In her book Crafting Connection, Felicity Dwyer explores ideas and practices to help us connect with ourselves, with others and with the wider networks and communities of which we are a part. This extract explores the brain and body connection.
The power of whole-body intelligence
Our bodies communicate with intelligence and wisdom but tend to speak in whispers. They communicate through subtle sensations. If we ignore these subtle signals, our bodies may eventually start to shout or scream, to grab our attention through sensations such as physical and emotional pain.
Western cultures have tended to emphasize and prize the intellect. And many people have lost touch with a meaningful sense of being connected with their own bodies. The idea that the mind and body are separate is untrue. We may see our bodies as being in service of our minds, but in fact it’s the other way around.
We are not minds suspended in flesh. Rather, our minds arise out of our physicality. Our brains are intimately connected to all the sensations in our bodies through the network of nerves. And thus, the mind arises from activity within both our brains and our bodies.
Given that our body and brain are one integrated system, increasing our connection with our body can open the door to an expanded, whole-body intelligence. We can change our minds through our bodies, for example with breathing exercises which affect our oxygen levels, and physical exercise which affects our hormone levels.
Your brain is extraordinary. It is an incredibly complex organ, containing 86 billion neurons (brain cells).[i] But the brain doesn’t exist as a standalone neural powerhouse, kept alive by our body. It has evolved in service of one primary function, which is to keep us alive.
And your brain is not the only neural centre in your body. Research shows that our gut contains over 100 million neurons[ii] and our heart contains at least 40 million.[iii] This means there is intelligence within the body itself. The heart and gut neural networks may not think in words and pictures in the way our brains do, but they do communicate with our ‘head brain’ and play an important role in decision making.[iv]
Experiencing the brain and body connection
The first time I experienced a real felt sense of this connection was when I was in my twenties (a few years ago now!). I was quite a heavy smoker at the time. And in my attempt to give up the habit, I read Alan Carr’s book The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. After so many years, I can’t remember much from the book, apart from one enduring insight that it sparked for me. For the first time, I could clearly see a relationship between an embodied physical sensation and what was going on in my brain. I started to notice that when I wanted a cigarette, my brain started to imagine myself having a cigarette, creating a picture of me lighting up, and imagining how relaxing it would feel. But when I tuned in to my body’s sensations, I noticed a sense of tension around my solar plexus. The signal started in my body, and this seemed to trigger my thinking about smoking, which led to the unwanted behaviour. Knowing this, I found it easier to let go of my habit.
This insight contains the seed of a powerful tool that you can use to help yourself when communicating with others. If you ever feel anxious or worried about a social situation, try this. Gently take your attention off your thinking and away from all the stories you’re telling yourself about the situation. And instead, bring your attention to noticing what’s happening physically. What are the sensations in your body? Where are they located inside you? The better you get to know your body, the more easily you can connect to subtle sensations. And the more you practise asking yourself these questions, the more you’ll be able to do this quickly and easily in different situations.
Once you’ve connected to the physical sensations, you might like to imagine that part of your body relaxing or releasing any tension. Recognise that there is a difference between the sensations and the story you’re telling yourself which may be linked to the sensation. If you can focus on the physical sensations, and on adjusting them, this can affect your thinking. As an example, if you’re breathing quickly and shallowly, then deliberately slowing and deepening your breathing can make a difference to your thinking. It works on a physiological level, affecting the chemistry of your endocrine system. And it also gives you something tangible and immediate to focus on, which in itself is likely to reduce anxious thoughts.
Connecting to inner sensation
Learning to connect with the (often subtle) sensations inside your body is a valuable skill. It will help you access information, for example areas of tension that may be early indicators of stress or unease with a situation at work. And you can develop by just bringing your attention into your body. If you’re new to this type of practice, then it can help to do this in a quiet place and perhaps to close your eyes to remove visual distraction.
As you get more skilled and experienced you can do this anywhere – as you’re walking, dancing, preparing for a meeting. You can learn to keep a little piece of your attention on your interior landscape, even during connection with others or activities such as typing. I’m trying to do this as I type this paragraph: I’m aware of the words and aware of the feel of my feet connecting with the floor, and aware of the sensation of my fingers as I tap the keys.
Felicity Dwyer is a facilitator, coach, and speaker, specialising in communication and leadership skills. She is the author of “Crafting Connection: Transform how you communicate with yourself and others”.
Thank you to Felicity and the team at Practical Inspiration Publishing for sharing this extract from Crafting Connection which is available directly from the publisher or Amazon and other good book shops.
[i]Herculano-Houzel, S. (2012). ‘The remarkable, yet not extraordinary human brain as a scaled-up primate brain and its associated cost’. PNAS. Available from www.pnas.org/content/109/Supplement_1/10661[accessed 12 May 2022].
[ii]Underwood, E. (2018). ‘Your gut is directly connected to your brain, by a newly discovered neuron circuit’. Science, 20 September 2018. Available from www.science.org/content/article/your-gut-directly-connected-your-brain-newly-discovered-neuron-circuit[accessed 12 May 2022].
[iii] Alshami, A. M. (2019). ‘Pain: Is it all in the brain or the heart?’ Current Pain and Headache Reports, 23(12), 88. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11916-019-0827-4
[iv]Soosalu, G., Henwood, S., and Deo, A. (2019). ‘Head, heart, and gut in decision making: Development of a multiple brain preference questionnaire’. SAGE Open, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1177%2F2158244019837439