Power In Your Hands

expectations

Image by Kate Brady via Flickr

It’s Christmas Eve today, for those who celebrate the holiday, and at this time of year, there’s often talk of miracles. I don’t generally go in for that sort of thing, but I do go in for wonder, curiosity, and the excitement that discoveries having nothing to do with the supernatural can bring. This week, in a season when expectations can have an awful lot of power, I want to draw your attention to an episode of Invisibilia, a show that investigates the invisible forces that shape our lives.

In this episode, titled “How To Become Batman,” our hosts follow a man who has been blind since the age of three, who nonetheless learned to ride a bike and indeed navigates the world just as a sighted person would. It’s his belief that the way sighted people treat the blind – they ways in which they expect blind people to be helpless – take away an incredible amount of functionality they could have if they were shown alternatives.

The section that really caught my attention was the opening, in which they introduce the idea of how profoundly expectations affect outcomes.

It starts with an experiment with rats, in which a scientist labeled basically identical rats as smart or stupid, then let lab techs work with them on mazes. To a rat, the ones the people thought were smart performed much better than the “stupid” ones. The subconscious ways in which the techs touched the rats, as well as what they expected from the rats given their beliefs about the rats’ abilities, changed the way the rats behaved.

It’s obvious if you think about it: workers, children, athletes, soldiers, anyone moving under someone else’s authority – the degree to which they excel can vary wildly depending on what those authority figures – bosses, parents, coaches, officers – expect from them. Over time, negativity from those who “handle” us the way those lab techs handled the rats can leave us unmotivated, unfulfilled, even disabled. But when we offer encouragement, belief, and support for others’ efforts, it’s amazing what we can achieve.

Whether you celebrate or not, I wish encouragement, hope, and support to you in the new year.

 

A number of sources over the past few days are reporting a recommendation from Dartmouth investigators Peter Payne, SEP, and Mardi Crane-Godreau, PhD, in the journal Frontiers in Psychology that body/mind therapies such as Somatic Experiencing be subjected to more rigorous scientific research to examine their efficacy in the treatment of trauma.

I am a big fan of this idea, given that often, the work that I do and its adjuncts are often left in the dark when it comes to scientific inquiry. Skeptics like to place some healing modalities in the “quackery” category, which tends to create a circularly reasoned loop: these things are not backed by good science, therefore they must be unworthy of study, and therefore no science gets done.

The team at Dartmouth is interested in looking into the connection between the well-known effects of stress on morbidity in association with conditions such as cancer, and the relief of stress and associated trauma that is often seen in mental health modalities that incorporate the body. As this science advances, I hope to see more and more of these types of studies coming out of respected institutions, and giving us a more data-driven sense of how this stuff works.

When I was about 17 years old, I remember getting sunburned on my face. I particularly hurt on the skin around and under my eyes, but being out with family at the pool in the complex where my grandmother lived, I needed to hang out for a bit longer. I was reading a book – Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as I recall – and was having a hell of a time concentrating on it. But lying face down on a beach chair, I began a chant inside my head. It doesn’t hurt, I kept thinking. It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt.

I remember my astonishment when I realized, a few minutes later, that in fact it didn’t. I returned to my reading and, as I recall, the pain did not return.

People have been using the expression “mind over matter” for ages, but research is coming around more and more to the idea that this process is quite literal. A recent article in the Daily Mail sensationalizes it somewhat (it is, after all, in the Daily Mail), but the implications are clear: with practice, we can rewire our brains to ignore pain, so that it does not become or stay chronic.

One of the basic principles of neuroplasticity, as the ability of the brain to change and adapt is called, is that neurons that fire together, wire together. It is by this mechanism – the brain making associations, sometimes between seemingly unrelated things – that habits form, thought patterns become ingrained, some sexual proclivities develop, and trauma keeps hold of us over time.

