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At Joy Lab, we believe that joy is natural and accessible to everyone — but that sometimes it’s just not easy to access. This may happen when we’re struggling with what we call the enemies of joy: brain imbalance or toxicity, an unsettled mind, and the illusion of separation.

The last one — the illusion of separation — is the belief that we are separate beings, cut off from others and from the world around us. We may even get snagged by the feeling that there are parts of ourselves at war with one another.

There are four myths at the heart of this confusion: the separations of mind and body, head and heart, inside and outside, and nature and nurture. Let’s take a closer look.

Myth No. 1: Mind and Body

Seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes popularized the notion that the mind and body are distinct things — an idea now known as mind-body dualism. His aim was to prove that the soul exists separate from the body, which then enabled him to explain the soul’s existence mathematically.

But his thesis was flawed. It was used to prove that health was limited to the physical body, specifically what was observable and measurable, and that it was mostly uninfluenced by outside factors, including our thoughts. For centuries, this idea of mind-body separation dominated science and medicine.

Recently, abundant research has shown just how much our thoughts — as well as environmental factors — impact our health, suggesting we are much more interconnected than we believed.

Myth No. 2: Head and Heart

One of the best ways to keep your heart alive is to be moved by people’s stories. When we’re under constant time pressure, it’s hard to even listen to someone’s tale, much less be affected by it.

But when we take the time to really hear what someone has to say, the whole brain lights up. Telling and receiving stories are among the only human activities that consistently excite the entire brain. With presence and attention, we can have the experience of feeling fully alive, which is what happens when head and heart come together.

Myth No. 3: Inside and Outside Worlds

Most of us are seeking greater openness and connection, whether we know it or not. When we feel separated, it’s easy to become discouraged, stressed out, and unmoored.

Joining our inside and outside worlds requires that we be more permeable. This means becoming vulnerable enough to allow things in, and mindful enough to not be overwhelmed by them.

Doing this requires acknowledging the part of ourselves that wants to be open, connected, and engaged in the world, and not be dominated by the part that feels afraid to do so. We can survive and even thrive in a difficult world when we learn how to intentionally turn toward openness and permeability. (To learn more about creating healthy boundaries, see “How to Set Clear Boundaries.”)

Myth No. 4: Nature and Nurture

We may wonder which is dominant, but nature and nurture appear to work together in roughly equal measure. According to numerous studies of twins, including the famous Minnesota Twin Family Study, the root of most mental illnesses is between 30 and 50 percent genetic. There may not be anything we can do about our genetics, but we can affect other factors.

DNA is a blueprint: It provides instructions the cells need to produce the enzymes and proteins they require. How well cells read and implement those instructions depends on the DNA’s surrounding environment, which contains gateways that can be opened and shut, admitting or barring the instructions before they’re implemented.

Many factors influence genetic expression. Our genes might make us vulnerable to depression, anxiety, or other mental illness. Yet those genes may never be activated because their environment hasn’t enabled their activation.

Our nutritional status, stress level, and the quality of our relationships all might create an environment in which those genes don’t get switched on. This is why one identical twin may have an illness while the other one doesn’t.

When we tend to our environments, ensuring that we feel connected to ourselves, to others, to what we eat, and to how we live, we give our bodies the best chance of expressing the genes that allow us to thrive.

Even if we’ve been sick or lonely for a long time, it’s never too late to tend to these connections. The opportunity to turn toward connection is always there for us.

This article originally appeared as “The Illusion of Separation” in the April 2023 issue of Experience Life.

Henry Emmons, MD and Aimee Prasek, PhD

Henry Emmons, MD, is an integrative psychiatrist and cofounder of He is the author of The Chemistry of Joy, The Chemistry of Calm, and Staying Sharp. Aimee Prasek, PhD,is an integrative-therapies researcher and CEO of Natural Mental Health.

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