Summary: The emotional brain is more intimate with the body than it is with the cognitive brain, which is why it is often easier to access emotion through the body than through language.
The seventeenth-century philosopher Spinoza had intuited, and Dr Damasio described so clearly, our emotions may be nothing more than the conscious experience of a broad set of physiological reactions overseeing and continually adjusting activity of the body’s biological systems to the requirements of inner and outer environment. The emotional brain is therefore almost on more intimate terms with the body than it is with the cognitive brain, which is why it is often easier to access emotion through the body than through language.
Mary Anne, for example, had been following a traditional Freudian psychoanalytic therapy for two years. She had laid on the couch and done her best to ‘free-associate’ about the themes of her suffering in particular her emotional dependence on men. She felt truly alive only when a man told her, all the time, that he loved her. She found separations, even the briefest, hard to bear; she would immediately feel a diffuse and childlike anxiety. After two years of analysis, Mary Anne understood her problem very well. She could describe in detail her complicated relationship with her mother, who had entrusted her to an endless stream of nannies. She assumed that the explanation for her deep-seated feelings of insecurity lay there. With her well-trained academic mind, she became passionately attached to analysing her symptoms and describing them to her analyst, on whom she had naturally become … very dependent. In the meantime, Mary Anne had made significant progress. She felt freer after two years in analysis. However, she was also aware that she had never resolved the pain and sadness of her childhood. While she had been perpetually focused on her thoughts and the word express it, she now realized that she had never cried on the couch. She was that much more surprised, during a week at a spa, when a massage suddenly brought back the emotions of childhood. She was lying on her back while the massage therapist gently massaged her abdomen. When the therapist approached a particular spot below her navel, Mary Anne felt a lump in her throat. The massage therapist noticed it and asked Mary Anne to merely observe what she was feeling. Then the therapist calmly persisted with circular movements precisely on that spot. A few seconds later, Mary Anne was shaken by violent sobs. She saw herself, at age seven, in the recovery room of a hospital, all alone after she had been operated on for appendicitis. Her mother had not come back from holiday to take care of her. This emotion, which she had long tried to locate in her head, had been there all along, hidden in her body.
Because of the emotional brain’s close relationship with the body, it is often easier to act on it through the body rather than through language. Drugs, of course, interfere directly with the functioning of neurons. But we can also mobilize intrinsic physiological rhythms such as eye movements associated with dreams, the natural variations of the heart rate, the sleep cycle and its reliance on the rhythms of day and night. We can use physical exercise or acupuncture. Or we can master nutrition. As we shall see, emotional relationships – even our connection to others in our community – have a major physical component, a direct impact on our physical being. These physical gateways into the emotional brain are more direct and often more powerful than thought and language.
Healing without freud or Prozac – Dr David Servan Schreiber