The Wisdom Your Body Knows

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.

Cleaning Toilets, Following Rules: A Migrant Child’s Days in Detention

.. Adan Galicia Lopez, 3, was separated from his mother for four months.
.. Do not misbehave. Do not sit on the floor. Do not share your food. Do not use nicknames. Also, it is best not to cry. Doing so might hurt your case.

Lights out by 9 p.m. and lights on at dawn, after which make your bed according to the step-by-step instructions posted on the wall. Wash and mop the bathroom, scrubbing the sinks and toilets. Then it is time to form a line for the walk to breakfast.

.. one of more than 100 government-contracted detention facilities for migrant children around the country that are a rough blend of boarding school, day care center and medium security lockup.

.. The facility’s list of no-no’s also included this: Do not touch another child, even if that child is your hermanito or hermanita — your little brother or sister.

Leticia had hoped to give her little brother a reassuring hug. But “they told me I couldn’t touch him,” she recalled.

.. the government returned slightly more than half of the 103 children under the age of 5 to their migrant parents.

.. But more than 2,800 children — some of them separated from their parents, some of them classified at the border as “unaccompanied minors” — remain in these facilities

.. these facilities are united by a collective sense of aching uncertainty — scores of children gathered under a roof who have no idea when they will see their parents again.

.. She would quickly write these notes after she had finished her math worksheets, she said, so as not to violate yet another rule: No writing in your dorm room. No mail.

.. She kept the letters safe in a folder for the day when she and her mother would be reunited, though that still hasn’t happened. “I have a stack of them,” she said.

.. it chose one of the harshest deterrents ever employed by a modern president: the separation of migrant children from their parents.

.. earning “big brother” status for being good role models for younger children. They were rewarded the privilege of playing video games.

.. You couldn’t touch others. You couldn’t run. You had to wake up at 6:30 on weekdays, with the staff making banging noises until you got out of bed.

.. Diego said that he was not afraid, because he always behaved. He knew to watch for a staff member “who was not a good guy.” He had seen what happened to Adonias, a small boy from Guatemala who had fits and threw things around.

They applied injections because he was very agitated,” Diego said. “He would destroy things.”

A person he described as “the doctor” injected Adonias in the middle of a class, Diego said. “He would fall asleep.”

.. But because of the rules, the two boys did not hug.

.. Yoselyn Bulux, 15, is a rail-thin girl from Totonicapán, Guatemala, with long dark hair and no clear memory of how she summoned the strength to climb the wall at the border.

.. “If you do something bad, they report you,” Yoselyn recalled. “And you have to stay longer.”

..  Also on Saturday, Yoselyn met with a counselor, whom she liked. They talked about her hope to be with her mother soon.

.. then the woman serving as her escort handed Yoselyn over to her father, who was so overcome at the sight of his daughter that he could not speak.

.. They were taken to the shelter, given new clothes and separated: Victor to the boys’ area, Leidy to the girls’.

.. But at least he had a trabajadora de caso — a caseworker — named Linda who helped him navigate his new world. “She did everything she could to find my mother,” Victor said. “She called every state.”

.. The walls that separate the sleeping quarters do not reach the high ceilings, which means that sounds travel in the yawning spaces within the 250,000-square-foot building. One boy will make a loud animal noise, after which another will emit an animal-like response.

“Someone will start mooing,” the employee said. “They just think it’s funny. They just do it long enough so everyone can hear, and then we all start laughing.”

.. staff is overworked and a little stressed out by the 12-hour shifts and the considerable responsibilities.

.. During the day, the staff is required to maintain a ratio of one worker for every eight children. The ratio sets the tempo and culture at Casa Padre, the employee said. “It’s a big deal if we’re out of ratio.”

.. If one boy in a classroom needs to use the restroom, then a staff member has to find seven others who also want to go to the bathroom. “They’ll all stand in a line and then we’ll walk to the restroom,”

.. Some of the boys at Casa Padre were separated from their parents at the border, but most were caught crossing without a parent or guardian. All seem to keep themselves entertained with soccer or movies or video games.

.. “If they get sad, it’s like a quiet thing,” the employee said. “You’ll see them sit on the floor and just kind of wrap their arms around themselves.”

.. Some time in the evening is set aside for prayer. Boys can be found praying in a classroom, in a game room, in a bedroom. Some kneel.