The Brain -- is wider than the Sky --
For -- put them side by side --
The one the other will contain
With ease -- and You -- beside --
The age of neuroscience has arrived. Go to a bookstore, turn on TV, open a magazine, and you’ll find evidence of America’s new fascination: the human brain. How we think, remember, perceive, feel, and imagine are no longer the subjects of philosophers and poets alone, but under the eyes of an ever-growing number of scientists in a wide array of fields related to the study of the biology and evolution of the central nervous system and the brain. Advances in imaging technology, neurobiology, computer science and host of converging fields have brought us even to the brink of unlocking the very biological basis of consciousness itself.
Though we are only just beginning to understand the complexities of the brain, discoveries in these fields are already throwing out long-held theories in both the physical and social sciences, and what they might mean for the rest of us has yet to be fully understood. But the remarkable discovery of brain plasticity has presented us with evidence that we can no longer ignore the wisdom of those like Patanjali and Aristotle who long ago understood that the human brain was the frontier that would in the end determine the fate of humankind.
Once you begin to understand a bit of what’s going on in neuroscience, it’s clear that practices such as yoga and meditation stand to benefit from an ever-growing body of evidence that suggest that they are perfect tools to develop an alert and healthy brain. Similarly, yoga, too, can use the language of neuroscience to help students better understand what is happening in their brain when they are practicing yoga. Many of our best teachers have been on to brain science for years. Listen to a talk by Richard Freeman and you’ll hear how well he’s incorporated the insights of this exploding field into his teachings.
Here are a few key concepts that I am using in my classes and workshops that might be useful.
Agency, Attitude and Information
Attitude is everything. Framing the mind with a positive intention and staying focused on it is not just a cliché you hear in sports and New Age self-help books; it’s how the brain works most effectively. The brain needs direction or it will flit from subject to subject. I always begin my class with breathwork and a short mediation, before I do, I ask students to think of an intention for their practice. This helps them to focus and engage emotionally. The brain follows patterns and grooves supported by memory and emotion. If the pattern is negative or positive, makes no difference, the brain will fall into it.
Researchers at the University of Michigan gave an experimental group of middle school students in Detroit a special tutorial on how their brain worked, reinforcing the basic idea that it was their own work habits and ability to learn not their income or parent’s educational background that determined how their brain worked. Testing showed that the students given the tutorial not only outperformed other students in their school but they also exceeded national averages for their age.
Daniel Siegel, interpersonal neurobiologist and professor of psychiatry at UCLA, is exploring the same basic techniques used on students but on psychotherapists and psychiatrists. And Siegel is trying something else—mindfulness and simple breathing exercises. Siegel advises therapists to use actual models of the brain in therapy sessions to help patients visualize and understand what is happening in their brains when they are depressed or emotionally troubled. This can be of great relief to a patient to see that their frustrations are a brain processing problem rather than a lack of will or emotional strength. After giving this demonstration, the therapist teaches the patient an easy mindfulness exercise to calm them down when these frustrations and emotions emerge. In both cases, giving people a sense of how their brain works and offering them tools to change attitudes makes a difference. Why? Because they are actively involved in changing the actual wiring of neural pathways in their brains.
Awareness and Perception
Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, is another scientist interested in how meditation affects brain function. He wired up several Tibetan monks to see what was going on in their brains as they meditated as well as some novice practitioners for comparative purposes. What he discovered was not only could these monks reach unprecedented levels of brain activity, but they could reach these alpha and theta frequencies within minutes of their sitting.
What the monks revealed so beautifully was the limitless potential we have of training the mind to affect states of consciousness and well-being. But their skill came from a long series of learning experiences in which neural maps or interconnecting groups of neurons bonded as they were used over and over again. The first step in learning to meditate is to actually calm the mind down so that it can actually focus on the sensation of what it feels like to affect our brains. When we are focused we enable the brain to do its primary function: process or integrate information into the various centers in the brain necessary to learn. The stronger the signals, the stronger the memory for the next time we practice. Awareness is registered in both the conscious and unconscious mind. As we practice yoga, we begin to cultivate deeper and deeper levels of sense perception. B.K.S. Iyengar speaks of involution as he describes the learning process of yoga; in other words, we develop our practice by working from the outside of the body, learning from our five senses, particularly touch and balance, and progressively move deeper inside the bodies to muscles, organs, energy centers in the core and so on. When we practice we use four layers of perception: the exteroceptors (the five senses and balance), the interoceptors the feeling of the organs as they function, and proprioceptors or some may say the kinesthetic sense, which regulate effort and the feeling of muscles and joints as we move or hold a pose. Perception is a feedback mechanism, as the brain processes experience to create more elaborate sets of maps in the brain.
