Brains are not computers: they come with bodies. Whenever we think, the entire body, from head to toe, is in full activation. Check for yourself: there’s a constant flow of sensations running alongside the chatter in your mind. You cannot just think. You also feel.
Part of that flow is what we call “emotions.” Emotions are physical events charged with mental meaning. In fact, emotions can be seen as the borderland between mind and body. Sadness, anger, guilt, joy… all these bring thoughts to mind, and they all involve flesh-and-blood sensations.
Most of our emotions are not the dramatic kind we take to a therapist. They are usually very mild and barely noticed. But they are real, continuous, and shape our every thought.
The VR Device In Your Head
Here’s one way this plays out. Human beings have an amazing ability to imagine things that do not exist. We are the masters of virtual reality. We draw on our memories to invent imagined futures. We make stuff up. And we do it all the time, quite spontaneously,
Our virtual reality skills are useful — in fact, they’ve given human beings an evolutionary edge. The ability to form mental pictures allows us to anticipate good or bad things that might be about to happen. This gives us vastly more choices of action.
But there’s a problem. Remember that the brain has a body, and every thought is also a physical event. Unlike a computer, our daydreams trigger physiological responses. You don’t need to be a scientist to grasp this: you can observe yourself. If you vividly imagine a delicious meal, you’ll begin to salivate. If you dwell on a tax audit, your stomach will knot. Your nervous system reacts as if what’s crossing your mind is happening in the real world.
A Handy Mantra
On some level, our bodies don’t know the difference between actual reality and virtual reality.
When you sit down to think about something, you are perfectly aware that you are only thinking and that nothing else is happening. You know this rationally, but not physiologically. Your body starts to respond to your thoughts as if your mental pictures were real. Perhaps the response is muted, but it’s there.
At this point, we need consciously—and sometimes repeatedly—to remind ourselves that thinking is only thinking.
It’s worth having this little slogan in easy reach the moment you begin a major process of creation or exploration, whether you’re alone or in a group. When your chest tightens and your mouth gets dry in response to some crazy idea, give yourself a nudge and repeat the mantra: Thinking is only thinking.