As usual, I cranked the radio dial to NPR for some gentle intellectual stimulation on my drive home from work. To my excitement, as a neuroscience major and REbeL alumni, the first snippets I heard revolved around the mind-body connection and its biological roots in the brain.
The interviewer spoke with Anil Ananthaswamy, a software-engineer-turned-science-writer who recently wrote a book on Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), a condition in which patients with otherwise healthy, intact bodies claim that a part of it does not belong to them. No, they are not blind or insane. They live life disturbed by the particular body part’s presence and feel a deep psychological disconnection from it. One man who suffered this ailment in his arm even proclaimed, “It feels like my soul doesn’t extend into that part of my body.”
I found this fascinating. Listening to this segment prompted me to think of other conditions in which people feel estranged from their physical form, as in the case of transgenderism. Personal testimonies continually pop up in which people claim knowing since as long as they can remember that they belonged in a different body. They often experience deep despondency in coping with what they believe to be wrongly inherited parts.
But perhaps the most compelling example of the severance between mind and body manifests itself in eating disorders. I can only speak for my specific experience. For the longest time, I was convinced that I was too large, that I occupied far too much of the space around me. It wasn’t so much a fixation on numbers or weight; rather, my brain constantly promised that I’d feel safer and more at ease once I shrunk and that the smaller I became, the fewer problems I’d have to face. But, as you might expect, that peace of mind never arrived. I looked in the mirror and saw a thin girl. I incessantly strove to push it further. Eventually I reached discordance: my bones began to break down, and I fell to 80% of my body weight. ‘Physical me’ started defending itself against ‘psychological me.’
Recent research reveals that 50-80% of disordered eating behavior is genetic, while the remainder falls under the umbrella of environmental influence. Thankfully, most people aren’t biologically predestined to suffer from an eating disorder, but it’s safe to say that our society has fairly successfully driven a significant wedge between our minds and bodies.
Our culture pumps our brains full of images of bony models, women with curves, and bulging muscles, while we are inundated with dieting commercials interspersed with those for bacon-wrapped pizzas and fast food. Whether overweight, underweight, or somewhere in between, no one is immune to the torrent of conflicting messages we receive each day. Soon enough we begin to misunderstand and mistrust our body, grow frustrated with its inability to adapt perfectly to our manipulations or age as flawlessly as the celebrities in magazines.
Mending the treacherous gap between mind and body takes time and plenty of compassion. Luckily, we likely don’t have to reconcile with a seemingly foreign limb as those with BIID, but practices like yoga, meditation, playing jubilantly in the sun, or understanding and appreciating the origins of the food that we eat are all wonderful ways of developing a deeper connection with our bodies. Strength does not result from restriction, starvation, or self-criticism or abuse; real strength requires taking charge of one’s own consciousness, recognizing our genuine value and taking steps every day to embrace the unpredictability, imperfection, and staggering beauty inherent in our bodies and our existence.
Our body is our one true home. We spend more time with our bodies than we will with any other person or entity. So why not treat it with the same love and care as you would your lifelong companion? I encourage each one of you today to valiantly take steps toward a more unified mind and body, and bring a little soul into what has become a mindless battle.
Sophomore Neuroscience Major at UT Austin & REbeL Alumna