Knowledge of how the brain works is in its relative infancy. It is the last frontier of the human body left to explore. While much has been discovered about the brain in a relatively short time, there is still so much more to learn about its 2,000 parts!
What is so tantalizing about the study of the brain is that it leads to a study of behaviour and our behaviour is influenced by the amazing chemistry lab in our brains and in every system of our bodies.
What we have recently discovered is that the brain is adaptable, flexible and has ‘plasticity.’ We can re-circuit. We can lay new neurochemical pathways that influence our behaviour and thus the quality of our lives. We have the ability to change the picture!
The brain is actually a gland because ‘it secretes.’ It secretes brain hormones called neurotransmitters. It produces and bathes itself in neurotransmitters. In fact neurotransmitters are found throughout the body! Another reason we cannot separate the brain from the body – or the mind from the body.
Here’s how it works: Our brains and bodies are responding, playing and taking action with the help of amazing brain systems that are flooding the body with messages via neurotransmitters. These chemical messages are influencing our behaviour and our choices and how we interact with our world.
Simultaneously, we receive thousands of messages every minute through our senses, affecting the delicate balance of the brain and body. At times it is a delicious dance. At other times, it is a tedious tug of war between reception and reaction, due to sensory perception and motor response, the input/output system.
Certain brain systems are involved in certain behaviours. By systems we can look at the relationship between the three parts of the limbic system or the emotional brain, as it is commonly known: the amygdala, the hippocampus and the cingulate gyrus.
While we can identify which structures or systems are responsible for particular functions, we have to keep in mind that the various parts have overlapping functions; while a structure belongs to one system, it can also play a role in another! A wonderful example is the amygdala which is a part of the limbic brain which can also play a function in the lower or reptilian brain. While the amygdala is involved in emotion, it also serves to keep us alive by acting as an alert system (flight or flight response) hence its relationship to the reptilian brain.
What is key to understanding the brain is that there are constant energy modulations affecting how the brain fires. These energy modulations play a role in our behaviour. For example, specific parts of our brain systems may be over-firing or under-firing, under-energized or over-energized. The brain may be micro managing or macro managing. Or may be in a state of over-activity or under-activity.
Even though some days it may seem as though the boss isn’t home, your brain and body is always giving you 100% even if it doesn’t look like it. However if, your brain is struggling then you will find struggles in your life be it mental, emotional, spiritual and physical.
The cingulate gyrus provides us with an excellent example of how our behaviour modulates according to input and old circuitry. Dare I even digress and talk about circuitry for a moment?
We receive information from our senses and that information will either travel to the visual, auditory or sensory areas in the cortex, simultaneously.
It then travels to the parahippocampal gyrus, which is associated with memory, storing this information temporarily and comparing it with old information. The information then travels to the amygdala where we will have a certain feeling about the information.
From there it goes to the prefrontal cortex where we will decide what to do with the information. That information then returns to the amygdala where we may solidify that feeling and experience an emotion. That in turn translates to a response from the hypothalamus that gives a command to the pituitary to release hormones.
And thus the sensory information has travelled through many brain structures and elicited a motor, neurochemical and hormonal response. You have behaved in a certain way depending on what you just took in and what old memories you have about your experience of life!
So if we think of our circuitry, pathways of memory and learned experience, partnered with the idea that there are energy modulations in the brain, we can now look at the cingulate gyrus for examples of symptoms that correspond with energy out of balance in the brain.
We can now possibly look at the cingulate gyrus as the gear shifter. When the cingulate gyrus is in balance, we experience a sense of being relaxed and settled. We have cognitive flexibility, are able to adapt and shift and we are willing to cooperate and are able change our mind about something. We can ‘shift gears’.
When the cingulate gyrus is over-firing we get stuck in ineffective behaviour in jobs we don’t like, in relationships that don’t work and in states that don’t function. We partake in compulsive behaviour, over planning, oppositional defiance and feel constant anticipatory anxiety.
Conversely, when the cingulate gyrus is under firing, we can’t focus, and we hold on to old hurts for too long. Dysfunctions relating to the cingulate gyrus include headaches, grinding our teeth, feeling too serious and becoming too rigid in our thinking.
The question then becomes, how can we keep our brains in balance? How can we re-circuit old behaviour and thought patterns? What can we do?
Happily, there are many things we can do! Meditation is a great start. Meditation allows us to observe our thoughts and emotions and become aware of the landscape of our minds. Once we have awareness we have the ability to choose how we will respond to our environment. We can modulate our motor responses!
What scientists are also finding after examining the brains of monks and people, who have been meditating for years, is that the grey matter in their brains is actually thicker! It is in the grey matter that the brain integrates input and decides on output. The findings further state that having more grey matter actually makes us smarter!
Alongside meditation, we may be in need of an experienced facilitator that can act as a witness to our discoveries about our behaviours and states, and aid us with seeking options to the questions: What behaviour is not matching your desired state of mind? If you are not following your heart’s desire then what is stopping you? Even by posing the question we are creating the atmosphere in the brain to inspire the answer.
As with specific brain systems that can be over or under firing, neurotransmitters can also be under or over firing creating communication difficulties in the bodymind complex, which is then mirrored in our behaviours and choices. It may be that some part in our brain is busy over firing due to past experiences that are creating strong beliefs that are affecting our choices now.
Each day our senses are nurtured or bombarded with input depending on our circumstances. This input may be in or out of balance. We may be exposed to too much input, or not enough input. Conversely we may have a habit of expending too much output or not being able to put out.
All these modulations in our brains and bodies are affecting our behaviour and choices. But what is affecting our brain and body chemistry? The food we eat, the air we breath, the water we drink, the exercise we partake in, the spiritual practices we believe in, the thoughts we focus on, the life experiences we have, the perspectives we cultivate and the environment we live in, to name just a few of the myriad scenarios that are influencing our beautiful brain/body chemistries.
As soon as we take something in with our senses, as soon as we are made to think about something, as soon as we learn something new, as soon as we pose a question or imagine a new perspective, our brains are reacting neurochemically and laying down the pathways in our brain that creates the potential for something to shift in our lives.
Rita Bozi is a Calgary based Certified BodyTalk Practitioner with a private practice. This article was inspired by a recent course she took on Neuroanatomy and it’s Applications with Carol Anne Bickerstaff of Kinetic Education Network of Vancouver. For further information go to www.bickerstaff.ca