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Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Mind - Body Connection



This post is for anyone who believes that all new age mumbo-jumbo about the "Mind / Body" connection is bull-corn.  This is a non-mumbo-jumbo presentation based on common medical data about how the human body works.  I will frame all points in a context where anyone can experiment for themselves.

To start, you will need two pairs of extremely comfortable socks.  Go buy some new fancy socks now if you don't have a pair that just feel awesome.  In one pair, cut out a dime sized hole in the toe, right where your big toe goes.   Now, put the "holed" sock on and then shoes.  Go about the rest of your day and keep a little journal of your mood.  If that hole doesn't annoy you, please stop reading immediately and consult Jeff Foxworthy, because you might be a redneck.  At the very least, that dime sized hole will catch your attention more than a little too often!

So, at risk of being too dumb, I want to point out simply that discomfort in the body does get communicated all the way up to our brains, and that can absolutely affect our mood.  Clearly there are obvious channels of communication that go from mind to body (clinching one's fist) and from body to mind (feeling annoyed by a hole in one's sock).

We've all heard about comfort foods.  My favorite is Skinner macaroni noodles smothered with a whole loaf of molten Velveeta.  The next time you feel stressed, try this experiment:  Cook up a whole bag of noodles and drench them with cheese.  Fill up a full sized plate and stack it with as much as you can get on there.   Sit at the table and spend 5 minutes writing about your mood before you eat.  Then enjoy the food, and after you finish that plate, take a moment to savor how you feel.  You are home, you are in a shelter, you are safe for the moment, your belly feels good, and you are just about to go eat another whole plate full of cheese smothered noodles.  Just take a moment to notice how different your situation feels, and if its not any better ... I'm sorry, if that plate of mac-n-cheese doesn't make you feel better, then your problem is way serious.  You have my condolences.  Here's my point though:  Our bodies, in response to what we eat, do send messages to our brains that affect our mood and how we experience life.   And, even though we are often oblivious, there are rich streams of data that flow from our bodies to our minds all the time.

Our normal daily thoughts would be completely overwhelmed if every part of our bodies kept in touch as loudly as a big toe in the hole of a sock, and we would be beyond "annoyed" 24/7 if we noticed every part of our body that much and that often.   Our minds naturally train themselves to grow accustomed to those signals, but the signals are still being sent 24/7 and we are capable tuning our senses to any one signal.  Like anything else, with practice, we can get better and better at detecting all the subtle little messages that our bodies constantly report to our minds.

We should also remember that much information within the body is transmitted via chemical reactions ... like the release of adrenaline as an obvious example.  Chemical reactions take longer to propagate through the body to be processed by our brains.   So, the importance of that is to understand that there may be a long delay between the time when you punished your body doing something stupid, and the moment when you realize that you hurt yourself, like a hangover for example.  Many signals are more subtle than a hang over.  Some signals from body to mind are more difficult to detect, harder to know what is the proper corrective action, and easier to lead to chronic harm.  These are the bad habits which we refuse to quit, in part because we fail to comprehend the connection between:

     1.  a barrage of, "Help me, this makes me hurt!" signals coming from our bodies after we eat an Ultimate Cheeseburger at 2 AM

     AND

     2.  how that can affect our mind and/or mood in a negative way at 10 AM the next day

Try and open your mind to confusion.  Sometimes an Ultimate Cheeseburger "IS" just what you needed at 2 AM ... so your body sends you "Happy" signals ... but then other times the same food will illicit "Not-so-Happy" signals after you eat it.   How does one sort all of this out?

This is where meditation comes in.  For starters, when you shut off the mindless chatter inside your head, it is easier to notice the more subtle signals being transmitted around in your body.  Try putting your favorite pair of socks back on, the ones without a hole.  Take the time to notice exactly how the tip of your toe feels with a good sock.  Seriously, spend 15 minutes just focusing on the tip of your toe with the good sock on.  Probably normally you would never give it a thought.  Give it a try because this is good practice for your mind, and it is a form of meditation.  The purpose is to exercise your mind so that you get better at recognizing the signals that your body constantly transmits, good or bad.  When you learn to detect more of these signals, you will become more aware of the condition that your body is really in.  You will become more aware of foods that you need to eat and activities that you need to do in order to make your body "feel" better.  You will also become more "body aware" in general, and in some cases you will notice posture or other habits that adversely affect your health.  You will also understand better about what you need to do to get the results that you want.  

It's simple advice really; take a moment to notice all the little details, the subtleties about the way everything feels.  It doesn't hurt to apply the same technique to data that streams in from outside as well.  There is a wealth of information constantly available to our conscious minds all around us all the time.  There is nothing spooky about it.  All we have to do to make use of that information is slow down and take the time to notice it.  To get better, practice noticing those subtle streams of information.  That's all meditation is ... time spent noticing data that you are normally oblivious to.

Now, I believe it is without argument that data communication between mind and body is "two-way".   Obviously we can send electrical signals down to our hands to form fists.  Probably you have noticed that when you get stressed out, your mental situation alone makes your stomach hurt.  My only suggestion is that you have the ability to communicate with more parts of your body than you've ever previously taken the time to notice.  Again, remember that when communications span over longer distances, it happens at a slower pace than the speed of thought.  Sometimes the communication of data is not complete until a long chain of chemical reactions occur and diffuse throughout.  Awareness is not an instant event in the body; it happens more slowly.  This is why it is helpful to slow down, clear the mind, give the body time to process, and learn to focus on the subtleties of how we feel ... "inward reflection" as they say in mumbo-jumbo-ese.   There is nothing magical or superstitious about it.  The simple fact is that the streams of information available to our minds have more depth and complexity than we can handle all at once.  When we shut down the normal dialog that we have in our head, close our eyes, and find a quiet place, then we will have more attention for noticing the less obvious mind/body connections that we all have.

If you would like to give it a try, there are tons of guided meditations that you can follow on YouTube.  I'm too busy for all this new age crap too, but I find that some of the meditations do help me sleep better.  Some of the sound tracks are are just white noise, while others are designed to help you dream more.  There are many choices and no reason not to experiment to see if any of them will help you feel better and/or help you achieve your goals in life and health.