Embodied Cognition

  1. The Paradigm Shift: Life-Mind Continuity and Embodied Cognition
  2. Key Characteristics of Embodied Cognition
  3. Embodied Mind, the ECS, and Neurophysiological Dysregulation/Dissonance (i.e. "trauma")

Concepts which have proved useful for ordinary things easily assume so great an authority over us, that we forget their terrestrial origin and accept them as unalterable facts. They then become labeled as 'conceptual necessities', a priori situations, etc. The road of scientific progress is frequently blocked for long periods by such errors. It is therefore not just an idle game to exercise our ability to analyze familiar concepts, and to demonstrate the conditions on which their justification and usefulness depend. In this way, they are deprived of their excessive authority."
Albert Einstein

The qualitative-somatic mind has "an efficiency of operation which it is impossible for [conceptual] thought to match." ~ John Dewey
If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't." ~ Emerson M. Pugh, Ph.D., IBM research engineer


The life-mind sciences are in the midst of a comprehensive paradigm shift (i.e., changes in theoretical frameworks, methodologies, and even the "boundaries" and basic definitions of entire fields and disciplines of study). Concerning so-called "mental" phenomena like cognition, consciousness, and mind, this new (but also ancient) paradigm totally rejects the false ontological duality of mind-body, where mind is characteristically defined as "mental" (as non-physical) and body is defined as "physical" (as non-mental).

While most scholars tend to blame Descartes for the mind-body duality characteristic of modern science, the theoretical antecedents of this duality stem from the time of the pre-Socratics. The mind-body/mental-physical duality (and ontological duality as such) is rooted in a profound metaphysical-ontological-scientific-theoretical error made by some white dude 2,500 years ago, based on a set of quirks and idiosyncrasies of Greek verbiage, grammar, and sentence structure (looking at you, Parmenides -- though, to be fair to Parmenides and the countless scholars who unwittingly adopted this error as a basis for their research, the sociocultural-political antecedents of this conceptual duality stretch back 10,000 years ago, to the advent of civilizational culture and "totalitarian agriculture," as defined by Daniel Quinn). This fundamental error has been incorporated into the dominant theories and perspectives of "Western" science, medicine, and scholarship generally, having been passed down through Plato, Aristotle, and the many thousands upon thousands of scholars and scientists who descend from this lineage.

(I relativize "Western" because such ontological duality is not restricted to "Western" cultures, as many "Eastern" perspectives incorporate this as well, wittingly or not. Also, "Western" and "Eastern" culture is just such a massively simplistic and reductionistic way of categorizing a ridiculously diverse range of cultures, beliefs, and spiritual practices that such a duality (!) obscures far more than it names or reveals.)

Over the past 100 years (roughly the entire history of psychology as an independent field of study), empirical, clinical, and theoretical evidence from dozens of scientific disciplines has coalesced into a radically (in the etymological sense of "root" -- going back to the very roots of these beliefs and assumptions) new way to understand and engage life, mind, cognition, and consciousness. From this perspective -- sometimes called deep life-mind continuity -- life and cognition are the same phenomenon. ALL LIVING SYSTEMS ARE COGNITIVE SYSTEMS, and cognition does not require a brain, a nervous system, nor even cells. On balance, the overwhelming empirical and clinical evidence from tens of thousands of studies spread across dozens of scientific disciplines confirms what the pioneering founders of psychology -- the American pragmatists such as John Dewey, William James, and Charles S. Peirce -- knew over 100 years ago: living systems are process-ontologically emergent autopoietic cognitive systems structurally-coupled to an ecological niche with which they mutually evolve through a mechanism Humberto Maturana & Jorge Mpodozis call "natural drift" (or "structural drift"). Cognition is 99% embodied-somatic and qualitative. Explicit concept-based analytic thinking is only a tiny portion of a giant iceberg of non-conceptual, qualitative, non-linear, aesthetic, emergent cognitive experience.

The eminent philosopher of science Peter Godfrey-Smith boils it down nicely, and accurately: "Dewey's later thought [is] the high point of the pragmatist tradition so far. ...naturalistic materialism and Dewey-style pragmatism are the two most important rival philosophical outlooks which exist at present, as far as core metaphysical and epistemological questions about the relations between mind, knowledge and reality are concerned." (Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996], p. 6-7). The emerging transdisciplinary field of study that integrates the best contemporary empirical cognitive and neuroscientific evidence into a naturalistic, process-ontological/biological pragmatic framework is called neuropragmatism, and this is the core of my doctoral research.

