Your mind creates your reality

Shortly before Valentine’s Day, I took a lovely long walk in the woods. As I stepped out, I was playing with the notion of romantic love and how I feel about the natural world: ‘I love yew!’ I smiled at my silly pun and then forgot all about it. Hours later, I found myself on a familiar path; I’ve walked there many times every season. I typically wander along at a gentle pace, enjoying the changing cycles of nature and marvelling at the trees, plants and fungi. Then, I suddenly noticed a distinctive tree I hadn’t ever seen before. I was puzzled at first: How had I missed something so obvious? I realised I’d probably looked at this tree many times before but hadn’t seen it until now.

heart shape on tree bark

This heart-shaped stood out so clearly on the bark that I was amazed I’d never noticed it. Then, I recalled an insight I often share with clients: we see what we’re looking for

Our senses pick up far more data than the conscious mind can process, so we have a filter system that cuts out the noise. Have you ever been at a party and suddenly heard your name amidst the babble of chatter? That’s the Reticular Activating System (RAS) at work. When I was learning to drive, it seemed like there were ‘L’ plates everywhere! It’s not that there was a sudden surge in people learning to drive: My RAS had been set to filter for ‘L’ plates because that was significant for me. At the start of my nature walk, I’d mentally ‘set’ heart shapes as important, and although I’d forgotten about Valentine’s Day, by the time I saw this particular tree, my RAS picked up the pattern.

We see what we’re looking for

A little later, I stopped to read an information board. It told me that the field in the near distance had been seeded with wildflowers and would develop into a meadow over time. I stood for a little while looking out over the muddy ground, imagining how wonderful it would look in the Summer. When I returned to the path to continue my walk, I noticed a figure in the middle distance looking out over the same view. I saw that they had one hand held up near their eyes, and I wondered if they were holding binoculars. What were they looking at?

A few steps later, the reality dawned: It wasn’t a person but the roots of a fallen tree! My perceptual error is a simple example of what psychology calls ‘priming’ which is when a specific stimulus primes us to behave in a particular way shortly afterwards. I’d been looking at the meadow, so I was primed to notice others doing the same. Our minds are naturally inclined to see human shapes and faces – even when they aren’t there. This explains pareidolia – our tendency to see faces in the patterns on things like trees and stones.

Both of the examples I’ve given illustrate my main point: We see what we look for. Crucially, this is an unconscious process, always structuring your perception of reality. This is related to the idea that ‘We see the world and things not as they are but as we are’. Anaïs Nin and Steven Covey used this quote. Still, its origin is obscure, with the Talmud and Immanuel Kant cited as the source. You might be curious about who you think said it first. While your answer may not be accurate, it will certainly tell you something about yourself.

Interoception: The Sixth Sense

Back in the 1860s, a Russian psychologist called Ivan Sechenov noted the existence of an “obscure muscular sense” at the border of consciousness. He was probably the first to suggest that bodily sensations might be significant, but no one paid much attention. It wasn’t until 1907 that Charles Scott Sherrington named this internal sense ‘interoception’, finally giving a name to our ability to sense bodily signals like heartbeat, breath, thirst, hunger and muscle tension.

Although we’ve known about interoception for over 100 years, research into this powerful ‘sixth sense’ has taken off in the last few decades. Why the sudden interest? It’s become increasingly apparent that interoception is fundamental to emotional regulation and can play a crucial role in our wellbeing.

Interoception feeds a vast amount of information to the brain: While most of that input will remain outside conscious awareness, it all significantly impacts our emotional state and thinking. We all differ in how intensely we experience emotions, and the research suggests that this might be due to individual differences in interoception. People with greater interoceptive awareness tend to feel emotions more intensely, are more empathic and are better at emotional regulation. Conversely, research links a lack of interoceptive awareness with emotional disorders. In summary, listening through your body can enhance your emotional life and mental health.

