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Artwork by Loribelle Spirovski

How the Physical Sensations In Your Body Influence Your Thoughts and Feelings

Humans have surmised that there’s an intimate relationship between mind, body, and spirit for millennia. Now, cutting-edge psychedelic research begins to prove it

DoubleBlind Mag

Article by Saga Briggs
Published on

DoubleBlind Mag is devoted to fair, rigorous reporting by leading experts and journalists in the field of psychedelics. Read more about our editorial process and fact-checking here.

“I’m so nervous,” Alvin says as we begin, and the whole room—fifty or sixty bodies, bathed in red light and surrounded by darkness—exhales.

Dose of Pleasure, a monthly dance workshop in Berlin, started three years ago as an effort to keep the club culture alive during lockdown. Now held at Club Ost, a former power plant that hosts raves from time to time, it’s led by founder Alvin Collantes, a dance artist, passionate raver, drag queen, and Jungian life coach. Alvin takes direction from Gaga, a dance pedagogy that leverages the body’s sensations for expression. Participants are invited to use shyness or insecurity as fuel for movement. On this particular night, we explore liberation and “freeing our inner child,” a phrase I find a little cringe because it’s so abstract.

“This is for you,” Alvin reminds us, gliding gazelle-like through the space in platform heels, as we shift from warm-up exercises into a dance session. Flailing our arms to steamy techno, we explore his invitation: “How can you play with it?”

I finally connect when I channel the subtler motions in my shoulders, fists, knees that no one can see but I can feel. What the beat does, inside me, is create a prompt. Reservation becomes part of my rhythm—smug, unapologetic; a well of masculine power in the suspension of expression, in absent-father-style curtness. What emerges is a tom boy in an oversized shirt and baggy pants. My body signs this email “LYD” which stands for “Love you – Dad.” The persona derived from sensation is, as it turns out, my kid self. I love that kid and had completely forgotten about her.

Awareness of the body’s internal state, including sensations, is called interoception. Like mindfulness for the body, it’s how we know we’re hungry, thirsty, joyful, angry, tired, sick. Clinical researchers are discovering that people with depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, and substance dependence all have impaired interoceptive awareness—and that improving it, so far mostly through mindfulness practices, enhances well-being. Their work is substantiating what contemplative traditions and indigenous communities have known for thousands of years: Our consciousness has deep, rich roots in our bodily feelings. What seems to be emerging—quite unexpectedly for clinical neuroscience—bears an uncanny resemblance to a science of spirituality. Perhaps nowhere do we see the connection between consciousness, embodiment, and spirituality more clearly than in the psychedelic research field, which has feet firmly planted in both clinical and existential camps.

READ: Trauma is the New Buzzword, but Does Everyone Really Have It?

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Artwork by Loribelle Spirovski

“Next to the loosening of prior beliefs, psychedelics also directly offer a new embodied experience of connectedness and self-transcendence, which can challenge one’s prior beliefs (e.g., ‘I am lonely, but right now I feel a strong connection to everyone I know’),” write scientists David Yaden and Michiel Van Elk in a recent review of theories about how psychedelics work in the brain. While this statement may at first sound totally devoid of spiritual relevance, it does concede that altered states don’t just change our minds; they change the experience of our bodies, which can directly change our minds. “Psilocybin could allow for an influx of interoceptive and exteroceptive information,” Van Elk writes. “Such influx may lead to increased interoceptive awareness, which has been associated with awareness and regulation of emotional states.” And that’s the thing about spirituality—is it ever not experienced in the body?

Perhaps because people are starved for new ways of being in the world, workshops like Alvin’s are cropping up all over Berlin. Across the River Spree, Lola Péjac and Franzi Behler are native Berliners who run an energetic body therapy workshop called Move Your Body Move Your Mind to create space for people to share life stories, emotions, movements, and touch. The workshop travels around studios in Berlin and to festivals outside the city, including Bucht der Traümer, which happens every August.

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“If you look at a kid, the kid will always be in contact with their emotions, movement, breath, voice; it will all be connected,” Lola, trained in massage and yoga, tells me in a cozy Neukölln café, a few days after I find their business card in an organic foods store in my neighborhood. “Then maybe their parents say, ‘When you express this feeling, I give you less love, or I give you more love when you do it this way.’ And this is how we are trained, in our bodies, to be and live. Our work is about having the experience again of that childish state.”

Describing this process in more detail, Franzi adds, “If you have this experience of, ‘When I laugh, it’s too loud,’ or if someone tells you, ‘You look shitty today’ or whatever, you have a feeling, maybe in this part of the body [points to lower chest], or here [points to throat], and so we have traces in our system from experience. It could be a trauma, or it could be one experience that wasn’t so bad, but you still carry it with you if you don’t let it out. Our work is not finding the answers; it’s making things move.”

This philosophy dovetails with Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist Gül Dölen’s “social critical period” theory of how psychedelics work: These compounds can re-open neural circuits that were fortified during an earlier time in our lives—such as childhood, when we are especially sensitive to our social environment—and let us rewire them. Interoceptive awareness is thought to develop during youth as well, suggesting there may be a physiological component to this process. From this vantage point, the psychedelic state sounds a lot closer to somatic therapy, or relational psychotherapy—which focus on the embodied and/or social space of the therapy session itself—than standard talk therapy. At the same time, these experiences are very much modified by the set and setting, Dölen says. “It’s not like people who have PTSD are taking MDMA and going to raves and coming back cured.”

Perhaps nowhere else in the world do you have such a range of possible settings for these experiences of self-transcendence and embodiment as in Berlin.

“You can party everywhere in the world, but, in Berlin, clubs are open Thursday to Monday, continually, without a break,” Franzi and Lola point out. “We’ve seen people coming here and getting completely lost, many times. And this is sad to see. But also we have friends who go to the club and dance all night with eyes closed, for liberation. It can be a space to really connect with yourself and come out of your mindfuck. So it’s always a question of how you use it. But I think it’s a bit dangerous here because everything is about ‘Berlin lifestyle’ and fashion and drugs in this bubble of hedonism.”

READ: WTF is 3-MMC, Berlin’s Weird New Club Drug?

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Artwork by Loribelle Spirovski

When I ask them where spirituality fits into all of this, they talk about preparation, safety, trust, and integration as central to psychedelic experiences—all the same things they mention when talking about energetic body therapy sessions.

Back across the river, and a 10-minute walk from Club Ost, is the MIND European Foundation for Psychedelic Science, next door to its medical partner and ketamine-augmented psychotherapy clinic, OVID Health Systems. MIND is devoted to an evidence-based, rational, and secular exploration of psychedelics for the advancement of human health. Their biennial INSIGHT conference, happening at the end of the summer, is a science community conference, focused on research. This year, MIND is placing “an additional focus on societal topics such as secular spiritualities.” This addition parallels developments in other parts of the world, such as Johns Hopkins University’s recently-established Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D., Professorship Fund in Psychedelic Research on Secular Spirituality and Well-Being.

For some, the term “secular spirituality” may sound like a dig at identity and religion; for others, it’s perhaps a nod toward something easier to measure. “In academia you are raised in a scientific materialist environment,” Marc Wittmann, a research fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas in Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany, told me. Wittmann studies interoception, time, and altered states of consciousness. “People who are important (professors, those who give you a job) and your competitive peers often have a conformist attitude: You have to obey the mainstream. In the mainstream materialist view, you have neural signals and nothing else.

That is neater and tidier to think about.” At first, spirituality-as-wellness seems tidier too: Scientists can measure subjective well-being more easily than encounters with the divine. But there’s one word, often overlooked, that frequently appears in both research questionnaires and anecdotes about mystical psychedelic experiences: “sense.” It seems to be the sudden depth and power of feeling that’s universal, regardless of the religious or cultural lens through which the individual understands it.

A recent study from University College London found that repeated ayahuasca use resulted in structural changes to networks associated with the embodied and narrative self, in the insula and default mode network (DMN), respectively. “This implies that long-term psychedelic drug use might change both how people feel within their bodies as embedded in the world (the embodied self) and the way that they talk to and about themselves (the narrative self),” the researchers wrote. While these changes happened in a relatively separable manner, there was some overlap in posterior nodes of the DMN, the part of the brain most commonly associated with the ego.

“So far the downregulation of the posterior cingulate cortex (presumably related to the narrative self) has been the common denominator in different altered states of consciousness (meditation, psychedelics, floatation tank),” Wittmann told me. Changes in insula activity, he says, “fit well with the ‘no (bodily) self/no time’ experience in psychedelics.”

