There has always been a great deal of confusion about emotions and where they are located. The location of the emotions has been a subject of debate since Socrates' time when the emotions were understood by most to be in a 'soul-body' that was merged with the physical body. Slightly larger, it stuck out around the edges a bit. Much of our language about emotions reflects this confusion. For example, the term 'nervous disorders' is used for 'emotional upset' even though the nerves have nothing to do with emotional upsets. This term is leftover from the days when the nerves were thought to be hollow tubes carrying vapors or 'subtle fluids' through the body. The phrenology movement that was popular a hundred and fifty years ago brought with it a different perspective, the notion that there were large 'organs of emotion' inside the brain. (These are the folks who thought you could tell a person's character by feeling the bumps of the head.)
Body workers, noticing that they can evoke emotion by touching the body in various ways, have recently stimulated the debate. Who are the current debaters and where are the corners in which they stand? Among the debaters are medical biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers and, of course, the body workers. Some say that emotions have psychological roots, others say that emotions are biological in nature. Those favoring the idea that emotions are psychological in nature are usually not concerned with where emotions are situated in the body; they are more concerned with how emotion affects behavior.
The proponents of a biological source for emotions are divided into two camps, those who believe that emotion is generated in the limbic system of the brain and those who believe that emotion, particularly emotional memory, is in the body. Some believe that the seat of the emotions is the amygdala (corpus amygdaloideum). The amygdala is a small part of the brain with connections to the thalamus, hypothalamus, septum and hippocampus. According to Jonathan Mueller, "The amygdala appears to be critically involved with the investments of objects with emotional charge or significance" (From Neuroanatomical Correlates of Emotion in the book Emotions in Health and Illness.)
But why do we feel emotions in our bodies if they are actually located in the brain? The answer, according to those who subscribe to the idea that emotion is in the brain, is that when the brain experiences an emotion it sends one or more signals to various parts of the body. These signals are thought to produce the different symptoms that we identify as being involved with the emotions. One example of this thinking is in a recent pharmaceutical advertisement for an anti-anxiety medication. The ad says, "Anxiety can cause the brain to send signals to many areas of the body resulting in physical symptoms that may indicate Persistent Anxiety" Some of the symptoms listed in the ad are: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, insomnia, tension headache, chest pain and/or fatigue. (Of course these are only the physical symptoms that result from anxiety; none of these symptoms are the feeling of anxiety itself.)
This argument raises three major unresolved questions. First, if the emotions are actually in the brain why are they never felt there, why are they always felt in some other body region? Second, why would the brain try to trick itself like that - sending out signals that give false locations? If I cut my finger, I feel pain in my finger and my brain knows that if I look at my finger I will find the reason for the pain, right there. If I feel the pain of grief in my heart, does this mean that the pain is not there at the heart? That the pain is actually in my head? This reasoning seems crazy because the brain has to rely on accurate information in order to function, and misinformation like this would throw the brain entirely off balance. Third, why would the brain want to punish the body by sending it all these unpleasant physical symptoms?
This brings us to the alternative body workers. According to many alternative thinkers, emotions, especially emotional memories, are stored in the cells. More recently, since DNA has become a popular topic, many people believe that memory is encoded in the cell's DNA structure. But how could this be possible? The biologists assure us that DNA does not change throughout our lives. Obviously, DNA could not change every split second as new memory comes on board and still be unchanging. Could emotional memory be located in some other part of the cells? That would mean that either the new emotional memories would have to rearrange the molecular and atomic structure in the cell, or that additional atoms and/or molecules would have to be taken up by the cell to store the new memories. (I hope that's not the answer, my cells get fat enough as it is. I suppose they are 'remembering' everything I eat.)
This brings us to the third possibility - that the emotions are located in the soul. That would mean that we have souls, and that would mean that the soul is a functioning part of human beings, not just something that goes somewhere else after the body dies. (Uh, oh! It looks like the theologians have just entered the argument.) It would also mean that the soul must be merged with the physical body, just as the ancient Greek philosophers thought it was. Otherwise, how could we feel emotion inside our bodies without the emotions being functions of the biological cells?
Personally, I subscribe to the third theory, that emotions are in the soul. Why? Because for over twenty years I have been working with emotions by positioning my hands so that the qi (or bioflux) from one hand flows through my client's body at the bodily regions of emotion to my other hand. I do not use pressure, or even need to actually touch the physical body. There is no way that I can be pressing the cells to release emotion. Clearly, my work is with the human biofield, and I believe that what we now call the biofield is what the ancient Greeks and others called the soul. Like them, I think the soul is a functioning part of all human beings. And, like them, I believe that when disruptive, painful emotions are cleared out of the biofield, the physical body will function better.
But wherever they are, emotions have always been understood to be major factors in our lives. As Edward William Lazell put it in 1929, in his book, The Anatomy of Emotion, "The emotions are titanic forces which sway the lives of men (women, too - RRP) driving them to good and evil. They are the most powerful of all human agencies, and have been well described as giants fighting for the bodies and souls of mankind" (Womankind, too, I suppose. - RRP) Daniel Golman recently wrote a whole book proposing that emotions are more important than intelligence in how we live our lives, Emotional IQ. The ancient Greek philosophers put it more simply, "The Passions Rule Reason"
As far as health goes, years ago Socrates told the physicians of his day, "Heal the Soul first" - heal the emotions and the physical body will get well. I'm not sure if Socrates was ahead of his time, or if we are just catching up - but I have to agree with his premise, my work tells me it's true.
Richard Pavek has devoted the last twenty years of his life to the human biofield. Currently he is the Director of two Institutes, the Biofield Research Institute, which studies the physics of the biofield, and the SHEN Therapy Institute, where he develops training courses for SHEN Therapy healing techniques. He can be reached at 415/332-2593, fax 415/331-2455, or SHENmaker@MSN.com .
Return to the July/August Issue Index page