Matter Over Mind: improving mood through simple physical actions

Originally published on Better Humans on Medium

About a month ago I woke up with an uneasy feeling. My face felt droopy. My eyes felt tired. I wasn’t sure why, but I really didn’t want to get out of bed or face the day.

“I must be sad,” were the words that popped into my head.

The next morning it was the same thing. And the next. And the next.

“Uh-oh,” I thought, “am I getting depressed?”

I felt the world crashing down around me from under the covers. Yes of course I was getting depressed. I had all these business setbacks, blocks around the book I’m writing, and uncertainties about my future. Woe is me! Life is over! How could I not be depressed?

Then I drank a glass of water.

And a few minutes of metabolization later, nothing seemed that terrible. I realized there has never been a time in my life where I didn’t have any business setbacks, creative challenges, or future uncertainties. In fact, the happiest periods of my life have been full of them.

Did I create a dystopian view of the world simply because I was dehydrated?

Perhaps. And if that was true, what else might be true? I decided to explore how material actions affected my mind. Everything I found were things we all know are important. However I didn’t realize how important they were.

The mind is quick to justify feelings, sometimes incorrectly.

I spoke about my situation to Mari Miyoshi, Brain Integration Coach with a background in craniosacral therapy and applied kinesiology. She teaches Brain GymⓇ, a method of physical movement to increase mental functioning of children. She wasn’t surprised and said,

“It’s easy to think ‘I’m sad, maybe it’s because I didn’t get enough hugs as a child,’ or maybe you just need a sandwich.”

Unlike the body, the mind isn’t encumbered by the the limitations of material space or time. This is great asset for creative thinking and problem solving. but it also makes us liable to create false realities, also knowns asdelusions.

The mind likes to give a deep meaning to everything. But some things aren’t indicative of something more profound. Sometimes the emotions we feel aren’t more serious than needing to attend to basic functions.

Our most concrete interaction with the world is through our bodies.

If the mind is our immaterial self, then the body is who we are in material reality. Perhaps due to our human compulsion to apply meaning to everything, we tend to identify more with the mind than the body. As Alan Watts said,

“Why do we say ‘I think’ but not ‘I am beating my heart’?”

More specifically, our reptilian brain processes the physical world through the senses. Reptiles never get deluded, indecisive nor have existential crises because their experience of the world never gets more complex than sensation. They move towards pleasure, and away from pain. When we need to “ground ourselves”, we could learn a thing or two from our cold-blooded ancestors.

Sensation is the most concrete and basic way our nervous systems experience the world. Every experience we have has a corresponding sensation, though the more abstract the experience the “further away” the sensation is.

A close example is emotions. Emotions are sensations that are slightly abstracted by our mammalian brain to have a more nuanced meaning. Anger has a distinct sensation of tension. Happiness has a very different sensation that’s similar to pleasure.

Well Donnie, to the reptilian brain it IS that simple.

A more abstract example are intuitions or involuntary thoughts. That’s our even more complex neocortex applying language to an emotion, which turn was abstracted from a sensation. In my opening example I derived the words “I am sad” from the emotional effect of the sensational experience of dehydration.

(Sensations, emotions, and intuitions are all referred to as “feelings” because they are different ways of processing a given stimulus.)

We can affect our entire system by “top-down”, such as positive thinking. But it’s much easier to go “bottom-up.” As Mari put it:

“By conscious thought alone it’s very difficult to change behavior. You have to catch [your patterned behavior] every time and make a different choice. What do you do with all the other feedback, anger and fear? The best way is through movement.”

By tinkering with the body instead, we can give the mind a break for a change.

Listen to the full Interview with Mari Miyoshi on Questions For People

The brain physically changes based on how we operate.

“Every time you do something it is reinforced in the brain, whether you like it or not,” Mari said.

Every action corresponds to a certain pattern of electrical impulses in the nervous system. When a pattern is done over and over, such as the way we tie our shoes, it can myelinate, meaning an insulating protein sheath forms like the insulating rubber around an electrical wire. This allows the the pattern to fire more quickly. This what a “habit” is.

Mari explained me how infantile movements like crawling our critical to our development as children. because they connect the left and right sides of the brain and exercise basic parts of the nervous system such as the vestibular system, responsible for balance and spatial awareness. Kids who don’t get to roll around and crawl much often have learning challenges later because of missing out on this development.

Since we typically do less complex movement as adults, our vestibular can atrophy, causing other systems to compensate.

One example is that most people need to have their eyes open to balance. Modern adults overuse their vision with all the two-dimensional screens we look at, and don’t move enough to have a vestibular system to keep our balance by feel.

In short, if we move more, our nervous system functions a lot better.

I now crawl out of out of bed in the morning. (It’s a lot easier than walking when you’re groggy anyway.) Not only do I feel more in touch with my body afterwards, it’s influenced me to keep my floor clean.

Our entire reality is filtered through our nervous system.

The visceral activation of an emotion doesn’t last longer than eight seconds. Reptiles forgive and forget both good and bad quickly. If we experience an emotion for longer than eight seconds it means we are recycling the feeling by habit.

I’ve been pushing the idea of tinkering with the material world, our “objective” reality. But the reality that each of us experiences isn’t really objective. Every we experience gets filtered through the reinforced neural patterns.

93% of what we “see” is a result of interpretations made by our brain. TheWhat color is the dress? craze is a concrete example of that.

“The Dress” made it clear that we don’t always see reality the same way.

When I was at Officer Candidate School with the Marine Corps part of the training involved sleep deprivation. The commanding officer told us, “Fatigue increases your fear. The more tired we make you, the more we you have to confront your fear.”

Conversely, if you don’t want to experience as much fear, maybe you need a nap. Or a glass of water. Or to breath more deeply. Or to look at a pretty three-dimensional sight. Or to get up and move.

In my recent case, my stress and sadness wasn’t caused by stressful circumstances. It was an adverse reaction to normal stimuli because my body was imbalanced.

Of course some bad moods are more than just physical. “Bad” emotions are a part of life too. However, before we assume “life has taken a turn,” we ought check on our basic functions: eat good food, drink water, sleep well, and look at pretty three-dimensional objects.

And if all else fails, get on hands and knees and crawl.