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Emotions Aren’t “Just in Your Head”

October 19, 2015

Highlighting the structures of separation, of loss, of trauma, of isolation, of pervasive violence, of lack of insight, of freezing in the presence of chaos of trauma or vicarious trauma.  trauma responses that work

 

 

be quiet  listen respond to feelings and within the neo cortex to the possibility of feeling trust and insight

 

Part Two

Emotions Aren’t “Just in Your Head”

 

The Pixar movie Inside Out tells the story of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley whose emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear) are brought to life as characters who watch the events of her life and prompt her reactions from their headquarters in her mind. But this top-down vision of how emotions work is, itself, inside out. Locating emotional response purely in the brain overlooks our best source of social information and communication: the body.

Of course Inside Out gets some things right. The brain really is a vitally important component of how we experience emotion — just not the only one. We’re more likely to get angry if we’re hungry or tired, and when we are upset we feel it in our whole bodies, from accelerated heart rate to clenched muscles. Yet Riley’s emotions seem to have no access to her bodily sensations.

We don’t choke up because the sadness in our minds tells us to – the tightness in our throat, the welling of tears, these are sadness. When you grin and laugh out loud, your body experiences joy. Emotions are created by the interaction of our bodies and brains, which operate in a continuous feedback loop that propels behavior without requiring marching orders from headquarters.

Pixar’s animators wonderfully depict the body language that truly communicates emotion. Joy twirls and dances. Sadness hangs her head and sags to the ground while Anger stomps and scowls, and so on. But why must the emotions in Riley’s brain express themselves in body language?

Emotional reactions are complex symphonies involving whole bodies. When avoiding a high-speed collision by slamming on the brakes, our senses, hormones, muscular and neural systems work together to save our lives, taking action before we have time to think. Later, we may say, “I was scared out of my wits!” But that doesn’t begin to describe the sensations of arousal, muscle activation, heightened attention, slowed time and physiological terror. Words, the vehicles of thoughts, are very poor descriptors for intense physiological states.

Louise Barrett, distinguished primatologist and author of “Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds,” provided another clue in an interview, pointing out that a supercomputer can defeat a grandmaster at chess, but the best robots still can’t beat a human at walking to a refrigerator, opening the door, and taking out a can of soda.

Our capacities to understand and respond to our physical environments — notably including our social environments — took millions of years to evolve, and have yet to be artificially replicated. They come so naturally to us that we take them for granted, and instead prize the more cerebral accomplishments that we much more recently added to our intellectual resumes. But we’re built to respond to physical stimuli in a way words can’t match.

During our interview, Barrett noted that the reason the conversation was going well was that, like other primates, we were attending to the physical synchrony between us, responding to and matching each others’ smiles, nods and posture. That is what made it possible for two strangers to engage in such a friendly way.

The importance of bodily synchronicity is also demonstrated in Inside Out. In an early scene at the family dinner table, the body of each person conveys that they are not attuned to one another. Riley’s mother sits upright with a forced smile. Her father leans back, a vacant expression on his face. Riley slumps over her Chinese takeout, avoiding eye contact. Their gestures don’t mirror or respond to each other, and the interaction goes from bad to worse as they each fail to understand the emotions of the others. Instead, they are locked inside their own heads. The scene ends with anger, sadness and withdrawal. Similar misunderstandings play out in millions of homes and offices every day.

By contrast, at the end of the movie when the family members reconcile, they mirror each other’s physical gestures precisely, coming together emotionally despite their sadness. The perfect, non-conscious rapport of their body language enables them to really get each other. The loving family hug is beautifully portrayed, its significance crystal clear despite the lack of accompanying dialogue. That is because we understand each other best by observing and responding to each others’ gestures.

If we want to have satisfying social interactions instead of frustrating ones, it helps to synchronize our bodies and our gestures with our companions’. Empathetic connection is enhanced by attentiveness to body language. We should save important communications for in-person conversations, where our bodies’ signals will help the other person understand us. And most importantly, we must listen to our own bodies to understand how we really feel (as opposed to how our brains or other people think we should feel) and what we need, whether that’s a hug, a break or just a sandwich.

Like all animals, we are information seeking creatures, using our senses to navigate our environments. But we will find ourselves mistaken and confused if we focus too much attention on words and ideas and not enough on the amazing wealth of information our bodies are sending and receiving. When we have difficulty understanding and responding empathetically to others, it might be wise, Dr. Barrett suggests, to get off our “evolutionary high horse” and shift focus from our uniquely large brains to what we share with other mammals: embodied emotion.

 

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