In short, the life-mind sciences are turning from an era of increasing fragmentation, specification, isolation, division, and specialization to a new/ancient paradigm of connection, complementarity, continuity, holism, integration, and inter/cross/multi/transdisciplinarity. This trend and turn has been in the making for over 100 years, and it is high time this integration is made real in theory, research, and practice! As John Dewey wrote 100 years ago:

Those who talk most of the organism, physiologists and psychologists, are often just those who display least sense of the intimate, delicate and subtle interdependence of all organic structures and processes with one another. The world seems mad in preoccupation with what is specific, particular, disconnected in medicine, politics, science, industry, education. In terms of a conscious control of inclusive wholes, search for those links which occupy key positions and which effect critical connections is indispensable. But recovery of sanity depends upon seeing and using these specifiable things as links functionally significant in a process. To see the organism in nature, the nervous system in the organism, the brain in the nervous system, the cortex in the brain is the answer to the problems which haunt philosophy/[science]. And when thus seen they will be seen to be in, not as marbles are in a box but as events are in history, in a moving, growing never finished process. (Experience and Nature -- LW1:224-25; emphasis original)

I think it shows a deplorable deadness of imagination to suppose that philosophy[/science] will indefinitely revolve within the scope of the problems and systems that two thousand years of European history have bequeathed to us. Seen in the long perspective of the future, the whole of western European history is a provincial episode. I do not expect to see in my day a genuine, as distinct from a forced and artificial, integration of thought. But a mind that is not too egotistically impatient can have faith that this unification will issue in its season. ("From Absolutism to Experimentalism" -- LW5:159-60; emphasis added)

It is time for this unification!

The pioneering trauma researcher and therapist Peter Levine, Ph.D., also acknowledges the need for such multidisciplinary collaboration: "Questions like this [about Tonic Immobility] exemplify important areas for interdisciplinary discussion. Indeed, one of the impediments to the progress of truly effective trauma therapy has been that clinicians, experimentalists, and theoreticians have not worked together in ongoing partnerships to address such pivotal questions." (In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, p. 58).


The practical implications of this sea change in life-mind science are massively momentous. While I do not pretend that the following statement comes even remotely close to comprehensively conveying the extent to which this new paradigm alters our view of reality/life/mind/evolution/consciousness/cognition, as it pertains to health and wellbeing, the upshot is clear: we must learn to generate a profound respect of and dynamic relationship with the qualitative, quantum intelligence that inheres and manifests in, through, and as our somatic cognitive abilities. Medical and scientific models premised on/as the top-down, analytic, linear-logical executive control characteristics of physicalist-materialist-reductionistic patriarchal commodity economic cultures are -- ironically but also not at all -- profoundly unscientific. In other words, the sciences themselves are revealing how woefully inadequate and inaccurate are the theories and methods of modern physicalist-materialist science. If we are to be truly scientific, properly scientific (in the sense of following the data-evidence wherever it leads), we must jettison these obsolete, modern views of the world and exhibit the courage (like scientific pioneers of the past) to embrace wholly new and radically different theories, hypotheses, and modes of engagement with the living, cognizing world of which we are but a small (but still significant) part.

In short -- in very, very short -- this new/ancient paradigm of embodied cognition amounts to this: Earth is an intelligent, sentient, cognitive organism, of which we are functional cognitive components. The entire human body "thinks," and the entire Earth body thinks. To manifest and optimize the full potential of our cognitive faculties is to engage and complexly develop the immeasurable, multidimensional intelligence of the somatic mind (what the modern paradigm erroneously calls the "physical body").

The Paradigm Shift: Life-Mind Continuity and Embodied Cognition

The life and mind sciences (inclusive of psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, biology, ecology, evolutionary theory, neurophysiology, phenomenology, biosemiotics, complexity theory, swarm intelligence, radical embodied cognitive science, ecological psychology, quantum neurophilosophy, blah blah blah, etc.) are in the midst of a comprehensive paradigm shift away from the dualistic (mind-body; mental-physical) assumptions of modernity and toward a dynamic holism that understands mind and life to be one in the same natural phenomenon.

The core of this emerging paradigm is that cognition neither requires nor should be primarily correlated with brain and nervous system function. Rather, all living systems (here defined as ontologically emergent, autopoietic, ecologically-metabolic systems) are cognitive systems. In the human realm, this means that cognition is primarily and characteristically embodied. Our total experiencing in and of the worlds through which we move is a cognitive experiencing -- inclusive of emotion, affect, somatic sensations/sensuality, and so-called "higher-order" cognitive operations such as concept-based analytic reasoning. Practically, this has profound and extensive implications for all manner of concrete experiences and functions: for everyday people moving through the world as well as for clinical psychological and psychiatric practice and academic research.

