Senses for Self Care

I’ve been reading about the senses, how they work, and how that affects the art and science of self-care.

I’ll start in an unexpected place. In his acceptance speech for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama sounded to me very much like the political figures of the Vietnam War era. I kept thinking of the horrific statement I heard in my young adulthood: “We had to destroy the village to save it.”

While in Europe, Mr. Obama will meet with other heads of state to finalize agreements on climate change now being negotiated in Copenhagen. He promotes a strategy that puts little pressure on US industry to adopt necessary changes. In contrast, Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives, an island nation likely to disappear without those changes, met first with the people outside the negotiating halls who are advocating strong actions. Mr. Obama, the community organizer, sees fit to do otherwise.

And back at home, we have the ugly spectacle of health reform legislation gutted of any real help for people in need and instead must witness its transformation into an income stabilization program for insurance companies, medical providers, pharmaceutical companies, and medical device manufacturers. When running for President, Mr. Obama said that health care is a right, yet seems unable to promote law that enforces that right.

These events have alternately angered me and caused me to despair for a better world.

Anger is the emotion of the big “No!” It turns my attention to a fight for survival. Despair, like grief, is the emotion of loss and loss of hope in particular. It turns my attention to finding my way without the subject of my love, whether person or place.

The relevance to the art and science of self-care is at least twofold.

First is the mistaken idea that what we experience, what we perceive, what our senses tell is something that happens to us. Instead, it is something we do. That sounds very abstract, so let me explain. I remember long ago seeing two illustrations of how sight works. The modern illustration showed light reflected off an object and falling on the retina. The antiquated illustration showed the eye reaching out and grasping the object.

The modern notion is coming under serious challenge by neuroscientists, psychologists, linguists, biologists, and philosophers. They argue persuasively that sensory events cannot be isolated to a specific organ’s function nor to a linear sequence of reactions. Instead, what we sense, what we experience is part of the integrated whole that is our biology—it’s a part of who we are, where we are, and what we’re doing.

For example, in the last few years I’ve recognized that when I feel cranky and tired, I’m likely getting sick and should rest. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes it, my senses are picking up what’s happening with my body and stimulating my emotional brain to report in, moving my thinking brain to act—or in this case sleep.

Recognition is the second thing that’s relevant to self-care.

Research last week reported that it takes between three- to four-tenths of a second for someone to recognize a simple visual stimulus. Not surprisingly, complex stimuli take longer. The experiment flashed images on a computer screen and asked participants to point to the object and identify it. While this was going on, the researchers measured the participants’ brain activity using an EEG. What interested me was that although it took a little less than half a second to recognize an image, up to that time participants could successfully point to the image even though they couldn’t tell what it was. In other words, they were aware of its presence without recognizing it.

This joins a large body of research about how we are engaged with our environment both consciously and (mostly) unconsciously—that is, sometimes with recognition of what we’re experiencing but mostly, it seems, with simple awareness. An example is a recent experiment in which the frequency of hand-washing increased with specific messages on signs at the entrance to bathrooms even when few people had any recollection of the actual message.

To return to the first point about emotions signaling immanent illness, it’s something we can learn to recognize—like I did. Indeed, an important element to the art of self-care is just that kind of learning. It’s learning to recognize the messages your body is sending. Remembering that what you experience is integrated with who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing, doing better means learning to recognize the messages your feeling brain and thinking brain are presenting to you and making changes to your circumstances that encourage that learning and the learning that goes on in your unconscious.

That perspective works on the large-scale issues as well. Mr. Obama could use some learning experiences and some changes in his circumstances, such as hanging out with a better class of people.

Other topics in the art of self-care are covered in our book Too Much Medicine, Not Enough Health.