Being in your head

It is not uncommon nowadays to complain about or be diagnosed as someone who is too much ‘in their heads’. Overthinking, worrying, anxiousness, with never a moment of quiet.

The cure for this ailment, is to be in your body. Hence, we all jump to, or get referred or sent to mindfulness, yoga and coaches in a hope of finding the answers to being in our heads. On we go, back into our bodies, something we left behind long ago, to find our lost paradise. Or something like that.

Lets take a look at the metaphors that are being used, in the style of the brilliant Lakoff & Johnson. The language we use reveals something about how we associate certain categories with others. How we perceive ourselves and the world. Flowing from the concept of embodied cognition, we assume here that these statements relate to some immediate experience we have, and how we try to communicate to others our experience of existence. Language in return, changes the way we perceive, categorize and relate our experience to other things. Let us warm up with one of such phrases and take it to being in our heads afterwards:

Lost in thought

Lost in thought means that thoughts are something you can be in. Thoughts are a container, a bounded place that you can be located inside of. 

Once inside that container, you can be lost. Being lost in something, can means that you have lost your way or losing your orientation. You don’t know where you are. In the same way you can ‘have your way’ or ‘lose your way’. You can also lose a trail, when as when on a journey. This can be seen in ‘losing your train of thought’. Like walking into the woods, you wander into a forest of thoughts and halfway in, you get lost.

Another take on this is losing the connection to the real world. Lost in thought is like losing a connection when on the phone. In Dutch “lossen” (related to loosening) is a naval term that describes releasing the ropes that tie the ship to the harbor.

Depending on which route you take, being lost in thought may describe not being present in the moment, a disconnection, daydreaming and unaware of what is going around you, or, being inside the container and losing your connection to the outside.

Being in your head and being in your body

The best candidate for the container of our thoughts is our head. The head is the container in which our thoughts are housed. Coincidentally, when we try to communicate our thoughts, the sounds we make to send these thoughts to other thinking heads is through the hole in the container: speaking through the mouth*. 

The cure for being in your head is, of course, being in your body. This is, because of the Descartian seesaw, you can only be in one of the two. The body, and the head, are both containers. If one is full, the other is empty, and vice versa. Immediately this makes your you, the I, your self a mobile entity, that can have a location in the landscape of your being. It can go from your head to your body, sinking down, or rising up from the body to your head.** So, if you want to get rid of the problem of having your being located in your head you need to oppose this by pushing your being down into your body, like pushing a balloon under water. One of the ways of doing is this is by stimulating the body a lot, to force attention to the rest of the body, or exerting yourself so much no thought is possible. Another way is to limit external input and focus intensively on bodily sensation, to feel on purpose. The ‘notice your thoughts’ style of cognitive behavioral mindfulness, in a way, damns up the river of thoughts by looping the new thoughts back on the old, and after a while nothing new is being thought.

The problem can not be just being in your head or being in your body. The problem is HOW your are being and whether that is pleasant or not. Daydreaming and losing yourself in thought can be very pleasant. Panic, fear, dread, heartbreak, agony, dispair are very much bodily experiences. If the solution to your being in your headedness is to be in your body then having a giant panic attack would be the solution. This is obviously nonsense.

The answer to the question of how you are doing cannot be found in where you are being. Perhaps it is more about what you are doing and if you experience your efforts as meaningful and satisfying. That you have a sense of being safe, supported and curious about the world and have enough resources to manage surprises.

We should be careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater, whilst killing the Descartian Trojan Horse of sneaky dualistic metaphors. What makes the metaphor of being in your head useful is the truth that one of our responses to being overwhelmed, suffering, coerced or trapped is to STOP FEELING. What being in your body then means is to reconnect to feeling, and using feeling what you want to navigate to the meaningful and the satisfying. There is nothing however to stop us from doing that intelligently, if we don’t condemn our heads and thought as the source of problem.

There is, as always, much more to be said. For now we will leave it here.

*I believe it is not necessarily the presence of the brain in the head that makes us locate the head as the source of thoughts. The discovery of the organ inside the container made it a convenient target to describe our thoughts to, but there are plenty of other body parts people can be said to think with, the male genitals being a notorious one and of course the Victorian invention of Hysteria, which relates erratic behavior to a dysfunctional womb. Even though we can scan brains now, we have had these metaphors in our language way before we knew what was going on inside our heads on a biological level, or even had biology of any kind. Metaphors were there long before MRI scanners, but never existed without speech.

**Perhaps our thoughts are high and the body low because we walk upright and our heads are on top of our bodies.