If one wants to quantify the matter, somewhere around 99% of cognition is non-conceptual: it is somatic/sensuous, qualitative, affective/emotional, and spontaneous/dynamic/non-linear. Explicit conceptual-linguistic abstract reasoning (e.g., "If I take highway 36, I'll probably get stuck in traffic, but if I take highway 93, it will take me at least as long as the other route, traffic or not. Therefore, I should take the highway 36 route.") is, of course, part of cognition, but it is a very small part of our total cognitive experiencing. 

Think of reflective-analytic-conceptual mind like salt and somatic-qualitative mind like the food that is being salted. In the hands of an expert chef, a dash of salt can enhance and optimize the flavor of a dish. But, it is easy to over-salt food, as it is so potent. Too much salt makes a meal inedible. Likewise, while salt can enhance the experience of food, it is the substantive ingredients themselves that are the heart of the matter: nobody wants to eat a plate full of only salt and seasonings. Conversely, if the food is of natural high quality and flavor, salt and seasonings are dispensable: it is entirely possible to thoroughly enjoy and be deeply nourished by a meal of naturally flavorful foods sans any additional seasoning or salt. Just as too much salt can ruin a meal, too much conceptual-analytic thinking can ruin the cognitive "meal" that is our holistic sensuous experiencing of the qualitative-aesthetic realities in which we exist and co-create.

Extending the analogy, the most important elements of our cognitive lives are precisely those that the modern paradigm of mind-cognition has denigrated and even banished to the pejorative realms of "irrational," "unreliable," or "untrustworthy": namely, our emotional/affective, qualitative, and sensuous experiencing. Such qualities are virtually absent from "serious" academic, scholarly, scientific, and professional study and dialogue. How ironic! The very results of supposedly "objective" and "impersonal" scientific research show emphatically that these qualities are neither optional nor insignificant, but the very opposite: they are the meat and potatoes, so to speak, of our cognitive lives.

So, as with salt and food, we really only need a dash of explicit analytical reasoning in our cognitive lives: the most important ingredients are qualitative somatic sensations such as emotion/affect. The crucial matter, in both cases, is the ratio and relation of salt-food, concept-feeling. Ideally, salt is used in cooking not to replace the absence of flavor of the substantive ingredients; rather, salt is used to enhance and bring out the flavors that inhere in rich, nutrient-dense, natural-organic foods. Likewise with cognition. Explicit, concept-based analytic reasoning should be an enhancement of the intelligent insights inhering in qualitative somatic experiencing. The role of such reflective, abstract cognition -- like with salt and seasoning with food -- is to enhance, clarify, and highlight the "cognitive flavor" of our qualitative, sensuous experiences, rather than to replace or stand in for them.


[This "metaphor" of food-cognition is not merely metaphorical, by the way. As the leading neuroscientists/cognitive scientists Michel Bitbol and Pier Luigi Luisi explain, "the most direct form of cognition for a cell is...metabolism itself...a full-blown metabolism is tantamount to cognition." (Bitbol & Luisi, "Autopoiesis With or Without Cognition: Defining Life at Its Edge," Journal of the Royal Society Interface 1, no. 1 (2004), 99; 102. Emphasis original.) More on this later.]


Given the comprehensiveness of this paradigm shift, I could not possibly summarize -- let alone detail -- all ideas and concepts relative to this new understanding of cognition. Instead, I highlight below some of the main insights relative to integrating embodied cognition with endocannabinology, trauma-informed therapy, and somatic listening.

A Brief Note on "Rationality"

In the modern (scientistic, reductionistic, materialistic, patriarchal) paradigm, the notions of "reason" and "rationality" have been conflated with and reduced to a very specific form of cognition -- namely, concept-based logico-deductive linear analytical propositional thinking. As I noted above, there is an important place for this in robust, holistic cognition. But when "rationality" as such is identified solely with this form of cognition, the result is ironically non-rational!!

The core of "rationality," after all, is ratio. The most sensible cognitive evaluation of a situation, then, arises from a natural ratio of qualitative, non-conceptual thinking with analytic, conceptual thinking. ***The most "rational" thinker is one who critically, creatively, complexly, and adaptively weaves together their direct, somatic qualitative experiencing of a situation, question, or idea with a dash of explicit, analytical concept-based cognition.***

To be sure, to be robustly rational in this sense of incorporating the qualitative-emotional elements of cognition into critical-analytic thought is not a simple, instant, or easy process. This is a complex, multidimensional cognitive skill-ability that can only be developed through dutiful commitment to the development of these capacities over time. I am definitely not saying that simply being intensely emotional makes one "rational." Rather, I am redefining all levels/aspects of cognition such that we understand the qualitative dimensions of cognition (emotion, affect, aesthetic sensibility, etc.) to be the existential-ontological-informational grounding and antecedents of the quantitative dimensions of cognition (concept-based, linear logico-deductive analytic thinking). The more carefully, complexly, extensively, creatively, and critically these co-constituting forms of cognition are integrated and embodied in action, the more "rational" a person or culture is. The more separated these forms of cognition are, the more "ir-rational" cognition becomes.

