A paradox: our culture is rabidly preoccupied with physical form, and we bully our forms mercilessly so they’ll conform to truly weird standards…and yet we don’t respect or even have much understanding of the central role our bodies play in shaping our basic experience of life. Here are five empowering insights into how our bodies fundamentally shape our lives; use them to literally be happier, and to help your children thrive in an era in which our disrespect for the life of the body may be putting them at great risk.
1. The body is the first to know — The first three facts here were inspired by a fascinating RadioLab episode entitled “Where Am I?” featuring famed neurologists Robert Sapolsky and Antonio Damasio. For sake of dramatic illustration they use the example of walking into a friend’s house and finding him…dead. (Sadly, this actually happened to a dear friend of mine, and she had to be treated for PTSD. I digress.) Many nanoseconds before your brain registers what’s happening and you experience feelings (terror, disbelief, sadness, etc.), your body (with the help of your most primitive, reptilian brain structures) reads the situation and undergoes instantaneous physiological changes: heartbeat and respiration quicken, pupils and capillaries dilate, blood pressure goes up. This produces instant sensations. The brain responds to those sensations with corresponding feelings.
When we understand this — and help our older children and adolescents grasp it — we can work with the process by taking some breaths and time to differentiate sensation from feeling, and to pause before acting. This can facilitate what some brain scientists refer to as “the sober second thought” and help us avoid those comments or actions we wish we could take back!
2. Bodily sensations are the wellspring of feelings — Dr. Damasio informs us that people lose emotional feeling when they lose physical feeling through paralysis, citing research first begun by a paraplegic psychologist after he began to realize he was feeling less emotion than before he’d lost feeling in his lower body. Many studies have since revealed that people who have lost physical sensation indeed feel less — less happy and less sad. Says Damasio, “Our being is rooted in our body state. If I were to remove from your brain the representation of your body, you would not know that you were you.”
The interviewer asked him (referring back to the dramatic hypothetical scenario), “Would I not be sorry over my friend’s death?”
“You wouldn’t be sorry about anything,” Damasio replied. “What is the essence of being joyful or sad, if you don’t hook those emotions on a changed body?” So, it is a sensation in the body that is the wellspring of emotional feelings. As much as we may believe that we first feel sadness — or rather, first have a thought about the thing causing the sadness, followed by the feeling of sadness — and then after that, our body might respond by feeling “dragged out” or “under the weather,” it is not so: it is in fact the other way around, with our feelings rooted in and springing from our bodily sensations.
We can support our children’s most robust sense of embodied aliveness by not giving them reason to disembody — such as engaging in disciplinary measures that are physically or emotionally abusive or shame-based. And well before that, by meeting the infant’s needs in an attuned, timely and responsive manner. Write body psychotherapists Jack Rosenberg and Marjorie Rand (and this can also apply to children), “The baby whose needs aren’t taken care of and who seals off his feelings, is forming blocks to his energy flow. Since all his reactions are in his body, the blocks are his growing muscular tension. …In blocking off feelings, he stifles the flow of energy, and the core of his being — his sense of Self — lies hidden within.”
And we can also model an awareness and respect for our own bodies’ wellsprings of feeling, becoming mindful of our “gut feelings” and other bodily perceptions. Eugene Gendlin’s “Focusing” process is a wonderful way to cultivate this level of mindfulness and deepen one’s embodied vitality.
3. Womens’ bodies create more drama — In the course of the interview with Dr. Sapolsky, just as he’s saying that “So much is lost when we’re not in our bodies,” the studio phone rings. It’s Sapolsky’s wife Taymor on the other end of the line, furious that he’s over an hour late getting back home, even though she reminded him last night and again this morning, and how it’s obviously just not important to him. (It’s revealed in due time that this was a convincing dramatization for educational purposes.)
The interviewer proceeds to narrate in a stage whisper what is going on in their bodies: “His stomach is clenching, his heart is palpitating, hers is doing the same. Their brains are picking up these signals and thinking, ‘Anger — feel angry!’ At a certain point, Robert will realize he has screwed up, and he’ll apologize.” A fascinating difference is then identified between the way the male and female brain process all this: while all of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) processes (clenched stomach, palpitating heart, shortness of breath, etc.) turn on at the same speed (i.e., instantly) in both sexes, these processes turn off more slowly in women than in men.
