To kick off Mental Health month here at Tune Up Fitness® I wanted to interview someone who would not just clarify, but possibly dysrupt, typical ways of thinking about the topic of mental health. The person who came immediately to mind was Dr. Christopher Walling.
I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Walling several times over the past few years and have been repeatedly moved by his words and work. The curiosity, intensity and well, delight, he brings to in-depth studies focused on understanding and supporting the health of the human organism is beyond inspiring.
Dr. Walling’s ability to bridge complex psychiatric concepts to the worlds of yoga and conscious fitness is very helpful to wellness professionals and self-care enthusiasts. The consistent respect and genuine interest he offers all level of client, student and trainee makes him an important role model in my own professional development.
Dr. Walling, PsyD, MBA, C-IAYT, is a researcher, a licensed clinical psychologist, and an active leader in the biobehavioral sciences. His work integrates the developmental, neurobiological, and somatic aspects of the lifespan. Dr. Walling is the President of the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy, the hub of somatic psychology, and Associate-Deputy Editor for the International Body Psychotherapy Journal. His clinical focus in the behavioral sciences has examined the intersections of neuro-psychotherapy, affect regulation, and body psychology. (From somapsychology.com)
We may never have solid conclusions on the topic of mental health. However, exploring big questions can tease out answers that will help us explore new possibilities… and potent new questions! This 3-part series of blog posts aims to do just that.
The topic of this first post is Where is My Mind? You might be surprised by the ideas and science that Dr. Walling offers below…
Unpacking the Concept of “Mental Health”
Ariel Kiley (AK): My first question to you, Dr Walling, is how would you describe mental health?
Dr. Christopher Walling (CW): I think there’s actually a question that needs to be asked before that question… and I don’t mean to take this immediately into some philosophical discourse… but what are we talking about when we’re talking about a “mind”?
We have to know what it is that we’re trying to “make healthy” before we can define what it looks like when that thing is healthy. The problem with that is that we don’t really have–at least in the modern world–a universally accepted, uniform definition of what a “mind” is.
Some make the mistake of equating a mind with a brain, and that would have a very different, almost functionalist definition that perhaps we use, or I might use clinically in an emergency mental health situation. But if someone’s like, “Hey Dr. Walling, how will I know that I have the healthiest mind possible?” Well, that actually requires a conversation about, what is a mind?
That might sound, again, like philosophy. My colleague Dan Seigel and others have written tons on this topic. I like Dan’s acronym when he starts to talk about “the faces of flow.”
I borrow Dan’s definition when I’m talking about how to define a “healthy mind.” Which is that it’s flexible, it’s adaptive, it’s coherent–meaning it can hold together dynamically over time. It’s energetic and it’s stable.
Those would be hallmarks, at least from a conceptualization of a resilient healthy mind. But again, it’s really going to depend on the orientation of what we’re looking at this “mind” thing from that determines how we are going to measure or even discuss whether or not it’s “healthy.”
The “Super Sexy Mysterious Organ” Called the Brain
AK: I am so into how this interview began–so exciting. Now can you share a little bit more about the way you create distinction between the concept of the “mind” and the brain? Which you referred to as being more “functionalist”?
CW: So there’s this organ that we’ve got between our two ears that everybody knows about because it’s super sexy and it’s so mysterious. We can sometimes misconstrue that organ to be somehow representative of consciousness.
But as science has grown up in the last 100 years, we’ve developed a far more intricate understanding of our psychophysiology. And as a result now have a much deeper intrinsic understanding that the brain is actually everywhere within the body–it’s not just between our ears.
As a result we now have this return to a really ancient conceptualization of “brain” and “mind” which actually looks at the totality of the organism, which is a very yogic concept.
So it’s the oldest idea known to any coherent body psychology, which is the 8 limbs of yoga–old-school yoga–this idea that when we combine psychological, physiological and complex body dynamics into an integrated whole we could call that “brain.” We could also call that “mind” and we can also call that “body”.
So for me, clinically, when I’m thinking about a case conceptualization for a given patient I’m looking at the whole picture and the whole body as being both brain and mind. So I can use those terms interchangeably.
That also galvanizes a much richer understanding of clinical intervention and the ways in which we can go about a process of treating psychopathology or human suffering–which is that we start to conceptualize brain functions within the various afferent signals that might flow within my viscera or within my skin, within the ectoderm and the endoderm… and the mesoderms of the layers of my body…
It opens up a much richer understanding of, wow! This brain thing… 80% of my nervous system is afferent, meaning ascending through my subcortical processes? This conscious crap that I’ve been so focused on, that’s only like the tip of the proverbial iceberg?
You know, this notion that brain is only between the ears, that’s really old-school and we know a heck of a lot more, particularly in the last 50 years, that now helps us understand [that] brain is everywhere–brain is not just located in the central processing compartment between the ears.
The Brain is Where? Everywhere!
AK: So when you say “brain is everywhere” and you’re talking about the afferent communication (which is communication from the limbs back up to the brain) I sometimes wonder… we give the brain so much credit for being the judge but is it actually the court reporter that’s taking notes, but not actually deciding? [both laugh]
So from an anatomical perspective would you consider the presence of the brain in the body the presence of actual nerve endings and the nerve communication throughout the body?
CW: Yeah. I’m looking at it from a CNS [central nervous system] perspective in a foundational way. When you go into the anatomy lab, for Yoga Tune Up types when they go into a Gil Hedley lab, they’re gonna notice the central nervous system thing, at least from an anatomical perspective, includes brain and spinal cord and all these nerves that reach out.
That whole thing, that whole CNS system, from a functional anatomy perspective… a lot of body psychotherapists would see that as equalling “brain”. Meaning there can be small terminal processes of embodied cognition that will occur within various terminal endings of a nerve ending.
That is the body essentially processing signals and information and it’s doing it locally and globally back at home in the brain, simultaneously. So there’s this simultinaity of functional performative embodied thinking that is not necessarily having to send mail up to the brain to process within the cortical processing centers. But in fact, because of the nature of the phylogenetic performative capacities of our instinctual need to respond to certain challenging situations, etc., will occur without us having to do any of that cortical processing stuff. Does that make sense?
AK: Absolutely–so the tip of the finger can think for itself?
CW: You got it.
AK It doesn’t need to send information to the brain to tell it things, or find out what should be thought…?
CW: You got it. Sub-cortical processes that we use the brain stem for, have a vagal branch that use myelinated fibers that process simultaneous signals so quickly that they don’t require cognition. So while the brain itself (the organ) is involved, the cortex is not, and so thinking isn’t a part of the act local think global functional equation of how our nervous system performs. This is a dynamic situation—and one in which implicit, sub-cortical, below the level of conscious awareness processes are working to help support life!
Check out the next installment of this series about mental health with Dr. Christopher Walling.
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