Key Characteristics of Embodied Cognition

From duality to dynamic holism

  • In the classic and modern paradigms of life-mind-reality, a dualistic ontology of "physical matter" and "mental mind" predominated. It was thought that the physical (and therefore, according to the assumptions of this paradigm, non-mental) body was somehow distinct from the mental (defined constitutively as non-physical) mind, but that they were nonetheless connected and worked in tandem.
  • In the new paradigm of life-mind continuity, this and all such related dualities (mind-world; subjective-objective; material-immaterial; experience-nature; self-other; order-chaos; precarious-stable; etc.) are jettisoned in favor of a fundamentally and comprehensively different framework for understanding life-mind-cognition-metabolism-growth-evolution-consciousness-fundamental awareness (I hyphenate these to indicate that they are all interdependent aspects of a functionally, transspatially, transdimensionally-unified eventual phenomenon, which is typically referred to as "reality"). We "think with" our entire being: no aspect of our existence is separate from or unrelated to cognitive function. While the feet may be highlighted as the focal point of the act of walking, it is, obviously, not only the feet that walk: the entire body walks. Walking just is a total body experience-activity-event. Just so, we may highlight the brain-nervous system as the focal point of cognitive functions, but it is the entire body that cognizes, not just neural networks. Cognition just is a total body experience-activity-event.

Embodied cognition: The primacy and ultimacy of quality

  • When cognition is viewed as an adaptive function of an entire organism or ecosystem -- rather than primarily or exclusively neurological activity in the brain and nervous system -- we can better understand the critical upshot of the new paradigm of life-mind: cognition is primarily and characteristically qualitative, affective/emotional, somatic, non-linear, imaginative, spontaneous, non-conceptual/aconceptual, and playful.
  • Modern assumptions conflate neurological activity with cognition and symbolic-conceptual mind with the "content" of cognition. This has led to absurd searches for material bases of the illusory notion of the "neural correlates of consciousness" (hint: there's no such thing). As Humberto Maturana says, "the 'content' of cognition is cognition itself. Beyond that nothing can be said." The pioneering media ecologist Marshall McLuhan came to the same conclusion, albeit conveyed in his own particular disciplinary vernacular: "The 'content' of any medium is itself another medium."
  • Living activity itself is cognition. As Maturana and Varela explain, "cognition and the operation of the living system [are] the same thing...living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with and without a nervous system." (Maturana and Varela, 1980, Autopoiesis and Cognition, xvi-xvii; 13).

The upshot here is that when we think of cognition, or the "life of the mind," we must learn to think primarily of the qualitative aspects of our holistic experiencing: emotion/affect, somatic sensations, sensuousness, spontaneous movement, vocalizations, "body language"/posture, etc. By definition, these qualities are aconceptual, non-symbolic, or at least pre-conceptual. In other words, what the modern paradigm presents as characteristic or even exclusive to cognition -- e.g., symbolic contents (words, numbers, symbolic language), logico-deductive reasoning, abstract analysis, a priori planning/predicting, quantification, explicit naming, etc. -- is actually a tiny portion of (and, technically, an instrumental-functional, and thereby temporary/transitory and thus ontologically proleptic) our cognitive experience. (For details on "aconceptual" cognition, see Hutto & Myin (2012); Kirchhoff & Froese (2017); Andersson & Garrison (2016); and Pylkko (1998). All sources listed below and on the Bibliography page.)


There is a massive irony swirling through this website and all scholarly/scientific explanations of mind-cognition. The irony is that I am using abstract, conceptual, linear communication (such as this sentence) to claim/explain that cognition is characteristically non-abstract, non-conceptual, and non-linear. This might seem self-contradictory, but it is in fact entirely consistent with what I am offering. ***The implication is clear: to "understand" these claims, one must have a direct, embodied experience of the phenomena these words are describing.*** John Dewey, who pioneered the autopoietic theory of life-mind-cognition, and Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela, who first systematically formalized this theory, emphasize this as well.

In Dewey's article "Qualitative Thought," he explains that

"The foregoing remarks [about embodied cognition] are intended to suggest the significance to be attached to the term 'qualitative thought.' But as statements they are propositions and hence symbolic. Their meaning can be apprehended only by going beyond them, by using them as clues to call up qualitative situations. When an experience of the latter is had and they are re-lived, the realities corresponding to the propositions laid down may be had." (Later Works 5:252).

