Mindfulness brings to light experience in its pure immediacy. It reveals the object as it is before it has been plastered over with conceptual paint, overlaid with interpretations. ~Bhikkhu Bodhi
If you haven’t yet, read The Empath and Walmart, Part 1 before reading through this post.
The sensation of touch involves more complex processes moving information from environment, often to an area larger than our ear canal, to the brain for the interpretation of that information. There are more than twenty classes of nerve cells related to touch on or under the skin. What follows is a sampling of them.
Underneath the skin, between the dermis and epidermis under mostly hairless skin like under the hands, lips and feet, are nerves call Meissner’s corpuscles. They lie parallel to the skin and, operating both independently of each other and in unison, take messages to the brain. They are what is called rapidly adapting mechanoreceptors and, among other things, are the agents that allow the blind to read Braille. Their job is to detect and signal the brain about vibrations between 10 and 50 Hertz or light touch, like flutter or textures like the slip of silk that are making contact with the skin. Their adaptive nature makes it so that once we feel something for a time, that sensation disappears. (That wool sweater? If it was scratching in the exact same place each time, you would not feel it at all after a moment or two).
In addition to the Meissner’s corpuscles, there are Pacinian corpuscles and Merkel’s disks. Pacinian corpuscles are responsible for the detection of vibration and pressure on the skin. They are larger and there are not as many of them as there are the other three nerve ending related to touch. And, they are not just on the skin. The work directly with the pancreas, detecting particular vibrations that signal the need to release insulin. Their vibrational sensitivity is different than that of Meissner’s and are optimal at 250 Hertz. When deformed or reformed by pressure, it transmits pressure. If the table top is pressing onto your thigh or you pull up the skin on the top of your hand, you Pacinian corpuscles are what is letting you know it’s time to change position or rehydrate.
Merkel’s disk are found all over the body including in the mouth and anus but cluster in fingertips. Their job is to provide information on vibrations from 5-15 Hertz. They fire fastest when small points indent the skin and fire at a low rate on slow curves or flat surfaces. Convexities reduce their rate of firing further still.
Those Ruffini corpuscles are located in the deep layers of the skin and fascia and respond to sustained pressure, skin stretching and angle change. They’re located most densely around the fingernails and while they may help you adjust your grip, they also those things that, when in contact with an onion, remind you of the hangnail you’ve forgotten about!
However, what I find fascinating is the new science that suggests (and may support my hypothesis) is the idea that from all of those hairs that cover our body nerve cells connect to our spinal column. Scientists experimenting with mice learned that each LTMR cell branched out to nearly 30 different hairs and that these hairs had specific roles in communicating.
A summary from ScienceDaily in 2012 shared this:
Mice have three different types of hair: a thick, long guard hair that accounts for only about 1 percent of total hairs on the body; a shorter hair called the awl/auchene that constitutes about 23 percent of body hair; and a fine hair called the zigzag that makes up 76 percent of body hair. The team found that most of the C-LTMR cell endings — about 80 percent — associate with zigzag hair follicles, the rest with the awl/auchene and none with the guard hair follicles.
The researchers then similarly marked two other types of touch nerve cells and found that each hair type has a different and specific set of nerve endings associated with it. “This makes every hair a unique mechanosensory organ,” says Ginty. Moreover, with their new marking tools, they found that each hair type is evenly spaced and patterned throughout the skin.
The team then wondered how all the input from these individual hairs is collected and sent to the brain. Using a different dying technique, the researchers were able to stain the other end of the cell, in the spinal cord. They found that the nerves connecting each patch of skin containing one guard hair and other associated smaller hairs line up in columns in the spinal cord — neighboring columns correspond to neighboring patches of skin. They estimate that there are about 3,000 to 5,000 columns in the spinal cord, with each column accounting for 100 to 150 hair follicles.
So how does the brain interpret what each hair follicle experiences? “How this happens is remarkable and we’re fairly clueless about it,” says Ginty. But he suspects that the organization of the columns is key to how all the various inputs are processed before a message goes to the brain. And while people are not as hairy as mice, Ginty believes that many of the same structures are shared. This study and the new cell-marking tools they developed, he says, open a lot of doors for new research in understanding touch and other senses.
The Ginty mentioned above is Dr. David Ginty. In 2014, he and a colleague published another study, building on the one above, called The Sensor Neurons of Touch and while the focus of the paper is on complex mechanical processes on the skin, I think future studies will show a similarity between the hairs on our skin (and, perhaps, other cells) responding to mechanical stimuli as well as other energetic stimulus.
This report notes that:
Sensory modalities have been, for the sake of simplicity, described as anatomically and physiologically discrete channels, or “labeled lines” that faithfully convey particular modalities of cutaneous sensory information from the periphery to the somatosensory cortex. However, both anatomical and physiological measurements indicate that sensory integration begins at subcortical levels, providing a compelling argument against a labeled-line theory of somatosensation. Today, with the use of molecular genetics, and equipped with strategies for acute ablation and/or silencing of neuronal subtypes, we can test the idea that the exquisite combination of ion-channels, organizational properties of cutaneous LTMR endings, and central nervous system circuits are the substrate of tactile perception.
