In my last post, I discussed interoception — the ability to perceive our internal bodily states1. I discussed how the age-old yogic practice of pratyahara, one of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, is really a practice of interoception. Today, I will expand on this conversation by discussing why it would be a beneficial practice to begin attending to our bodily states. As we will see, a greater appreciation for bodily signals can help us understand our thoughts, our decisions, and even our emotions.
A Brief Lesson: Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down Processing
Two processes govern our perception of the world: bottom-up and top-down processing. While bottom-up processing refers to the processing of sensory information coming into the brain from the body (i.e., the senses), top-down processing refers to the brain using its own devices (i.e., memories, expectations) to make sense of the world. For example, take a look at Figure 1, courtesy of OpenPSYC. Your brain uses vision only, or bottom-up processing to determine the meaning of the image when it is placed between the numbers “12” and “14”. When the same image is placed between the letters “A” and “C”, your perception is changed by top-down processing in that your expectations interfere with your understanding of the image’s meaning. Now you interpret the same image as the letter “B”. This is a simple example. Now imagine you think of a tragic story or memory and you feel sadness. How is your sadness (i.e., an emotion) influenced by bottom-up versus top-down processing? It might seem intuitive to believe that our emotions are guided by top-down processing only in that they are driven by our thoughts or memories but the story is not so simple.
Figure 1. Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Processing, courtesy of OpenPSYC
A New Emphasis: Bottom-Up Processing
The concept of bottom-up processing is not state of the art. As I discussed in the last post, both Charles Darwin (1872) and William James (1884) emphasized the important influence bodily sensations have on informing the mind (i.e., bottom-up processing). And while bottom-up processing has traditionally been marginalized in the research community, the last couple decades have seen its re-emergence. This is aptly summarized in a 2014 paper published in Frontiers in Psychology titled, “Embodied affectivity: on moving and being moved”:
“In the past decade, a growing body of research on embodiment has demonstrated that not only bodily sensations, but also bodily postures, gestures, and expressions are inherent components of emotional experience and tacitly influence the evaluation of persons, objects and situations as well as memory recall2.”
They go on to describe some of the findings that support this idea including the renown 1988 study that asked participants to rate the humour of cartoons while either holding a pencil between their teeth or between them lips (Figure 2). Holding the pencil between the teeth activates the facial muscles using for smiling while holding the pencil between the lips does not. They found that the pencil holding “smiling” participants rated the cartoons as funnier than participants holding the pencil between their lips3. To provide another example, Havas et al., (2011) found that by paralyzing the muscles in the face using Botox, thus obstructing the ability to use facial expressions, reduces the ability to process emotionally charged language2,4. Both these studies suggest that we rely on our bodies to decide how we feel. That is, our bodies do not only reflect what is going on in our minds, but our minds are also influenced by our bodies. In other words, top-down processing and bottom up processing are both integral to understanding how we are.
Figure 2. Strack et al. (1988) experiment. Does manipulating facial expression influence how we rate the humour of cartoons?
Disembodiment refers to the state of being disconnected from the body. Our society encourages disembodiment. For example, standard practice for patients with chronic pain or depression is to distract from any mental or physical discomforts5,6. Another way of looking at this is that standard practice for pain management asks patients to disembody from their physical sensations. Interestingly, the basis for a disembodied approach to pain management lies in the belief that paying attention to pain will worsen the experience, however, there is no empirical evidence to support such a belief7. To the contrary, the mindful approach to pain management — that is, paying attention to all bodily sensations and leaning into the discomfort — has actually been shown to ameliorate patient outcomes5,7.
One study using mindfulness in participants with chronic pain and depression compared both methods (mindful awareness and distraction). They found the mindfulness group had better overall improvement in their depressive symptoms and their ability to tolerate discomfort than the control group using distraction. Further, they found that improvements in depressive symptoms and tolerability in the mindfulness group was attributed to an improvement in body awareness (think: interoception)5. This study demonstrates that while the mindful approach to pain management does not directly reduce pain, it can dampen the associated emotional impact and improve subjective tolerability — both of which ultimately improve the overall experience of negative sensation.
You will recall from my previous post that our minds’ default mode is one of mindlessness. It follows that we are too often unaware of our visceral states, or the subtle cues our bodies are constantly offering our brains. My husband remarked to me that while he was out walking our dogs (one of which is terrified of transport trucks), every time a large truck would drive by he would feel agitated. I asked him how he experienced his agitation — as thoughts in his mind or as sensations in his body? He replied that he experienced his agitation as thoughts. I asked him to pay attention to his body the next time he felt agitated by the trucks while walking the dogs. Indeed, when he began attending to his bodily sensations, and thus practicing interoception, he experienced agitation as sensations arising in his body.
Disembodiment and Mind-Body Practice
And while this is only an anecdote, it exemplifies how little credence we pay to our bodily sensations. We are unaware that while our thoughts, feelings, and emotions are experienced as mental phenomena, they have been influenced by the continual input from the body. We are embodied beings: mind and body are one. Our disembodied society allows us to lose sight of this. Fortunately, mind-body practices target our disembodiment and serve to heal the broken relationship we have between body and mind. Attending to body sensations could be used to consciously regulate the subsequent changes to our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. As one study states, “Mindfulness is believed to de-automatize behaviour, increasing the intentionality of behaviour”8. In light of today’s discussion, I interpret this to mean that attention towards the influential power of bodily sensations allows us to integrate our awareness on our subsequent behaviour. To quote the Indian mystic Osho, “Awareness is the greatest alchemy there is. Just go on becoming more and more aware, and you will find your life changing for the better in every possible dimension. It will bring great fulfillment.”
This topic is a behemoth and my intention with these two blog posts was to get you thinking about the importance of the mind-body connection — a topic I would like to continue exploring in KMY. I will leave you with one more quote by psychologist Rollo May that may allow the ideas on this post to land. “It is amazing how many hints and guides and intuitions for living come to the sensitive person who has ears to hear what his body is saying.”
- Fiacconi CM, Kouptsova JE, Köhler S. A role for visceral feedback and interoception in feelings-of-knowing. Conscious Cogn. 2017;53:70-80. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2017.06.001.
- Fuchs T, Koch SC. Embodied affectivity: on moving and being moved. Front Psychol. 2014;5:508. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00508.
- Strack F, Martin LL, Stepper S. Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1988;54(5):768-777. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3379579. Accessed October 30, 2017.
- Havas DA, Glenberg AM, Gutowski KA, Lucarelli MJ, Davidson RJ. Cosmetic use of botulinum toxin-a affects processing of emotional language. Psychol Sci. 2010;21(7):895-900. doi:10.1177/0956797610374742.
- de Jong M, Lazar SW, Hug K, et al. Effects of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy on Body Awareness in Patients with Chronic Pain and Comorbid Depression. Front Psychol. 2016;7:967. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00967.
- Johnson MH. How does distraction work in the management of pain? Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2005;9(2):90-95. doi:10.1007/s11916-005-0044-1.
- Mehling WE, Wrubel J, Daubenmier JJ, et al. Body Awareness: a phenomenological inquiry into the common ground of mind-body therapies. Philos Ethics Humanit Med. 2011;6:6. doi:10.1186/1747-5341-6-6.
- Hanley AW, Mehling WE, Garland EL. Holding the body in mind: Interoceptive awareness, dispositional mindfulness and psychological well-being. J Psychosom Res. 2017;99:13-20. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2017.05.014.