Maturana and Varela state this more directly: "nothing we are going to say will be understood in a really effective way unless the reader feels personally involved and has a direct experience that goes beyond all mere description." (The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (Boston, MA: Shambala, 1992), p. 18)

This applies to everything on this website, as well. Thus, the disclaimer I will repeat, time and again: 

***Nothing I say here will make much sense, and certainly can't be deeply understood, unless you have a direct, immediate somatic experience of the phenomena these words describe***

Somewhat parallel to the above disclaimer is the challenge of terminology for paradigm-shifting research. In a true scientific revolution -- i.e., in the shift from an old, now-obsolete paradigm to a new, still-emerging and not-yet-fully-solidified paradigm -- many terms and concepts that were once assumed as natural, essential, and commonsensical must be abandoned, or at least significantly re-defined. This project is permeated by this challenge. That is, I use terms such as "mind" and "body" even though I operate from a paradigm that completely rejects that ontological duality.

The trouble is, we simply do not have adequate technical-scientific language for accurately describing-denoting the realities of mind-cognition-life that research has revealed and is increasingly revealing. But this is precisely why it is so vitally important to experience for yourself, in your own tangible, somatic-embodied ways, these phenomena. In other words, another way to state what I've described above is that the large majority of our cognitive experiencing of/in/through/with the world is qualitative ineffability. By definition, I cannot say any more about that. But, you can directly experience such qualitative ineffability for yourself. This will -- and has, trust me, I know -- ruffle the feathers of those anxiously clinging to the supposed (but actually illusory) security that the abstract, quantitative, linear rigidity of positivistic-scientistic paradigms seems to provide. But when you truly experience for yourself the cognitive realities I am describing here, you will "understand" (in a direct/embodied, non-conceptual, non-analytic manner) this to a degree that no amount of analytic discourse could ever achieve.

Here is a visual representation of what I've written above:

Embodied Mind, the ECS, and Neurophysiological Dysregulation/Dissonance (i.e. "trauma")

In this section, I describe the importance of the paradigm of embodied cognition for understanding and effectively engaging the healing potential of our endocannabinoid system and polyvagal nervous system. The primary idea is that neurophysiological/emotional regulation (and health generally) is a spontaneous-emergent event that must be allowed rather than dictated via a top-down, controlling process. This is challenging for those of us raised in scientistic-civilizational culture, which relies excessively on logico-deductive analysis and linear control processes to direct or dictate somatic experiencing according to abstract, a priori concepts, principles, formulae, or schemata. At best, such approaches are limited in effecting substantive neurophysiological shifts. At worst, such approaches can actively prevent and even exacerbate neurophysiological dysregulation.

Embodied Cognition and the Spontaneous/Non-linear Emergence of Coherence-Balance-Regulation-Organization

The details of this phenomenon could literally fill multiple book-length volumes, and indeed scholars have done just this (see the 1,600+ sources on the Bibliography and Resources page, which is a selective list of sources I researched for my Ph.D. dissertation). But I'll try to summarize the practical upshots as best I can.

When we are ideally regulated -- i.e. healthy, calm, coherent, feeling safe and relaxed, etc. -- our massively complex neurophysiological systems and functions are all operating in a non-linear, polymorphous, polydimensional, polytemporal organizational coherence that enables us to move as one unified system. This organizational-structural-functional coherence arises spontaneously. This means that we are not explicitly or actively telling our multiple body systems how to function, at what speed, to what degree, and when. All this just happens without our explicit awareness, control, or dictation.

For example, imagine hiking in a forest. Imagine feeling safe, secure, well-fed, healthy, and balanced. As you walk along the trail, you can simply experience the total environment holistically: you see, smell, feel, and move freely and smoothly, taking in all the aromas of the plants, the atmosphere; the tactile sensation of the ground and wind; the sights of the colors and light playing off the trees, flowers, bushes; the sounds of leaves rustling, birds singing and chirping, water bubbling; etc. Feeling safe and regulated, you can simply walk and experience. You are not literally and explicitly thinking and telling yourself: "Okay, there's a soccer ball-sized rock 2 feet ahead of me, so I need to extend my right leg 1.8 feet forward, plant my right foot just in front of the rock, heel first, then gradually shift my weight forward as I lift my left foot and leg, which I then need to place just past the rock on the flat part of the trail so that I can step up and over the rock while not falling into the prickly bush on the left side of the trail. As I'm doing that, I'll need to swing my arms in such a way as to maintain my balance and not hit the trees next to me. Simultaneously, I should inhale and exhale at a rate coincident with my pulse so that I take in enough oxygen, but not too much. The rates of my respiration and cardio should be calculated based on how many calories I've consumed today, how many extra calories are stored in my body, how far we have to hike back to the car [factoring in potential detours], the temperature, humidity, and altitude, how fast we'll hike the remainder of the trip, the grade of the slope, the weight of my backpack, and how much sun exposure we'll experience." Etc.

