Do our emotions originate in the head or the body?

Once upon a time, science debated that question with some theories advocating “the head” as the source of emotions and others “the body”. The curious thing about science to many people is that what seems to be an accepted “truth” today will probably be replaced with a different truth some time later.  Basically, theories are proposed that best fit the facts available at a point in time; but then new facts have a habit of emerging that challenge the previous paradigm.

Emotions can change our body positively or negatively

Emotions can change our body positively or negatively

For a long time, neuroscientists have been agreed that emotions are controlled by certain parts of the brain.  More recently we have discovered that this view of the brain as the master organ is an oversimplification and in fact both the brain and the body have a huge impact on our emotions. It’s a too way street.  

Putting it another way - our feelings can change our brain just as our brain can change our feelings.

As long ago as 1884, William James published an essay entitled “What is an emotion?” based on his observations as a philosopher and his knowledge of physiology.  He believed that the source of emotions is purely visceral not cognitive. In other words originating in the organs of the body and not the mind.  The idea here is that we perceive events and as a result have bodily feelings - after the perception which triggers our memories and imagination we have a physical sensation which we label as one or other emotion.  However, James believed that there was no such thing as emotion. He believed there was simply perception - and then a triggered bodily response. The sensations that arise such as the pounding heart, the sweating, the tightness in the stomach, the tense muscles were the emotions.

James’s theories were largely discounted because they were not supported by the evidence.  In fact his own student, Walter Cannon had by 1927 explained the workings of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system.  A single nerve, the vagus (or wandering) nerve exits the back of the brain then runs down the bundles of nerve cells (ganglia) on either side of the spinal cord. This nerve sends branches to many body organs including the heart, the pupils of the eye, the salivary glands, the bronchi of the lungs, the adrenal glands and the sex organs.

Walter Cannon found that when he stimulated the vagus nerve through electrodes implanted in the hypothalamus area of the brain, he could rapidly see physiological changes in all of these body organs consistent with what would be needed by the body in emergency situations (fight or flight).  From Walter Cannon’s point of view, his former teachers theory of the viscera as the source of emotion was simply not plausible.  Cannon saw the hypothalamus as the seat of emotions which cascaded down to the body through the hypothalamus’s many neuronal connections.

Since the competing theories of William James and Walter Cannon and other theories debated over more than a century we have a more complete (not necessarily final) view of what is going on.

We have growing scientific evidence that emotions can transform the body - either creating disease or healing it or maintaining health or undermining it.  The current “truth” is that emotions are a property of BOTH the brain and the body.

So if this is true where does biofeedback fit in?

The Pip is an easy to use, discreet and powerful tool for biofeedback assisted relaxation training

The Pip is an easy to use, discreet and powerful tool for biofeedback assisted relaxation training

Biofeedback is the technique of using monitoring devices to measure various bodily functions (such as heart rate, blood flow, skin temperature and more) as a step toward gaining control of those functions.  Biofeedback can enable ordinary folks like you and I to attain a deep state of relaxation in which it becomes possible to take conscious control of physiological processes that we once thought were outside of our conscious control (so called autonomic processes).  

The consequence of using biofeedback is to have the tools that allow the autonomic nervous system to find balance rather than remain unbalanced.  Reading some of the literature on biofeedback you would think it was New Age magic - actually it’s practical science with many health benefits and few risks.  

One of the pioneers of biofeedback, Elmer Green of the Mayo Clinic said

The NeXus 4 Biofeedback system

The NeXus 4 Biofeedback system

“Every change in the physiological state is accompanied by an appropriate change in the mental emotional state, conscious or unconscious, and conversely, every change in the mental emotional state, conscious or unconscious is accompanied by an appropriate change in the physiological state”

This has some intriguing consequences.  At Fixxl we also deal with RehaCom software for cognitive rehabilitation (brain training) which has been shown to impact on cognitive function following various forms of brain injury. The consequence of the above statement is that we should expect RehaCom to also impact upon the body in a more general sense.  Using biofeedback technology can therefore also be expected to influence both the mind and the body. Thoughts are things!

This mind body connection is becoming more accessible with modern biofeedback technology and to us represents a powerful toolset for health.  The NeXus range of biofeedback systems provide a high-end solution for research or professional use whilst the Pip device represents a fantastic solution for you and I to use on a daily basis.  Investing in biofeedback technology can be an investment in both mental and physical health

Derek JonesFixxl Ltd