Tag Archives: Mindfulness

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!

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 Spinal Cord

The  brain stem goes directly into the spinal cord, which is encased in the spinal column and is comprised of 31 vertebrae.  Between each two vertebrae are openings where nerves leave the spinal cord. There are posterior neurons that carry information to the spinal cord; anterior neurons  carry information away.

Afferent nerves, also referred to as sensory, carry sensory information to the spinal cord and brain.  The nerve fibers that carry information away are efferent nerves, also referred to as motor nerves, bring commands to the muscles and organs. The connection between the nervous system and the rest of the body comes from these spinal nerves.  The sole connection between the brain and the rest of the body (with the exception of cranial -neck-nerves )is the brain stem and spinal cord.

In an earlier post, I suggested sitting quietly and doing a slow body scan,  from the feet all the way up to the head. If you’d like, you can add one more element.  After you complete the scan, imagine the spinal cord. Try to visualize it, starting from the brain stem and moving down; imagine all the wonderful energy that passes through the spine-stay with this and try to get a sense of it flowing through your body.

Somatic Experiencing-7

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!

Thank You!

Many people have been reading my posts and commenting; I appreciate the time taken to reply and warmly thank those who regularly follow my blog.

Some more about mindfulness and the brain.  I teach my clients it’s never too late to stimulate the growth of neural fibers that enable mindfulness to grow. Mindfulness training effects the prefrontal region of the brain, the area that is crucially important to the performer for it coordinates regulation of heart rate, respiration and gives us the ability to sooth ourselves when afraid.

When stressed the body releases cortisol, putting one’s entire metabolism on high alert to meet the challenge.  This impacts blood flow; as blood moves away from the high cognitive center, more mistakes are made and processing information becomes more difficult.

It might be a good idea now-if you have the time-to go back to the last few posts and try the mindfulness exercises.  The time spent is well worth it and will benefit you in countless ways.


I hope you were able to spend time bringing your awareness to your inner and outer body.  It’s important to remember that mindfulness includes the inner body, not just the strength and flexibility of your muscles.  So what does this mean?

As I type, I am aware of the muscles in my arms contracting; I notice some familiar discomfort in my neck and I feel  my feet on the ground.  If I give myself more time, I become aware of my breathing; it feels a little shallow.  If I like, I can wonder about that.  This awareness leads me to the slight drawing in of my shoulders-it seems to go along with the restricted breathing.

Now I have an image of myself sitting here-an inner image; no one looking at me would notice these inner workings. If I choose, I can stay with this image; I can amplify it.  What other sensations do I feel in my body as I stay with this image?  Do they feel activating or relaxing?  Is there affect connected to it?  If there is, how does this effect my body?

I hope you find the time and inclination to sit with yourself in this way.  Let me know how it is for you.

Continued grounding

I’m going to pick up where I left off.

Maybe you’ve allowed yourself to experience a part of your body settled into your chair, maybe you’ve focused on the sensation of your feet on the ground.  Maybe you’ve been able to stay with this, tracking the sensation.  Perhaps you felt the back of your thighs resting as they are supported by the chair. You might have, with time and mindfulness, felt the sensation moving down you legs or to the front of your thighs. I bet you felt relaxed as you did this- good! This is your ‘ground’, your resource.  Remember it.  When you are activated and it feels like too much, you can come back to this safe place.

Ideally, the autonomic nervous system flows in waves of activation(sympathetic branch) and relaxation (parasympathetic.)

Now, read this and then move your chair away and try it.  Find your ground again; it may be the same or different-let your body lead you there.  Now, see if you can find some activation in your body or head.  Maybe you notice your jaw is tight, maybe your fingers are clenched, maybe you feel something going on in your chest.  Try to stay with it-if you’re comfortable, track it for a few minutes.  Remember, DO NOT DO ANYTHING THAT FEELS WEIRD OR PAINFUL OR TOO MUCH.  Now return to your ground.

This is a wave, a flow from the parasympathetic to the sympathetic, back down to the sympathetic.  Good for you!

Your feet

I’ve written a number of posts around the subject of feet; so important to so many aspects of life but often only noticed when they ache.

Try today to bring consciousness to your feet-not judgement but awareness.  What are they doing as you sit at your computer?  I just noticed mine were perched on my toes and decided to put the whole foot on the ground.  Sometimes, depending on your chair, this isn’t possible but right now just notice.

As you walk down the street, notice.  Are you more on your toes?  Heels?  Do your feet roll outwards, inwards?

If you’re a musician, and you play seated, bring your awareness to your feet before you start to play and during.  Are you grounded-do you feel your feet firmly in the ground?  When you’re playing a difficult passage, do your feet lift off a bit or stay the same?

If you play while standing, you can also notice your feet; it’s the beginning of whole body and mind consciousness.

Notice your feet while you’re eating, reading-whatever!  Just begin to take in, physically and mentally, that your feet are there and they can support you, are meant to support you.

Somatic Experiencing-4

In previous posts, I’ve written about trauma and the nervous system.  As a reminder, a healthy autonomic system flows between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches.  Activation takes us up into sympathetic, letting go-deactivating-brings up back down to parasympathetic.  Notice the word ‘up’ preceding sympathetic.

Sometimes activation takes us away from our body(as in up and away.)  Let’s start by looking at this.  Sit in a chair and first get a general sense of how you are in your body right now, where you feel grounded.  Now recall an experience in which you felt activated; it might be anxiety, fear or sadness, to name just a few.

Now notice your body again.  Is it the same or has there been a change.  Often people feel pulled away from their grounding when activated, pulled up into the activation.  The beauty of SE is that it teaches very practical ways to teach the nervous system that it is okay to be grounded and to also be activated, to flow between the two branches.