What does that mean? Here’s the ah-hah and the take-home that can start improving your relationship today, illustrated to perfection in the Sapolskys’ fake argument. Robert was apologizing, his ANS was calming down, it felt resolved, it was over. For him. It even sounded over for his wife, who relented after his apology: “Okay.” A few seconds of silence pass. Then, she starts up again: “But you always do this! Remember when we were having that dinner right after we got engaged, and I went to the restaurant, and I was waiting for you, and–”
“Taymor, that was during the Carter administration,” Sapolsky pleads. Taymor presses on. “You didn’t even call, I was just waiting and waiting.”
Sound familiar? Been there, done that? The body can actually trick the brain. Taymor knows mentally that the argument is over, but her body is still tense, her heart is still racing, so the brain does an instant (if erroneous) calculus, interpreted by Sapolsky: “If my heart is still racing, and I consciously know that this issue has been resolved, that must mean I’m still pissed off about that thing that happened in the Carter administration.”
The brain fills the vacuum between what we’re bodily experiencing and what we consciously know: out comes The List From The Past, and off we go filling in that gap. You know, the litany of historical things our male partners have ever messed up over!
After revealing that this had been a highly realistic fiction, Sapolsky pointed out that since he and his wife work in the same (neuropsychology) field, they have a handy shorthand that helps head off many such laundry-list arguments in real life: “Honey, don’t forget what the half-life is on the autonomic nervous system.” For the rest of us, the time-honored (yet too rarely followed) ideas of counting to 100…taking a little walk…hugging a tree outside…can do wonders to reduce the collateral damage that comes from men’s and women’s mismatched ANS processing!
4. The first seven years are all about the life of the body — Since it is the sensory-motor areas of her brain that are most active in the early years, the young child up until around the age of seven relates to the world primarily through her senses and her body. Waldorf education founder Rudolf Steiner taught that a child’s first seven year’s work is to learn how to fully inhabit her body — to learn to walk, to talk, and yes, to begin to think. When we ask a very young child to think symbolically (i.e., learn letters and numbers, which are symbols rather than three-dimensional reality) we draw energy away from this central task of embodiment.
Given the above-mentioned research (done one hundred years after Steiner) about the body as the wellspring of emotion and our very perception of self, we might take with all the more seriousness Steiner’s directive to parents and teachers — that it is our job during a child’s first seven years to help him “comfortably and cheerfully situate in the body.”
5. The language of things must take root in the body – When we introduce abstract intellectual concepts to young children — like the alphabet, which are, again, symbols — we stress him, because the areas of the brain that process and make sense of symbols are not yet available to him in an integral way. This kind of stress day in and day out can draw him back out of that cheerful situating in the body.
Children live in the realm of the concrete world of the brain’s right hemisphere — what they can sense (see, hear, feel, taste, smell, etc.). Symbolic thinking is governed by the brain’s left hemisphere, so if introduced too early it is “learned” in a rote, mechanical way. It has little depth of meaning for a child, and leads to a more superficial interaction with words, ideas, and concepts. When a three-year-old learns the word “apple” from a flashcard, she might be able to use it in a sentence, but the internal meaning as she speaks that sentence will not have much depth if she hasn’t spent time holding, sniffing, biting into apples of different colors of red and green, hearing their soft crunch and feeling their juice dripping down her chin. As psychologist David Elkind points out, “The language of things must precede the language of words, or else the words don’t mean anything.”
Not the best way to begin a child’s lifelong learning, and certainly not conducive to the flexibly innovative, layered thinking capacities needed to forge peace, innovation, and prosperous sustainability.
Wellbeing Has Its Wellspring In The Body
So, we kind of end up where we began — with the primacy of bodily perception, bodily experience, bodily response, bodily sensation for virtually everything that makes us feel alive…or feel that life is worth living. I have to wonder if the past 20 years’ worth of rising rates of youth distress statistics (e.g., depression, suicide), risk-taking behaviors with substances and sex, and growing youth fascination with piercing and tattoos, together with the steep rise in academics at the pre-pre-school level over those same decades, might have anything to do with one another.
If maybe in our well-meaning attempts to give kids a head start on success, we may have inadvertently impeded them from fully and cheerfully situating in their bodies — leading to “sensation-seeking” behavior that might reassure a vaguely numb adolescent that there is indeed someone…who has feelings…inside this body…?
About Marcy Axness
I'm the author of “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers," and also the adoption expert on Mothering's expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my new book I'm delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences all over the world in the coming months, and I'm happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As a special gift to Mothering readers I'm offering "A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool."