What about the rest of my body?
Beyond the brain: an embodied cognitive science.
While there has traditionally been a strictly brain-centric view of cognition and behavior, abstracting it from the rest of the body does not provide the holistic and necessary picture to understand a person’s memories, feelings, and behaviors. The central nervous system (i.e. the brain and spinal cord; CNS) depends on information from not just the rest of the body, the periphery (i.e. the peripheral nervous system; PNS), but from our environment as well.
There is a constant interplay between the central and peripheral nervous systems. A holistic approach to understanding the brain, cognition, and behavior, in the context of body and environment is known as embodied cognitive science. In this view, cognitive and emotional processes can be understood only if we look at the whole embodied being in its environment. Embedded cognition posits that any behavior is part of a network comprised of three elements: the brain, the rest of the body, and the environment.
It is important to recognize that the mind-body connection works in both directions. Our memories, feelings, and behaviors influence the health and function of our whole-body physiology (cardiovascular system, digestive system, musculoskeletal system, etc.). For example, your emotional stress in a hostile work environment can cause hypertension, increased heart rate, muscle tension, headaches, and stomach problems. On the other side, cancer, heart disease, and chronic pain (peripheral diseases) can change our mood and behavior.
The environment each of us lives in includes several risk and protective factors that can influence our biochemistry, mood, behaviors, and cognition. These environmental factors can include: our family, social circles, and community; potential toxicants such as smoke, poly-chlorinated bi-phenyls, methyl-mercury, or lead; nutrition; physical space; perceived and actual safety and security; and physical, educational, cultural, spiritual, and religious activities.
Each of these environmental factors can change our body’s physiology by influencing lower or higher levels of stress hormone synthesis and secretion (such as adrenaline and cortisol) and neurotransmitters (such as dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine), expression of genes, and the activity of our nervous systems’ signaling (for example more towards a sympathetic (fight, flight, or freeze) or a parasympathetic (rest, digest, and procreate) state).
Frequent practice of such behavioral protective factors as exercise, good nutrition, and meditation are well known to not only improve biochemistry but can change the wiring of the brain. There is also a growing body of scientific literature that highlights the influence of various communal, ritual, and spiritual practices on physiology, brain wiring and activity, as well as on perceptions and behaviors.