With pain, the grooves in the brain can become very deep. “The role of acute pain is to alert us to injury or disease by sending a signal to the brain,” says Dr. Norman Doidge in the article. “But sometimes an injury affects the body and the nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. As acute pain continues, these neurons become hypersensitive, firing more easily with less stimulation.” Opioid drugs like morphine and oxycodone can increase this effect over time, driving the neurological grooves deeper until even a small stimulus can trigger pain, even in areas of the body that weren’t directly affected by the injury.

Another doctor who studied this phenomenon after his own severe injury, pain specialist Michael Moskowitz, “realised that many of the areas in the brain that fire in chronic pain also process thoughts, sensations, images, memories, movements, emotions, and beliefs – when they are not processing pain, that is.

This explains why, when we’re in pain, we can’t concentrate, tolerate certain sounds or light, or control our emotions well, because areas that regulate these activities have been hijacked to process the pain signal.

Working from the knowledge that two parts of the brain process both pain signals and visual signals, he developed a way of using visualization to overcome the pain when it arose. Focusing on an image of his own brain in pain, he then imagined the areas of pain getting smaller and smaller. By repeatedly telling the brain to process this visual image rather than focusing on the pain itself, he achieved a reduction of pain in 3 weeks, a major reduction in 6, and a near-pain-free existence after a year.

These findings, which he has begun putting into practice for patients for several years with surprising success, dovetail with the work that Synergists and other bodymind therapists have been doing for some time. Because awareness is the first key to change, getting clients to focus on different parts of their bodies, on their pain, on their emotion, or on whatever is happening inside them and describe it in detail can help the client regain some control over bodily responses to stimuli. By observing our state in detail, we can then take action to change that state.

I’m again remembering a certain demo session that Ilana Rubenfeld ran in our training, with a classmate who had been in a serious car accident more than 20 years ago, and sometimes still had pain from it. In that session, she helped him rewrite the memory: starting the process of rewiring the part of his brain that had built a groove around that event, a groove that kept saying remember, and helping him to remember it differently, to tell the brain that in fact it had been a near miss, to let those pain signals stop firing at last. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt.

I’m looking forward to learning more.

A man in Brazil, having received a cardiac implant, found – not all that surprisingly – that his body image shifted: he had the odd feeling off having a heart in his belly rather than his chest. But rather more surprisingly, the introduction of the implant “seemed to have markedly altered certain social and emotional skills,” according to David Robson at BBC Future. The article that came out this week, “The mind-bending effects of feeling two hearts,” delves into recent research that shows that our hearts – and body-awareness in general – have a more profound effect on our emotional functioning than even the poets may have known.

A recent experiment asked participants to count their own heartbeats, without putting their hands over their hearts or having any other aid in perceiving them. About 1 in 4 people get something like 50% accuracy; some folks are not very good at perceiving what’s going on inside of them, as I have observed in my own practice. A few, though – also around 1-4 – can achieve an accuracy of 80%. This ability, incidentally, is called introception, a word I’ll definitely be adopting.

After this, the groups were asked to do a series of tests around emotional awareness. The results were astounding:

People with more bodily awareness tend have more intense reactions to emotive pictures and report being more greatly moved by them; they are also better at describing their feelings. Importantly, this sensitivity seems to extend to others’ feelings – they are better at recognising emotions in others’ faces – and they are also quicker to learn to avoid a threat, such as a small electric shock in the lab, perhaps because those more intense bodily feelings saturate their memories, making the aversion more visceral.

In another study aimed at looking at intuition, people who had a more accurate sense of their hearts followed their intuition more. They were asked to pick cards that would win them money if they matched the color of a card on the table. “The game was rigged so that you were slightly more likely to win from two of the decks, and lose if you picked from the other two. Dunn [the researcher] found that the people who could track their heartbeat with the most accuracy would tend to pick from certain decks, whereas those with poor interoception were more likely to choose at random.”

It is not so much that the hunches the more body-aware people followed were always right – quite the contrary. It is more than they tended to follow their hearts, as the saying goes, more often. People with increased body awareness are being found to have richer emotional awareness as well, resulting in a richer experience of life. And those with reduced bodily awareness – including those with certain neurological flaws in the connection between the body and the brain – can suffer everything from depression to depersonalization disorders.

