Category Archives: blog

Class at NYU

I apologize for not posting for such a long time; time has passed too quickly this past month.  But I’m back and committed to posting at least once a week.

Today I want to talk about the class I taught at the Steinhardt School for Performing Arts at NYU.  I have written in this blog about the natural rhythm of the the autonomic nervous system, called pendulations;   the innate flow between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic branches. This flow is often interrupted by stress, trauma, physical ailments, and emotional issues.

I taught the students to pendulate and then gave them homework to practice; here’s the assignment I gave them.  It involves all the elements I’ve written about during the last few months:

1. Sit in a comfortable chair and do a body scan.

2.Where are you and what are you doing when you feel most yourself?  Notice the sensations in your body; where are you grounded-feet?  Butt in the chair?  Backs of your legs in the chair?  Just notice and allow these sensations to spread.

3. Now think about something that’s mildly activating, that causes you stress.  See if you can stay with it and again, just notice.  What’s contracting-maybe your breath becomes more shallow, maybe you feel restless, maybe you sense tension in your jaw.  Keep it in your body and notice.

4. Now return to the less activated place, the place where you’re most you.  Notice the tension easing, let yourself settle in your chair.  Stay with it and just notice.

This exercise lets your nervous system do what is innate-flow between expansion and contraction.  It’s natural

The Glorious Brain-8

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!

Somatic Experiencing-9

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.

A Pause For Reflection

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.

Autonomic Nervous System-2

I’m excited about something I just read about the ANS (autonomic nervous system) and want to tell you all about it but first, a quick review.

As you may recall from earlier posts, the ANS is coordinated in the middle prefrontal area of the brain.  It is coordinates bodily functions such as heart rate, respiration and digestion.  It is comprised of two branches:sympathetic which functions as the accelerator and parasympathetic which works as the brake. Fight or flight (please see earlier post) occurs here.

David Eagleman’s fascinating new book, Incognito,The Secret Lives of The Brain, is filled with scientific studies documenting unconsciousness:there is so much going on in our brains, affecting every aspect of our livest, that we know nothing about.  I’m going to write about some of these studies and facts-let me know what you think.

Antoine Bechara, a neuroscientist, tested (1997) the validity of hunches. Her team placed four decks of cards in front of subjects and asked them to choose one card at a time.  Each card represented a gain or a loss of money.  Slowly, the subjects realized each deck had a theme:two of them were “good,” meaning they would make money and two were “bad,” representing a loss.

As they thought about which deck to draw from, they were interrupted at various points by the investigators and asked which decks were good, which bad. It usually required about twenty-five draws from the decks to make this determination.

At the same time they measured the subject’s skin conductance response, which reflects the activity of the autonomic nervous system (fight/flight). The ANS picked up the statistics of the decks long before the conscious mind did! When the subjects reached for bad decks, there was an anticipatory spike in activity (sympathetic branch)-a warning sign! This was picked up by the thirteenth draw; well before the conscious mind. This information was being delivered in the form of a hunch; subjects began to select the good deck before they knew why!

Studies like this one led scientists (Damasio, et al)  to propose that the feelings produced by physical states of the body guide behavior and decision making. “When something bad happens, the brain leverages the entire body (heart rate, contraction of the gut, weakness of the muscles, etc) to register that feeling and that feeling becomes associated with the event.  When the event is next pondered, the brain essentially runs a simulation, reliving the physical feelings of the event.Those feelings then serve to navigate, or at least bias, subsequent decision making.” Eagleman, 2011)

This makes me think about SE and meditation.  It’s so important to tune inward to pick up the sensations of our body-they come directly from the brain.  There is a wealth of knowledge here on every single level-we only have to turn inwards and listen.

The Glorious Brain-7


The brain of a young child is laden with 1,000 trillion synapses (Chang et al. 2004). With time the young cells that are not being used are pruned, making the brain more efficient. Pruning takes place again in early adolescence, following overproduction. By the mid-20’s the brain is stable, the pruning process over. This stability involves over 100-500 trillion synapses (Giedd et al, 1999).

We’ve often heard people proclaim we use only a fraction of our brain power; the adult brain has the potential to activate 10 to the millionth power neurons!(Badenoch, 1999) Let’s get busy!!!!

The Glorious Brain-6

Neurons are the basic building blocks of the nervous system.  They transmit information, chemically or electrically, throughout the body.  There are several types of neurons: sensory neuron-they convert external stimuli into internal electrical impulses and transmit this information to the brain and motor neurons-located in the central nervous system, they directly or indirectly control muscles

Neurons have extensions called dentrites that look like spikes extending from the body of the cell.  It is primarily the surface of the dentrite that receives chemical messages from other neurons. Another important extension is the axon that transmits electro-chemical signals to other neurons.

There are 100 billion (more or less) neurons in the adult brain!! Each of these neurons have 7,000-10,000 synaptic connections to other neurons (Bonnie Badenoch, 2008).

Neurotransmitters facilitate communication between neurons by carrying messages that increase (excite) or decrease (inhibit) electrical activity in the neuron.  Thought, mood, behavior and the manner in which we relate to others is greatly influenced by these neurotransmitters.

Reptilian Brain-con’t

As previously stated, the reptilian brain controls our physical response to threat-flight, fight or freeze (these are all reflexes) .  I’ve written often about tracking the sensations in the body; the language of the reptilian brain is sensation. Balance, initiation of movement, breathing, digestion, circulation, sleep, sexuality and action are all governed by this oldest part of the brain.

The reptilian brain-or brainstem-also effects the energy levels of the brain area above it; the limbic and cortex.  It controls arousal, appetite, sexual engagement and sleep. When there is trauma in the body, the reptilian brain stays on ‘on’ and all these systems are impacted.

The Miraculous Somatic Experiencing-8

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-


The last thing a cell does before it dies is maintain its distinction between inner and outer.  In between the two is a plasma membrane; one of the interesting things about this membrane is that it is not tight and in fact leaks a bit in a controlled way.

The inside of the cell is called the cytoplasm and here things are tightly packed in, divided into sub-cellular compartments. The nucleus is one of these compartments;  you probably remember from high school biology that there is one nucleus in each cell. It is here that we find the chromosomes that contain DNA.

Mitochondriais another sub-cellular compartment. It is the power source of the cell, the part that breathes (uses oxygen to burn food and generate oxygen).  The intake of oxygen is limited to this area for a very good reason-too much oxygen can be lethal and  cause premature aging and cancer.