The human mind is extraordinary! We celebrate all the wonders of human ingenuity and innovation that fill our lives on a daily basis. At the same time, we have to acknowledge the fine mess that our minds have created. Humanity has reached a breaking point as a result of decisions made by minds that are highly-educated and knowledgeable.
We have more scholars, engineers, systems analysts, and intellectuals than at any time in history, with vast data banks at their disposal. So, why is there an epidemic of greed, violence, injustice, and environmental destruction? How can such brilliant minds lead us on a path of self-annihilation?
Clearly, there is an imbalance. As a society, we have elevated the mind to the point of reverence, while overlooking the far more impressive genius of the body. Whereas the mind has a hard time managing two tasks at the same time, the body oversees hundreds of trillions of events every second. Whereas the mind requires periods of rest, the body never sleeps. Whereas the mind needs as much as a half-second to process information, the body has hair-trigger reactions and reflexes. Whereas the mind thinks, the body KNOWS. It knows how to maintain just the right balance of conditions to support life at every instant. That is a staggering feat!
As a cognitive psychologist, I have spent decades studying the human mind. I can say without a doubt that the mind alone will not save our species from the enormous hole we have dug for ourselves. Our collective future depends on our ability to tune into the wisdom of the body.
So, what does the body have to teach us? Here are five core principles identified by the field of human physiology, including the ways we can apply each one to our own lives:
1. Openness. The body is an open system, the contents of which are constantly changing. The boundary separating the body from its environment is to a certain degree arbitrary. The sandwich you ate for lunch turns into human tissue, energy, and waste products. Such alchemy is happening continually throughout the body. TAKE-HOME MESSAGE: Stay open to people, ideas, and possibilities. Don’t get too caught up in distinctions like: self and other, friend and enemy, Democrat and Republican. Those lines are meant to get blurred. Allow yourself to change, grow, and evolve.
2. Homeostasis. No matter how much things change in the body, certain vital parameters remain relatively stable. For example, normal body temperature does not fluctuate very much from 36.5 -37.5 ° C. The ability to maintain internal stability, or homeostasis, is critical to sustained health and survival. TAKE-HOME MESSAGE: For everything you take, give something back. Replace the resources you consume. Create a new habitat for every one you destroy. If your actions cause suffering, do something to alleviate suffering. And if you think that living this way is too hard to be practical, just remember that the alternative is much, much harder in the long term.
3. Interdependence. The body is an intricate network of interdependent entities. Every cell is unique, with its own life cycle and specific role in the body. Yet, no cell, tissue, or organ acts entirely on its own. Each acts in conjunction with all the other entities in the network. Without this important quality of interdependence, the body would fail to thrive. TAKE-HOME MESSAGE: In an ever-shrinking world, nobody is a free agent. Your actions affect others, and vice versa. More than ever, our survival depends on our ability to act together for the common good. You and I have no choice but to consider carefully how our actions contribute to or detract from the welfare of human and non-human species alike. And we must demand that governments and other institutions act for the good of everyone—not just an elite few.
4. Communication. In the body, communication takes place at both a local and global level. Individual cells send and receive signals in their immediate surroundings, while the nervous and endocrine systems communicate broadly throughout the body. Survival of the organism depends on the quality and speed of this communication. TAKE-HOME MESSAGE: Be clear and honest in your communication with the people in your life. Question the accuracy of the information you take in, and avoid spreading misinformation and gossip at all cost. Demand the highest quality from your news sources and help establish a global channel of communication that meets the loftiest standards when it comes to integrity and commitment to the common good.
5. Flow down gradients. Energy and matter in the body flow from areas of higher to lower distribution, usually across a semi-permeable membrane. This difference in distribution, called a gradient, can apply to any of the following: temperature, pressure, electrical potential, or the concentration of molecules and ions. The flow of energy or matter down a gradient happens in small, precise, incremental steps. TAKE-HOME MESSAGE: Help redistribute wealth and resources slowly and steadily from those that have it to those that don’t. Share more of what you have with others—especially those in need. Do so through small acts of kindness. Disregard any justification for the continued concentration of precious natural resources in the hands of a few. Make sure to use only what you need and avoid waste of energy and non-renewable resources. Demand new systems of production and distribution of energy and consumer goods that minimize waste. Help install governments and economies that prioritize the common good over individual gain.
To ensure that future generations have the opportunity to thrive and evolve, you and I will need to envision and implement a far more peaceful, sustainable and balanced way of life than what we have now. This is a major undertaking, but I know it is possible. The key is to tune into innate wisdom found in the human body. Everything we need to know in order to face the challenges that lie ahead can be found right here, in the body. We have focused so much on the mind and the intellect that we have overlooked the obvious. It is time to let the body lead and the mind follow.
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