“Know Your Brain, Change Your Mind is the title of Part V of the book, “The Now Effect”, by Elisha Goldstein. I have been reading this book recently and I have been thoroughly enjoying it. He has a number of good ideas and concepts that are helpful and practical for my practice of mindfulness and I thought I would share one of them.
One of his ideas is that if you can get a picture in your mind of the part of the brain that is being activated by any situation that you are experiencing, then, you will have a better understanding of what parts of your brain need to be activated in order to “move towards greater personal balance. The brain by definition is an integral part of the human nervous system and it is the nervous system that is intimately involved with our sense of personal balance.
First, let’s consider the brain. Goldstein outlines the parts of the brain this way:
Part one – Brain stem – The function of the brain stem is to regulate breathing, respiration, states of alertness and aspects of the fight or flight response. It is the fastest and most impulsive part of the brain. It helps us to react automatically. For example, when we are in the path of an oncoming car, it mobilizes us to get out of the way.
Part two – Nicknamed the mammalian brain – He describes this part as the emotional center of the brain. This part holds memories of facts and personal experiences. It is integral to help us make meaning in a situation and it carries our sensations of emotions. It also houses the limbic system which includes the amygdala, a part of the brain that becomes active when we experience fear.
Part three – The Cortex. This is the part of the brain that deals with functions such as speech, vision, hearing etc.
Part four –The Prefrontal Cortex – This part of the brain orchestrates decision making, planning, perceiving, and reflections. It enables us to self-regulate our behaviours and has an impact on our attention in the moment.
Goldstein suggests that the part of the brain that will dominate our experience will depend upon our perception of the situation. He suggests that as “our buttons get pushed”, we tend to act impulsively because there is a “downshifting” of activity in the brain from the prefrontal cortex into the lower regions including the mammalian brain and the brain stem as outlined below. These areas are responsible for triggering part of our nervous system which will give us the energy to act.
The part of the nervous system that can become activated is often described as having an accelerator and a brake. The accelerator refers to the sympathetic nervous system which speeds up our heart and breathing to provide energy to deal with the perceived situation. The brake refers to the parasympathetic which helps us to relax and slow down.
He goes on to say that when we are aware that our brain is being dominated by the lower regions, we can use mindful awareness to activate the prefrontal cortex. For example, we can make a decision to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to help us come back into greater balance. Decision making, as explained about, is part of the prefrontal cortex.
One way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system is to engage in belly breathing which is a technique that engages our diaphragm to take the responsibility for breathing. People will often practice this by placing a hand on their belly either lying down or sitting. On an inhalation, the idea is to see if you can let go of the breathing muscles so that the diaphragm can descend on an inhalation. This muscle pushes against the belly and causes it to rise on an inhale and descend on an exhale.