Even though it is a relatively simple activity, walking along a forest trail requires extensive and dynamic coordination of countless neurophysiological processes and functions. The level of cognition that deals in explicit concepts, terms, symbols, and linear, logico-deductive analysis (what the modern paradigm wrongly conflates with "mind" as such) is far too limited and cumbersome to effectively track and coordinate these complex processes and functions. Thankfully, our somatic-sensuous-qualitative minds are vastly more apt at coordinating such holistic behavior. Thus, we can simply walk through a forest and enjoy the encompassing experience without needing to think explicitly about the countless factors contributing to our ability to have such an experience.

This is one example of the "spontaneous emergence" of cognitive coherence. The key idea here is that our somatic-qualitative minds -- when properly allowed, enabled, and supported -- will naturally create/manifest patterns of coherence and functional organization of the trillions of trillions of neurobiophysiological processes necessary for health and life generally. This may seem commonsensical, but the practical upshots of this have, unfortunately, been neglected by doctors, therapists, and other clinicians and healers, especially when it comes to healing trauma. Below, I briefly survey the implications of this perspective for healing from trauma, i.e. shifting from a condition of neurophysiological dysregulation to regulation.

Embodied cognition and the Endocannabinoid System

Modern humans love to think they are in control of everything. The problem is, this simply ain't the case, not even with ourselves! As the brilliant doctor-healer-pioneering endocannabinologist Rachel Knox, MD, says, "The brain is not in charge; the endocannabinoid system is." 

This is a profound insight that deserves careful and subtle reverence, appreciation, and engagement. Pervading our bodies is an ancient, extraordinarily evolved, and highly intelligent system of receptors, enzymes, and signaling chemicals that regulates and modulates virtually all other neurophysiological systems, functions, and processes. This is the "endocannabinoid system" (ECS). The ECS emerged in evolutionary development around 600 million years ago. This makes it one of the oldest and most highly adapted/evolved aspects of our being. Astoundingly ("thanks," war on "drugs"!), the large majority of doctors and therapists in the U.S. know exceedingly little about this system, even though it is our primary homeodynamic* regulator and harm-reduction system.

So, far from a mere theoretical curiosity, the above statements about living-cognitive systems being spontaneously/emergently self-organizing are made practical and accessible via the action of the ECS. That is, the ECS functions best when we create the internal-external conditions necessary to enable it to do what it does best: heal us from within. The healing capacities and processes of the ECS can be supported, directed, and enhanced via intentional action, but they cannot be directly controlled or dictated. The ECS manifests intelligence and abilities that function independently of the explicit, reflective, concept-based reasoning characteristic of the linear-logical mind. Below, I further detail this crucial insight through the context and framework of the polyvagal theory of the vagus nerve, as developed by Stephen Porges, Ph.D.

(*I say "homeodynamic" rather than the common "homeostatic" because the latter is technically inaccurate. No aspect of our being is static, not even our bones. Quite literally every tissue, cell, chemical, and element of our being is in continual, dynamic flux throughout our entire lifetimes. And, more than a technical semantic concern, this has important implications for effectively returning to and sustaining a state of emotional regulation following a triggering-dysregulating experience. See the page on the Polyvagal Theory for more information. [See also David Lloyd, Miguel A. Aon, & Sonia Cortassa, "Why Homeodynamics, Not Homeostasis?," The Scientific World Journal 1 (2001): 133-45, https://doi.org/10.1100/tsw.2001.20])

Embodied Cognition, the Polyvagal Theory, and Neurophysiological Regulation

Of the countless implications of this emerging paradigm of mind-life-cognition, the most important and relevant for emergent healing and attunement (i.e. neurophysiological regulation) is that engaging and allowing spontaneous qualitative somatic experiencing is the most effective and extensive way to self-heal and regulate energetically.

Unfortunately, most pop-psy and professional psychology is excessively concerned with making "logical" sense of an experience or the emotional life and then, on the basis of such an abstract-conceptual explanation, determining a course of action and implementing that course via top-down "executive control." As I noted above, there is a place and function for such thinking, but the further removed such analytic reasoning is from embodied, qualitative experience, the more unreliable it is (especially when such thinking concerns our own emotional-embodied experiences).

