A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a fascinating discovery. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they couldn’t make decisions.
Damasio has been called the “possessor of the most profound understanding of higher human cognition” and for good reason. The implications of Damasio’s work are truly groundbreaking when it comes to understanding how and why humans make decisions. His work has particular importance in the area of addiction and the readiness to recover from it. But as of yet, very few addiction programs are directly applying Damasio’s work to addiction recovery. At the Kiloby Center, our work has been in alignment with Damasio’s findings from the beginning. We understand how emotions and sensations play such a vital role in decisions around addictive behaviors. In many other treatment programs, people are trying to think themselves out of addiction, while ignoring the direct experience of their body states. We think this mind-centered approach is why the relapse rate is still so high in many other programs.
Dr. Bruce Charlton used the following example to sum up Damasio’s findings quite well:
“If we see the approach of an aggressive looking man, this image provokes sympathetic nervous system activation which affects the internal environment of the body by its action on smooth muscles and hormonal levels. This change in body state corresponding to the emotion that we call fear leads to patterns of nerve cell activation in the brain. Emotions are therefore cognitive representations of body states that are part of a homeostatic mechanism by which the internal milieu is monitored and controlled, and by which this internal milieu influences behaviour of the whole organism.”
The bottom line of Damasio’s work is that when we think we are acting upon pure logic or rationality, we are instead acting upon emotion/sensation or the desire to avoid it. In the simplest terms, our bodies tell us what is true and real, what to do and what not to do (even when we think we are deciding with our minds).
Damasio’s discovery is perfectly in alignment with what we have seen at the Kiloby Center. It may not be obvious at first just how important Damasio’s work is with regard to addiction and recovery. But here is how we explain it at the Kiloby Center when discussing the topic of readiness to recover from addiction.
At the Center, clients often bring up issues around decisions they have made or are making with regard to their own behavior, thoughts, relationships and social interactions. For example, a client might say,
- “I didn’t want to call my mother today because she doesn’t understand where I’m coming from.”
- “I decided not to go to a meeting tonight because I need to focus on work instead.”
- “Yesterday I went to the store to buy healthier food because I am getting fat.”
- “Now that I am clean I am ready to get back into a relationship with my ex.”
- “When I am bored, I see that I just need more variety in life.”
These are just a few of the many examples of statements that are made each day at the Center by clients on a wide range of topics. These examples look as those they are based in logic or rationality. But when clients are asked to look more closely at the rational or logical underpinnings of these decisions, mostly what they find is not logic or rationality at all. It is emotion and/or sensation in the body. We call it the “velcro effect” at the Center. The velcro effect is the experience of thoughts being stuck or velcroed to emotions and sensations in the body. And it is the emotions or sensations that actually drive the thinking, just as Damasio found.
In undoing the velcro effect with our mindfulness tools, emotions and sensations are discharged from the thinking and life begins to look very different for clients. They begin to see that a large majority, if not all, of their thought-based behavior is emotionally-driven and quite often involves a desire to avoid certain emotions and sensations. Seeing this first hand, through present moment awareness, begins to change the way they view themselves and how they make decisions. Our use of deep body awareness at the Center allows clients to be more fully and directly in touch with the emotions and sensations that drive thinking.
Readiness is the openness or willingness to use our mindfulness tools at the Center to undo problematic, fear-based or addictive thinking. Almost everyone struggles with readiness precisely because they don’t see, at first, just how vital a role emotions and sensations play in their everyday decision making. Clients will often voice very rational or logical reasons behind their behaviors, not seeing that the thinking and the behavior is largely emotion- or sensation-driven. As they begin to see it, they become more open to undoing the velcro effect around certain patterns of thinking. Simply put, they become more ready to use our mindfulness tools in their daily lives. They get out of their heads and become more in tune with their inner bodies – and more present in the moment.
For example, a thought about using a substance appears rational at first, like “I think I can have one drink.” But it’s the body state behind it that is driving that thinking. Even the desire to stop using is driven to a large degree by body states. Trying to free oneself of boredom by deciding to get on the internet and search for a new car is driven by the body state that goes along with that boredom. Everyday fears and anxieties that are registered in the body drive the way clients behave and think also. A fear about social interaction is often disguised in rational thinking like, “I have work to do so I can’t go.” Decisions around personal finance that seem very logical are often fear-based. For example, “I really need to get a job” seems very rational and logical. But when it is more closely examined, our old friend fear is found to be velcroed to the thought.
Seeing moment-by-moment how emotions and sensations drive thinking often opens up a world of new opportunities for clients to use our mindfulness tools on all kinds of problematic, fear-based and addictive thinking. Once that readiness to be present starts to show up, clients truly begin to recover. And they see that recovery is not just about abstaining from an addictive substance or activity. It involves seeing, feeling and hearing their interal states in a much more mindful way and letting their lives unfold more naturally and organically in the present moment. They find less need to avoid emotion and more ability to simply feel and accept it the moment it arises. Because addiction is all about avoidance of emotion and sensation, their recovery becomes about no longer avoiding.
This kind of deep insight about the interaction between body states and thinking does not come easily. It takes skills training. Our culture conditions us to be unaware of the connection between the body and mind. At the Center, clients are involved in skills training in various ways all day long, everyday. This skills training makes all the difference. It allows clients to see firsthand how the velcro effect (the mind-body connection) is behind virtually everything they think, don’t think, do and don’t do. It allows the topic of readiness to be a central aspect of our work at the Center. Sometimes in group sessions, we simply illuminate for each other how certain seemingly logical or rational thoughts about what to do or not do on a given day are based on emotion or sensation or the avoidance of it. This is truth telling in the deepest sense of the phrase. Truth telling is making the unconscious conscious. Through this truth-telling, a whole new conversation arises and stays alive at the Center each day. Truthtelling leads to readiness and insight, which leads to true and lasting recovery.
For more information about our program at the Center, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.