'Thinking' With Our Whole Body

Our collective consciousness seems stuck in the mind/body dualism of René Descartes. This is a problem, as Descartes has been dead for almost 370 years.

Human belief systems often persist long past their expiry date. While this seems like a problem, it's often a good thing. Because, when revolutions overturn an established order, dystopian consequences often overtake utopian dreams. Conservatism in believe systems appears the best collective strategy. In order to reject belief-strategies that aren't effective, change should require much energy and many iterations.

A consciousness shift if like a software update on your phone or computer. New belief systems are shiny, with all the bells and whistles. But being the first to 'download the update,' we also experience the bugs. Debugging is a process to smooth out the new operating system with older features. New belief systems also inevitably conflict with older belief system features. It takes some generations to 'debug' the new belief system. 

When it comes to mind/body dualism it seems we're still debugging. And there's a simple way to know this is true. Examine the language we use and the actions we take. These are always the best measures that demonstrate what someone actually believes.

Of the two, action is more concrete. But language is also revealing especially when the words are candid. Anything prepared and pointed can be a misdirection. But the words we 'slip' into conversations are always revealing.

The scientific method is like a 'hack' that enables us to update our beliefs. With the goal if describing objective reality, the scientific method takes us beyond language. Ironically, Rene Descartes was one of the pioneers of modern science. But he also proposed the idea that mind and body are distinct, the famed mind/body dualism that science is now disproving conclusively.

But the average person, in his or her daily words and actions still appears to believe that the two are separate. Let's take a look at these revealing phenomena.

Linguistic Hints

It takes years, decades, and even centuries for a culture's language to catch up. Thus we continue on speaking, thinking, and acting on belief systems that might not be accurate.

Even our more progressive language continues the dualistic split. For example, those aware that the mind is not an independent driving force of the human will say things like:

"He's stuck in his head."

This statement shows that, in some sense we know there's more to the human experience than just 'the mind.' But the phrase itself assumes that 'the mind' does cognition and the body does something else. It's as though the mind is a separate place we can travel, that takes us outside our body and the physical world. 

Other mind/body dualism language includes, for example:

"It was a mindless decision."

"The mind can't control what the heart wants."

"My mind said yes, but my gut said no."

Try this: from now on, be aware of your own dualism language when discussing the human experience. You'll probably soon find you default to dualism, too, because it's difficult to escape this linguistic paradigm.

The language trap is one of the reasons we love floating, isn't it? With practice, we become aware of a richer dimension than that delineated by language. We try, often with a sense of futility, to explain the experience. But a great float session is almost indescribable, because it's distinct from and prior to linguistic categories. This doesn't stop us from trying. In the end, we fall back on analogous language:

"I felt weightless."

"I felt free."

We do the same in reverting to mind/body dualism language. We're trapped by language, but as anyone who's been part of the human optimization movement knows, the mind and body aren't separate. Cognition involves the entire human organism, not just the small patch of real estate between our ears.

Hints of Action

In the realm of action, we often appear hopelessly committed to mind/body dualism.

For example, we sit all day staring at a small box of unnatural light. This is strange enough behavior on its own. Then, after years of this, we're 'surprised' when we get ill.

Another related strange behavior: we consume copious information every day in the form of news and other drama. We evolved complex stress responses designed as warnings of real dangers like snakes lurking in tall grass and massive, devouring predators like lions.

The fact is that we don't know what learning about remote dangers like a distant war or potential mega-virus is doing to our stress response. Turning off such noise might be the healthiest thing we can do for our entire organism.

But we seem to believe we can isolate such stresses. We think we can keep them quarantined in 'our head.' But we can't just process information separate from our body. Whatever we perceive is also processed by the body.

Even the engineered world seems to have been built around the idea that 'the mind' is distinct (and superior to) 'the body.' Objects like chairs run counter to our bodies' best interests. Most of them force us into an unnatural, slouched, and passive posture. Are we the same attentive, pliable, and aware human organism when hunched over a chair as we are when standing or in a natural seated squat?

When visiting Asia, have you ever seen an elderly man sitting in a deep squat smoking a cigarette? Or a vendor selling vegetables? That's the body's natural sitting position. Using it daily keeps your back healthy. Imagine a 75-year-old North American attempting this feat. Most 30-year-old North Americans can't sit in a deep squat.

Sitting in a chair lets us slump. Our hips tighten and our backs fold. What signals travel between brain and body when immobilized in a chair for long period of time? Our environment, it seems, is forcing evolution upon us. One day, maybe, us humans will be entirely immobile. But not us. Our bodies need to move.

We're just a bag of meat that acts as a prop for our perceiving head, or so it seems we believe from our behavior. We act as though these unnatural things shouldn't cause us any trouble. When they do we assume there was no other option.

