Transcending your thinking | on the edge

This is an extract from an email from Steven Kotler from The Flow Research Collective:

Photo by Pixabay on

Ever heard the southern phrase, “you can’t read the label while you’re sitting inside the jar”?

That notion, that we can’t always understand what we’re too close to, sums up the relationship between psychology and neurobiology as forces for flow.

As substantial as the advances in psychology have been, what they’ve really done is make the inside of the jar bigger—by expanding our sense of what’s possible. But the field of neurobiology is doing something else altogether. By giving us an understanding of the ingredients on the label, it’s providing a view of our lives from outside the jar. In the past, we might have seen all of our psychological ups and downs as challenges to be solved with our minds. Now we can address them at a more foundational level. With a clearer view of the knobs and levers being tweaked in the body and brain, neurobiology provides us with a more precise tool kit with which to tackle life’s challenges. Neurobiology has given us the tools to map and measure what’s happening in our bodies and brains when we’re experiencing both the ordinary and the extraordinary.

And the results are changing how we think about how we think. They move us from “disembodied cognition,” the idea that our thinking happens only in the three pounds of gray matter tucked between our ears, to “embodied cognition,” where we see thinking for what it really is:

An integrated, whole-system experience

“The body, the gut, the senses, the immune system, the lymphatic system,” explained embodied cognition expert and University of Winchester emeritus professor Guy Claxton to New York magazine, “are so instantaneously and complicatedly interacting that you can’t draw a line across the neck and say ‘above this line it’s smart and below the line it’s menial.’” In fact

We’re not smart and we have bodies—we’re smart because we have bodies

The heart has about 40,000 neurons that play a central role in shaping emotion, perception, and decision making. The stomach and intestines complete this network, containing more than 500 million nerve cells, 100 million neurons, 30 different neurotransmitters, and 90 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin (one of the major neurochemicals responsible for mood and well-being). This “second brain,” as scientists have dubbed it, lends some empirical support to the persistent notion of gut instinct. And these whole-body perceptions can be easily influenced.

If someone gives you a cup of icy cold water to hold, then introduces you to a stranger, as researchers at Yale did, you’ll treat this newcomer with suspicion and rate them as colder and more distant on personality scales. But if they give you a cup of hot coffee and make the same introduction, trust comes more easily. The act of feeling physical warmth is enough to trigger a cognitive change: you literally warm up to people, no thinking required.

But if we draw upon the insights of embodied cognition research, we can reconnect our bodies and brains. We can shift posture, breathing, facial expressions, flexibility, and balance as a way to tune our states of consciousness, altered or otherwise. We don’t have to process everything first and foremost through our psychology. We can flip the script entirely and

change our experience without having to think much at all

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