The Mind/Body Connection: Sense and Sensibilities

I was listening to Radiolab the other day and as usual, they addressed a subject that’s near and dear to my heart–literally–the mind/body connection. The show discussed how the brain relates to the body, and vice-versa. As always, the show was thought-provoking, but led me to think a bit more about the mind-body connection and how it’s related to trauma.

radiolab websiteWhen Your body knows before your Conscious Brain Knows. The latest research reveals that our viscera “knows” extreme experiences before you, consciously, do. That’s because the ancient circuitry in the brain communicates directly with the amygdala in extreme. When the brain perceives the body’s response to the trigger (fear, traumatic experience, etc.), such as increased and breath rate, does the conscious mind then react in fear. Fear comes from the perception of the body’s response to the threat.  When the brain Antonio Dimazio, neurologist. Our being is rooted in a “body” state. It makes us feel “less.” The physical nature of “us” is directly connected to our physical selves. The body tricks the brain into thinking that the issue is still not resolved. [Robert Sapolsky’s latest book is Why Zebra’s don’t get Ulcers, which delves into the fight/flight response in animals and why it isn’t resolved as easily in humans).

Master and Commander? Not so Much. Most people think of brains and bodies; Radiolab co-host and science journalist, Robert Krulwich, refers to this as being in a “commander” and “commandee” relationship–where the brain is in charge and the body responds. But it’s more complex than that as Peter Levine and Porges have explained: there’s more of a “conversation” constantly going on between the brain and the body using the massive “vagus” nerve, which serves as a communications pathway between the brain the viscera of our bodies.

The Brain and the Body: Trauma as Physiological, not Psychological

According to Dr. Peter Levine, famed author of Waking the Tiger and In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, humans (along with with other mammals) share a biological response to life threats and dangers that if not completed and discharged naturally can lead to trauma. This excellent book, written primarily for therapists, concludes that our “primitive” brain holds the key to understanding—and effectively treating—a host of chronic syndromes, including PTSD. Drawing on research from Dr. Stephen Porges’ “Poly-Vagal” theory, Levine explores the interconnection between animal behavior and trauma in humans. According to Levine’s website,,

This interconnection is neither far-fetched nor scientifically flawed. In fact, years of research as well as extensive clinical observation have confirmed the interconnection. There is much documentation to support…sensation-based approach to healing trauma, including Dr. Stephen Porges’ groundbreaking Poly-Vagal Theory. The basic human desire to be “safe” is an ancient, primitive response hardwired in our bodies. The Poly-Vagal Theory substantiates this by providing an explanation of how the vagal pathways (the vagus being the 10th cranial nerve) regulate heart rate in response to novelty and to a variety of stressors.

As mammalian nervous systems evolved, two vagal systems developed. The older branch is a phylogenetic amphibian/reptilian relic that originates in the dorsal motor nucleus (DMX); the other branch is an evolutionary modification that is unique to mammals. It originates in the nucleus ambiguous (NA). These two vagal pathways are neuroanatomically distinct and employ very different adaptive strategies. The oldest system “handles” primary survival strategies and defensive behaviors. The NA branch, only found in mammals, actually moderates the fight/flight response because its focus became primarily social engagement, communication and behavior.

Although our threat response strategies are activated in our newer neural structures (the NA branch) first, they revert to the older structures (the DMX branch) when initial response strategies fail, for whatever reason. Those “older” structures (i.e., the more ancient amygdala) are the ones that prompt us to fight, flee or freeze. Levine argues that our “reptilian brain”of basic survival takes over when we’re threatened and feel trapped.

Although coming from a different discipline and a clinical approach, Dr. Levine’s research and observations on trauma evidenced the same outcomes and drew a corresponding conclusion: it’s our evolutionary heritage—our basic human biology—that responds to threats and danger, and which can ultimately lead to trauma.

When we experience a threat—be it an act of violence or a car crash—and all strategies of “escape” appear exhausted, a sense of helplessness sets in and we revert or “fall back” on our oldest neural structures. Evolutionarily speaking, “immobilization” in the face of a life threat is the oldest strategy. As Dr. Porges explained it, when people are scared to death, they are not “hyper-mobilized” so much as they are “immobilized.”