So how can you learn to listen to your body? I asked Jennifer Tantia, a Somatic Psychotherapist and Dance Movement therapist. Many years ago, Jennifer “went on a quest” to find the answer to a vital question: “How am I going to teach people how to get into their bodies?” Jennifer explains that the body is “a gateway between consciousness and unconsciousness”, and she talks us through ways we can learn the path through that gateway. The key is to “really pay attention, start listening through [your] body”. You need to let go and be open to listening and receiving information “outside of what you think you know”. Meditation, dance, and Focusing can all help develop your interoceptive awareness; perhaps unsurprisingly, these three are embodied pathways of connection.

Mindful breathing and body scan meditation are especially valuable to developing your interoceptive awareness, and mindful movement can also help. Jennifer talks about a form of dance movement therapy called Authentic Movement: “It’s like putting your brain in the back seat and putting your body in the driver’s seat, and you really are in a different state where your body is moving”.

My conversion with Jennifer goes deep, and we identify presence as an underlying theme. You have to be fully present to listen through your body. Jennifer notes that it underpins meditation, nature connection and psychedelic experience. As our conversation ends, Jennifer emphasizes the importance of practice.

“You can’t just do it once and get it. It’s a practice; it’s tolerating your own frustration, it’s letting yourself be surprised until everything is a surprise. And that’s presence, right, and it’s worth the effort to practice”.

Learning to listen through your body takes time – and you need to keep practising – but the reward is no less than becoming fully human.

The Neuroscience of Interconnection

Western culture has a curious habit of rediscovering what’s already known. Typically, spirituality comes to a profound understanding first, and a philosopher gets it next. Sometime later, psychology catches up, and neuroscience finally ‘discovers’ it with a brain scan.

Cutting-edge neuroscience has found that the brains of social species like mice, bats and humans tend to synchronise, creating what neuroscientist Thalia Wheatley describes as “a single überbrain that isn’t reducible to the sum of its parts”. Like when oxygen and hydrogen combine to make water, what emerges is qualitatively different.

The researchers studied what happens when two people create a story together. Starting with the prompt “A group of children encounters aliens”, each person took turns to tell the next part of the tale. Caitlyn and Lorie set their account in a strange landscape, and during one of her turns, Caitlyn told of how the ground started to rise up beneath the feet of the children. A moment later, Lorie took her turn, saying that “It felt like the creature took a breath.” This is exactly where Caitlyn planned to take the story: the kids were walking on the alien itself. Caitlyn felt that they “were on the same page”, while the research neuroscientist concluded that this was synchrony at work.

I’m always pleased when new research upsets the myth of an enclosed, Cartesian individual, but social psychologists came to a similar conclusion a while ago. Take, for example, the phenomenon of ’emotional contagion’. You may have noticed how the mood of people you’re with impacts your own, how we tend to unconsciously ‘catch’ other people’s moods. You may also be familiar with the ‘contact high’ phenomenon, where simply sitting with someone on a psychedelic journey makes you feel like you’ve taken the substance too. Although this goes against the Western model of the enclosed individual, the evidence for this kind of connectedness is overwhelming.

Decades before psychologists came to this realisation, a few philosophers grasped that we are profoundly interconnected. In 1945 Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote:

“as the parts of my body together compromise a system, so my body and the other’s are one whole, two sides of one and the same phenomenon, and the anonymous existence of which my body is the ever-renewed trace henceforth inhabits both bodies simultaneously.” (1962)

Each of us is woven into the rich tapestry of existence. As the philosopher of consciousness, Christian de Quincey wrote:

“We are constituted by webs of interconnection. Relationship comes first, and we emerge as more or less distinct centres within the vast and complex networks that surround us” (2005).

The spiritual traditions knew this long ago, and Zen Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh echoed the wisdom of the ancients when he said, “We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”

The power of place revisited

One of the key ideas in my PhD (2008) was that we think with place; different places enable us to think in particular ways. Based on the research of people like Andy Clark and Christopher Preston, I explored how spending time in nature can profoundly change how we make sense of the world. I spent weeks trawling through books and papers on embodied knowing and situated cognition, but there was always more. I now know just how much research I missed, because science writer Annie Murphy Paul has written a fascinating exploration of the extended mind – how our thinking extends beyond the brain (2021). I’m keen to see what Paul has found that I missed and to find out what emerges when I revisit my work with all this new information.

