Research Paper By Vladimir Bog
(Business Coach, ROMANIA)
I will discuss below the importance of sensations in the way people think and behave and how, despite their being at the core of human psychology, they passed unnoticed.
In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahnemann talks about our brains having two parts, a slow one and a fast one. Other ways of looking at it could be the rationale vs intuition, conscious mind vs subconscious mind, action vs reaction. Interestingly, the conclusions of most researches suggest that the subconscious mind plays a worrying 90-98% in our daily decisions. In other words, the vast majority of what we think, say or do is driven, decided by our sub-conscious mind. So our free arbiter is kidnapped by our sub-conscious.
A team at Max-Plank institute in Dresden has proven using functional MRI that, in fact, the conscious mind comes in and wraps in logical arguments decisions taken by the subconscious as long as 7 seconds before. It is for this reason that we are left with the impression that our decisions are rational and logical. It should, however, be correctly understood that our proper functioning is conditioned by the harmonious working of both parts of our brain. An interesting study done on an American couple who had an unfortunate motorbike accident, in which she has lost the entirety of the intuitive part of her brain, shows that she became unable to make very simple decisions. Faced with a basic problem: that of selecting yogurt for the following morning breakfast, after a few minutes of scanning the window of the refrigerator in a supermarket she bursts into tears. Asked what happened she said that she could not make a decision because there was too much information to be processed. She looked at the volume, the price, the ingredients, the natural factor, the flavour, etc and it was just too much to compare. This case brought light into the wrong assumption that it is the rational part of our brain that leads the decision making, proving that both are important and perhaps the intuition plays a higher role than previously thought. Some information is certainly analysed but the sub-conscious seems to be driving the decision.
What Kahnemann does not explain however is the very biological, natural reason why this happens. Whenever we are confronted with something new, intriguing, contradicting our settled beliefs, the neocortex gets activated. It is the part of our brains responsible for analysis, critical thinking, learning new things, evaluation, etc but also highly energy thirsty. The neocortex represents 75% of the total brain consumption. The brain energy consumption is 20% of the overall body energy consumption. Until not that far back in history, when going to a supermarket to buy food was not an option, a small organ like the brain consuming 15-17% of the total body energy only to do a luxurious mask-like critical thinking, was biologically unacceptable. So, nature found a way around it: shortcutting the neo-cortex by automatizing repeated gestures.
This is where I would like to stop and go a level deeper into what is automatized and what is the aforementioned role of the body sensations in the process.
We wrongly assume that we react to situations and people. This is only partially correct. In fact, it is correct only enough to get us confused. We react to body sensations that are bundled into what we call “feelings” or “emotions”.
Our only way of knowing that we are alive is through our sensors (senses) and their contact with the environment. The process is the following: because of the existence of nature and the adapted sensors that we have been equipped with, the sensors get in touch with the environment, ear with sound, tongue with taste, skin with touch and temperature, eye with sight, nose with smell and mind with thoughts (with origin in word/label). At first, there is no interpretation or meaning attached to this contact. There is only awareness of the respective sensor (sense) with the object. It is like the new-born child who hears sounds and does not what they, is not interested to find out what they are or what they are called, is simply aware of them, simply is. However, as adults, we have developed our unique, personal way of interpreting this input (based on our unique past experiences). So in a matter of a fraction of a second, the information is processed by the mental function of perception and allocated a label which is rather binary: positive or negative (there is also a neutral but I will stick to those that are at the origin of reaction). Other terms may be desirable or undesirable, pleasant or unpleasant, likeable or dislikeable. I will simplify the next steps of the process saying that according to the label there is an instant, subconscious mental reaction: craving for the pleasant, and aversion for the unpleasant, resulting in a verbal or physical REACTION. I underline “reaction” as a sub-conscious reaction, as opposed to controlled, intentional action.
