeostasis whilst we are sleeping or awake.
We cannot live without our Protoself. It take care of many immune, endocrine and circulatory functions without us having a clue how it all works.
If its own adaptive strategies to cold, say, are not enough, it must tell someone upstairs to do something, it will form primitive sensations that signals to other aspects of self.
Another point to note about the Protoself is that it’s the neural system representing the body environment. The internal environment has a precise range of parameters compared to the external world so it's quite sensitive. External substances we take in, a sensitivity to a toxic chemical, or the biochemistry of a strong emotion is going to take quite a while to dissipate. An hour later I still feel quite excited from my morning coffee.
Very smart researchers are calling these neurologically associated biological events Associated Molecular Patterns (AMPs) (see Moseley and Butler 2017). My coffee is producing a set of excitement feelings as a Xenobiotic Associated Molecular Pattern (XAMP). A stomach bug can cause a Pathogen Associated Molecular Pattern (PAMP): evoking primitive feelings of nausea and disgust.
Fascinating research is also showing what different emotional thinking or environmental reactions do in the body. These top-down body effects can be related to a behaviour (BAMP): someone shouting at you. They may also be related to a way of thinking or cognition (CAMP): what happens in the body when you remember being shouted at. In the case of top-down body patterns the Protoself is going to need an update from somewhere relevant to help modify or ease that pattern.
Damasio, A. R. 2012. Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. New York: Pantheon Books.
Moseley, L and Butler, D. 2017. Explain Pain Supercharged. Noigroup Publications. Adelaide.