Many thinkers have suggested that we think with place. Gregory Peterson surveyed the field in 2003 and concluded that trying to understand “the mind/brain in isolation from biological and environmental contexts is to understand nothing” (Peterson, 2003). David Abram rather more poetically suggests that a heavy boulder might lend our “thoughts a certain gravity, and a kind of stony wisdom” (Abram, 2004).

The bottom line is that there are thoughts you’ll have in a forest that would be literally unthinkable in a shopping mall.

trees in mist

My research was focused on environmental campaigners, many of whom were living on protest sites in natural spaces. I found that spending months living close to nature often changed how people made sense of the world. Rob Greenway used the term “the wilderness effect” to describe what happens to people on a multi-day trek in the wild. People would talk about how their minds feel ‘open’ and ‘airy’ in the wilderness, in contrast with ‘turgid,’ ‘tight,’ and ‘crowded’ in urban culture (Greenway, 1995). Those who live on road protest sites often feel something similar. Jon Anderson wrote: “I get a slowed down, rhythmic feeling in the woods and on the meadow, relaxed” (2004).

Once you’ve experienced that feeling, it’s easier to notice how different our thinking is in an urban environment. Barry Patterson is concerned that the city can easily become “a space built from symbols, a virtual reality, rather than physical structures & patterns of relationship” (Patterson, n.d.). Barry told me that such places can feel like a “sensory desert”. Rob, another activist I spoke to, explained how he finds it difficult to cope in cities partly because “in an urban environment everything is constructed, everything is based on ideas”. In a more natural environment, Rob’s thinking is very different, and he can “feel the energy flowing through me and I have that connection”.

Living on a protest site – or wilderness trekking – can free “energies bound up in habitual deformations of posture or movement” (Jackson, 2006).

Annie Murphy Paul explores a different and wider range of topics, but similar themes emerge. She explains that although “our sense of self may feel stable and solid, it is in fact quite fluid, dependent on external structure for its shape”. That makes perfect sense given what I learnt from living on a protest site for several months.

Paul draws on the latest research to illustrates how “physical places influence our thinking and behaviour far more than personality or other factors” (2021). She tells us about the work of the psychologist Roger Barker. Barker and his team carefully observed the behaviour of a group of children from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. A clear pattern emerged, but it had more to do with place than personality. Barker concluded that the “behaviour of a child often changed dramatically when he moved from one region to another, e.g. from classroom, to hall, to playground, from drugstore to street, from basketball game to shower room.”

There’s much richness in Annie Murphy Paul’s book and it’s very useful for the kind of embodied, nature-based work that I do with my clients. This is the book on the extended mind that I’ve wanted to read for the last couple of decades and it’s well worth the wait!

Left brain – right brain: In therapy

In my previous post I outlined some of the key differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain and touched on what that might mean for psychotherapy. I’ll now delve a little deeper into that mystery.

While my previous post was based on well established neuroscience, some of what follows is more speculative. That said, it’s all grounded in current scientific understanding.

As I explained last time, part of the role of the right brain is to keep us alert to danger. The right hemisphere is specialized for wide-angle sensory awareness that’s good for scanning for threats: We might say that the right brain is naturally suspicious. Perhaps it’s no surprise that research has found a correlation between depression, anxiety and increased activity in the right hemisphere. A lot of that activity is in the frontal lobe, a region concerned with reward, attention, planning, and motivation. There’s also a high level of right hemisphere activation in PTSD and when childhood abused adults recall unpleasant memories. Another strand of research suggests that PTSD is linked to poor communication between the hemispheres (Cozolino, 2017).

How might therapy help balance and integrate the two hemispheres? When I work with clients, I’m constantly monitoring several channels of communication. The most obvious strand to watch for is the difference what is said and the way it’s said. The structure of language, the way sentences are strung together, is largely a left brain activity, but our tone of voice is more involved with right brain processes. Body language and facial expressions are also more under right brain control. If, or rather, when, there’s some inconsistency between the simple content of what’s said and the wider context, I’ll need to make a judgement call. Suppose a client says “I’m fine about that”, but their facial expression, body language or tone say ‘I’m really not OK”. I might decide to reflect that back to them: It’s as if I’m acting as a mediator between the right and left hemispheres.

