I am up early on a Sunday morning, enjoying the cool breeze that grazes my skin as I water the balcony plants. The air is scented with smoke, likely from a British Columbia forest fire. I go inside to mince fresh coconut and corriander, preparing a Kenyan chutney for dinner. While chopping the green chilis, I think about the book I read the day before, musing aloud: ‘I must have an extra large reptilian brain.’ According to neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean, the human brain is composed of three evolutionary layers: the earliest reptilian core is devoted to sensation as well as survival; the limbic or paleomammalian brain that developed next is concerned with ‘higher’ functions, allowing for emotion, memory, and learning; and the most advanced layer, the neocortex, is what distinguishes human beings and other select primates from ‘lower’ entities, enabling self-awareness and cognition. Although I like the psychedelic diagram of what is called the ‘Triune Brain’ pasted below—it is suitably 1960s, the era when MacLean first proposed his theories—I imagine that my sensory-overload mind looks more like the large-yolked scotch egg on the right, complete with its deep fried sausage casing. After all, I am a Scotch McEgghead.
‘What on earth is FFG babbling about?’ you might be wondering. Allow me to explain, starting with an energetic meeting that I had a few weeks ago with the Coordinator of Humanities 101. Humanities 101 is an outreach program that offers free non-credit university-level courses to people who are passionate about learning but currently lack access to education for economic and social reasons. I have agreed to direct discussions about embodiment with women living at a local mission. One of my classes will take place in the communal kitchen, where we will debate the historical relationship between women and food while preparing an Andra Bhurji Potato and Egg dish. I am excited by the new challenges that this type of teaching will bring, and will no doubt learn much from the women at the mission. For one thing I can discover whether or not they would have any use for the volunteer personal trainer I am hoping to become [see the post ‘What’s Next for FFG’?]. I had some difficulty explaining to the Coordinator my plan to offer one-on-one physical fitness training to abused women in second-stage housing, clarifying that I did not want to focus on weight loss, appearance improvement, or some shallow understanding of ‘self-esteem.’ I doubted that doing planks and mountain climbers would help such women with their personal problems; nor did I wish to address those problems directly, lacking the requisite expertise. I simply thought that it could somehow be empowering for them to experience novel physical sensations, and attend to the body, though not in a Village on a Diet kind of way. I would never, for instance, attempt to shame their neighbourhood pizzaria owner, make ‘tut tut’ noises while throwing crap food out of their fridges, or force them to pull a monster truck up a steep hill for no apparent reason. To my relief, the Coordinator understood my intentions, declaring that access to personal training could encourage these women to feel safe within their domestic spaces, and help them reclaim their bodies. ‘What you are proposing,’ she said, ‘is in keeping with a relatively new theory known as Traumatology.’
Traumatology you say? Since I had not heard this term before, I immediately took my giant egghead to the library—well, right after doing ass cardio at the gym—checking out one book called Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy by Pat Ogden, Kekuni Minton, and Clare Pain (2006), and another less hefty tome entitled Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine (1997). Both texts assert that post-traumatic stress disorder results when a natural process goes awry within the body and can be ameliorated, not by talking about or reliving the traumatic experience, but through physical intervention. Using the example of the impala that freezes when cornered by a cheetah, Levine argues that humans equipped with triune brains have similar instinctual responses to danger. If fight or flight are not options, they can enter an altered state of consciousness to protect themselves from pain, with immobility acting as a last ditch survival strategy. Trauma is not caused by the triggering incident per se, but rather by the frozen residue of unresolved energy from that incident, which remains trapped in the nervous system. Any number of things can cause trauma, and the point is to become mindful of the body. In one case a woman had endured childhood abuse by freezing to avoid drawing attention to herself and potentially escalating the violence. Taking that trauma into her adult relationships, she had difficulty forming secure attachments and was often submissive. Her therapist addressed this issue physiologically, asking the woman to become aware of her rigid, defensive postures, and gradually work toward experiencing more openness. Therapy involved her learning how to sit, stand, and move in new ways, ultimately both expressing and releasing the trauma from her body.
I found this all quite fascinating, realizing that I had intuitively arrived at a similar understanding of the fundamental importance of physical sensation and its ability to transform cognitive processes. I’ll admit to being skeptical about the triune layers, an outdated way of describing the human brain that has been roundly critiqued by others. Accounts of ‘energy release’ tend to put me on flake alert, and I am uncomfortable with the hierarchical nature of this model, which for the most part continues to position the body as a foundation for higher developments, and furthermore puts humans at the top of the food chain. I sincerely doubt that I am better than a reptile, or even an insect. The other day I was pleased to discover a small green grasshopper on my balcony, complimenting it for jumping all the way to the fourth floor. Apparently startled by my flattering remarks it leaped to what I assumed was a traumatic death. After hearing my confession, the reassuring Renaissance Man (RenMan)—a smart and creative bodybuilder not to be mistaken for Rentman.com—insisted that the hopper’s hard body armour had ensured its survival. He also said that my childhood cat Fluffy was still alive and well at the Happy Trails Animal Haven. In any case, the grasshopper was ultimately saved by its body, and a similar insistence on giving the body its due, on seeing physicality as key to mental and emotional health, is what I value most in Traumatology, a field about which I admittedly still have much to learn. Yet as the Coordinator outlined the principles of Traumatological research, I began to have visions—not the sexy Hildegard of Bingen or St. Teresa of Avila kind, but the delusions of grandeur kind. [Please try not to be so surprised, devoted readers]. Mind racing, I quickly revised my twenty year plan and it now looks something like this:
1) acquire certification as a personal trainer
2) learn about the community while teaching Humanities 101, and then begin training interested women in one-on-one or small group sessions
3) recruit other volunteer trainers, organizing a large-scale community outreach program that ultimately grows to a national level, gaining official charitable status and government support as a low-cost and effective therapeutic method
4) travel around the world promoting my customized model of fitness training for treating drug addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder, all the while publishing books, giving interviews, and posing for photographs
5) bask in the glow of success as physical therapy becomes an accepted part of the broader cultural fabric, changing how many people think and live