How to Come to Your Senses

How to Come to Your Senses

Posted on Mar 25, 2024

Stefan Chmelik is co-founder of and inventor of the Sensate stress reduction system, which is based on his over three decades of clinical experience working with anxiety, stress and trauma. His mission is now the company's mission - to positively impact the lives of 100 million people by 2025.

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How to Come to Your Senses

Because you are not a ‘brain in a jar’

There are several seldom talked about senses that are in fact vital to wellbeing. Perhaps they are less talked about because they are not part of the ‘Fives Senses” Aristotle allotted to humans (ref De Anima c350 BC), and perhaps because most are more to do with our bodily perceptions (somatic) than our brain. The mind-body split that took place in Western science quite recently (yes, 387 years ago is ‘quite recently’ in human history) and referred to as the ‘Mind-body problem’ in science, is still prevalent and tends to view the body as no more than a convenient machine from which the all-important brain can move around within. This point of view (generally attributed to Rene Descarts from 1637, cogito, ergo sum “I Think, Therefore I am”), referred to by some as the ‘Cartesian Fallacy’ (as in, he was wrong) on the one hand gave the scientific method a big leg-up in logic, whilst on the other hand creating the idea that the brain is the important thing and the body not so much, by dividing the universe into ‘mind stuff’ and matter stuff’.

Within neuroscience, it is not obvious how the concept of the mind and the concept of the body relate. For example, feelings of sadness (which are regarded as mental events) cause people to cry (which is a physical state of the body). Finding a joke funny (a mental event) causes one to laugh (another bodily state). Feelings of pain (in the mind) cause avoidance behaviours (in the body), and so on.

At the highest levels of neuroscience, there is a massive ongoing debate about the ‘Hard Problem’, the difficulty of explaining why and how humans and other organisms have consciousness (qualia, phenomenal consciousness, or subjective experiences.) Refer to works by David Chalmers for more discussion, or Anil Seth for a counterpoint, who regards the search for why consciousness exists as a distraction).

“Cartesian fallacy – ‘ I think therefore I am’. It went wrong when we divided the mind and body, the mind and the heart/soul. Which funnily enough largely coincided with the emergence of the patriarchal society, crushing all before it in its path.” (Longpath by Ari Wallach, 2022).

In philosophy, the brain in a vat (BIV), or jar, is a scenario used in a variety of thought experiments intended to draw out certain features of human conceptions of knowledge, reality, truth, mind, consciousness, and meaning. The ‘brain in a jar’ hypothesis is increasingly failing to withstand scientific and empirical scrutiny, however. Even within neuroscience, which focusses on the brain and nervous system, the essential asymmetry of the human brain and the related but different functions of each hemisphere are being re-evaluated (Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, 2019). Even now, nearly two and a half millennia after Aristotle, general science still refers to the ‘five basic human senses’ and the brain.

Neurologists agree there are at least 9 senses (including perception of temperature (thermoception), of pain (nocioception), 21 is a common thought and some propose 33 or as many as 53 separate senses.

 

Here are some of the most important, embodied, and least controversial senses:

Proprioception – awareness of the position and movement of the body.

Proprioception tells us where each part of our body is in space. As in the famous case of ‘the man who was born without proprioception’, without this sense we would just fall to the floor or be unable to pick up a cup. Mediated by proprioceptors, mechanosensory neurons located within muscles, tendons, and joints. Most animals possess multiple subtypes of proprioceptors, which detect distinct kinematic parameters, such as joint position, movement, and load. Although all mobile animals possess proprioceptors, the structure of the sensory organs can vary across species.

Interoception – the experience of the embodied self.

The ability to attribute mental, emotional and interoceptive states to oneself or another person is an essential aspect of social cognition and plays a fundamental role in determining how well a person can manage wellbeing, and is therefore important for social cognition. Interoception is the perception of our inner environment, particularly as it relates to bodily sensations. Our capacity witness to the internal sensation, from muscular tension to heart beats, from the rhythm of the breath to the relative fullness of our stomach. Pertaining to interceptors, the stimuli acting upon them, or the nerve impulses initiated by them / relating to, or being stimuli arising within the body and especially in the viscera.