Naturally all of this is exciting for someone who works primarily on helping people increase their body awareness. It is also no wonder that Rubenfeld Synergy can be so powerful: tuning in to the body’s sensations can unlock emotions that are lying dormant and allow them to flow when they have been trapped.

What happens when you listen to your heart?

More research, this time out of Harvard Business School, is emerging around the ways in which body language, body position, and other clear, controllable physical actions can not only change the way others think and feel about us, but how we feel and think about ourselves. Amy Cuddy’s research showed a two-minute change in body posture changed hormone levels in the body, affected self-confidence, and influenced job interviewers.

I’ve talked here some about Ilana Rubenfeld’s principle that the way you move in your body is the way you move in your life. The video below is a fantastic TED talk that shows how this is literally true.

In Cuddy’s experiments, just two minutes of assuming “power poses” significantly raised testosterone levels, lowered cortisol levels, improved people’s sense of self-worth and made interviewers much more likely to want to hire them. Two minutes of sitting curled up and making themselves small had the opposite effect: lowered testosterone, elevated cortisol, feelings of insecurity, and unattractiveness for hiring.

The implications of this would be almost alarming if they weren’t so accessible. In my work, we do a lot of imagining around what different options might be like. What if a client who has spent his whole life with his shoulders curled around his body could open up? What would that feel like? What might become possible? We might talk to the physical pain that trying this would be likely to cause: what protective mechanism has his body had in place for so long, but might be ready to let go and become something else?

For some, this process of healing, of becoming, can be slow, but it is possible. This science shows how it works. What is remarkable to me is how the power positions are all about being open, taking up space, being seen. Opening yourself up like this is exposing – relating back to the Brene Brown talks I’ve linked to here before on vulnerability. This relationship between vulnerability and power continues to intrigue me, and I’m sure you’ll hear more from me about it in this space.

For now, though, watch below, and don’t miss Cuddy’s own story, near the end, of how she, personally, overcome near-crippling self-doubt.

 

On a recent edition of Science Friday, I encountered an interview with neuroscientist Francis McGlone, whose research into touch-sensitive nerves has changed the landscape for how science understands touch in humans.

It was already known that there are what might be called fast nerves and slow nerves. The first carry sensation to the brain in milliseconds; these are the nerves that make you draw back when you touch a hot plate. The slower nerves carry the message over the course of several seconds: these are the nerves that process the burning sensation afterward.

What was a relatively new finding was that there are also slow nerves – called C fibers – associated with pleasant touch. These are known as C-tactile fibers, and convey what McGlone calls the emotional quality of touch.

When a person is stroked gently, these slow nerve fibers process the sensation as a feeling, transmitting to the brain a feeling of pleasure. These nerves, though, also work with the brain to interpret the feeling and put it in context: if someone you can’t stand is touching you, for example, the pleasant touch won’t be experienced as pleasant. Similarly, a painful sensation won’t be experienced as quite so painful when it’s in an expected or familiar context: for example, getting hair pulled out at the salon.

These slow nerve fibers, then, are the conduits that help our bodies translate the sensation of touch into an emotional experience of the world, from the breeze on our face to the sand between our toes to a reassuring touch on the shoulder.

A more detailed discussion of McGlone and others’ work in this arena is here, in an article from The Scientist.

What this research made me think of in the context of Rubenfeld Synergy was how developmentally, the type and amount of touch we receive as infants and children helps determine how our brains form socially.  In the above interview, McGlone calls the brain “a social organ,” and talks about how the earliest touch we receive helps us develop affectively. This, to me, points to how many people’s wiring gets crossed early on, and what is meant to be pleasant touch, received from inappropriate sources or in sexualized or otherwise inappropriate ways, may wire a person’s brain to perceive pleasant touch as unsafe or even painful.

One role that touching healers, like Synergists, can potentially play is in helping clients rewire their nervous systems to be able to receive pleasant touch, by exposing them to non-sexual, boundaried, gentle contact in a healing context. This is tricky and sensitive work, but I have hope for its healing properties.