So, what the brain and body do is automatizing any action that is repeated long enough. In neurological terms that means being transferred from the neo-cortex to the short-term memory and from there, if further repeated, to long-term memory. Even synapses form for the respective action (activity, behaviour) and later further modify the very physical structure of the brain(character, traits). It has been demonstrated that behaviours or even concepts assimilated long enough modify the physical structure of the brain, for example, the brain of a professional skier will have parts that are only present in professional skiers. The more “solid” the structure, the less energy it consumes or in other words, the more repeated activity is the more it will be automatized, moved into the subconscious and therefore the less energy the brain will consume processing it. That is why we drive to work and have no idea when we got there, how many times we pressed the brake pedal or how many cars we passed. That is also why we make such a mental effort and it is so tiring to learn a new sport or any new skill and it becomes so “easy” physically and mentally once we have acquired it.
So this is the biological reason that explains why, the more aged and experienced we are, the more automatic reactions to things we have. This is very helpful in being more effective with tasks that we do repeatedly. Unfortunately, there is also another side to it, which explains why after the age of 42-45 many feel like they lose control over their selves, that life is meaningless, that nothing seems attractive anymore.
What starts as a first reaction to something, if repeated becomes behaviour, if further repeated it becomes personality trait which then becomes life scenarios, games people play, what people typically (and wrongly) call “selves”.
So the journey to the real self is a journey or regaining control by gradually reducing the sub-conscious-driven reactions and replacing them with intentional actions. As the brain has worked on creating those automatisms almost every minute of our non-sleeping life, it is normal that we cannot expect to reverse the situation in a few days. The good news is that, however, there is a way to do it although this cannot be the objective of a short research essay. Yet, below is a description of the top lines of the process.
As the control is actually lost to sub-conscious, the logical process to reverse this is to move it back from sub-conscious into conscious. And this is where the long-overlooked role of body sensations comes into play. The body sensations are the key to control, the unexplained part of why mindfulness is actually important. Going back to the process of reacting to the contact with the environment: there is the object in the environment, there is a contact with a sensor (sense), which generates awareness of the contact (unlabelled), which is labelled by the mental function of perception in positive, negative (or neutral), which results in a mental intention of craving or aversion, which is translated again in a body sensation (as the only way in which the mind can “move” the body), which results in a verbal or physical REaction. Hence the awareness of the body sensations is critical because as the only link in this chain where we can step in and regain control.
Right after the contact (unlabelled)of the sensor (sense) with the object (environment), with an awareness of the labelling, that mind wants to do and awareness of the mind’s generating craving or aversion is the only point where we can intervene. This awareness has the potential to get us back in the driver seat, again, after a life-long absence. Instead of just allowing the sub-conscious to use our body to react verbally or physically, we instead gain that moment where we decide if we want to act or not and how we want to act.
It results that the cause of our REactions is not external but internal. The good news is that we, therefore, can be in control of what is going on. The bad news is that there is none to blame; it is (solely) in one’s own power and responsibility to choose action vs REaction.
A warning though is that mere awareness of sensations in the absence of a deeper understanding of their nature poses a serious risk. If one develops an awareness of sensations without understanding how they appear and disappear, and therefore regards them as permanent, it can be a very damaging experience. Therefore, any attempt to go deeper into this area should be done with the correct methodology, in a proper environment, under authorized supervision. Like any brain surgery, it must be done by authorized personnel in perfectly sterile conditions.
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann 2011, What the Buddha Thought by Walpola Rahula, rev.edition 1994, The Art of Living, Vipassana Meditation by William Hart 1987, The Use of Lateral Thinking, I Am OK, You’re OK by Thomas Harris 1973, Bodily maps of emotions by Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari K. Hietanen ; Coherence Between Emotional Experience and Physiology: Does Body Awareness Training Have an Impact? By Jocelyn A. Sze, Anett Gyurak, Joyce W. Yuan, and Robert W. Levenson, Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson 2018, Role of interoceptive accuracy in topographical changes in emotion-induced bodily sensations by Won-Mo Jung 2017, Synaptic Self by Joseph Ledoux 2002, The Hostage Brain by Bruce McEwen 1994. Roles Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Investigation, Methodology, Software, Validation, Visualization, Writing – original draft Affiliation Acupuncture & Meridian Science Research Center, College of Korean Medicine, Kyung Hee University, Seoul, Republic of Korea ⨯