You are not just thinking with your brain.
This has been a golden age for brain research. We now have amazing brain scans that show which networks in the brain ramp up during different activities. But this emphasis on the brain has subtly fed the illusion that thinking happens only from the neck up. It’s fed the illusion that the advanced parts of our thinking are the “rational” parts up top that try to control the more “primitive” parts down below.
So it’s interesting how many scientists are now focusing on the thinking that happens not in your brain but in your gut. You have neurons spread through your innards, and there’s increasing attention on the vagus nerve, which emerges from the brain stem and wanders across the heart, lungs, kidney and gut.
The vagus nerve is one of the pathways through which the body and brain talk to each other in an unconscious conversation. Much of this conversation is about how we are relating to others. Human thinking is not primarily about individual calculation, but about social engagement and cooperation.
One of the leaders in this field is Stephen W. Porges of Indiana University. When you enter a new situation, Porges argues, your body reacts. Your heart rate may go up. Your blood pressure may change. Signals go up to the brain, which records the “autonomic state” you are in.
Maybe you walk into a social situation that feels welcoming. Green light. Your brain and body get prepared for a friendly conversation. But maybe the person in front of you feels threatening. Yellow light. You go into fight-or-flight mode. Your body instantly changes. Your ear, for example, adjusts to hear high and low frequencies — a scream or a growl — rather than midrange frequencies, human speech. Or maybe the threat feels like a matter of life and death. Red light. Your brain and body begin to shut down.
According to Porges’s “Polyvagal Theory,” the concept of safety is fundamental to our mental state. People who have experienced trauma have bodies that are highly reactive to perceived threat. They don’t like public places with loud noises. They live in fight-or-flight mode, stressed and anxious. Or, if they feel trapped and constrained, they go numb. Their voice and tone go flat. Physical reactions shape our way of seeing and being.
“You might think that in everyday life, the things you see and hear influence what you feel, but it’s mostly the other way around: What you feel alters your sight and hearing,” Barrett writes in “How Emotions Are Made.”
When we’re really young we know few emotion concepts. Young children say, “Mommy, I hate you!” when they mean “I don’t like this” because they haven’t learned their culture’s concepts for hatred vs. badness. But as we get older we learn more emotional granularity. The emotionally wise person can create distinct experiences of disappointment, anger, spite, resentment, grouchiness and aggravation, whereas for a less emotionally wise person those are all synonyms for “I feel bad.”
A wise person may know the foreign words that express emotions we can’t name in English: tocka (Russian, roughly, for spiritual anguish) or litost (Czech, roughly, for misery combined with the hunger for revenge). People with high emotional granularity respond flexibly to life, have better mental health outcomes and drink less.
If bodily reactions can drive people apart they can also heal. Martha G. Welch of Columbia University points to the importance of loving physical touch, especially in the first 1,000 minutes of life, to lay down markers of emotional stability.
Under the old brain-only paradigm, Welch argues, we told people to self-regulate their emotions through conscious self-talk. But real emotional help comes through co-regulation. When a mother and a child physically hold each other, their bodily autonomic states harmonize, connecting on a metabolic level. Together they move from separate distress to mutual calm.
Welch has created something called the Welch Emotional Connection Screen, which measures the emotional connection between mothers and pre-term babies. By encouraging this kind of deep visceral connection through 18 months, her therapy can mitigate the effects of autism.
When you step back and see the brain and body thinking together, the old distinction between reason and emotion doesn’t seem to make sense. Your very perception of the world is shaped by the predictions your brain is making about your physical autonomic states.
You also see how important it is to teach emotional granularity, something our culture pays almost no attention to.
You also see that we’re not separate brains, coolly observing each other. We’re physical viscera, deeply interacting with each other. The important communication is happening at a much deeper level.
A National Center for Biotechnology Information study found that spending time with an animal can increase the hormone oxytocin. Sometimes called the “cuddle chemical,” oxytocin increases pet owners’ sense of well-being. In addition, playing with a pet can increase serotonin and dopamine levels, two chemicals key in regulating mood disorders such as depression.
.. the fact that cats are more independent and individual than dogs is actually the very reason they make for such valuable therapy animals.
.. “We actually find dogs kind of limiting. The fact that dogs are so accepting and non-judgemental is really good and helpful in the beginning of therapy,” says Linda Chassman, co-founder and executive director of Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado. “But it’s not very realistic when you’re trying to help a client who has social skills issues or who has anxiety, problems in the family, communication issues, [or] boundary issues. The dog just kind of puts up with bad behavior, whereas the cat won’t.”
.. While working with severely traumatized children, Chassman’s cat Norman got involved in the process. Through learning what behaviors Norman wouldn’t tolerate — such as rough housing or yelling — the children began to understand how to interact in a healthy relationship.
Like humans, cats won’t tolerate all behavior, making them useful mirrors to human interaction.
.. “They have enough interest in people, but can also assert themselves. And they have quiet dignity,” Chassman says. “They won’t let people walk on them. … I just think they’re wonderful role models for good relationships.”
.. relationship role modeling can play out in couples and family therapy when clients observe how the cat reacts to what’s happening in the room:
“If you have a cat in the room, when there starts to be a fight or the tension starts to rise, it is going to get up and want to leave, or is going to at least pick its head up and signal that it’s getting uncomfortable. It’s really easy to watch the cat’s behavior and say, ‘That’s interesting, what did the cat just do?’… And then you can say, ‘Let’s see if we can have this same conversation and have the cat in the room. Let’s see if we can talk about this in a way that allows the cat to go back to sleep.’”
.. Cats aren’t just helpful for mirroring couple and family dynamics; they are also critical in helping people who struggle with mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety learn about emotional regulation.
.. having clients strive to get a cat to purr can make all the difference. Unique to cats, not only does purring provide a tangible goal for emotional regulation, it has its own health benefits as well.
.. “[Scientists] discovered that the purring frequency of cats is a hertz rate that is equal to what they call the gamma waves, which are the meditation waves,”
.. Cats also fulfill the human need for touch, especially for those whose mental illness prevents them from easily forming attachments with other people. Contrary to popular belief, cats can be affectionate and attached to their humans as well.
.. There were nights where I wouldn’t realize I was crying in my sleep and I would wake up to him licking my tears. He was my bridge back into the human world, because he kept me from shutting down altogether.