The Physiology of Thought

The Physiology of Thought

The ability to think has long been thought to be a special gift of the human species. Cogito ergo sum. The Cartesian view also postulates that mind and body are distinct from one another. Descartes did acknowledge that the two interact, but definitely viewed them as separate things.

This idea of the mind being separate was echoed through the years by many thinkers, philosophers, religious leaders, scientists, primarily in the west. The mind was viewed as our link to God and therefore superior to the body and making us superior to all other species on the planet.

What further emerged was the idea that thoughts and feelings were separate things. Feelings, being more linked to biology were somehow inferior to thoughts and mental processes. The physical form was viewed as a tool that served its master – the mind. The ability for abstraction was prized far above practical earthy skills. Education became all about mastering abstraction, and not just part of living. Virginia Morell in her book Animal Wise links this idea to even how we in the present day portray thought bubbles as floating in space a little above the head of the cartoon character. So powerful was the impact of these ideas.

But we know today that biology with all its imperfections has a lot more to say about how we think and feel. The presence of specific hormones in the body has been linked to feelings and thoughts. Testosterone is the dominance hormone which makes us feel confident and in charge of ourselves and others. Cortisol is the fear hormone that has the opposite effect. Adrenalin sharpens our senses, endorphins, serotonin and dopamine produce feelings of well-being and happiness, norepinephrine makes us feel alert and motivated, melatonin is apparently anti-ageing, oxytocin makes us feel amorous and wanting physical contact. Further, specific areas of the brain have been linked to certain outcomes like emotional management, learning, and so many other skills that help us interact with our world.

I only have a layman’s understanding of biology, but wading through some of the current reading, what I understand is this – that emotions, and thoughts (which are heavily interlinked) both come from the same source, that is, they are rooted in biology. The brain is not something that sits outside the body to produce thoughts or intelligence for that matter. All thinking and feeling basically originates from within the physical frame.

Our thesis therefore is that by working with the body, it is possible to impact how we think and feel. Our work at The Arts Quotient shows us the same in action.

In workshops with business leaders we find that coaching them to get in touch with the physiology of their emotion helps to be more aware of feeling and regulate it as appropriate to the situation which is a huge part of what is known as Emotional Intelligence.

I have been teaching dance for over a decade, and find that the best way to combat stage fear is through a series of warm-up exercises. The butterflies do not entirely go away (indeed, they are beneficial to performance), but they are harnessed better. The same exercises could be applied to almost any performance situation be it a presentation or a meeting or even a marriage proposal.

Learning happens best when people move about and engage with their whole self rather than only cognitively. Exercise helps focus a distracted mind, diffuses anger and fear, doing enables people who are switched off or bored to feel more alert. The list goes on.

We are born to move. We are not designed to sit in a chair for 12 hours a day. Naturally a host of problems surface when we do so. Being required to apply our intellect to solve problems is not just a cognitive challenge. The roots lie in physical fitness and alignment to begin with. Unblocking the mind begins with freeing up the body.

So what can we do? There are two aspects to it.

A)    Situationally, we can train ourselves to be in touch with the cues our body gives us. This will help us check in to the emotion we are feeling or any other discomfort. Often we do not realize that we have been under stress until much damage has already been done. Once we know something is off, we can work to correct it. A lot of our work at The Arts Quotient is about enabling people to do exactly this. Tweak situations by working on breathing, posture, use of space and movement. This is simple as an idea, but requires continues practice. The payoff is tremendous. Workshop participants have reported being able to change the course of conversations with colleagues, clients, with bosses during an appraisal, with their spouses and children, even their parents, by changing the physical aspects of their interaction.

B)    Over a longer term (and this is the most critical), movement needs to be a part of life. To parents who are very worried that their children studying for medical or engineering entrance will get distracted, I say this is not a distraction. This is part of their training for any high pressure performance situation. Dance, run, swim, jump, play – any kind of movement that works for the individual. To adults with long working hours, it sounds on the face of it like one more thing to do. But the magic starts once you commit. The way you solve problems will change, you will have energy to spare, and you will not feel daunted by the challenge of just getting through the day. Remember that movement and exercise releases happy hormones in our body. This will help focus better and get things done in less time.

There are many techniques and approaches to working with the body – through sport, dance, martial arts, yoga and more. Explore and pick one that works for you. Through trial and error you will figure out a formula that keeps you at your most effective. It is evident to us that to succeed at any task, even one which is heavily thought-oriented, you will be at your best if you can bring your whole self to it. You may argue that there are individuals who are quite physically unfit but are still brilliant at what they do cognitively. My response to that is these are exceptions and not the rule. Plus standing outside, we cannot estimate what it costs them to perform, and the costs may only manifest over a period of time and be invisible in a snapshot of that person’s life. Only you can say whether the exception should apply to you.

A teacher of mine in Law College used to frequently ask us students on observing our glazed eyes during class “Are you physically and mentally present?” Never has this question been more relevant in ways that even she did not imagine!