Element 17:

No Learning Without Feedback From the Body

“Thus, it could be said that intelligence is located not in the brain but in cells that are distributed throughout the body, and that the traditional separation of mental processes, including emotions, from the body is no longer valid.”
– Biophysicist, Candace Pert

greenwavelengths[1]Once we grasp that rational thinking, meaning, learning, and memory are indelibly linked to the emotional value we place on information, another question is raised. Where do emotions come from? The poet E.E. Cummings partly had the answer when he wrote, “Feeling is First.” New research into the circuitry of emotions exposes an interesting phenomenon: The brain does not act alone in allocating emotional value and meaning to incoming information; it must also experience feedback from the body.

When the brain receives taste, touch, smell, and sound stimuli, it immediately sends this information to the body, which, in turn, feeds back signals to the brain. Research is just now demonstrating the importance of this feedback. If the brain is not able to process feedback from the body, there is no firm foundation from which emotions, clear thinking, meaning, learning, or long-term memory can be created. When we speak of somatic feedback (soma is Greek for the body), we will be referring to all changes in the body and organs (viscera), represented by modifications in heart rate, perspiration, respiration, pupil dilation, blood pressure, muscle tone, digestion, and elimination, transmitted back to the brain via the nervous system; as well as changes in concentrations of hormones, peptides, glucose, oxygen, carbon dioxide, ion, and pH levels, ferried back to the brain via the blood stream.

Read on to get a deeper understanding of how there is no learning without feedback from the body

Value of Somatic Feedback

During the last century, medical science has operated as if feedback from our body was at best not relevant or at worst disruptive to our thought processes. Up until the very recent past, neuroscience embraced the position first introduced by Plato, then accepted by the church, and later refined by Rene Descartes: The mind and body are distinct and separate. This philosophy also maintained that, because the body was connected to impure animal urges, information from it could not be trusted.

clouds[2]In contrast, the mind was thought to have direct contact with God, making it the seat of the soul. Therefore, information generated solely by the brain, without influence from our unchaste body, was believed to be pure and sacred. In his 1637 work, Discourse on Method of Thought, Descartes sums up the mind-body separation view, which ruled philosophy and science for 2,300 years with the famous phrase “Cogito, ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am.”

At the end of the 19th century, the renowned and beloved pioneer of American psychology, William James, was the first cognitive scientist to suggest that the body was the theater of our emotions. He proposed that the emotions upon which our thoughts are organized are simply the result of the brain perceiving changes in the body. In his famous 1890s book, The Principles of Psychology, he wrote, “If we fancy some strong emotion and then try to abstract from our consciousness of it all the feelings of its bodily symptoms, we find we have nothing left behind, no ‘mind stuff’ out of which the emotions can be constructed.” James also proposed that emotions feel different from one another only because each has a different somatic tone. Unfortunately, the brain-body separation position of Plato and Descartes was so influential at the time that James’ theory on bodily feedback, while spot on, was unfairly attacked and summarily dismissed.

It was not until the end of the 20th century that neuroscience began to train its eye on the value of somatic feedback in the creation of emotions and the process of thought itself. While many neuroscientists worked on clarifying the link between brain and body, the two scientists who are given the most credit for popularizing the value of the body in memory and thought are neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and biophysicist Candace Pert.

digitizedman[1]Damasio’s work with patients who experienced neurological damage to circuits that provide the brain with clues from the body clearly demonstrated that, without the ability to receive somatic feedback, these patients’ minds were unable to form clear emotional distinctions upon which to organize, tag, and log incoming stimuli. Pert goes a step further than Damasio and lays out the intriguing position that, not only does the brain create emotions from feedback from the body, but that the body itself creates and stores emotions. On this body-centric view, Pert writes, “Thus, it could be said that intelligence is located not in the brain but in cells that are distributed throughout the body, and that the traditional separation of mental processes, including emotions, from the body is no longer valid.”

In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:

Why neurosurgeon Richard Bergland maintains that “The stuff of thought is not caged in the brain but is scattered all over the body.”

How the “somatic-marker hypothesis” describes how you form emotions from feedback from your body and organs.

Why this body-centric view of learning and memory makes your body your unconscious mind!

Which of your brain structures receive information from your body and organs.

Why many psychosomatic therapists maintain the new research proves that bodily feedback must be considered in any psychiatric healing.

That your internal organs (like kidneys, livers, guts and, yes, sex glands) have the same neurochemical receptors as your brain, indicating that both have the capacity to store memories.

Why surgeons now recognize that the reason some patients come out of successful surgery with non-specific depression is because the somatic markers the body sends to the brain after a major operation are similar to the markers the body produces when we are depressed.

That the somatic-emotional link may help explain the curious phenomenon of some transplant patients who report they have acquired the tastes, feelings and even memories of the individuals who donated their organs to them.

How, from an evolutionary biological perspective, the view that our mind is separate from our body could not be more wrong.

That the brain is the conglomeration of small adaptations to our body and nervous system that occurred over billions of years of evolution. The brain is the body.

How emotions and the more sophisticated neurological structures and chemicals that support them arose because they were effective in helping animals make more refined distinctions between incoming stimuli.

Why somatic markers and emotions act as “limit factors,” thus narrowing the field and allowing the brain to select only information that is meaningful to our surviving and thriving.

Why humans hold the survival advantage over all other species, not necessarily because we think better, but because we feel better!

That the Latin term for modern man is Homo sapiens, which means “thinking” species. In light of the new research, it might be more fitting to call modern man Homo animus or “feelings guy.”

How patients whose brain damage causes them to deny their handicaps – termed anosognosia – are a sad example of the disruption caused when brains are unable to receive efficient bodily feedback.

How anosognosia affected both President Woodrow Wilson and Chief Justice William O. Douglas in their leadership capacities.

Why, if you can’t feel, you can’t think or learn.

Why, if you don’t sweat under pressure (even a little bit), you may not be able to think clearly!

Why some experts envision a futuristic educational system in which students are hooked to polygraph machines to see if learning is taking place.

How alcohol, drugs, caffeine, and sugar garble the feedback between body and brain, resulting in disruption of emotion, thought, and learning.

That, in the end, Descartes got it all wrong. It is not “I think, therefore I am,” but “I feel, therefore I am.”

Why, unless educational institutions grasp the important link between somatic feedback, emotions and memory, they will be doomed to produce less than efficient learning systems.

To help you understand more about somatic feedback, click on other Elements:

Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning

“No Meaning, No Learning”: The Meaning Network

Working Memory – Where Emotionally and Somatically Tagged Information Gets Prioritized

Addicted to Meaning

The Motivational Problem

Breeding Out Personal Meaning by Extrinsic Motivation

Why There Is No Personal Meaning in Education