Your body, of course, is on one level a physical object. It has a position in space, it has certain dimensions, it has a certain weight under Earth’s gravitational conditions, and so on. Your mind, on the other hand, is not in a particular physical location, has no dimensions or weight, and seems non-physical in every meaningful way.
So philosophers down the ages have wrestled with the question of how this immaterial mind or spirit controls the physical body – or is it the other way round? This question is known as the ‘mind-body’ problem, and I don’t think they are going to resolve it any time soon.
The NLP view
In NLP we can look at Mind and Body in another way, that makes that problem irrelevant. Mind and body are one system. There are flows of information exchanged between body and brain at various different levels – it’s all information flows. At one level we experience these as thoughts and feelings; at a more physical level, the information is carried by electrical impulses along neurons, by neurotransmitters migrating across synaptic gaps, and by protein-like molecules called neuropeptides which communicate information and regulate various systems in the body.
There’s a constant, multilevel, multiway conversation going on between body and mind. Now since we have brain-type cells (neurons) in other places than just the brain – in the heart and the gut, for example – there’s no hard and fast boundary between the mind and the body.
Most traditional systems of medicine, such as Ayurveda in India and Traditional Chinese Medicine, recognised this mind-body link. Until the middle of the last century, Western medicine didn’t – until researchers started to discover certain links. So, for example, in the 1960s Herbert Benson, a professor at Harvard Medical School, discovered that meditation and the relaxation response could reduce blood pressure. Later studies have shown that stress and emotions can affect the immune system, resistance to infectious diseases, and wound healing.
If you want to learn more about this, by the way, the book “Molecules of Emotion” by Candace Pert, a neuroscience researcher who discovered the opiate receptor in brain cells.
It’s not a one-way link from mind to body. For example, studies in the last few years have shown that contrary to the stereotype of the ‘dumb jock’, aerobic exercise improves mental focus – and even grows new brain cells in the area of the brain that controls learning and memory, something that was thought to be impossible up to the mid-90s.
The great thing about the discovery of more and more pieces in the mind-body puzzle is that it identifies more and more ways in which you can make a difference to your health, your emotional well-being, and the results you get.
We are nowhere near being able to completely use our minds to keep our bodies in perfect health – and vice versa – contrary to what some self-help gurus might claim, but may be beginning, bit by bit, to move in that direction.
Our bodies are not just machines for carrying our brains around
In the last 30 years, developments in philosophy and psychology have shown that the way we think is intimately tied up with being ’embodied beings’ – in other words, with being a human body (the more traditional way of saying it, ‘having’ a body, implies too weak a connection.
To give a few examples: the reality we perceive is shaped by our bodies. Our eyes have evolved a design that detects electromagnetic radiation in the range of wavelengths between about 390 to 750 nanometres; we call that visible light. Other species, including bees and birds, can see light in the ultraviolet range; if our eyes were designed like theirs, our experience of the world would be quite different.
Look at this picture. Is the woman in front of the tree, or behind it?
This might seem like an obvious question. She’s in front of the tree – but if we ask that question of a native speaker of the West African Hausa language, the answer would be “She’s behind the tree.”
What’s going on here? We use the concepts ‘behind’ and ‘in front of’ to think about the location of one object relative to another. These terms only make sense because our bodies have a front (where your face is) and a back which look quite different to each other.Because our thought and concepts are embodied, we project embodied concepts like ‘front’ and ‘back’ onto objects that don’t have fronts or backs – like a tree or a rock. And because these objects don’t have their own front or back, we define these directions relative to us.
In English, we assume that the front of the object is the part that’s facing us, so if someone’s in front of the tree, they are between us and the tree. In Hausa, objects like trees or rocks are taken to be facing the same way as we are, so we are seeing the back of the tree. Someone between us and the tree is ‘behind’ it. These relations are not “there” in the world – they are qualities of our bodies, extended out into our perception of the world.
In the groundbreaking book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson convincingly suggest that the mind is inherently embodied, and that most of the concepts we use for abstract thought are metaphors, often drawn from our own experience of having bodies. Consequently, there can be no disembodied, transcendent reason – our conceptual systems are always both limited and enriched by the experience of being embodied. (It’s a big book but Amitabha Mukerjee has created a handy summary here).
Now, a little thought experiment. Imagine that your eyes are located not in your head, but in your stomach. Notice how the world looks. How else would the world be different? Would you bump your head more often? What effect would that have on your sense of self? Which part of another person would you check out first?
By the way, I am also reliably assured that The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela has some very profound things to say about embodied perception. I’m reading it at the moment, and gradually making sense of it, although the authors are fighting me every inch of the way.
Mark Walsh’s rant ‘How we lost our bodies and why this is a problem‘ is also worth a look.
© 2011, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.