The Painless Truth: How Thoughts and Sensations are the Same Thing

From the perspective of your body, there is no difference between your thoughts and your experiences. When you think about pleasant or unpleasant things, your brain activity is the same as when you experience pleasant or unpleasant things.  For example, when you are just falling in love, all it takes is the thought of your lover to send a rush of pleasant, excited sensations through your body, just as if you are seeing your lover in person.  A thought can trigger excited physical sensations in the same way as the experience of seeing triggers excited physical sensations.  The same is true of unpleasant thoughts.  After a terrible break-up, the thought of your ex-lover can send a rush of unpleasant, agitated sensations through your body in the same way that seeing your ex-lover might feel agitating. It is perfectly normal and natural to think either pleasant or unpleasant thoughts, and then have corresponding pleasant or unpleasant physical sensations.  From the perspective of your body, the pleasant and unpleasant physical sensations associated with thoughts are just as real as the pleasant and unpleasant physical sensations associated with actual experiences.

You experience physical pleasure and displeasure responses to all of your thoughts and all of your sensory experiences.  Those physical pleasure and displeasure responses are the main subject of this article. For example, this article discusses the physical sensations of exitement and attraction you feel when thinking about or seeing your new lover, or the physical sensations of repulsion and anger you feel  when thinking about or seeing your troublesome ex-lover. You sense things, and you think about things, and in both cases, you feel physical body-responses to your senses and your thoughts.  This article is about your physical body-responses to your senses and your thoughts.  These physical-body responses are connected to what we call “emotions,” but it is important to distinguish between the physical sensations of your emotions and your mental activity about them.  This article is primarily interested in your physical sensations.

Like thoughts, sensory experiences activate the body’s pleasure and displeasure responses. When you experience the warmth of new morning sun on your skin, the sensory nerve endings in your skin send impulses through your nervous system, up your spinal cord, and into your brain. Once that sensory information reaches your brain, your brain activates a hormone response, which you feel throughout your body, internally, in exactly the same way that you experience the pleasure that arises from pleasant thoughts.  If you think, “Ahh.  Nice sun,” then that thought activates your hormonal pleasant-expereince response. There is the sensation of the sunlight, and the happy thought-feeling that arises as the result of the sensation. Thus, from pleasant sensory experiences, you feel two kinds pleasure: the immediate physical sensation of the original warmth of the sunlight, and the sencondary neuroenocrine activity associated with that pleasure.

When you experience any sensation, it activates a mental process that creates an internal hormone-based pleasant or unpleasant experience.  Not only is the actual nerve-ending stimulation of warm morning sun pleasant, but also the thoughts and emotions associated with that sensation in and of themselves create an internal sensation.  This is also true, of course, with respect to unpleasant physical experiences.  You experience the pain of a sunburn as the immediate stimulation of pain receptors in your skin, and also as the distress activity of your mind and brain, with its corresponding physical distress thoughts and sensations. “Damn, I have a sunburn,” is both a physical pain response, and a emotional distress response.  You experience both the thought and the experience as sensations in your body.

We can map out this activity in a simple way that will help to clarify what’s going on.  Thoughts arise in the part of the brain called the cerebral cortex.  That’s basically the top, front surface of the brain.  Once the neural impulse of those thoughts is generated, the stimulation moves down, deeper into the brain.  Really, the signal spreads out quite a bit, and affects many structures, but in this case, we’re mostly interested on the deep brain structures called the amygdala, hypothalmus, and hippocampus because they are the meeing points between thoughts, experiences, and the internal sensations associated with them.  When the signals associated with a thought reach the amygdala, it relates those signals to stored memories in the hypocampus, and then it turns those signal/memories into the activation of an appropriate hormone release via the hypothalmus. The hormones released give rise to your physical/emotional sensations of pleasure and displeasure.  What starts as a happy thought becomes a pleasant physical sensation because the amygdala responds to thoughts by activating the release of pleasant-experience hormones into your blood.  If you think unhappy thoughts, then the amygdala responds by activating the release of unpleasant-experience hormones into your blood.  Once the hormones are in your blood, you experience the secondary physical sensations associated with your pleasant or unpleasant thoughts.

The same process occurs in the amygdala in response to physical stimulation.  When your sensory nerve endings are stimulated by the warmth of sunlight, for example, that sensory signal travels up the spinal cord to the lower brain.  In your brain, your amygdala receives sensory impulses before your cerebral cortex – before your conscious mind.  That means that your body has a chance to respond to physical stimulation before your mind.  Your sensory nerve endings feel the warmth of the sun, then your spinal cord and the lower part of your brain pass that information on to the amygdala.  The amygdala responds to that stimulation by activating the release of pleasant-experience hormones, since the body’s memory of warm sun is positive, and at present the sensation is not pain. Then, your cerebral cortex receives sensory information just miliseconds after the amygdala receives it.  There’s not a big delay between your body’s response and your mind becoming aware of what you are experiencing, but there is enough of a delay that the hormonal pleasure response may begin before you are conscious of what is happening.  Once the information recaches the cerebral cortex, then you have the chance to evaluate and interpret your physical sensations with your conscious mind.  You may, for example, think, “Oh, how nice!” and settle into the natural pleasure-response.  Or you may become concerned about getting a sunburn, and generate a negative response to the sensation of the warm sun touching your skin.  That negative mental response is sent to the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus, who basically say, “Oh! This is negative now,” and trigger the release of stress hormones into your body.