Have you ever gotten out of the float tank and noticed that your back feels more aligned? It can be as though there's an invisible, silent chiropractor in the tank with you. That's the wisdom of the body. It knows what to do, if only you'll let it. And every yoga practitioner can vouch for the restorative, aligning power of intentional movement.

In word and in action, we appear committed to mind/body dualism.

But our awareness of an alternate reality is growing, if slowly. Of late, one doorway to this awareness has been the growth of awareness about our intuition.

"What is intuition, anyways?"

Our heart has 40,000 neurons. The intestines and stomach have another 100 million neurons. Plus, 90% of our serotonin is in our guts.

In case you're not familiar, serotonin is a vital neurochemical. It's responsible for mood and well-being. This is where the term 'gut feeling' comes from. These intuitions are real and important. Ignore them at your own peril.

What exactly is intuition, though? Because it happens automatically, there's much magical thinking about it. Intuition might not be magical, but this doesn't lessen how incredible it is.

The Nobel Prize winning researcher Daniel Kahneman describes his findings about intuition in his book Thinking: Fast and Slow. About situations where an expert exhibits intuition, he quotes Herbert Simon:

"The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition."

To illustrate his point, he shares the story of a firefighter. The team of firefighters believed he fire was in the kitchen. Upon entering the kitchen, one firefighter sensed danger. He immediately screamed to warn the other firefighters to get out. The building collapsed moments later.

He explained later that he had a 'sixth sense' that he was in danger. But upon further analysis of the situation, he realized that the fire was unusually quiet and that his ears were unusually hot. It turned out that the fire was in the basement below the kitchen, not the kitchen itself. On an intuitive level, he knew the fire was below them.

As an expert, his intuition worked. But a non-expert wouldn't have recognized the danger at the same intuitive speed. So, this is an incredible example of embodied cognition. He didn't stop and think with his a disembodied head. But his body recognized the danger.

Botox, Emotions, Smile Therapy, and Power Poses

Consider the expressivity in your face. The human face probably conveys more 'body language' than the rest of our body. We can read so much intention in a face. But what if our faces didn't just express emotion? What if causation was reversed and instead of just expressing an emotion, our facial expressions could also change the way we feel? It seems this is indeed the case.

Anyone who practices vigorous exercise will tell you how much movement affects emotions. Well, it turns out that even the micro movements of the face affect emotions. We don't even have to workout to use movement as a mood improvement (although everyone should). 

In their book Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal discuss an interesting (and unexpected) side effect of Botox. They use it as an example of embodied cognition, because soon after Botox treatments became common, many who underwent these treatments began reporting emotional changes.

But, doesn't Botox just remove wrinkles from skin? How can it change our psychology?

Well, scientists have studied depression sufferers and Botox. What they found was fascinating. Receiving injections in frown lines appears to provide significant (and sometimes instantaneous) relief from depression.

By changing the shape of our face, we change how we feel. It makes you wonder about the folk wisdom of the expression: "laughter is the best medicine." Might not laughter signal health in our body and thus trigger healing?

Other studies show that holding a smile (even if forced) reliably puts people in a better mood. Many studies have repeated this finding. And the most effective also incorporated looking in the mirror while smiling. This shows that seeing ourselves reflected as happy adds even more positive embodiment.

Then there are the 'power pose' studies, made famous by Amy Cuddy's TED talk on the subject. She states that humans judge others almost solely on non-verbal communication. She also notes that we know others are judging us. But she also says, "We tend to forget the other audience that's influenced by our non-verbals. And that's ourselves. We are also influenced by our non-verbals: our thoughts and our feelings and our physiology."

In other words, we subconsciously judge ourselves based on bodily posture.

Cuddy is a professor at a business school and began studying power dynamics because they play such a robust role in business. Along the way, she and her collaborators began studying posture. In particular, they wanted to know if posture could create feelings of power.

The short answer is yes. Cuddy teaches that standing in a 'power pose' (hands on hips, shoulder back) increases testosterone and decreases cortisol. Two minutes is enough to add 15% more testosterone and 10% less cortisol. She points out that raised testosterone and lowered cortisol is exactly the hormonal profile of dominant people.

You might think dominance isn't something to pursue. But dominant people tend to be more confident. And more confident people tend to be more successful. So practicing this type of intentional posing may help you improve your results in certain areas of life.

It all comes down to the hormones. We don't consider these chemicals often. But they're vital to our experience of life. Feelings we typically describe with poetic language are actually mediated by chemicals. 

It's remarkable how much of cognition is embodied. Knowing this, there are many things you can do, and if you're already into floating or other holistic modalities you're probably way ahead of the game.

Don't make the mistake our culture has made for the past 400 years, which is to create a false mind/body separation and therefore mistreat the body in the process.