When Wordsworth described the Romantic mind as an "Orphean lyre" played upon by the wind, he used an image that struck a chord in the Romantic Imagination, an image that unleashed a century of political, literary and social rebellion.
Why did the image of the lyre speak so dramatically to the people 300 years ago? Can we see in our current research on emotions and the body concrete evidence that what was once a poetic metaphor is an actual physiological truth?
By calling the mind a lyre played upon by the wind, Wordsworth made a bold departure from Descartes whose assertion,"I think, therefore I am" completely dismissed the importance of the body in the psychological and intellectual scheme of things. This Mind versus Body dualism haunted Western Imagination until the Romantics made an impassioned claim for the importance of breath, inspiration and feelings in language and poetry. "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," wrote Wordsworth. And in claiming a place for feelings, Wordsworth made an equally bold claim for the disconnected, the disenchanted and the disgruntled of his social universe; those exiles who inhabit his poetic landscape are reminders of what we have lost: connection with kin, the land and God. And by reclaiming them, he not only restored the importance of feelings, sound and movement to the "body" of poetry, he also called for a more egalitarian and compassionate "body politic" where everyone had a place in the social network of connections.
Thanks to the work of Dr. Candace Pert (Molecules of Emotion: The Science behind BodyMind 1997), we can see now how Wordsworth's metaphor is played out in our real and actual bodies. Emotions and thoughts do not reside solely in the head; as a matter of fact, the body functions like a vast neural network of reactions to thoughts and feelings. Think of the body as a huge limbic Web where messages are transmitted and received back and forth in an unending chain of interactions.
And the central sources of this transmission are emotions—emotions that release specific neuropeptides that are attached to specific receptive cells (receptors) all over the body. The emotional circuitry of the brain is connected to every organ of the body, says Mona Lisa Schulz M.D. Ph.D in The New Feminine Brain 2005. This means that our emotions create definite and specific changes to the cells of the body. The circuitry works in an interactive manner: chronic moodiness can trigger chemical imbalances that cause depression which in turn increases the body's chances of developing illness and pain. And illness or pain can also influence the dynamics of the cells to produce deeper and more intense depression. Physical symptoms can have their first cause in the emotional dynamics of the body.
Current research in cell biology suggests that each cell has the ability to change its constitution and program according to its response to the external environment. Like a lyre that is played upon by the wind, our cells are altered by the waves of feelings and emotions that move through our bodies, influencing our perceptions and experiences of the world.
Such a fluid and porous connection between mind and body suggests that the material nature of our body ( and indeed of the world) can be seriously questioned. To what extent are our bodies solid? To what extent can our own receptivity alter our experiences of the world? To what extent can we, by switching our perception and feelings, change the course of events in our lives? To what extent would this Brave New World of ours be a matter of survival—survival of the most malleable and most porous?
Perhaps a look at some of the documented physiological reactions to negative emotions can persuade us of the direction we need to take with our thoughts and feelings.
Negative emotions like fear, anger, sadness can bring about Fatigue, Apathy, Shortness of breath, Insomnia, Depression,Dysfunction of the immune system, Increased susceptibility to infections, Autoimmune disorders, Cancer.
Positive emotions like love and joy can bring about Increased body temperature, Feeling of strength in the body or Empowerment, Enhanced immune system, Change in appetite, Improved attention, learning and memory, Increased sense of well-being.
Anger, sadness, fear, hatred all release neuropeptides that disrupt the release of natural opiates like endorphins and serotonin in the body. These natural opiates increase our feelings of well-being.† It is clear that the choice is ours: the choice not only to think positively but to choose actions that elicit positive responses in our cells. Our bodies are as fluid as Wordsworth's lyre and it is incumbent upon us to move in the most effective direction the biochemical make-up of our cells by consciously selecting our emotional reactions to events.
If we are what we eat and what we do, we are even more intensely what we think and what we feel.
By Mary Desaulniers
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