In the case of physical sensations, then, we have: (1) The stimulation of the sensory nerve endings; (2) the propagation of the nerve signal through the spinal cord, up to the brain; (3) the initial response by the amygdala and hippocampus and the corresponding hormone response via the hypothalamus; (4) conscious recognition of the sensation in the cerebral cortex; (5) interpretation of the sensation by the cerebral cortex; (6) a new signal sent to the amygdala; and (7) a new, often modified hormone response.  First you feel it, then your lower brain responds, then your conscious mind responds, then your lower brain responds to your conscious mind.  From this you can see that all of your emotional responses to your sensory experiences are in fact responses to mental  interpretations of your sensory experiences.  The pleasure or displeasure you feel in response to the sensation of sunlight warming your skin is a pleasure or displeasure that is the result of mental and emotional interpretation, and not just raw physical experience.  Most of what you feel emotionally in response to your experiences is regulated by your interpretation of those experiences, and not by the content of the experiences alone.

The amygdala is one of the first structures in the chain of neurons and endocrine glands that create the emotional/physical feelings of pleasure and displeasure that you have in response to your thoughts and sensations.  Thoughts arise in the cerebral cortex, and then move to the amygdala.  Physical sensations are interpreted in your cerebral cortex, turned into thoughts, and then fed back to the amygdala.  Thus, the emotional/physical sensations of pleasure and displeasure that seem to be the result of your sensory experiences are actually responses to your secondary thoughts associated with the experiences.  While your amygdala, and thus the rest of your body, may initially respond to sunlight with the feeling of, “Warm.  I like it,” that response may be quickly changed into, “Warm. I don’t like it,” through the interpretation of your worried cerebral cortex.  While your new love may seem beautiful at first, after a betrayal, that same person may seem ugly.  While the image of that person or the sensation of warm sun may be the same in terms of sensory stimulation, the interpretation of the image or sensation is what gives rise to your overriding attraction or repulsion.  In general, you do not respond to the world as you sense it to be, but rather to the world as you think it to be.

Once your amygdala and associated brain structures respond to a stimulus, either sensory, thought, or both, the rest of your body is subject to whatever response they generate.  If it is a pleasant response, then you experience pleasant body sensations, and the activity of your cells and organs is calm and peaceful.  If an unpleasant response is generated in the brain, then you experience unpleasant physical sensations, and the activity of your cells and organs is agitated.  Although your mind and emotions seem complicated, and there are an infinite variety of circumstances that you face each day, your basic response to thoughts and experiences is always one of two varieties: rest-and-recover, or fight-or-flight.  Pleasant thoughts and sensations generate the rest-and-recover response, and unpleasant thoughts and sensations generate the fight-or-flight response.

Most of the stress, and therefor most of the physical discomfort of tension and fatigue that people in rich, modern, first-world environments experience is the result of thinking that activates the fight-or-flight response. We rarely face physically dangerous circumstances. A relatively small portion of the population in rich, developed, first-world nations suffers from hunger, war, and predation by animals – and those are the stressors that our body was designed to respond to with the fight-or-flight response.  Instead, we trigger our fight-or-flight response primarily from within, with our thinking.  While infant mortality is much lower, and life expectancy much higher in developed countries, studies show that we experience as much stress in our surprisingly peaceful lives as people in much less fortunate circumstances such as war, famine, and predation by animals. Our continuous mentally-generated low-grade stress response causes a build-up of inflammation and fatigue in our muscles, and the resultant tension, pain, and fatigue of this stress response inspires people to receive massage. Luckily, since we are not starving, not at war, and not in danger from predators, we can afford to set aside an hour or two to remind ourselves just how fortunate we really are.

One of the most basic mechanisms by which massage and bodywork promote healing is to increase the amount of positive stimulation in the sensing body and decrease the amount of negative activity in the thinking mind.  In the modern, chronic low-grade stress state, people tend to respond to most new stimulation, and to most of their own thinking, as if they are stressors.  Our job is to show our clients the reality of their situation. Through non-invasive, pleasant touch in a quiet, warm, safe environment, we give our clients no excuse but to recogngize that they are very safe, nothing bad is happening, and everything feels good.  In the hour or two that our clients are with us, they are essentially captive in a state of peace – they cannot escape to hurry around getting things done, and the pleasure of their experience overrides their tendencies to worry.  Eventually, they must accept that in fact their lives are quite nice – luxurious even – and that all they have to do to reduce the stress response in their bodies is to reside in their awareness of the peaceful present moment.

When the mind resides in the peaceful present, especially when the body is in a warm, quiet, safe place being touched in a pleasing way, all signals coming in through the senses, and all signals being generated by the cerebral cortex tell the amygdala the same story.  In turn, the amygdala shares this information with the hippocampus and hypothalamus.  The hippocampus accesses memories of similar experiences – primarily associated with being in the womb and being held during infancy – and verifies the safety of the situation.  The hypothalamus decreases the release of stress hormones, while non-stress hormones and non-stress neurotransmitter production increases body wide.  The result is a flooding of the body with sensations of pleasure and safety from all directions: sensual information from the dim lighting, the warm space, the quiet sounds and the soft touch, and mental/emotional information from the cerebral cortex and deeper brain structures.  Every aspect of the body/mind works in unison to produce a state of deep relaxation.

Ultimately, through repeat experience with the peace-state achieved through receiving massage, clients come to recognize the source of most of their stress experience is their negative thinking mind – and are naturally trained, though the experience of receiving massage, to change their thinking.  It gradually becomes apparent that while the circumstances of life are often out of our control, the circumstances of our mind are not.  When again and again the solution to the stressful experience of tight, sore muscles is found in simple breathing and self-relaxation, clients naturally become aware of their ability to dissolve not only their tension, but also the mental causes of it.  The state of the mind is reflected in the matter of the body, and the experience of the body affects the state of the mind.  Place both body and mind in a state of peaceful, present moment awareness and sensation, and there is no escape from the painless truth.

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