Friday, February 25, 2011

Being Buddha & Brain Neurons

‘What are you thinking about now?’ Asks Sasi.
‘Buddha and feedback fired neurons’
‘I thought Buddha was Indian, not Chinese?’ My delightful lady says with beaming, playful smile.
‘Neurons darling! Not noodles!’
‘Oor you wan feedback fired neurons wid you sweet an sour pork?’ She blurts out between fits of giggles.
‘Could be the real chicken soup of the soul?’  

'So whats a neuron then?' Sasi asks.
'The're what makes your brain work and an adult brain has more than 100 billion neurons.'
'Wow! More noodles than in China huh?'
‘You know how they say that up to 90% of our motivation is unconscious - well Affective Neuroscience is coming to understand that unconscious motivation has a lot to with feedback to your brain from your autonomic nervous system.’
'My what?' Asks Sasi.
I explain that the autonomic nervous system evolved along with our brain from our reptilian and mammalian ancestors, how it has two counter acting branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic which mediate much of our behavior.

'If this autonomic thingy evolved through reptile and mammal evolution, why don’t they just call it the animal nervous system, I can relate to that,’ Sasi tells me.
‘Well it’s a bit more complicated than that, darling.’
‘Then un-complicate it! All these gobbledegook words like sympathetic, parasympathetic, hyper and hypo, mobilization, immobilization and conservation/withdrawal, just write something people can relate to,’ she demands.
‘Why don’t you teach me more about the animal nervous system, only try to make it a little less boring and more affective,’ she tells me, nodding towards the bedroom with a wink and a laugh.

Despite a late night, I woke early the next morning pleased that I seem to wake more refreshed since I started these deep breathing exercises. I gazed at Sasi lying on her back, arms by her sides with her legs almost straight, and try to remember if I have ever seen her sleep in a foetal position. According to the latest research, what I’m witnessing is her autonomic resting state, as a balanced nervous system allows for optimal metabolism with optimal organ and immune system function.

What I am gazing on is how safe she is feeling at a level deep within her brain and down into her nervous system. She feels secure with seemingly not the slightest sensory perception of threat from either her internal or the external environment. I sit up and automatically cross my legs, feeling a familiar tension as I press them together. I am sure there is less tension than a couple of months ago, when I first became religious about my deep breathing routine as part of a deliberate effort to re-condition my autonomic nervous system.

I close my eyes to begin, tilting my head up slightly and smiling in realization of how this happens more spontaneously now, after a while I open my eyes noticing how relaxed and uncrossed my legs are. I feel the increased skin contact with the bed sheets where constricted muscles have eased their defensive tension, and higher oxidisation of circulating blood bringing increased sensory feedback from skin surface to brain.

I look around the room, eyes moving slowly from object to object, making sure to take in the shape, colour and dimension of each item, as if trying to sense the nature of their substance in relation to mine. I’m orienting my sensory perception towards the external world now, finding the right balance between brain neuron, internal and external feedback needs. Am I looking for a Sasi like relaxed yet alert autonomic nervous system activity, a feline calm resting state?

Like most people I had been oblivious to my own hidden autonomic nervous system activity, my unconscious reactions to the world and to myself. How I wish I was wired like Sasi and could remain blissfully unaware of this deeper self, for Sasi life flows with a healthy combination of thought and spontaneous reflexive action, with patterns of neuronal firing and autonomic nervous system activity established by her early experience in the first three years of life.

Her early experiences of positive innate affects have become her nerve-based expectation of how the world works and how to be in the world. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy and her happy unguarded disposition, begets a similar response from others and her positive vitality is like a force of nature, attracting others like a magnet. I laugh to myself thinking how she‘s living proof of how contagious innate affects are, she infects everyone around her with indescribable pleasure. Yet like everyone else she has forgotten how she was soothed to a calm resting state after her very first breath triggered the innate affect of distress and the birth cry, forgotten how calm her mother was in her early life, and takes it completely for granted.

Forgotten too, what kind of care she received and what kind of neuronal/nerve-based sensations formed her early experience. I wonder was she constantly held close to her mothers chest and how much she felt skin contact, felt her mothers heartbeat and how often was she in rhythmic synch with her mothers breathing, soothing away any sensations of innate distress?. How often did she see smiling faces that roused sensations of elation within her, this metabolized energy state so vital for healthy brain tissue growth in the first years of life?

What percentage of her early sensation experiences were positive, conditioning her nervous system with predominately positive expectation? Of coarse she can’t remember any of this for it was never ever conscious, the foundational experiences that now stimulate her impulsive movements, her thirst for positive sensation and her aversion to anything resembling the negative kind. For example when I want to explain complicated theory to Sasi, the primary innate affect of ‘distress’ is triggered in her brain, a small number of neurons fire for milliseconds stimulating a nervous reaction that demands urgent relief from this negative state of being, hence the instantaneous look of ‘what’s wrong with you,’ as a plea to resume a pleasant sensation experience.

Looking around the room in this early dawn, I’m reminded of Eckhart Tolle’s book “The Power of Now,” and his description of the night he first sensed such power, how his awareness of objects in the room changed as he became grounded in calm state. I can relate to his experience as I sit here enjoying a slow rhythmic breathing, mindful of keeping my facial muscles relaxed and relieved that I can’t think much while in this state. I wonder if I’m finding switches in the sensory feedback loops between my body and brain, and instantly these thoughts bring a certain tension to my checks as if I’m posturing a face of concern.

The very idea that I can consciously affect my own internal feedback loops has been a revelation in the last few months and I try it in the other direction tensing my face like a Greek mask of tragedy, sure enough it brings on a surge of thinking with a concerned tone. Thoughts of Greek masks and muscular feedback loops between the body and the brain brings to mind an image of the Buddha, and I turn to look at Sasi’s large painting hanging above our bed. It’s a famous one of his serene looking face with eyes closed and presumably contemplating his breath. His supremely serene look reveals a conspicuous lack of muscular tension and it reminds me how the facial muscles are used as a signalling system to other animals.

The face gives unique feedback to others about our internal state, those two hundred muscles in the face can display an amazing variety and subtlety of emotional states. Yet the muscle spasms also work in the opposite direction, as sensory feedback signals to our own brain which also trigger innate affects. Hence my concerned thoughts when I contort my face, how I must have triggered the innate affect of distress, which stimulated the surge and tone of thinking.

Looking at the Buddha I wonder how much he knew back then, how much he understood what he was doing in his meditative state. Its taken centuries for science and the magic of MRI scans to even begin to reveal the hidden networks of our brains neural stimulation of the autonomic nervous system, only now are we beginning to understand the secret of the Buddha’s repose. "He not only relaxes every muscle, he closes his eyes to further reduce sensory feedback," I say to myself.

How do you feed your neurons?