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August 28th, 2018

Is the conductor of an orchestra a musician?  Certainly we must say yes because he’s integral to the music making process, but if we were to ask what musical instrument a conductor plays, what would our answer be?


Does a conductor play the entire orchestra as an instrument?


The conductor indicates the pace for every instrument and will provide special instructions to parts of the orchestra and even individuals.


The conductor is looking for an overall sound and effect, just as one particular musician in the orchestra looks for an overall effect from their own given instrument.  And each does their job to elicit a particular effect that will bring about a particular emotional reaction in the audience.


This whole process happens in much the same way that we as individual people experience emotions. 


For a moment, try to identify the location of emotions. 


Are emotions experienced in the brain?  As in, do we feel them inside of our head?


No, not really.  Perhaps the only thing that comes close to a sensory experience of our own brain is a headache, and even that is not fully accurate to claim.


Emotions are felt in the body.


The experience of fear, for example, might be located in the gut as a kind of sinking feeling, or a prickling on the surface of the skin, or a tremor running up the spine.


Anxiety probably hovers somewhere in the chest area.


Feelings of love and affection might be experienced in a whole variety of places.


We may be prone to thinking of the brain and the body as relatively separate entities.  Often we can look at our body and not even feel that it represents who we are or who we would like to be.


But if we pause for a moment on this interplay of body and brain, where the brain sends signals into the body to create the sensations that we associate with different emotions, we may find a much greater appreciation for the body.


What exactly is the brain doing by pinging the body with these physical sensations that we identify as emotions? 


We may think of the body as a sort of instrument that gives us information about the outside world: the eyes provide a detailed sensation of light in order for us to know what’s around us, the skin allows us to pick up on a slight breeze and a stomach ache might signal that we shouldn’t eat that sort of food again.


But emotions constitute a way for the brain to talk to itself.


The brain uses the body to talk to itself.  It pings parts of the body with sensations to clue the conscious mind into things it needs to address, like when we feel fear and it prompts us to look around and carefully assess our situation.  Or when we feel anxiety. . .


We might go so far as to say that the body is a medium through which the subconscious talks to our conscious selves.


We might remember saying something like: “I didn’t realize how hungry I was!” after taking a break from intensive concentration on some project.


And as Gavin De Becker details in his book “The Gift of Fear” we can put ourselves at great risk by not listening to our physical sensations of fear.  In this sort of instance, the brain is picking up on clues in the environment that are indicating danger in a way that our conscious mind might not recognize.  And so the brain floods the body with sensations of fear as a way to grab the attention of our conscious self and direct it a meaningful way that will help us survive.


Who is the conductor playing the body of emotions we experience?    The answer is actually irrelevant in order for this realization to be useful.


Experiments done with split brain patients, where the Corpus Callosum has been severed resulting in a person who’s two brain hemispheres can no longer talk to each other make it seem as though there is more than one person inside of each or our brains.  Some researchers and thinkers even like to think of the brain as a committee of entities, like the executive board of a corporation, each member having some kind of say in what the overall person does. 


Regardless of what is actually going on in the brain, it is clear that we receive advice and motivational pushes in the form of emotions from a part of the brain that we do not really have much direct access to.


This leads to a very important consideration: How might the health of our body contribute or impinge the ability of our brain to give our conscious selves productive insights via these emotions?


If that unknown conductor in the brain is trying to evoke an excellent performance of emotions, what happens if some orchestra members are missing due to malnutrition?


Something as simple as too much coffee can bring about needless feelings of anxiety and even panic.  What else might be screwing up the conductor’s attempts to communicate with our conscious selves effectively?


Poor diet and lack of exercise are the most obvious candidates here.


We might think of the conductor’s frustration while trying to conduct with a patchy orchestra through a screen while construction is being done in the hall. 


We might even go so far as to wonder if the conductor would get so frustrated with the situation that we might lapse into depression.


What if the conductor only has those low, somber notes to play?


Should it be any surprise that we wake up in the morning with no motivation, no hope and a growing sense of despair?


If that’s all the conductor can give us, then we might recognize it as our job to give the conductor something more to work with.


Our conscious self is the most powerful opportunity to direct our brain, body and circumstance towards something better.


It might be helpful to even draw a little separation between our conscious, thinking self, and the feelings we have. 


If depressed, we might think: ok, my brain is trying to tell me something.  What is it trying to tell me?  Probably that things need to change, because what’s going on right now, sucks.


If we associate too strongly with those feelings, however, we can get trapped in a vicious cycle where depression and lack of motivation result in behaviors that increase feelings of depression and a lack of motivation.


However, if we can disassociate from those feelings, take them a little less personally, and maybe look at such feelings as information, or advice, or even just a status report of what other parts of the brain think about what’s going on in life, then we can act upon our interpretation of our feelings in more productive ways.


Body health IS brain health.


The first step to a better state of mind most often involves getting the body to a better state of health.


Going for a jog when we don’t feel like it may be akin to adding a whole upper register to the sort of music the orchestra can play, unlocking sopranos and violins for the conductor to add to the whole ensemble.


Eating a healthier diet might be akin to feeding a tired, depressed orchestra that requires more micro nutrients – an orchestra that never plays well on donuts and pasta.


These sort of conscious changes turn the vicious cycle upside-down.  Slowly, the conductor starts pulling out other pieces to play.  With a more powerful, healthier, robust orchestra, it can handle the difficult melodies of drive, contentment, and appreciation.


It’s clear we cannot choose our emotions as readily as we can choose our outfit for the day.  Choosing emotions is more like choosing the sort of shape we’d like our body to be.  It does not happen overnight, but with consistent thoughtful action, we can slowly change the body.  Is it any surprise that people who push themselves through drastic body transformations in the direction of health feel a lot better?


Perhaps such feelings are the rejoicings of a conductor who finally has the fine-tuned orchestra that can handle such songs of happiness.

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Podcast Ep. 135: The Conductor's Orchestra

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