All of that is to say that how we used to think about physical senses is changing as specific technologies create ways to measure things previously immeasurable.
Five years prior to Ginty’s Sensor Neurons publication, in December 15, 2009, the medical journal Pain wrote, “researchers at Albany Medical College, the University of Liverpool and Cambridge University report that the human body has an entirely unique and separate sensory system aside from the nerves that give most of us the ability to touch and feel. Surprisingly, this sensory network is located throughout our blood vessels and sweat glands, and is for most people, largely imperceptible.”
I think for empaths, that sensory network along with those associated with skin and its hair, it is very perceptible; they just don’t know what they’re perceiving and, because the stimulus is unknown and invisible energies, fear fills in the blanks.
This paper came about after physicians and scientists noticed that two patients had what is called congenital insensitivity to pain, meaning that they were born with very little ability to feel pain. However, unlike other patients with whom they’d had contact and you may have heard about, these two, aside from dealing with incessant sweating (the reason why they went to the doctor to begin with), they led normal lives. They could distinguish hot from cold, sharp from smooth, and what might be touching them.
In one inch of skin, most of us have 65 hairs, 160-165 touch sensors, 650 sweat glands, 78 yards of nerves, 73 heat sensors, 13 cold sensors and 1300 pain sensors. While these two patients may have been missing some of the pain sensors, researchers learned that these patients were missing those Meissner’s corpuscles along with the Pacinian and Merkel cells. They noted “Problems with these nerve endings may contribute to mysterious pain conditions such as migraine headaches and fibromyalgia, the sources of which are still unknown, making them very difficult to treat.”
What these and other researchers have called a sensory neuropathy, a dysfunction of nerve systems, I see as pointing the way for a new way of understanding for empaths. Fascinating stuff, no?
And, more recently, in March of this year, eNeuro (the journal for the Society of Neuroscience) published an article called Transduction of the Geomagnetic Field as Evidenced from Alpha-band Activity in the Human Brain. Within that mouthful of a title, was proof that humans can detect the earth’s magnetic field. Scientists from CalTech and other universities in New Jersey and Tokyo measured human brain changes in response to magnetic field changes. Now, they (and we) don’t understand how it happens but Joseph Kirschvink, a geophysicist who worked on the project, said this to Gizmodo:
“Magnetoreception is a normal sensory system in animals, just like vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell, gravity, temperature, and many others.All of these systems have specific cells that detect the photon, sound wave, or whatever, and send signals from them to the brain, as does a microphone or video camera connected to a computer. But without the software in the computer, the microphone or video camera will not work. We are saying that human neurophysiology evolved with a magnetometer — most likely based on magnetite — and the brain has extensive software to process the signals.”
If we can detect, although not consciously according to this study, magnetic field changes around us, why not other energies? And how might we respond if we do and are not aware of it? Ponder that for a hot minute.
Take what you’ve read here and apply it to a dastardly Walmart experience. Can you understand how, if you’re energetically sensitive (using it broadly here), how you might feel anxious or overwhelmed? From external energies reaching all that skin and hair, to the skin and hair attempting to process and translate it through while sending it to the spinal column, which takes that message into the brain. All while the eyes cannot see to what or how the skin is responding. Those things we take for granted involve millions of processes, happening so quickly that they seem, to us, simultaneous events. No wonder you feel exhausted. Go back to the idea mentioned above that the pancreas responds to what’s happening on the skin.
So what, Ingrid? How does that help me? I could give two fucks. I just want to get in and get out. No fuss, no muss.
Here’s how it helps: simple awareness of why your body and brain are responding how it does can change the experience.
And here’s homework to reinforce it. It may seem far too simple to be effective but I can assure you it works. Like creating muscle memory for typing or shooting, it doesn’t take much for all systems to get on board. You’re going to start asking one simple question when you feel anything: “Is it mine?” If you feel anxiety, heart palpitations, nausea, headache, angry, annoyed, or simply uneasy. “Is it mine?” Ask and then simply observe how the body and brain respond. Ask out loud so you don’t confuse yourself and to bring focus. Don’t create an answer in your head or leap to ‘of course, it’s mine! It’s my head/belly/mood/heart!” Not so fast, toots. We may have been trained to think that everything we feel is ours but that is often not the case.
This is about retraining the brain and creating space for a deeper understanding about how they interact with the world around them. It’s about teaching your eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin what inputs they are responding to and what to do, or not do, with the messages being received.
I ask people to break out the Post-It notes and put the question on the bathroom and rear-view mirrors, kitchen cabinets, desktop screen, home screen of their phone, on the back of the door, above the sink so that for a few days it becomes a mantra and practice in observation. Ask, observe, and notice how energetic space is created with simple awareness.
It seems that younger folks respond more quickly to the lesson than older folks. The older we get, the less open we are to new ideas. A twelve year old was complaining of an acute headache a while ago. I asked him to ask the question. He asked, looked at me and said, “NO! It’s Jason’s.Holy shit!” And the headache vanished. No shit. It was later confirmed when the two got together after school.
In the same way he could damn-near instantaneously identify the who and the what, you can, too, with just a little bit of practice.
It will make Walmart and other experiences easy-breezy.
The next post will be why Walmart and shopping and ‘is it mine?’ matters.