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The Fiction of a “Mind-Body” Separation

Thoughts, sensations, emotions, movements are part of the same psychobiology.

Key points

  • The distinction commonly made between “mind” and “body” is a complete fiction, totally divorced from any basis in our cellular psychobiology.
  • All thought is a biological process, totally dependent on the embodied conditions that sustain life and health.
  • The pulsations and secretions of the living body support the creation of thinking about and feeling ourselves.

Embodied self-awareness (ESA) refers to the ways in which we pay attention to what is happening inside of our own bodies. ESA has two basic forms. We can be aware of the felt experiences from within the body or we can be aware of our thoughts. These two forms of self-awareness arise from different networks of the cells and tissues of our living body.

We can feel ourselves or we can think about ourselves, but usually not both at the same time, so we are fooled into believing that mind and body are separate. "Mind" usually means our thoughts and mental images. "Mind" can also refer to the brain or what goes on “in the head” as opposed to in the body. But isn’t the head part of the body?

The head and brain are attached to the neck by nerves and bones and muscles and fascia that link the head and its functional and sensory organs with the other parts of the body.

The brain in the head is linked to the rest of the body via the nervous system and by the hormones and neurotransmitters in the blood which travel throughout the whole body. The central nervous system is in the head and those nerve cells connect to the brain stem and spinal cord to form links to the peripheral nervous system in the parts of the body that is not in the head. Medications and foods we process in the digestive system, for example, can affect “mental” health by being transferred via the gut to the blood and brain.

If nerves are severed in any part of the body, we can’t feel that part or move it anymore. On the other hand, if the parts of the central nervous system that receive signals from a specific part of the peripheral nervous system are damaged – such as from a stroke or head injury – we lose feeling and movement in those linked peripheral locations in the body.

So even at a basic physiological level, the so-called “mind” and so-called “body” are fictional: they don’t have any basis in biological reality.

The brain initiates secretions of hormones into the blood. Hormones regulate many different types of body functions like digestion, urination, body temperature, metabolism, and reproductive and sexual function. The bloodstream, because of its microscopic capillaries, touches all the cells of the body.

Changes in these peripheral cells send neurochemical messages to the brain via the blood and peripheral nervous system that “tell” the brain to secrete one or another hormone that the body needs.

This brain-to-blood linkage occurs at the base of the brain in the hypothalamus and pituitary just below it. Using those blood and neural signals from the body, these brain organs initiate the creation of hormones for metabolic energy required to do any activity (cortisol).

They support interpersonal warmth and closeness (oxytocin). They produce hormones for sexual activity (penile and clitoral erections and sexual arousal, genital lubrication, and orgasm) and reproduction (sperm and ova released in the gonadal glandular system and milk released in the lactating glands of the breasts). These brain centers also create the hormonal precursors to release metabolic resources in the thyroid and other glandular systems for temperature regulation and cellular growth.

The hormones that circulate around the body in the blood also perfuse brain cells and act as neurotransmitters that affect brain function. When our sexual encounter has ended, for example, this signals the hypothalamus to slow or stop the production of particular sex hormones. Similarly, when we finish our exercise session or stop working, the body-to-brain connection turns off or slows down the production of cortisol.

Coming back to the fiction of a separate “mind” and “body,” there are many more connections that make the head just another part of the body. The nostril passages and mouth in the head are connected to the trachea and lungs. The mouth connects via the throat and esophagus to the entire digestive system and all of its organs (like the stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder), as well as to the kidneys, bladder, and urinary tract.

Vocalizations from the mouth are created as much in the brain’s language centers as in the diaphragm, chest, and throat. The tongue is a head muscle that connects to the muscles of the neck, which in turn connect to other muscles that attach to bones in the chest and shoulders. The eyes and ears in the head, via the entire nervous and neuro-muscular systems, affect head-turning and body movements toward or away from sights and sounds.

All these connections between the head and other body regions make it difficult to defend the fiction of a distinction between “mind” and “body.” The concept of Embodied Self-Awareness better represents the idea that both our thoughts and our feelings are brought into awareness via multi-cellular pathways that extend throughout the whole body.

By some (devious?) route in the evolution of our species, a form of consciousness was created in which thinking seems as if it comes from someplace inside the head. This fiction is further perpetuated because when we are thinking, we lose awareness of the felt sense of our bodies. But the fact is that all our thoughts are founded upon an embodied experience, created within the entire network of the cells, tissues, and structures of a living human body.

And conversely, muscle pain, for example, seems as if it is coming from a particular part of the body (the arm, leg, fingers, or wherever). That pain awareness, however, is similarly created by a distributed network of cells in the peripheral nervous system that link to brain centers for bringing the pain into conscious awareness, along with the information that the pain seems “located” at the periphery. This is similar to how thoughts seem to be "located" in the head.

Our conscious experience of ourselves, therefore, tricks us into believing in the fiction of "mind" and "body." It’s like believing that the very convincing portrayals of Sherlock Holmes in films and serials make him a real person rather than a fiction created originally by the real Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and enhanced by talented screenwriters and directors.

Eliminating the "mind-body" fiction opens new worlds for embodied approaches to health care, psychotherapy, lifestyle, and a host of emerging embodied treatment approaches for healing emotional, physical, and other traumatic wounds.

Most “mental” illness affects our experience of our bodies (e.g., shortness of breath in anxiety/panic), and most physical illness affects our thoughts (e.g., depressive worries often accompany chronic illness like cancer and heart disease).

References

Fogel, A. (2021). Restorative Embodiment And Resilience: A Guide To Disrupt Habits, Create Inner Peace, Deepen Relationships, And Feel Greater Presence. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

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