Monday, March 4, 2013

How do you know when your brains are out of alignment?

You might think that is an odd question to ask a person who has only one brain. But how do you know you have only one brain?

In their book, 'mBraining: Using Your Multiple Brains to do Cool Stuff', Marvin Oka and Grant Soosalu have assembled some fairly impressive evidence that we have brains in our hearts and guts as well as in our heads.

At this point some readers might be thinking that a book with such a title is an unlikely place to find impressive evidence of anything. My own scepticism was heightened when I first saw information being presented as a 'cool fact'. I found it hard not to chuckle. Later, I wondered whether Ross Garnaut's laugh test – which he applies to economic modelling - involves the gut brain. At the time, I wondered how I had come to be reading such a book, but I was comforted by the memory that 50 years ago I had a strong desire to be cool. It is better for our heads to be cool, rather than too hot or too cold, even if the optimal temperature for a heart is warm.

The 'cool fact' that we have brains in our hearts and guts as well as our heads is based largely on the observation that the nervous systems in our hearts and guts are relatively autonomous. They perform their functions without a great deal of direction from our brains. They also link strongly to parts of the brain concerned with emotions and instinctive reactions.

The authors refer to the discovery of neural pathways whereby input from the heart can inhibit or facilitate the brain's electrical activity.  Research by Rollin McCraty and his colleagues at Heartmath suggests that as people learn to sustain heart-focused positive feeling states, the brain can be brought into entrainment with the heart, bringing about improvements in cognitive performance. Research findings also suggest that emotion and cognition can best be thought of as separate but interacting functions or systems, each with its unique intelligence. The power of emotion as a motivational force is reflected in the greater number of neural connections going from the emotional centres of the brain to the cognitive centres than vice versa.

There is evidence that the nervous system in the gut releases chemicals that are capable of relieving anxiety and pain and sends signals to the brain that affect feelings of sadness and stress. There is also evidence that gut bacteria can influence neural development, brain chemistry and a wide range of behavioural phenomena. For example, the balance between beneficial and disease-causing bacteria in an animal's gut can alter its brain chemistry, leading it to become either more bold or more anxious.

Michael Gershen, a pioneer of research relating to the gut brain, argues that while 'gut feelings' originate in the brain rather than the gut, our emotions can trigger a primitive response in the gut. That rings true to me when I remember what disgust feels like. Even though the gut brain is not doing any reasoning it can help us to make decisions.

The way Marvin Oka and Grant Soosala describe them, the prime functions of the various brains line up neatly with common metaphorical usage. The heart brain is the seat of love and desires, goals, dreams and values. The head brain is concerned with cognition and making meaning. The gut brain is concerned with what we should move toward and what we should move away from, with what should be assimilated into the self and what should be excreted from the self, with mobilization, self-preservation and core identity. When we are considering our options we need to be sure our hearts are in the right place, our heads are screwed on properly and that we take notice of our gut reactions. We should follow our hearts, keep cool heads and be gutsy.

So, how do we know when are brains are out of alignment? The answer provided by the authors is much as might be expected. When our brains are out of alignment we experience internal conflict between thoughts, feelings and actions, motivational problems, procrastination, unwanted behaviours and habits, self-sabotage and disempowering emotional states.

The more interesting question is how to get our brains into alignment. The first step that the authors recommend is to allow our breathing to become balanced – calmly breathing in for about six seconds and breathing out for the same length of time. That recommendation is based on the view of breathing as a bridge between mind and body.

In order to deal with motivational problems, the authors suggest that we conduct what seems to me like a high level meeting at which the leader offers inspiration, advisors provide an assessment of the options and the line manager brings the discussion down to earth. As the meeting of minds progresses, we feel the passion in our hearts, entertain curious thoughts about how to express that passion, allow curiosity to harmonize with and enhance our passion, allow our instincts to move us toward action, and then feel how the growing congruence between passionate feelings, curious thoughts and motivated action influences our feelings about who we are and what it is possible for us to achieve.

That is a highly abbreviated version of an exercise suggested by the authors to bring our brains into alignment. In addition to exercises to help bring our brains into alignment, the authors also propose exercises to promote higher expressions of creativity, compassion and courage, and ultimately achieve greater wisdom.

In reading the book I felt that there could have been greater recognition that the central nervous system involves more than just a head brain – it extends down our spines. This links to the importance of proprioception - the sense of the relationship of the body parts to each other – in helping to restore balance between our minds and bodies.

Something else that is missing from the book, in my view, is a discussion of the role of humour in restoring harmony between our conscious and unconscious minds. Since we are fallible humans, it is inevitable that there will be times when our conscious minds get in the way of our unconscious minds. This occurs, for example, when trying too hard (too much conscious effort) adversely affects performance when we are playing sports. If we can see the humour of getting in our own way, that may help us to wipe the slate clean and to trust ourselves to a greater extent in future.

My overall view is that this book is well worth reading to see how that the common metaphors of multiple brains link neatly with both ancient wisdom and modern science. The exercises presented seem to make sense as ways to help people to overcome motivational problems and to manage their own lives. In other words, mBraining is cool!

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