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Solving the ancient body-mind mystery

New scientific findings suggest there is not one, but two basic ways of paying attention. When we grow older we shut down one of them – our interoception or inner awareness.

For thousands of years, humans have discussed the relationship between the body and the mind. In the West, we usually refer to the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) and his famous statement “I think, therefore I am”, but the subject is much older and was intensely debated among both Greek and Indian philosophers.

Today, there is an emerging movement of scientists and scholars working on what we in daily terms call inner awareness, somatic awareness or embodiment. In scientific terms, it is called interoception, or interoceptive attention, and broadly defined as the sense of signals originating within the body.

Are thoughts superior to feelings?

This new scientific field is trying to cut through our 400-year Cartesian tradition of dividing thinking and feeling, and especially the idea that thinking is superior to feeling. The new field of research cuts across studies of neurophysiology, somatic anthropology, contemplative practice, and mind-body medicine.

In a pioneering study from 2012 published in Cerebral Cortex, a team of scientists led by Norman Farb from the University of Toronto suggests a radically new view of the old body-mind problem:

There are several different ways of paying attention.

Not one, but two circuits

According to the research team, our attention relies not on one but on two different brain circuits. The assumption so far has been that all attention is processed by the frontal lobe of the brain, but the researchers found that this was true of only the outward directed attention. Attention directed inward, or interoceptive attention uses evolutionarily older parts of the brain associated with sensation and the integration of physical experience.

Another fascinating discovery was that the internal world of feelings and sensations dominates perception in babies, but it becomes increasingly foreign and distant as we learn to prioritize the outside world.

How can we re-connect with our inner world?

How can we open up the channels in our brain that we have shut down, and train our interoceptive awareness? In an interesting article in Psychology Today, Emma Seppala, Ph. D, gives a very clear answer to this question: “Yoga, breathing and meditation practices are designed to increase our interoceptive awareness.”

For some, turning attention inward can be distressing, because it may tune us into emotions that are not comfortable. However, constantly distracting ourselves through attention turned outwards will not remove those underlying emotions. By learning to engage with them through our dedicated interoceptive awareness, we may experience the first signs of healing. 

 

It seems like the new research in interoception, together with Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, and findings by leading trauma researchers like Pat Ogden, Bessel van der Kolk and Peter Levine, is about to give us a totally new understanding of our bodies.

Are we at last on our way to solve the ancient body-mind mystery?

Peter Appel

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