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The era of the body: How physiology affects mental health

The era of the body: How physiology affects mental health

By Michal Gruberger, PhD | 30.11.2022

You hear a stirring piece of music, and shivers run down your spine.

You catch an unexpected glimpse of a loved one, and your heart lurches.

We’ve all experienced these types of reactions. Over the past century, the science of human emotion has largely explained them as the workings of the brain.

In the 1990s, with the development of functional MRI, researchers gained access to images of brain activity like never before. This further supported the theory that our emotions and their physiological symptoms originate in the brain.

Moreover, mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bi-polar disorder were all largely attributed as brain-based phenomena too.

But we intuitively know that there may be more to it than that.

Beyond the brain

As the medical and scientific community became hyper-focused on the brain, a presumption took hold that mentally-driven physiological activity is mostly related to brain activity alone. The more it was studied, the more the theory was believed. Non brain-related processes were overlooked and scarcely researched.

However, in recent years, several new streams of evidence have emerged, shifting the attention of scientists to what is known as the “physiological brain” – how the whole body, not just the brain, interfaces with the mind to affect mental states.

The mind and gut

We all know a ‘gut feeling’ when we have one. Now, there is a growing field of study into the connection between gut bacteria and mental health that may just explain how it works.

The human digestive tract is home to trillions of microbes, or gut flora. These gut microbes are collectively known as the microbiome. It is now understood that the microbiome has a significant impact on one’s overall health. When gut flora is out of balance, it can contribute to a range of diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Recent research reveals that the microbiome is also linked to mental health. Evidence from 26 studies points to the fact that people who show symptoms of anxiety and depression have more gut flora associated with inflammation than people who are not anxious or depressed. It is unclear exactly how this mechanism works, however one theory postulates that certain gut bacteria may stimulate the vagus nerve, which controls heart rate, digestion, immune response and mood. Another theory says that certain microbes may release chemicals that travel to the brain via the bloodstream, triggering emotional disorders.

The mind and heart

It is clear that the brain affects the cardiovascular system. Just watch a scary movie and notice how your heart rate increases.

But is that really what’s going on?

Researchers at the Universities of Pisa, Padua and California Irvine have been studying whether it might be heart activity that affects our emotions rather than brain activity, which is the commonly held scientific opinion. They examined the EEG and ECG measurements of a group of healthy subjects exposed to videos showing pleasant and unpleasant content. What they found may revolutionize accepted theories about the mind-heart connection.

According to the study, the cardiac response to the video occurred in the first seconds of viewing, before the brain response. Indeed, the heart stimulated the brain activity first. This has led to a theory that it is cardiac sympathetic vagal activity that initiates the brain and body response to emotional stimuli. Or in other words: “the root of emotional response comes from the heart.”

The mind and emotions

“There is no such thing as a disembodied mind. The mind is implanted in the brain, and the brain is implanted in the body.” Antonio Darnasio

According to renowned emotion researcher and professor Antonio Damasio, the bodily information of feelings are the basis of what we experience as the mind. This is how it can be understood:

The human central nervous system is constantly monitoring the external world, as well as our internal environment, for threats and changes. The exteroceptive system monitors changes to our external-facing senses, like sounds, smells and tastes, while the interoceptive system tracks our internal changes, such as heart rate and blood chemicals. The goal of the nervous system is to regulate the body according to internal and external environments, triggering the brain to adapt and maintain physiological balance, or homeostasis. These internal and external monitoring systems work together in a loop to manage our feelings, drives and emotions and achieve mental health.

While modern science has long held the theory that the body is controlled by the brain, Darnasio has stated that “the brain is the servant of the body”, since it’s working hard to maintain the physiological balance of the body. This is a revolutionary approach that turns the accepted theories of mind-body connection upside down.

Mind, body and Reflect

There are certain physiological signals that we know reflect our mental state. When you are nervous, for example, your palms start to sweat. Our pupils dilate when we look at someone we find attractive.

Almost all our physiological markers are impacted by our thoughts and emotions, even if it is not yet understood exactly how or why. This includes brain wave activity, tone of voice, temperature, EDA (minute changes in sweat excretion), and many more.

By understanding what is going on in our bodies, we can understand what is going on in our minds. But more importantly, we can affect our minds by changing our physiological signals. In this way, we can learn to consciously steer our body and mind towards a more healthy and balanced state.

This is what the Reflect biofeedback device is designed to do. The Reflect device measures and displays physiological data in real-time, enabling the user to extract insightful information about what is happening in the mind. Using that information, the individual can learn techniques to enhance peace, wellness and quality of life.

The new research into the physiological brain is not just a fascinating theory. Knowing that our body directly affects our mind can have a profound impact on the way we manage our mental health – for the better.