There is a story that the native peoples of the Americas were guarding their shores from foreign intruders. However, despite their vigilance, the sailors from the old world made it to shore and began trading with the natives, who they later conquered. How was it that the natives, so keen to the elements and their land, did not see their future conquerors approaching? It is said that they could not see the sailing ships anchored in the bay because they had no concept of a sailing ship. The truth of this story as told in The Secret has been questioned, based on various captains’ logs that recount the native people’s use of large paddle boats: a boat is a boat, so they would have seen it.
When something’s right in front of our noses, of course we can see it. Or can we? Until last week, I didn’t know that my computer of four years had a photo share function under the export menu. I use my MAC everyday, yet have no idea how it works or how to fix it. I cannot see what a MAC Genius can see. Even if we cast our attention on the same object at the same time, I can’t necessarily tell what’s there because I don’t know what I’m looking at or what to look for.
After assessing people somatically for years, I can see how someone is shaped and how that shape creates and is created by the person’s reality. In working with headaches, my hands can intuitively pinpoint the “heart of the pain” or eye of the storm on a headache-y head. My comfort level with them comes from following and reading the big and small cues, based on my perceptions, intuition, and experience.
A coaching colleague referred one of her long-time clients to me for her horrible migraines, but the client never called. We wondered together why this happens with referrals, almost like a phenomenon. Her client needed the help, and I could give it. Moreover, the recommendation came from a trusted source.
Why do people suffer when they can avert it? What is difficult about making that first move?
Ginger Campbell, M.D. hosts the fascinating series Brain Science Podcast. Her interview with neuropsychologist Chris Frith, Ph.D. provided me with some food for thought. Neuropsychologists study the relationship between the brain and the mind. Frith studied schizophrenia in the early days of neuroimaging and gained insights into the relevance of perception, will, and consciousness in schizophrenic patients.
In his controversial book, Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World, Frith notes that twentieth century psychological behaviorism was traditionally kept in a separate category than the brain/mind. Cartesian philosophy divided a person in two: the mind belonged to the church and the body was purely a dirty machine subject to the evils of the flesh. Body and mind were disconnected with no relationship whatsoever.
Frith asserts that modern medicine is largely practiced in this manner today. Psychology and the behavioral sciences are not accepted like the others; they are considered to be “soft” science and less credible because they can’t be measured in the same way. Frith explains that Decartes’ philosophy prevails because so much of the brain’s ongoing work happens automatically, behind the scenes and out of our consciousness. We take it for-granted. For example, our eyes are constantly registering new images with every micro-movement of our head, eyes, or the world. If we were conscious of every image, we’d be completely disoriented. So, instead, we make a good estimate of the composite image. We make predictions about everything, based on what we perceive and what we have experienced; and we keep adjusting our perceptions.
In this way, change is active and happens moment by moment: the world has shown us one thing repeatedly, and we have shaped accordingly. To create a change in a life pattern, we have to de-couple from our moment to moment predictable impressions and find a new prediction based on a new perception.
Referencing Thomas Bayes, Frith says that our perception of the world depends on the balance of the sensory information that’s coming in through our senses, and our prior expectations and knowledge:
His formula tells you how much do you have to change your model of the world given the new evidence that’s coming in. So, if you have very strong expectations, that will affect what you actually perceive. In a sense you can’t perceive things that you don’t know something about already.
Frith asserts that in recent years, brain imaging has helped bridge this gap by measuring the subjective experience. Because the early brain scanners were physically restrictive, mental experiments were designed to measure brain activity. The experiments showed that the same areas of the brain light up when thinking about lifting a finger as when actually doing it.
Remember the Olympic Gold Medal winner, Laura Wilkinson, who broke her foot only months before the 2000 summer games? She won despite not being able to physically practice for months because she had devised a method of mentally practicing her dives and outcomes.
Somatic coaches prompt their clients to envision, intend, declare, focus, plan, and embody the future they want. This embodied opening to focused intention, attention, and belief is the first step in the healing process. Because the “hard” sciences measure something, Frith asserts it’s easier for people to believe in them. (Isn’t it odd that we imbue machines with the power to measure a human being in all its subtle complexities and dimensions?) There is finally hard evidence to prove what somatic practitioners, meditators, and Buddhists have observed over time: our environment and moment by moment state of consciousness can provide insight and heal what ails us.
Have you heard of mirror neurons? Based on sensory awareness, our brains can take on the activities of other people as our own. First seen in monkey studies, people can mirror others’ bodies and emotions. When we see a happy face, we feel happy. When someone does an action, we want to do it, too, not move counter to it. Thus we have the brain evidence for The Secret, or why we want to be around people who make us feel good.
In the realm of coaching, how does the envisioning process create change? In other words, how do our expectations and experiences affect what we perceive? In the somatic domain, our body armoring – the way we constrict and hold ourselves together – creates a filter through which only certain information can get through.
The theory of mirror neurons looks at how the brain creates the best possible estimate of reality, but it is never the real world. That is, I believe, because of our filters. We test our predictions and find the errors. However in life, we don’t accept the error, or that we may be wrong. In the story of the sailing ships, the Native Americans couldn’t see the boats because they were outside the realm of their experience, so it came up as an error. I was surprised to find the simple sharing function in a pull-down menu I’d accessed thousands of times. What? Am I stupid? It always existed but was irrelevant to my experience before I needed it. My client may be amazed that my hands can find a headache on her head or discover a linchpin headache trigger, despite that she’s the one who’s been living with it. The medicine man, or representative for alternative world views, could see the boats. It is the coach’s job to show to their clients the possibilities they can’t yet see.
In reverse, an experience we have already had can set us up to expect the worst. For example, a history of chronic pain or headaches can set us up to have a fear of the next pain. This sense of expectation can actually affect our internal environment to make our body systems more susceptible to create it. The fear makes people contract in macro and micro ways.
Frith: Another way of looking at it is that it’s well known that you can anticipate pain. So, if somebody knows they’re about to have a painful experience then certain bits of the brain will light up—which might have to do with anxiety or anticipation of pain—even though the pain hasn’t arrived. And in a sense it’s the same bits that light up when we know that somebody else is in pain. Because, again, you don’t actually need the pain to worry about it.
Other studies showed that when you think of the face of someone you love, it is the same as the person “being there.” Your brain lights up in the same way. Firth discusses a study conducted by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore about touch. It showed that:
If you see someone being touched—on their face, for example—then the bit of your brain that would be activated if your face was touched lights up, even though it’s not being touched. So, in a sense you’re sharing their sensory experience by watching them. But what is interesting here is you’re not aware of this, that it’s happening in your brain.
It makes sense, then, that humans love watching movies, plays, and sports. We receive the vicarious pleasure or pain. We might duck if an object is thrown or cover our eyes to avoid seeing something gruesome or scary.
How many headache sufferers have realities shaped by years of pain and medications? They repeatedly turn to medications because of the subtle tightening of the body and mind brought on by fear of the next pain. They cannot see the possibility of healing. They are too busy guarding themselves to prepare for the next pain.
Using the power of the narrative and the centered, open presence of a medicine man on the beach, the coach can help the client shape a new vision of what was before unseen or unknown. By following a revised internal vision, the client’s filters slide away, perception is adjusted, and a new experience is possible in each moment.