Sensation: The Language of the Reptile Brain
By: rachel hardy
Sensation: The Language of the Reptile Brain
“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves” –
– Mary Oliver
In the personal growth and self help worlds, we often work with our mindset, our thoughts, and our beliefs. Often, we work with our our emotions, and typically we come from an intellectual and “understanding” perspective.
Mindset and belief work are invaluable in transforming old patterns and habits. And, often they are not the whole story.
While working with our thoughts and beliefs is so important, working from a body-based place brings a whole different wealth of information and truth to the table.
Because sometimes we want to talk not to the intellect, but to the more “primitive” parts of our brain that are running the show in the background. When we can learn to speak the body’s language, we open up to a wealth of info and truth straight from our cells.
This way of working is different from most psychotherapy approaches, and is even different from a good deal of “mind-body” healing work, which (due to our inherent Western cultural bias towards the intellect) often tends to start from and be grounded in a cognitive place.
(It’s important to note that there are many extremely valuable mind-body healing practices that work this way, and also to note the immense value of cognitive based types of psychotherapy).
But sometimes we want to talk to those parts of our brain are less developed. There are areas of our brain that are specifically associated with pre-verbal experiences. When there has been early developmental trauma, parts of our brain can be affected that aren’t necessarily reached by the intellect or cognitive reasoning.
Somatic Experiencing is one example of a process that works from more of a “bottom up” approach. We will often get very interested in listening to the underlying impulses, sensations, and information happening at a body-based level first, and then allow meaning to emerge as a spontaneous, instinctual connection in the body-mind.
Working at more of a sensation-based level can sometimes feel extremely challenging because of its unfamiliarity. If we’re used to navigating the world from our intellect, truly dropping into sensation alone can feel scary. It’s always important to work at a pace that feels manageable and safe to an individual.
And yet when we can begin to connect to our bodies on a sensation level, we open up whole new worlds of being able to communicate with the phenomenal organisms that we are.
When we can become aware on a pure sensation level, we begin to have access to work with the parts of our brain that are very old. Our brain is divided into three separate areas that are so distinct, they are commonly referred to as the “three brains”. The pre-frontal cortex is the newest on an evolutionary level, and it governs our cognitive functioning. Next, we have the limbic system which encompasses structures including the hippocampus and the amygdala. Its functions include emotional processing and memory formation.
Third is the oldest level of the brain- the brainstem, sometimes called the “reptilian brain” or “critter brain”. This area governs our basic instincts of survival, and houses our fight/ flight and relaxation responses. It tells us whether we are safe. Because trauma affects the deepest part of the brain- the “critter brain”- it’s often necessary to work on this level to resolve the effects of stress and trauma on the body.
It’s also important to recognize that early developmental trauma may have happened at pre-verbal levels of development. This is one reason why trauma can feel “wordless,” and why an individual experiencing the effects of trauma might feel flooded by intrusive sensations or experiences that don’t intellecutally make sense.
By engaging and working with the sensation- based parts of our brain, we can begin to positively affect those deep parts of our brain in a powerful way.
Exploring this: What would it be like to explore your body’s language of sensation? It begins with simply noticing. Take your attention to whatever sensations you can experience via the five senses. You might notice things like texture, temperature, color, sound, scent, or even something you can’t quite identify- but you can feel.
Explore what it’s like to stay in the experience of the sensation without needing to attach words, meaning, or any kind of explanation to it. Just pure sensation. Just being in it. Explore hanging out in the nuances of the sensation, feeling it and allowing it.
This can be particularly powerful and helpful to explore with positive and pleasurable sensations. Often, we don’t allow ourselves to really stay in positive sensations. We’re driven to get on to the next thing. (There can also be physiological reasons why our brains are wired this way, based on our history and past experiences).
However, with a bit of practice, you can begin to open up this capacity. (If there has been a history of trauma and feeling into the body is extremely challenging, it’s wise to go slowly and to seek professional support as needed).
This sensation language, if it’s new to you, may radically shift your experience of being in the world, and bring a new dimension to any healing practices that you are currently doing. I invite you to explore with gentle curiosity as you learn your own nervous system, your own body, your own sense of you as an organism in the world, and begin to open to a deeper, richer experience of joyfully and pleasurably taking in the goodness that surrounds you.