Mind & Body: An emotional connection


Emotions are the language of our body, and like any language we need to learn it before we can understand or make use of it to communicate. Emotions are like orchestral conductors enabling coordinated responses across the many different physiological and psychological systems that allow us to function. Emotions connect us to our selves and they connect us to others. Emotions allow us to navigate the world - both on an individual level, regulating our own biology in response to the environment, and on a psycho-social level. Our emotions allow us to regulate the emotions of others, to build relationships and communities and share culture. We exist as emotional beings enmeshed in a social-emotional web of other emotional beings. Whether we acknowledge it or not and whether we are fluent in their language or not, emotions rule our world.

Basic emotion theory says that emotions exist to enable individuals to respond adaptively to evolutionary significant threats and opportunities in the environment (Keltner & Cordaro, 2017). They prepare us to meet challenges by adjusting activity in cardiovascular, endocrine, musculoskeletal, and central and autonomic nervous systems. These adjustments are felt in the body as somatic sensory experiences and are interpreted by the brain to result in conscious emotional states. Once conscious, higher level cognitive processing can occur to fine tune interpretations of the situation and moderate responses.

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Bodily topography of basic (Upper) and nonbasic (Lower) emotions associated with words. The body maps show regions whose activation increased (warm colors) or decreased (cool colors)

when feeling each emotion. Nummenmaa et al., 2014. PNAS vol. 111 (2) 647.

Researchers in Finland have developed bodily maps of emotion. Using over 700 participants in both Western Europe and East Asia they revealed that different emotional states are associated with distinct and culturally universal bodily sensations.

Connecting with our selves involves shifting our attention towards internal processes so that we become more aware of how our body feels. When we try and do this it is common to find the ‘thinking’ parts of our brain are so active they dominate our conscious awareness. Minds wander and these cognitive and reasoning parts of our brain (located above our eyes in the prefrontal cortex) are constantly churning away bringing thoughts and worries to our attention. The process of practicing meditation involves focusing attention away from these cognitive parts of the brain, so allowing them to become quieter and other capacities to come into conscious awareness, such as the feelings in our body.

It takes practice to be able to simply shift attention to the body, feel its processes and emotions and not get swept away into thoughts about it, interpretation about why we feel this way, worries about what it means etc. Some types of meditation use a repetitive mantra and certain Shamanic practices use a drum or rattle to guide meditation. These things are thought to be useful methods for keeping the ‘thinking brain’ busy so that it is less inclined to wander into a distracted world of thoughts and imagination and to take our attention with it.

Although there are many different types of meditation practice, research seems to suggest that they have a common effect on the brain; to reduce activity in a neural network called the Default Mode Network (DMN). This is the network that is active when we are doing nothing in particular. The brain is never quiet, even when we are idle and not actively doing anything even thinking, this network rises in activity. Amazingly researchers have also found that people with less activity the DMN during rest tend to have higher levels of wellbeing. Sustained meditation practice has also been found to reduce resting state activity in the DMN. It is thought that this is a key mechanism for the effects beneficial effects of meditation on health and happiness.

Connection to Others


“Why do we have relationships, maternal instincts, friendships, family and society? Why not be like a reptile that digs a hole, lays some eggs and moves on?...Wouldn't life be easier without gossip, grudges and in-laws?”

This is a quote from Louis Cozolino’s book ‘The Neuroscience of Human Relationships’, in which

he answers this question. He explains how the latest research in social neuroscience is helping us understand the profound impact our inter-personal relationships have on our physical health and psychological wellbeing. The human brain is a social organ, evolved to assist us in co-regulation of of our physiological-emotional state with others.

Humans are a social species. This means we have evolved to operate connected to a network of other individuals. Our need to connect is so central to our functioning that impact of social isolation on health is comparable to the adverse effects of smoking (House et al, 1988). A lack of social relationships has been found to increase mortality risk even more than obesity, high blood pressure or sedentary living do (Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton, 2010). At the other end of the social spectrum research has revealed the beneficial effects of having strong social connections. Being married or being part of a group with whom you share goals or beliefs appear to lead to improved health outcomes and longevity.

The discovery of mirror neurons has advanced our understanding of how relationships with others are supported by similar neural architecture as that which help us know and relate to our selves. Mirror neurons have proved to play a significant role in our abilities to form relationships to empathise and to predict others behaviour. A shift in neuroscience from individual brain structures towards functional networks comprised of different brain regions working together has Cozolino argues provided an important step forward for understanding minds. These advances also suggest much overlap in the anatomy underpinning thoughts about self and neuroanatomy for thinking about others. It seems we only form a sense of self in relation to others, it is even possible that such a idea as self is simply a tool that assists us in connecting to others. Bruce Hood has also written a book about the construction of self-identity [link to Bruce Hood Biography].