Artwork by Loribelle Spirovski

Tellingly, the cingulate cortex spans two net-works: the Default Mode Network (the story we tell ourselves about who we are) and theSalience Network (the feeling of having a bodily self). In other words, dissolving the “ego” may only be half of the equation: It’s when the multi-sensory signals we normally integrate into one coherent sense of self start to unravel that our story unravels, too.

A powerful bodily feeling can be as true as any fact about the world. Before “faith” was conflated with religious belief, it simply meant to trust what is known but can’t be seen. What can we say, then, about trusting your gut, following your instincts, responding to an inner knowing—processes that are “secular” in part because they seem to come from an internal, not external, source? What if bringing the body on board in psychedelic research, with a few more interoception questionnaires, could help form a bridge between material and immaterial truths?

“That’s how I know something is true,” says Romana Cottee, a Reiki master who runs her own practice in Berlin. “If I think something and feel it at the same time, I think, yes that’s true. It’s a deep truth, as if the body is correlating what’s happening in the mind. That’s how I get a lot of lessons and teachings and insight and direction—it sometimes stops me in the street—the body saying ‘yes, that’s the right thing’ at the same time as the mind.”

Part of spiritual awareness is being conscious of the dialogue between mind and body, and science is starting to prioritize the study of this dialogue too, in its own way. A recent study in humans found that highly ruminative individuals with depression showed abnormalities in the neural processing of gastric interoception—the sense of what’s going on inside the stomach—specifically. Is it a coincidence that a wide range of serotonin receptors, including those which classic psychedelics bind to, are found in the gut? Medicinal traditions like Ayurveda have placed the gut as the center of wellness for thousands of years. Can we really say the powerful catharses induced by psychedelics begin and end with brain activity alone?

When asked to explain what “secular spirituality” really means for MIND, Co-Founder Marvin Däumichen emphasized the importance of staying open and exploring “existential questions of being-in-the-world and being-in-your-body.”

Religion and science can both be dogmatic in their own ways, and psychedelics can increase suggestibility and strengthen people’s pre-existing convictions and worldviews. But this certainty tends to happen in the meaning-making stage. Before that comes a pro- found uncertainty, not in a set of beliefs but in the experience of being an embodied self, like kicking a door wedge in between how you feel and who you think you are.

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Even aesthetic scholars like Edward Bullough and Susanne Langer talk about “psychical distance” as the detachment a person typically experiences while deeply admiring a work of art. The distanced person, they argue, has a feeling about a work of art, but does so with the knowledge that the work is an illusion. This seems paradoxical at first: How can you have an emotional attitude which is both detached and involved? What is desirable in art, both in appreciation and production, they claim, is the utmost decrease of distance without its disappearance.

“I can explore sadness without becoming sad,” says police lieutenant and MAPS therapist trainee Sarko Gergerian, midway through his MDMA session, in episode five of the Netflix series How to Change Your Mind. His eyes dart gently from side to side. “There’s no way this is only good for PTSD.”

There’s no way he’s only changing his mind, either. To say he can explore an emotion without becoming it doesn’t mean he’s numbing out and reflecting on the concept. It means he can feel sadness as one part of the greater experience of his being, without sadness becoming his entire being, just as someone having a mystical experience may feel themself as one part of a greater unity instead of being fully identified with the unit of their everyday self. Both processes could be described as spiritual.

In that sense, maybe the old adage “time heals all wounds” becomes clinically and spiritually relevant if we think of it in terms of space: To separate oneself from one’s immediate experience, interoceptively, while being fully present for it, makes that experience feel less like an assault on one’s entire being. The impulse behind someone’s bottomless dive in Berlin’s U-bahn station suddenly resembles the ceilingless high in Berghain: How can I relate differently to myself and the world around me, even just for one night?

“For me it’s the nicest work I can do,” says Franzi, reflecting on her workshop. “It’s like a trip, working this way with my intuition. Being in process with a person, having information—I call it ‘energetic information,’ my body getting information from the other person—and my mind doesn’t know why I do this right now with the person. It’s like an energy flow.”

Lola adds: “You have to be in therapy with yourself the whole time. You have to be present with your breath, intuition, body. Even touch— it has to be so mindful. Afterwards you feel so high, so connected.”

If Alvin’s workshop was a spiritual experience for me, it was in the moments I stopped making sense of and started sensing, channeling a beat within. Everything shifted after that.

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DoubleBlind Mag is devoted to fair, rigorous reporting by leading experts and journalists in the field of psychedelics. Read more about our editorial process and fact-checking here.

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DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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