The latest from the “but we knew that, right?” department: a study showing how infants process the sensation of “pleasant” touch – and how young they learn it.

Touch is critical to human development, and in fact, as my friend Christine Kraemer pointed out, most baby mammals will die without it. Much writing has been done on the topic of the crucial role of touch in bonding, healthy development, and general emotional and social health. But it’s always nice to see more detailed studies like these, that begin to examine the mechanisms by which these things work.

Of greatest interest to me was the following quote. For context, the researchers were brushing the infants’ skin with a paintbrush:

Interestingly, infants’ slower heart rate during medium-velocity brushstrokes was uniquely correlated with the primary caregivers’ own self-reported sensitivity to touch. That is, the more sensitive the caregiver was to touch, the more the infant’s heart rate slowed in response to medium-velocity touch.

This brings powerfully to mind the relationship between the synergist and the client in an RSM session, and how the energy and mood of the synergist communicates through to the client through touch, and vice versa. It’s also remarkable to me that this happened in the research even though the caregivers weren’t touching the infants directly.

Think about what it’s like to be near someone who is warm and calm and welcoming, and then think about what it’s like to be around someone high-strung, nervous, or angry. Mood is contagious, and touch amplifies it. This research seems to show, at least by correlation, that sensitivity can also be contagious.

Read it here.

 

Everyone knows how a song can open us to emotion.  Most of us probably have songs that make us cry, songs that make us nostalgic for our youth, songs that make it impossible not to dance.  And as we go into the holiday season, there are doubtless songs that make us homicidal, particularly the ones that get repeated endlessly on piped-in mall music.

Some of this can be attributed to memory and meaning: the song was playing during our first kiss, or the words remind us of a lost love.  But some of it is purely the music itself.  Have you ever had the experience of a particular violin or cello strain cracking you open?  Of certain music making you cry, because, for whatever reason, it aches?

Science is still studying why it’s the case that music can have such a powerful emotional effect.  A recent study showed that listening to music can affect how we perceive neutral human faces: happy music makes us see them as happier, for example.  But why it has this effect is not fully known.

One theory the writer of the Scientific American article linked above has is that music is connected with human movement.  Music, after all, is a series of sounds made possible by human movement: breath, pressure, bowing, pressing keys, strumming strings, striking drums, and so on.  And music inspires us to dance, or to close our eyes and go inside ourselves to listen.  

Ilana Rubenfeld trained as a symphonic conductor at Julliard, and was herself a violinist. Her approach to her work was highly musical, and she knew how powerfully music was connected to emotion.  She saw our bodies as our most valuable instruments, and our lives as ongoing symphonies.  That may sound Pollyannic, but it may actually be literally true, and may be the key to discovering why music is so – literally – moving.

In my sessions, I strive to connect the person I’m working with to their own internal instrument.  To listen to their own breath, to be moved by their own movements (interesting that sections of symphonies and concertos are also called “movements”), to discover what their song sounds like right now.  Some people are more musical than others, but most people can be connected to their rhythms, to the pulse of what makes them human and alive.

To connect with your own rhythm and find your song again, get in touch with me.

 


Photo by Fer Kazalz

Two new studies in neuroscience, revealed at the British Neuroscience Association Festival of Neuroscience earlier this month, show the ways our bodies respond to and mirror other people’s emotional states.

I’ve written a bit here about empathy and emotional mirroring, and how powerful our bodies can be at not just recognizing but assuming another’s emotional state.  The two studies in the above article both looked at how our brains and bodies work together to make our emotional perceptions more accurate and intense.

The second study was of greatest interest to me in Rubenfeld Synergy terms.  It turns out that there’s a part of our brain that’s responsible for empathic mirroring in the body: the somatosensory cortex.  This bit of our brains helps our bodies perceive touch, pain, temperature changes, and proprioceptive sensations – like knowing where our bodies are in space.  It has also been found that it responds when we see faces that are registering an emotion – such as fear, which was the expression used in this study.  When we see a face that appears fearful, our somatosensory cortex sends empathy-signals to the body: basically telling it to have physiological responses that mirror the fear in another human’s face.