Emotion (from French émotion, from Old French emouvoir [stir up], from Latin emovere [to move, move out, remove, agitate]) is not a static "thing" that simply exists within us. The term "emotion" denotes active, moving energy -- energy that is characteristically, definitionally flowing. Much like a river is a body of water defined precisely by its continual, flowing movement (distinguished from a pond not because it is a different substance, but it manifests a different active form of functional being), emotion is a form of somatic-cognitive-qualitative energy that must flow and move to be what it is.

When we suppress, repress, deny, or avoid emotional energies, we actively limit our innate self-healing/self-regulatory abilities! Engaging and optimizing our self-regulatory capacities entails learning to allow emotional energies to move freely and flow through and out of us in safe, constructive, healthy ways. Moreover, these energies are so vastly complex that analytic determination of what we feel and what to do with that will always be limited. Recall Rachel Knox, MD's statement: "The brain is not in charge; the endocannabinoid system is." To maximize our self-healing abilities is to learn to trust our embodied mind and its 600 million year old adaptive functions. For a more detailed discussion of these ideas, see this blog post: Grief is Not Negative, It's Nuanced.

The central feature of our embodiment is qualitative-sensuous experience. So, developing, deepening, and expanding trust in our somatic cognition and spontaneous-emergent self-regulatory abilities requires learning to engage and feel more extensively into the qualitative aspects of sentient existence. Rather than escaping from emotional energies by retreating to abstract analytic deduction and trying to control our experiencing via top-down linear determination (e.g., I feel _____. This was caused by _____ experience with my friend. Therefore, I should _____ to mitigate that feeling.), we must learn to engage the intensity of our somatic-emotive cognition and allow our embodied minds to spontaneously self-regulate.

From contradiction-conflict to connection-complementarity

The polyvagal theory of the vagus nerve and regulation of the autonomic nervous state explains and demonstrates that the more traumatized/wounded/dysregulated we are, the more the neocortex of the brain is disconnected from the rest of our nervous system and body. So, in a dysregulated condition, our qualitative somatic experiencing is functionally severed from our conceptual analytic experiencing. This manifests neurophysiologically, quite literally, as "dis-ease." We become stuck in hyperactivity (excessive sympathetic nervous activity; i.e. "anxiety," "fight or flight") or hypoactivity (excessive activity of dorsal branch of the parasympathetic; i.e., "depression," lethargy, flat affect), or we flip back and forth between these two extremes.

Health = wholeness. Thus, to heal from such "dis-ease" is precisely to re-balance our energy systems to a functionally integrated condition where there is proper balance, proportion, and ratio of our various emotional-nervous-neurophysiological processes. Such re-balancing and re-integrating is the expertise of the endocannabinoid system and nervous system: when these systems are properly supported in functioning naturally and freely. Contrary to what the modern paradigm has mistakenly led generations of doctors and healers to believe, we cannot force, dictate, or directly implement (via top-down executive control) such integration. The functional, organizational coherence of living systems (autopoietic unities) emerges naturally; i.e., such regulation arises spontaneously, as this is the characteristic dynamic of our multiple systems, inclusive of the nervous system, ECS, and all other levels, layers and functions of our total cognitive experiencing.

The two "levels/aspects/types" of our cognitive functions (as described above) are not in conflict but are complementary. To be rational is not to deny, reject, or suppress our emotional-qualitative experiences, but to dynamically and sustainably integrate our qualitative experiencing with quantitative-conceptual experiencing. When this occurs, we do not even experience two "types" or "levels" of cognition, as this very distinction exists only in the realm of conceptual-abstract mind (i.e., in this sentence, which is just words describing a cognitive experience you may have for yourself. When we are thoroughly, deeply, and dynamically integrated, we experience the continuity and unity of life. What we conceptually-abstractly separate as seemingly or supposedly disparate aspects of reality (subject-object; self-other; masculine-feminine; order-chaos; precarious-stable; changing-static; solid-fluid; us-them; thing-activity; etc.) are -- independent of analytic observation -- functionally complementary and therefore ontologically unified.

It is only in trauma that the linear-quantitative level of cognition (reflective-conceptual mind) comes into conflict with the emergent-qualitative level of cognition (non-conceptual tangible mind). Indeed, this could be taken as definitional of trauma: a condition of neurophysiological internal combat-conflict obtains, and we fight against and within ourselves. Caustic, volatile sympathetic-adrenal energy from a survival response gets stuck in our bodies, actively stirring in a cyclic pattern that only grows in intensity over time. Given our existence in a culture that utterly fails to properly understand, appreciate, and work with such energies, we are taught (from a very early age, whether intentionally or not on the part of our caregivers and social institutions) to repress and "control" such emotional energy because it is "bad" and "unpleasant" (see Dr. Susan David's discussion of this ideology taken to the extreme: the "tyranny of positivity"), and thus the immobilization-shut down response of the dorsal parasympathetic nervous system is utilized to keep the hyperactive sympathetic-adrenal energy in check.