Peter Afford suggests that Experiential Focusing – the foundation of my therapeutic approach – may work by promoting the integration of the left and right hemispheres (Afford, 2014). Focusing invites us to drop our awareness into our physical bodies and check for a ‘felt sense’, a feeling in the body that carries meaning. We then sit with any felt senses that arise and gradually begin to engage with them through language. A felt sense is often just a vague sensation at first and I’ll be curious about where it is in my body, its size and shape, and whether it has a colour or a particular emotional tone. I’m initiating a dialogue between an emotional, bodily sensation, which are right brain processes, and the more left brain activities of labelling and seeking details. The next stage is to deepen that dialogue, literally asking the felt sense what it’s about. The linguistic right hemisphere is engaging in dialogue with the more embodied left.

I’ve been watching the therapeutic process over the last few months and I think I’m seeing lots of occasions where I’m helping my client with some left/right brain integration. I’m not saying this explains how therapy works; there are many parallel processes going on all the time, many of which we may currently be oblivious to. However, I believe the work of balancing and integrating the left and right hemispheres is a key part of therapy and having a greater awareness of how that might happen can enhance therapeutic practice.

Left brain – right brain: Beyond the myth

Back in the 70’s there was a lot of pop-science chatter about the left and right brain hemispheres. Right brained people, it claimed are creative, while left brained types are analytical. Pretty cool, huh? Cool, but inaccurate and misleading. We now know much more, and the research reveals something much more exciting!

While most systems are integrated across both brain hemispheres there are real differences between the two, but it’s not simply “emotion on the right, reason on the left”. When we talk about the right/left lateralization of the brain, we’re saying that some functions are carried out in one hemisphere more than the other; it’s about specialization. While there are differences between right handed, left handed and ambidextrous people, in general the specialization is as I describe it below.

Areas of the right hemisphere are specialized to deal with aspects of the physical and emotional self. Strong emotions like anxiety and terror activate the right brain. The right hemisphere has many more connections to the emotional heart of the brain, the limbic system. It’s also more connected to the rest of the body, notably the viscera – your gut.

The left hemisphere is specialized in organizing the conscious linguistic self. It’s better at problem solving and is inclined towards positive emotions. The left brain is the more social of the two halves: It’s engaged when someone approaches you and also when you’re angry with someone. The left brain thinks in a linear, sequential way and has less of a connection with the rest of the body than the right brain.

Graphic of the brain

We all have an instinctive ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response to danger, and the right brain is tied into that. Because it processes information in a holistic way, the right brain quickly gets the big picture, and it’s always checking; is that picture safe or possibly dangerous? Perhaps because we’re wired to look for danger, the right hemisphere is more concerned with negative emotions. When you look at a distressing image, the right hemisphere is activated and depression seems to be linked with increased right brain activity. Many right brain specializations are concerned with things outside our immediate awareness, so we can think of it as the home of the unconscious mind. As Louis Cozolino explains:

“When we are awake, the right hemisphere silently provides information to the left, which we experience as intuition, feelings, and visual images” (Cozolino, 2017).

Both halves of the brain have a vital role to play, and mental wellbeing requires a balance and integration between the two. All this has profound implications for psychotherapy. Anxiety, depression and psychosis have all been linked to poor integration between the left and right brain, so does therapy help integration? The short answer is yes, but a more thoughtful discussion will follow in my next blog post.

The cognitive iceberg

Every year the Edge website asks interesting people a provocative question. The Edge Question for 2011 was “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

Adam Alter, a psychologist and Assistant Professor at Stern School of Business, NYU, responded with a short discussion of the idea that our minds are like an iceberg, such that we’re ignorant of many of the processes that shape our mental lives. This notion may be familiar – I’ve discussed my own model of the cognitive iceberg in this blog.