This same process occurs in meditation. As we sit, we are not only psychologically challenged as we observe countless patterns of repetitive thoughts and emotions, but we are also learning to pay very close attention to sensations coming from the body. In particular, when we are first learning, we are focusing on the feeling of our lungs and the muscles associated with breath. But as we develop the skill and stamina to sit for longer periods, we can begin to notice our awareness dropping from the buzzing in the mind downward to the core and energetic centers. It’s important then in a class to remind people that what they are learning is not just how to perform a pose but how to feel it.
Imagination, Visualization and Metaphor
As a writer and teacher of writing one of the most compelling findings of neuroscience has been in the area of imagination and language. I’ve long suspected that the creative work of an artist—writer, painter, musician—provides pleasure in a profound way, not because it simply inspires us emotionally and intellectually but because the work engages our imaginations deep within the unconscious, as Jung and others have suggested. And this is exactly the case, as many brain researchers are discovering. The modernist painters such as Cezanne and Van Gogh arrested our minds because they mimicked the process the brain goes through as it imagines and perceives. The same is true of poets and writers. Imagery and metaphors trigger a very complex process in the brain as memory, emotion, cognition and the imagination collectively recreate what we read from our own experience. When a reader remarks that they were so involved with a book that it felt as if it were happening to them, then the writer has does her job, because that’s exactly what is happening it is happening to them. Art primes the imagination and expands it.
Imagination has become one of the areas I have begun to explore in my practice and teaching. I used to enjoy listening to a teacher’s use of metaphors as ways to help guide me in a pose. Richard Freeman often used metaphors I enjoyed, such as flowering, rooting, and other metaphors of classic poetry that refer to nature. But as I’ve come to understand, metaphors aren’t just figurative language to please us, but actually they sever as symbols that help focus the mind and engage the imagination as a mandala does so that we can more entrain the mind and cultivate deeper states of awareness. Telling a student to imagine the bottoms of their feet spreading and setting down roots into the earth, we are initiating sensors in the bottom of the feet to feel, connect, and balance.
Empathy and Mirror Neurons
Finally, one of the more fascinating discoveries over the past few years is the neurobiological explanation for how we are affected by the movement and sensations of other bodies around us. The classic example is unconsciously yawning or smiling once we witness someone doing the same. Why do humans do this mimicking behavior? Neuroscientists have found that animals and humans are equipped with an adaptive mechanism in our nervous system called mirror neurons. These highly sensitive neurons are triggered in the body unconsciously as we witness the actions, emotion, or behaviors of another. Think of a flock of birds instantaneously setting off in flight because of one bird’s detection of a predator. It has always been interesting to me what happens in a yoga class as students miraculously attune to one another’s focus and physical awareness of their bodies, and thereby heightening the therapeutic effect for everyone in the class. Of course, this phenomenon occurs in a variety of group interactions where there is a collective focus on a goal or shared purpose. As social animals we have evolved to be highly sensitive to the needs and emotions of others in our group. Researchers are beginning to understand the profound capabilities we have to feel empathy and how important interpersonal skills are to our health and survival. Daniel Siegel in his study of interpersonal neurobiology recognizes that humans often cannot access deep emotional patterns alone but require the presence of another witnessing and actively feeling the emotion along with them. He trains therapists to develop a keen awareness of both the body of their patients as well as their own as they listen and offer feedback. Siegel believes that therapeutic skill is both a verbal and nonverbal art. By teaching therapists to use mindfulness and breathing techniques, Siegel hopes therapists can in turn help patients to trust their own bodily sensations as they relate narratives or speak about difficult emotional issues in their lives.
It’s not surprising that we are seeing a renewed interest in the benefits of mindfulness, and yoga, and other practices that involve integrating the mind and body. Our times are fraught with anxieties that we feel we have little control over, be they the world economy, war and terrorism, global warming, or the fecklessness of government. The exploration into the mysteries of how the brain function by science comes at a crucial time, as we cannot continue to act as if our brains and bodies can increasingly absorb or process empty bits of information without thinking they have no effect on our health or that of the earth’s. Mind/body practices are real pragmatic applications as they always have been for cultivating the potential’s of all of the body’s many forms of intelligence. The excitement and newfound interest scientific fields have in the mind will mean little if the billions of dollars given to research institutes don’t also go towards educating people about how they can learn for themselves to explore and cultivate the wisdom they already possess.