Psychology

Phenomenal Ghost

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Written by Cole Bitting

A simple organism swims along and enters a patch of acidic water. It reacts and swims away. For a patch of food-rich water, it swims in and enjoys the bounty. The condition of the water changes the behaviour of the organism. Our selves swim in a sea of thought. Change our thoughts and change our behaviour in a manner no less significant than water for the simple organism.

To quote Steve, “Change Your Thoughts is a place to visit to help you try and change your thinking patterns, behaviours, beliefs and thought processes to live the life you were truly born to live…” My guest post is about the organism between the sea of thoughts and the consequence behaviour – the human body.

phenomenal_ghostWhere do thoughts come from? If you say “your mind,” you speak a tautology. In a physical sense, in a neural, biochemical sense, what gives rise to thinking?

Changes to your body are the essence of experience. And in the right context, specifically with the right kind of central nervous system and brain, the changes are the raw material for experience. Body changes are the precursors feelings, thoughts, consciousness and the persist sense of self we think of as our essence.

Hold your breathe.

What happens?

You start turning blue. Your body’s oxygen meter registers a decline in available oxygen and triggers various reactions designed to get you to breathe. If you hold your breathe long enough, you pass out. Then your body resumes breathing.

Don’t blink.

What happens?

I tried several times while watching the timer on my iPhone. The longest I lasted before blinking was 23 seconds. Even then, tears welled in my eyes after just a few seconds as if I were crying. My body strove to take care of its eyes even as I wilfully caused distress.

Our bodies are filled with the equivalent of thermostats for every conceivable system of internal regulation. Readings of “too hot” generate body changes much as the expansion of the thermostat spring turns on the air conditioner. The systems or our bodies respond whenever we push the meter outside a prefigured comfort zone.

We can screech, pinch our skin, lick our dirty feet, frown for a long time, and spin around until we puke. Each action sets off some regulatory response. We cower, yelp, feel disgust, become sad, or throw up.

(Twirling around affects the inner ear and creates a sensation similar to the disorientation cause by many natural poisons. We vomit after spinning to expel possible poison.)

If each body-regulation system was pixel on a screen, these systems would display an image of amazing size, complexity and color depth. The screen for this giant image is called a neural map.

When our body perceives an object (which could be physical, like a snake, or mental, like the notion of snakes on a plane), the neural-map image changes. The more salient the object, the more significant the change in the imagery. But how do we have a mental experience of these neural, biochemical changes?

(I am going to speak about prominent, well studied, neuro-scientific theories of consciousness as if they were fact. A fascinating book, by a leading neuroscientist in this field, is Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, by Antonio Damasio.)

We have a sixth sensory “organ,” a sixth way to perceive information, a ghost sense if you will. We have a second neural map which records the changes to a small and varied portion of the comprehensive neural map of the body. It is the mental equivalent of a physical eye ball, optic nerve and associated brain systems. Like eyesight, this second neural map notices only a few things, a small range of “˜color,’ fixates on change, and is given to significant distortion and bias.

This second map records an ongoing sequence of body-state changes from the point of view of the body. It’s like a mirror for a mirror. The second mirror/map reflects (with all its distortions and biases) the content of the first mirror/map. The first mirror/map in turn reflects the content of the second.

These two reflections are highly combinatorial and recursive, the necessary ingredients for infinite experience and infinite expression. Together, the comprise a system of one body, one point of view, one emerging collection of feelings and thoughts, one mind. These maps detail a ghost for each body.

What do we do to care for our ghost? When we intentionally change our thoughts, we are tending to its mind, much as a therapist attends to the mental life of a client.

The client has a real body, and our phenomenal ghost has a real body. Change the body, change the ghost. The neuroscience of emotion invariably highlights the significant of the body-mind connection.

Thoughts are mental objects. When we think them, our body changes (see the NYTimes article about embodied emotion).

Think about a moment when you felt intense despair. What specific event or circumstance would give rise to the belief, “I should have known better!”

How did your body change? Try the imagery again and pay attention. What are the body sensations of: “I should have known better!”

For me, I frown. My heart is in my throat. My eyes feel like they want to cry. If I add voice, I might wail, “why me!?” I feel a tinge of nausea as if my chest were hollow. My skin crawls around my shoulders and feels chilled. These sensations are unnerving.

If we change our thoughts at this moment, we block changes to the body. We simply turn off the experience. We avoid pain rather than provide healing.

What heals?

How does your body feel when you are at peace with the unpredictability and unknowability of life? Try to evoke body sensations for this idea. It’s a lot harder, and the sensations are fleeting. These are the sensations of homeostasis, of wellness, of – from the body’s perspective – finding home.

I believe our sixth sense is much more sensitized to threats, problems and the experience of our own failings. These cognitions are “˜visceral,’ because they change the body. After a shocking thought, we might hold our breathe and stare in alarm. The red lights flash on the first neural map, and are second neural map is vigilant to this color.

Like a fish not noticing water, we have a hard time noticing the sensations of healthy regulation. When a body-system is well regulated, it might generate a neural image hardly noticed by the second map. This sixth sense notices distress rather than wellness.

Monks practice compassion-mediations for years to develop the capacity to the access this state by choice. From the perspective of our sixth sense, compassion is a wispy, ghosty sensation spoilt by the interruption of almost any other emotion. Cultivating the ability to evoke emotions of well being and peace are not just elements of personal development, but rather they are (in a strong, neurological sense) significant sources of comfort and healing.

If we can re-mind our body of such positive sensations before or after moments of torment, we are reminding it how to get home. The body’s journey home often takes time, as healing does, but on the way, our thoughts get better too.

Change your body*, change your thoughts, change your life.

*Thoughts, of course, can change the body.

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Cole Bitting

Cole Bitting distills life lessons from the science of our complex human nature. His new book Furies: The struggle for Growth addresses complex thoughts that affect every aspect of our lives.