Indeed, tonic immobility is commonly observed in wild animals. In humans, our protective reflexes also shut down completely. We may not be “feigning death” per se, but we cannot connect and, unfortunately, we cannot move forward either.

Animals in the Wild Resolve Trauma, but Sometimes Humans Don’t…The study of animals in the wild, Levine argues, reveals that all mammals must discharge the energy they mobilize for survival. In humans, however, stored or unresolved survival “energy” is unhealthy and can lead to a permanent state of fight or flight or freeze (i.e., trauma state).

animal escape

Wild animals “resolve” threats very quickly whereas humans can become “stuck” and traumatized.

Dr. Levine explains:

This discharge completes the activated responses to threat and allows the body to return to normal functioning. However, when an individual cannot discharge or “complete” the response to a threat, trauma sets in. Think of the antelope that goes back to grazing just after having narrowly escaped an attack by a predator. Trauma originates when we are stuck in a permanent state of arousal, on “high alert” in other words. Moreover, ethology points to the “thwarting” of escape as the root cause of distress-anxiety. Anxiety occurs when our flight from danger is somehow thwarted or aborted; when we don’t get to complete our response to it. The result is we no longer feel “safe.”

When mammals carry out orienting and defensive behaviors smoothly and effectively, anxiety is not generated. But, without active, available defensive responses, we are unable to deal effectively with danger and so we become anxious. Because the normal orientation and defensive escape resources have failed to resolve the situation, we “realize” life hangs in the balance. The body then responds with frenzied flight, freezing on the spot, or collapse.

Levine describes the importance of tapping into the physical, not the psychological, is critical to resolving trauma, according to Dr. Levine:

We humans perceive threat through our primitive brain structures. Healing trauma therefore can only be achieved through therapies that put us back in touch with our bodies and those biological responses to threat triggered deep within the DMX.

I have referred to this as the “negative feedback loop” in previous posts. One has to wonder, if one agrees with Rick Hanson’s theory of Hardwiring Happiness, that the “modern brain’s” ability to deal with “threats” (real or imagined) could possibly be strengthened through “taking in the good” consistently, and “body building for the brain.” If so, perhaps resilience can be developed in the brain to prevent or mitigate the probability of trauma.


Radiolab: Amazing Public Radio. This is an excellent science radio show on National Public Radio. If you’re not familiar, do yourself a favor and check them out. Some of the best–and most entertaining information–on science-related issues, historically and currently, available, they use an array of sound effects, music, and subject matter experts from around the world to explore fascinating issues of science and technology.

Brain/Body Connection: Where am I?. An excellent summary of the mind/body connection is explored in Radiolab’s show on how the brain and body communicate entitled “Where am I?” You can stream it here:

Gut Feelings. Although “we have no bacteria in us at all, but as soon as we’re born we start gathering up the bugs. And by the time we’re grown, we have a three-pound organ of others inside our guts” according to the show’s site. The show talks to some of the leading researchers in the field to discover that the gut does so much more than just help us digest food–including impacting our emotions on a daily basis. Tiny bugs! They help keep us calm. Who knew?

Dr. Peter Levine: Trauma Expert. Dr. Levine’s research has led him to develop Somatic Experiencing, which, as his site indicates is “a potent psychobiological method for resolving trauma symptoms and relieving chronic stress. It is the life’s work of Dr. Peter Levine, resulting from his multidisciplinary study of stress physiology, psychology, ethology, biology, neuroscience, indigenous healing practices, and medical biophysics, together with over 45 years of successful clinical application. The SE approach releases traumatic shock, which is key to transforming PTSD and the wounds of emotional and early developmental attachment trauma.”

Rick Hanson: Hardwiring Happiness. Dr. Rick Hanson has explained in “Hardwiring Happiness” that because the ancient brain has created a “negative bias” for many, we need to be actively engaged in “rewiring” or “reprogramming” the brain to “take in the good.” Hanson argues that we can create new neural networks of happiness, well-being, and calm by internalizing the “good” that surrounds us in our daily lives. I happen to think that “internalizing” is also very much connected to the “visceral” emotional reactions that are communicated through our guts. For more check out this Radiolab show “Guts.”

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

The Ancient Brain Team






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