Alter explains that ”while we’re focusing on the business of daily life, our brains are processing multitudes of information below the surface of conscious awareness”. This “peripheral information subtly shapes our thoughts, feelings and actions, and crafts some of our most critical life outcomes”.

He gives a few interesting examples, noting what a powerful impact the weather can have. No surprise perhaps that “rainy weather makes us more introspective and thoughtful”, but less obvious that it also improves our memory. Apparently the electrical state of the atmosphere also has an influence on accidents, suicide, depression and irritability.

Alter mentions the power of embodied metaphor, citing studies showing that “people find strangers more likable when they form their first impressions while holding a cup of warm coffee”. Lakoff and Johnson have discussed this at length, claiming that most of our reasoning relies on such embodied metaphors. The way we use the metaphor ‘more is up’ provides a simple example: Because in health we stand up, while sickness brings us down, we tend to think of ‘more’ as being ‘up’ (‘price rises’) and less as down (‘stocks plummeting’) (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999).

“An interconnected whole”

Dr. Dan Siegel’s conclusions about the mind support the core theme of this blog: Mind is extended. But Siegel emphasises the importance of human relationships: 
“Mind is shared between people. It isn’t something you own; we are profoundly interconnected. We need to make maps of we because we is what me is!” (2010).

A rowing boat on a loch with mountains and forest background

Siegel is developing a new area of cognitive science called interpersonal neurobiology that’s focused on understanding the mind and mental health. Siegel’s ideas seem to me to be both intuitively true and radical. For example, he claims that “relationships, mind and brain aren’t different domains of reality—they are each about energy and information flow” (2010). That means that our relationships are an integral part of the bodymind.

To some extent this recaps what many others have already said – the mind “cannot be separated from the entire organism”  or the “outside environment” (Varela, 1999, authors emphasis), but Siegel develops this understanding and applies it to our mental health.

Although I very much like his emphasis on human relationships, we need to remember the other than human world. What do Siegel’s insights mean for our relationship with animals, forests, mountains and the rest? As Siegel himself says, “‘We’ are indeed a part of an interconnected whole”(2010).

Spirit of place: What lies beneath

Most of Uluru lies beneath the surface of the desert. Human cognition is like that too: Probably 95 percent of embodied thought lies below our everyday awareness.

Uluru sunset. Copyright AH

Our cognition is like an iceberg; the familiar self is just the tip that emerges from the sea, while the vast bulk of cognitive processing lies out of sight. But we can access that deeper level through ‘gut feelings’, those physically sensed intuitions that hint at other ways of knowing.

When anthropologists and adventurers write of how indigenous peoples can sense the spirit of a place, there’s an implication that no-one else can. But I’d hazard that we’ve all felt it; a soundless hum, an invisible haze, something about a specific place that hovers just outside comprehension.

We can all sense the spirit of place if we’re attentive enough. Just as the Aboriginal Dreaming lies hidden in the land, so does spiritual connection lie deep in what I call bodymind place.

On-line and off-line, or who ate my toast?

A mate gave me some home-made marmalade, so I slapped some on my toast and sat down to enjoy it with a cup of tea. Ten minutes later I looked forlornly at a crumb dusted plate and realised I’d eaten it but hadn’t tasted it.

I’d been pondering my blog and not paying attention to the here and now. This common experience – a side-effect of being conscious – has engaged spiritual teachers from (at least) Buddha to Eckhart Tolle as well as cognitive scientists. The latter make a useful distinction between on-line and off-line cognition. On-line cognition deals with live tasks that require fast moment-by-moment processing; eating toast, for example. We switch to slower, off-line cognition when we need to check on something odd or plan future behaviour. You’re probably using on-line cognition now. Watch your awareness as you read: “The old man the boats”.

I’d guess you used on-line cognition as you started to read that sentence (from Meyer and Rice, 1992), but had to re-read it off-line to get the meaning.

One of my key themes is the importance of place in cognition, but location is irrelevant for some off-line cognition. When you’re ‘in your head’, imagining some ‘what-if’ scenario, you’re off-line and place is fairly irrelevant. But on-line cognition is in the moment, so place is fundamental. Just remember that next time you eat some toast.