1. Part of us is wired* for a fear response. This is the proverbial “lizard brain,” or the limbic structures if you go to brain parties. It’s a “save myself at any cost” instinct. If you think you don’t have it, you’re fooling yourself.
2. Part of us is wired for a love response, or collective care even at the expense of personal well-being. In this sense, our instincts are not towards ourselves as individual birds but as part of a much greater flock.
Our anatomy is such — the social nervous system** is one of a collective survival wherein we are exquisitely tuned to the nuances in another person’s face and voice. It bears repeating that part of our biological instinct is also for a greater good.
👉 So, from a endocrine-neurophysiology perspective, we could ponder some old questions in a new light: Do we respond more to avoiding pain or to moving towards pleasure? Is it a dog-eat-dog world or is there a philanthropy inherent in our bones? Yes.
3. Consciousness in the body exists on many levels.***
This is represented in the brain for sure by adding the brainstem and its very primal instincts to the other two structures listed above, though also, for instance along the spinal cord there are many ganglia and nerve plexi that act as mini-brains, each having their own little decision making dances.
The many millions of nerve cells that comprise the Enteric Nervous System — the brain in your guts — are also an example of this.
So when we point to the head and say something about thinking (usually, at least in the circles I hang in, something about how we’re doing it too much), the head-pointing gesture may not be entirely true.
It perhaps depends on how we define “thought.” If we define it as an ability to anticipate, to envision a possible reality and react as such, that is certainly a body-wide phenomenon and not limited to the contents of the cranium.
* To say a body is "wired" towards a certain predisposition is clearly a metaphor, tho’ these metaphors are common enough that I’d like to draw a little extra attention to them.
We speak a great deal in, currently, mechanistic and computer-like terms: shut down, triggered, wired. The author Yuval Harari notes that a society tends to speak of the human body in terms of its highest technology of the time. So longer ago someone was “blowing off steam” (like the engine) or had “a screw loose” in the head.
Now that we’re collectively more inclined towards these newer, more computer-like (our highest technology) terms, it's wise of us to remember that they are also, of course, metaphor. As in, while we know of course no one is actually blowing off actual steam like in that old saying, we can lose sight of the fact that 👉 we are not actually wired like a computer, nor is our makeup the same that we get triggered like a binary code 👈 These are helpful metaphors, certainly, but taken too literally (at a gut / cellular level) and we’ll blind ourselves to something vital.
** I first heard this term in preparing for my interview with Stanley Rosenberg.
*** Thanks to Michael Hamm for stating this insight so succinctly, which I heard while we were co-teaching a workshop.