Today, a mishmash of facts about the brain I find fascinating-
1.The cells that form the outer layer of the embryo eventually fold inward and become the very beginning of the spinal cord. Clusters of these cells gather at one end of the spinal cord to become the skull encased brain.
2. The experiences we have in life cause neural firing. The more neurons (nerve cells) firing together (from repeated experiences of all sorts) the stronger the pathway. As neurons fire together, the genes in the nuclei become activated and produce proteins. Proteins allow synaptic linkages to be constructed or strengthned. Remember-neurons are connected to each other by synapses.
3. Experience also stimulates the production of myelin, a fatty sheath around the axon of the neuron. This speeds up firing and synaptic connection.
4. Experience also stimulates neural stem cells to differentiate into new neurons.
I often write about mindfulness and tuning into the inner body and its sensations. These experiences, if done consistently, can literally strengthen your brain functioning and change the neural pathways. Well worth the effort!
Peter Levine developed Somatic Experiencing; his latest book, In An Unspoken Voice, is brilliant. I’ve written often about tracking the sensations in the body; today, with the help of this book, I will go into more detail. The four categories listed below are part of Peter Levine’s model for tracking sensations in the body.
The physical sensations that arise in the body travel via nerve impulses from the interior of the body to the thalamus in the brain stem (please check earlier posts on areas of the brain). They are then transferred to most other areas of the brain. There are four categories:
1. Kinesthetic Receptors-picks up tension in our muscles and sends this information to the brain. When we are particularly tense, we receive an excess of nerve impulses coming from the the sight of the tension, maybe the shoulders, neck, pelvis, etc. causing us to feel uncomfortable and ‘uptight’.
2. Proprioceptive Receptors-gives us positional information about our joints. Working with kinesthesia, proprioception tells us where we are in space.
3.Vestibular Receptors-There are microscopic hairs in the semicircular canals of the inner ear, the two canals are at right angles to each other. When we move, fluid in these canals bends the hairs. Each hair is connected to a receptor that sends messages to the brain. It is here we learn our position in regard to gravity and movement.
4. Visceral Receptors-This is the deepest level of sensation and involves our blood vessels and viscera(internal organs). We feel open, flowing, relaxed and warm when our viscera and blood vessels are open, anxious and cold when constricted.
I love writing about the brain and the nervous system but want to go back today to the experiencing the sensations in the body. Let’s pause and take time to find where we are in our bodies right now; let’s look for an inner and outer sense of ourselves. New readers may want to check past posts on Somatic Experiencing and mindfulness.
Wherever you are right now-if possible-take some minutes to reflect. Probably you’re sitting; what part of your body feels most settled; maybe you feel contained by your chair; maybe your feet feel heavy on the floor. Your arms may be resting comfortably; the back of your legs may feel particularly supported. Whatever it is, give yourself time to notice and maybe sink some more into the sensations.
Now let’s try for a sense of the inner body; this may be more difficult. Start by noticing your breath-just notice. Is it shallow or deep-what is your experience of the way you’re breathing right now. Stay with it; notice. Notice your chest, your neck, your arms. If the breath deepens, how exactly do you notice? Does it make you feel more comfortable or less?
Sometimes a little bit of expansion can make us feel anxious. What does anxiety feel like in your body? When I’m anxious I feel arousal (activation) in my chest; others may feel it in their stomach. When I become more anxious I feel less settled in my body, less contained. I may feel my feet making less contact with the floor or feel less contained by the chair.
Conversely, breathing more deeply may make you feel less anxious, more settled. See if you can find this in your body. Notice the difference between the two places.
Give yourself some time to explore this. Maybe do it again when you have more time. Being with yourself is well the worth the time.
I recently completed my fifth module of a nine module (3 year) training in Somatic Experiencing. I am still in awe, still so grateful I found Peter Levine’s tremendous work. I want to share some of the most striking things I have learned; if you are unfamiliar with Dr. Levine’s work, you might read “Waking The Tiger”.
I particularly love learning about the reptilian brain, also known as the brain stem. I think of a reptile slowly dragging itself around, always on the look out for danger, constantly scanning the environment. We, as modern 21st century people, don’t think too much of this part of our selves, being more identified with the thinking, rational cortex. But it’s there and it still scans and when it senses danger it signals the automatic nervous system.
In previous blogs I wrote about Peter Levine’s model being based on the way animals shake off trauma; if the prey survives the predator, it literally shakes the experience out of its body; the reptilian brain is satisfied all is safe, and then the trauma free animal continues along its way. I’ve seen a number of videos of this phenomena; it’s quite striking. The animal is not left with trauma in its nervous system; humans often are. Remember: what makes an event a trauma is if it’s been locked in the nervous system with no apparent way out. The reptilian brain is thwarted and the autonomic nervous system is is deeply affected.
This effect can show itself in many ways and can effect the sympathetic and/or the parasympathetic systems (please see previous posts). Next time I’ll write more about this-
A crucial aspect of self regulation is the flow between the two branches of the Autonomic Nervous System; the sympathetic and parasympathetic. In my last post I talked about sensing into your body (using your felt sense) to feel the difference between the two branches. The idea was to feel how a good thought affects you inwardly, how an uncomfortable one changes your sensations. I then asked you to return to the comfortable place.