“In order to understand other people’s emotions,” said Dr. Alejandra Sel, the lead on the study, “we need to experience the same observed emotions in our body. Specifically, observing an emotional face, as opposed to a neutral face, is associated with an increased activity in the somatosensory cortex as if we were expressing and experiencing our own emotions” [emphasis mine].

The study sought to discover whether this part of our brain responds independently of visual processing, and found that indeed, this part of us works on its own to help us understand others’ emotions.  Most interesting to me here, though, is the explanation of how the somatosensory cortex is involved not just in sending signals to the body, but receiving signals from it and helping us to synthesize that information. While the primary part of this cortex receives signals directly from the body, the secondary part “combines sensory information from the body with information related to body movement and other information, such as memories of previous, sensitive experiences.”

This, to me, says a lot about emotional and traumatic “triggers”: when we see someone else apparently experiencing fear or pain, not only do our bodies echo that fear and pain, but our bodymind assembles memories and sensations to fill out the experience. Depending on our individual histories, this process may open us to intense empathy, or may trigger a trauma response that causes us to shut down and dissociate.

From a Synergy perspective, I want to emphasize yet again how powerful and critical our bodies are in determining and shifting our emotional states.  Focusing on another’s pain can cause us to feel that pain just as acutely; by the same token, focusing on our own bodily sensations can both clarify our own emotions to ourselves, and give us the means to change our emotional state if we so desire.  One of the many benefits of RSM is that it teaches us how to become aware of our emotional states, fully experience them in our bodies, and have the tools to move beyond them.

The more we add to our understanding of how our brains – which are, after all, part of our bodies! – interact with the rest of our bodies, the more we can come into our self-sovereignty: not dominion over our emotions, but an aligned understanding of where our emotions, sensations, and thoughts are coming from, and how to bring them into agreement.  When we can do that, navigating the world becomes a lot easier.

Read the article on the studies here; make an appointment with me here.

Music 01754
I’ve written here before about how music touches lives, opens hearts, and even brings back memory.  Music may not be entirely unique to humans, but it is definitely a primal need: throughout our history, music has soothed us, aided us in celebration and in mourning, been indispensable in our rituals, driven cultural revolutions, fueled protests, and been one of the most popular forms of entertainment for centuries, whether it’s Grandpa on the porch with a banjo or Madonna on an arena stage surrounded by sexy dancers and pyrotechnics.

When considering RSM, it’s helpful to recall that before she was a healer, Ilana Rubenfeld was a Julliard-trained symphonic conductor.  The extent to which music informed her work is great, and really masterful sessions can have the qualities of a well conducted symphony: separate movements, swells and climaxes, gentle andante sections, elegant resolutions.

Music moves through the body just as touch does: sound is literally vibrations which not only get translated to sound in the air, but can sometimes be felt in other parts of the body.  Think of how a really low bass note will vibrate your belly, or how drums shake the floor.  And partly because of this, music can move us in more direct ways than other things can: music is intimately connected with emotion, and for many people there is nothing that can bring tears or smiles more easily than a well-placed strain of music.

For me, this phenomenon becomes even more profound when I’m the one making the music.  Yesterday I again got to sing with the wonderful Back Bay Chorale, and we sang a new piece along with the Mozart Requiem.  I was going through some personal difficulty this weekend, but predicted that singing the Mozart would help a great deal.

I was thrilled with how right I was about it.  Breathing deeply, singing fully, letting that gorgeous lamentation for the dead flow through my body made me feel freer and stronger.  Being surrounded by 120 other voices, an orchestra, and world-class soloists peeling the paint off the walls also helped.

Even if you don’t feel like you can make your own music, though, when you’re having a hard time, let music help you.  Play it loud in your living room and lie on the floor to let the vibrations literally move you, or wear headphones in your bed.  Blast your favorite song in your car as you drive.  Let the music you love vibrate your ears and your cells to a new place.  Believe me, it helps.