The result is that we essentially battle ourselves within: the un-processed sympathetic energy from previous defensive/survival responses actively seeks a way to get out while we actively strain against ourselves to keep it buried deep within. This tensional knot of neurophysiological self-battle sustains us in a state of fear, and we come to experience our own somatic sensations as dangerous, threatening, and destabilizing, which further drives us into an escapism that only exacerbates the intensity of that from which we are trying to escape, because it is the sympathetic-driven feeling of running (flight response), stuck in our systems, that we are trying to run from. Our neocortex (essential for symbol- and concept-based linear-logical reasoning and thinking) remains functionally severed from our somatic minds and our linguistic-analytic minds are effectively left adrift in a sea of chaotic social thought waves that indifferently toss our minds and emotions about in an often violent surging of frantic attempts to constantly "fix" everything (including our so-called "negative" or "difficult" or "disruptive" emotions) into a synthetically flattened, rigidly domesticated emotional homogeneity not at all unlike the unthinking, unfeeling, static, dead, indifferent computers and machines that dominate our current cognitive, communicative, and socioeconomic realities.

Such emotional flatness and numbness serves the inhuman economic imperatives of late neoliberal global financial investment capital, in which humans are functionally reduced to quantitative measures of economic productivity that have expressly nothing to do with the health and wellbeing of living organisms and everything to do with further lining the already insanely-inflated pockets of the super ultra-rich of the financial elite caste that controls the governments and social systems of industrialized nations and which has spent millennia seeking to extend this control to the entire planetary biosphere and all human cultures, which this elite financial class -- themselves severed from the life-giving, life-sustaining flesh and blood vitality and complexity of the laboring world, human animal and non-human animal included -- views, through a demented mechanistic-computational-objectifying mind, as little to nothing more than dead, raw material -- i.e. potential economic capital -- to be exploited and used to feed the insatiable hunger of an economic system that is driven by the insane and deadly imperative of "never enough" (this is shame) -- not unlike the deadly spread of cancerous growth in an animal's body, in which a small cluster of cells begins to function as if all other bodily resources should serve the unending growth of the cancerous cells, thereby waging molecular, cellular, and chemical warfare on the rest of the body, unthinkingly destroying the very systems that gave rise to those cells in the first place.

Given this...

Is it any wonder that the vast majority of civilizational humans are chronically depressed and anxious?



In short, the global pandemic of chronic -- and seemingly, but not actually, intractable -- depression-anxiety reveals the profound dis-ease of a toxic, deeply traumatized, fear-driven, scarcity-based socioeconomic system. The many difficult symptoms and intense energies we experience as a result of trauma/dysregulation are a direct manifestation, through our individual mind-bodies, of the dysregulated, fearful energy characterizing our contemporary cultural ecologies. Technically and literally, there is nothing wrong with us. Not being perfectly happy and smiling all the time -- like the fake, posed, airbrushed models on the glossy covers of mindfulness and New Age spiritual magazines -- does not indicate that we are broken, defective, and in need of "repair" or "fixing" via synthetic drugs, traumatizing and invasive surgical procedures, or other top-down executive control mechanisms, as still predominate in modern "medical" practice. Rather, the intensity, complexity, and volatility of our emotional experiencing reflects the cultural dis-ease of a social system whose "social neocortex" -- those people, institutions, structures and functions that control, administer, and invent regulatory laws and policies for the rest of the "social body," the populous; i.e. government, schooling, police, industry, military, etc. -- itself is severed from our collective-social "somatic mind" : Earth Herself. Just as the ungrounded, disconnected, abstract analytic thinking and perceiving (because controlled and dominated by fear) of an individual human chronically traumatized and neurophysiologically divided within themselves is not to be trusted, so is the disconnected, fear and scarcity-based thinking of civilization's "executive control/neocortex" institutions not to be trusted.

What, then, is to be trusted? I answer this more fully on the Social Trauma and the Culture of Excitotoxicity page.

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Selected Bibliography for "Embodied Cognition"

***Please note: this is a highly selective list of sources discussing the phenomenon of "embodied cognition." While these sources won't answer every possible question about these phenomena, together they present a robust evidence base for the ideas I've shared above. See the Bibliography and Resources page for a more complete list.***

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