Connection and the biological roots of survival

Survival through the feeling of connection is a visceral and subjective experience of being merged with the environment in a way that is free of destructive conflict. It is primarily a deep, emotionally invested concept because it is tied to survival. It is the felt reality of being connected to the gravitational field and held by the space around us. This feeling is cultivated again and again throughout our lives by our way of relating to the environment. It is not an innate experience; in fact, it is imprinted during the bonding process and reinforced in every relationship we have.

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Bonding and the human experience

The bonding process is psychological in nature but is deeply rooted in the essential biological demand of survival. A baby cannot survive without bonding to a primary caregiver, thus the felt experience of this original connection is associated with survival.  The caregiver feeds, protects, but most importantly, models to the baby the emotional and social skills necessary for independent survival. The psychological feeling of attachment for a person is molded by his own experience as an infant and the biological requirements for survival.  

According to the psychological models of attachment theory, how this bonding process happens is important to emotional health because it establishes a pattern, on a neurological level, of how we establish attachments in future relationships.

 

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Touching, pressure, and the definition of self

How does the bonding process get encoded into a nervous system? The tactile experience of bonding is one of the primary ways this happens. In the skin, there are specialized receptors that respond to changes upon it: light touch, pressure, pain, vibration, deep pressure, tension, stretch, temperature, pleasure. In his book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, neuroscientist David Linden describes how deeply touch and emotions are linked through receptors that are specialized to communicate affect.   

The bonding process is a practical proving ground for the newly forming brain: This is the territory of my body. Before seeing colors or learning how to clap their hands, a baby drinks in deeply the feeling of being connected to the caregiver. The feeling of connection is a physiological process, not a loosely defined existential concept. This feeling is the root of one’s psychological understanding of connection. The receptors in the skin, joints, muscles, and ligaments transmit signals to the brain, defining who we are in terms of our spatial real estate.  Studies on touch at the Haptic Research Laboratory in Germany indicate that “tactile stimuli go much deeper than visual or auditory stimuli and they are recalled for much longer.”

Being held confirms to the brain that “this is the boundary of my body”, “these are the limits of my volume”, “these are the borders of my being”. As pressure gets tighter from the outside in the form of a hug, the contents of my body put more pressure against the skin from the inside and against these organs. These cavities in my body have more room for variation than those cavities in my body. When I am held, I am literally learning more about what sort of volume I inhabit through contact against barriers.

Touch has been shown to increase weight gain in premature babies, decrease levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream, and improve immune function. Touch deprivation makes for a poorly defined sense of self. That is a literal sense of self, of boundaries, of limits. This literal sense forms the basis for the psychological sense of self, boundaries, and limits.

In a series of studies on anorexic women, Dr. Martin Grunwald illustrated how a dysfunctional sense of self can be rectified by directly affecting the receptors in the skin. Dr. Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami in Florida notes that in friendly touch, the Pacinian corpuscles (pressure receptors in the skin) send signals directly to the vagus nerve, thereby stimulating a slowing of the heart and decrease in blood pressure.


Facial expressions and emotional vocabulary

We are social creatures, wired for living with others beyond the bonding phase of life. Before language, there is a universality of communication through facial expressions. Researchers in affective sciences have identified universal emotional expressions and biological recognition of these affects by babies across the globe.

One of the most disabling aspects of children on the autistic spectrum is their inability to read facial expressions to measure the social temperature. Discerning emotional cues is something we learn to do by example and is perhaps the single most important guiding principle we possess as social creatures. In his book Building Healthy Minds, Dr. Stanley Greenspan states that emotional processing - far from being regulated by intellectual vigilance - is instead the internal architect, conductor, or organizer of our minds. So emotional processing, not cognitive thinking, drives our psychological profile, which in turn lays the foundation for our cognitive processing.

The infant learns what is dangerous and what is safe in order to survive by attuning first and foremost to the social and emotional responses modeled by the primary caregiver(s). The bonding process is less about what a caregiver does for the child and more about what the caregiver implicitly teaches the child about behavior for future survival. In this bonding process, the infant’s neurological system is learning a style of interaction that sustains life. Ideally this style has a feeling of safety, but many times the process of bonding for survival may not feel safe. For example, unpredictable behavior from a caregiver that creates an environment of “walking on eggshells” entrains a person’s nervous system to remain on high alert. Or at the other extreme, the example of expressionless reaction to life due to depression can stunt the emotional modeling that should occur during this process. Abuse or neglect in the relationship with caregivers negatively affect a person’s capacity to easily form meaningful bonds in later years.

Sound as origin of connection
Our systems start contextualizing in the womb.  The ambient, low frequency, rhythmic noise of heartbeat, fluid movement, digestion and breathing creates a backdrop of white noise, a matrix of sound that surrounds and secures the fetus.  Then a high frequency sound pierces the matrix - it is the voice of the mother. It’s pacing and melodic range stands out from the background and arrives on the sound landscape irregularly. This novelty sparks a curiosity, a desire for connection.  The fetus is drawn to the sound and from this moment on, the organizing principle of sound (and in particular the melodic organization of language) provides context and meaning. The interest and desire to connect has been established. French ENT Dr. Alfred Tomatis inspired the field of modern sound therapy through his discovery of the complex and essential function of efficient and meaningful sound processing on the human system.