Interoception is the processing and awareness of the physiological state of the body.

The integration of interoceptive and exteroceptive information is important for bodily self-awareness. Reduced Interoception is generally reduced or absent in people who exhibit symptoms along the Autistic Spectrum.

Alteroception – seeing and otherwise having an awareness of not only one’s own body in space (proprioception), but also in relation to other bodies (alteroception) is often essential when undertaking complex manoeuvrers with others, such as in sport or dance. The question of how bodily self-awareness emerges in the brain is intrinsically linked to the question of how we relate to others. It is through intersubjective interactions in early life that the self emerges. During very early development, infants have an innate capacity of subject–subject engagements, in a game of bidirectional communication that enables the infant to possess direct “alteroception” or “alter-centred participation”. This capacity is highly adaptive and seems to rely on ancient evolutionary mechanisms shared with other nonhuman primates.

Neuroception – process by which neural circuits determine whether a situation or person is safe, dangerous, or life-threatening.

In Polyvagal Theory, originator Stephen Porges uses the term neuroception to describe how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life threatening. He writes, “Because of our heritage as a species, neuroception takes place in primitive parts of the brain, without our conscious awareness. The detection of a person as safe or dangerous triggers neurobiologically determined prosocial or defensive behaviors. Even though we may not be aware of danger on a cognitive level, on a neurophysiological level, our body has already started a sequence of neural processes that would facilitate adaptive defence behaviors such as fight, flight, or freeze.”

In other words, neuroception is our autonomic nervous system’s response to real or perceived threat or safety- and it happens unconsciously. Our minds might know we’re safe, but if the body’s neuroception is firing “danger,” maybe because intimacy with other humans scares us because of developmental trauma, then our nervous system might be in conflict with what our conscious mind thinks.

 

Coming to Your Senses with Sensate

The idea that the majority of people in the world today are under the influence of developmental trauma is not my concept, although it is increasingly being seen as a good explanation for the mental and emotional crisis and the primary influence behind the self-harming behaviour humans are showing towards themselves and our environment. Important cultural figures including Gabor Maté (in many books), Darcia Narvaez and G.A.Bradshaw (in The Evolved Nest), as well as many others, discuss and examine this concept in depth.

At the heart of this crisis is the rift, the disembodiment, that humans have developed with the natural world, and that by seeing ourselves as separate from Nature, we will inevitable feel anxious and lack purpose and meaning in our lives.

As part of the process of healing this rift, we must embark upon the journey of re-embodiment – of reuniting our mind and body into a cohesive BodyMind, from which a greater meaning can emerge.

An incredibly helpful method in this process is the use of sound and ritual, as these can allow the body to re-organise in a physical/somatic and embodied way. This is actually the primary purpose that I developed the Sensate system for, to enable anybody to easily and more rapidly reduce negative neuroceptive symptoms such as anxiety, panic, fear and their related outcomes, of disrupted sleep, digestion, the immune system, emotional development and a sense of meaning and purpose to life.

 

How to Embody with Sensate;

The short version – just follow the directions!

We suggest that people experience one 10-minute Sensate session each day, following the use-case closely. That means:

  1. Recline in a safe and warm place where you won’t be disturbed (phone on Airplane mode);
  2. Use headphones and adjust your Sensate Volume and Intensity to your preferred level;
  3. Your Sensate should be snug in the centre of your chest and can be under clothing;
  4. Close or cover your eyes;
  5. Don’t try to do anything special during the session, just allow the session to work;
  6. Allow the whole session to finish.

Many people do longer or multiple sessions in a day, we just ask that you do at least 10 minutes.

 

Find out more:

Finding Your Soundtrack

Only Human - Overcoming negative feelings

Bittersweet - understanding the emotion of growth

 

 

I love you,

 

Stefan