It’s important to remember what you found in the comfortable-or parasympathetic-place. Probably you felt more grounded; maybe your feet in the floor, or the back of your legs in the chair, etc. This tool can help you when you want to regulate. Say you suddenly feel anxious-another way to say this is you’re in the sympathetic branch, without a flow down to the parasympathetic.
You can start the flow again-ease the anxiety-by finding your grounded place. So if it is your feet and you’re sitting, focus on the feel of them on the floor, especially the heels. Take your time. Breathe into your feet. If you’re walking, same thing; focus on the feet, especially bring awareness to your heels.
Let me know how it goes!
Let’s go back to experiencing the sensations of the body; the ‘felt sense’. We need quiet for this so find a place and get comfortable. Notice your body, where you feel settled, comfortable. Now, as discussed previously, do a body scan starting from your feet, going up to your head. Notice active areas, quiet areas.
Imagine being with a person you feel safe with; notice your full body, notice body temperature, find any arousal (activation), notice your comfort, your breath.
Now imagine being with someone you don’t like, someone with whom you do not feel comfortable and do the body scan again. What do you notice now-probably parts of your body are activated, probably your breathing and comfort level has changed,
Now go back to the first image, the one of comfort and safety. Notice changes again.
You have now completed an SE (Somatic Experiencing) pendulation; you’ve gone from the Parasympathetic branch of the Autonomic Nervous System(ANS), up to the Sympathetic branch, and back down to the Parasympathetic.
More next time on how to use this in your daily life.
Thank you again for your comments; I do appreciate them.
My time at NYU was just great; a wonderful group of aspiring-and clearly very talented-actors/singers. This was a performance class and their teacher works with them on bodily expression; this was good to see.
My model of whole body consciousness mixed with Somatic Experiencing and neurobiology works as well with actors as it does with musicians. Here’s why:
1. No matter how you express yourself artistically, turning inward to find your unique voice is crucial. Somatic Experiencing (SE) is based on tuning into the sensations of your inner body (felt sense). This is where-I believe-the artistic soul is, where you’ll find your essence.
2. Again, no matter how you express yourself, it must be done with the whole body. If you are standing playing the violin, if you are singing, if you are sitting playing the piano or acting, you must know where your feet are. Literally. And your legs, pelvis and on up. Every bit of you.
3. The way you use your body in everyday life is reflected in the way you perform; if you don’t move your arms from their connection to the shoulder blade and from your back, for example, you won’t have the power you need to express yourself. An arm not connected can not express feeling strongly and genuinely. If you are not grounded as you walk down the street, you won’t be grounded on stage.
I am going to be a guest instructor at a performance class at NYU(New York University) next week so I thought I’d write about some of the things I’ve been thinking. This is a continuation of what I’ve written previously so you might want to back up and read my posts on Somatic Experiencing(SE) if you’re new to my blog.
Sitting comfortably, sensing into your back in the chair, your feet on the floor, let yourself wonder about what you’re doing when you feel most yourself-let it come to you, wait for it to appear. Stay with it, let it expand as you sense it in your body. Let this felt sense grow; not thinking but allowing yourself to listen to the sensations that grow in your body.
Feel how this place, whatever it is, affects your inner body. Maybe you feel an internal warmth growing, maybe you feel more settled in the chair-let it grow. You are now in your reptilian brain(brain stem), a place of instinct. A place that can lead you to clarity, instinctual power and fluidity-what an important place for a performer to be able to inhabit. Enjoy!
I’m going to go back before I go ahead. Let’s look at the most important parts of the last few posts and how it all relates to Somatic Experiencing and mindfulness.
I love having a feeling for the flow between the body, nervous system and brain. I love understanding how change on one level can effect so many other systems. It’s this flow that is often obstructed by, for example, fear and anxiety. This is true for all of us; musicians, artists, singers and lay people.
The fear antenna is in the amygdala; depending on our history of trauma it may always on alert or, for a system that has no trauma, only activated when it senses possible danger. Somatic Experiencing (SE) teaches us that trauma is what has been locked in the nervous system, unable to escape. Even though we may be not consciously aware of this dynamic, it impacts every part of our life until resolved. It is in this body that the amygdala is vigilant.
Tuning into the sensations of the body is the start of breaking the fear cycle; please read past posts on this.
The hypothalamus, along with the pituitary, is in charge of the neuroendocrine system that releases neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters increase (excite) or decrease ( inhibit) electrical activity in neurons. Increases or decreases in neurotransmitters have a major impact on mood and behavior.
The hypothalamus produces the the hormones that effect the pituitary gland. Once the amygdala senses danger the sympathetic branch of the autonomic system is alerted and the hypothalamus, through the pituitary, releases hormones that travel to the adrenal glands. This is where cortisol is released (please see posts on the autonomic nervous system and cortisol.) Cortisol increases the level of glucose in the blood to respond to the threat.
Under normal circumstances the threat passes and the cortisol levels return to normal. However many people who have ongoing anxiety live with ongoing increased cortisol levels. This is one of the places Somatic Experiencing is so helpful; it helps people to regulate their autonomic nervous system, decreasing the spiked activity in the sympathetic branch. I have helped many performers-and many others as well-to self regulate; it makes a huge difference in their daily and artistic lives.