Orientation to gravity
Beyond the early bonding process as modulated by the orientation of the baby to the primary caregiver, we ultimately evolve into adulthood by becoming our own caregiver. More than feeding, dressing, and providing for ourselves, we physiologically learn to rely on ourselves through the correlate of dynamic balance in the face of an unstable premise: balancing on two small things called feet while creating stability in a stack of bones called a spine. We accomplish this by feeling and managing the internal support structure designed to orchestrate our bodies against the single most consistent force in our lives: the gravitational field.

Organizing ourselves in the pull of gravity is the vestibular process. We orient to gravity dynamically, guided by the information gathered to a large degree by the apparatus in our inner ear, eyes and feet. This is the triad of orientation to gravity, the triangulation of three main sources upon which we rely for balance on two feet. Balance is a not a static function - it is not gripping to stay still against the force of gravity. Rather, it is the dynamic process of remaining comfortably organized as you move about in the world. It is being able to stay oriented to the constant pull of gravity even when the visual world shifts quickly. Balance is being able to adapt quickly to changing terrain beneath our feet. Balance is being able to trust ourselves as we move through space.

Orientation to gravity is the capacity to be ‘grounded’. To relate to a force in our life that never changes, is continually present, and exerts a consistent force is to have a reference that we can rely upon, quite literally. Gravity is a constant and learning to connect to it builds confidence. When we find ‘ground’ through connection to gravity, we have the security of connection to a constant. This allows greater freedom in how we engage with the environment around us (let’s call that ‘space’) because we are literally secured and anchored. Between having ‘ground’ and interacting with our ‘space’ environment, we have the full complement of being connected, i.e. feeling secure in our survival.

Summary: Connection felt as support; satisfies drive for survival
The top-down concept of survival is psychologically felt through the bottom-up sensory experience of feeling connected. Feeling connected happens through the bonding process and through the constant of gravitational pull. Gravity is our constant reference and we relate to it through our vestibular system. It is primarily associated with the inner ear, feet, and eyes.

 

Stress and perception

Stress is a function of our perception of our own circumstances, and perception is unique to the factors of our experience. What are the factors that form and shape your perception?

First you need to look at the role of bodily experience in forming perception and how that plays into your capacities to manage stress. By understanding this mind-body interaction, you’ll better understand the power of using the body to shape the mind.

Many programs of stress management focus on mentation. Thinking differently can certainly change your outlook, attitude, and overall resilience. Dr. Amit Sood, Chair of the Mind-Body initiative at the Mayo Clinic, has developed one of the better approaches to stress management, but … where is the body?! The body is the sounding board, the completion of the feedback loop of self-awareness. You cannot ignore the vehicle through which you experience the world, yet many people do.

The thinking function of the brain is called cognition and happens in the neocortex; the organizational function of our brain happens at the level of the subcortex; and what we would term emotion mediates that interaction. Neurologically, 95% of our activities as humans are automatic, i.e. happening at the subcortical level.

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Automatic behaviors that dominate our subcortical processing are learned, adaptive, and thus unique to our personal filters of perception.

While we commonly believe we can use our cognition to tame emotion, this is a top-down hierarchy that neuropsychologist Dr. Leonard Koziol refutes. There is an interactive dependence between subcortical organization and neocortical cognition.

To understand brain organization and cognition on a broad level, we have to go back to our development in the womb. The moment our perceptual capacities begin to function in utero, we are interacting with our environment. The experience of sound waves, light waves, pressure, movement, chemicals, and nutrients interact to create a matrix of experience that is unique to our circumstance in the womb.

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Coming out of the womb,

...we emerge into an environment that retains all the elements experienced in utero, yet those elements are organized differently. The certainty of the umbilical cord is replaced by the certainty of gravity. Amniotic fluid is replaced by atmosphere. The filters through which we perceive the elements of phenomenological experience are emotional, developmental or familial, cultural, and historical.

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From the beginning of our life, our emotional responses (according to psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Greenspan) are the first layer of perception that guide our actions for survival; we associate the concept of safety with the necessity of survival. The requirement of bonding trumps comfort as we learn strategies for survival because as babies we cannot survive on our own. As we develop within a family system into independent beings, we learn to stand, literally and metaphorically, on our own two feet. We additionally learn to make sense of the world through the filters of the culture and the era into which we are born. Our belief systems, arising out of these filters of perception, come together to form meaning. Indeed, even on the level of a single concept neuron, we are forming meaning.

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What we perceive as meaningful impacts the memories we have of our personal history and the expectations we have for the future. But it is the present moment where we have the most influence. Humans are not great with clarity across time: memories fade or are reshaped in the retelling; expectations are wildly out of proportion to current reality or cannot be imagined with detail. What we are exceptional at, according to artificial intelligence scientist Dr. Hans Moravec, is processing the present moment, particularly with respect to:

-walking and movement

-perception and pattern recognition

-social adaptation.

When your felt experience of the present moment is consistent with conceptual understanding of yourself, the world, and your role in the world, there is a harmony that is both expansive and centering. It is an experience that practitioners of many mind-body disciplines seek, yet perhaps poorly articulate. It is a state of effortless effort, of seemingly non-doing, where you hook into a flow that is larger than yourself.

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Like surfing, the work is to drop into the wave and play on its energy. Observation, timing, balance, and skillful alignment can create an exhilarating ride. Like tai chi, you find the just-right coordination and it feels as if you are allowing energy to move through you.

To do this in everyday walking is to ride the force of gravity in a graceful way. You recycle the force of gravity through you. You dance with gravity as your partner.