One of the themes that emerges in I.I atha yoganusasanam, and runs throughout the yoga sutras, is the notion that a yoga practice will bring one into a deeper awareness of the self. To begin to explore the modern science notion of self-awareness, here’s a 2009 paper entitled, “The ‘prediction imperative’ as the basis for self-awareness” by Rodolfo R. Llinas and Sisir Roy [doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0309]. The paper is part of a special theme issue from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B with the wonderfully karmic title: Predictions in the brain: using our past to prepare for the future.
Without unpacking the whole (open access) article, here are a few ideas that seem to connect loosely to themes in yoga.
The main issue addressed by the authors is how the brain manages to solve the computational problem of movement. Here’s the problem: to just, for example, reach into a refrigerator and grab a carton of milk (a far cry from, say, scorpion pose) they point out that,
“there are 50 or so key muscles in the hand, arm and shoulder that one uses to reach for the milk carton (leading to) over 1,000,000,000,000,000 combinations of muscle contractions (that) are possible.”
Yikes! that is an overwhelming computational problem for the brain to solve – especially when there are 1,000-times FEWER neurons in the entire brain (only a mere 1,000,000,000,000 neurons). To accomplish this computational feat, the authors suggest that brain has evolved 2 main strategies.
Firstly, the authors point out that the brain can lower the computational workload of controlling movement (motor output) by sending motor control signals in a non-continuous and pulsatile fashion.
“We see that the underlying nature of movement is not smooth and continuous as our voluntary movements overtly appear; rather, the execution of movement is a discontinuous series of muscle twitches, the periodicity of which is highly regular.”
This computational strategy has the added benefit of making it easier to bind and synchronize motor-movement signals with a constant flow of sensory input:
“a periodic control system may allow for input and output to be bound in time; in other words, this type of control system might enhance the ability of sensory inputs and descending motor command/controls to be integrated within the functioning motor apparatus as a whole.”
The idea of synchronizing sensory information with pulsing motor control signals brings to mind more poetic notions of rhythmicity and the way that yogis use their breath to enhance and unify their outer and inner world experience. Neat! Also, I very much like the idea that our brains have enormously complex computational tasks to perform, so I’m keen to do what I can to help out my central nervous system. Much gratitude to you brain!
Secondly, the authors then move ahead to describe the way in which neural circuits in the body and brain are inherently good at learning and storing information which makes them very good at predicting what to do with incoming sensory inputs. This may just be another strategy the brain has evolved to simplify the enormous computational load associated with moving and coordinating the body. Interestingly, the authors note,
“while prediction is localized in the CNS, it is a distributed function and does not have a single location within the brain. What is the repository of predictive function? The answer lies in what we call the self, i.e. the self is the centralization of the predictive imperative. The self is not born out of the realm of consciousness—only the noticing of it is (i.e. self-awareness).” Here’s a link to Llinas’ book on this topic.
The “self” is not just in the brain? but distributed throughout the entire CNS? Whoa! Much to explore here. Many thematic tie-ins with ancient Vedic notions of self and consciousness … will explore this in the future!
One last passage I found of interest was written by Moshe Bar, the editor of the special issue, who suggested that neural solutions to these inherent computational challenges make the brain/mind a naturally restless place. His words,
“As is evident from the collection of articles presented in this issue, the brain might be similarly flexible and ‘restless’ by default. This restlessness does not reflect random activity that is there merely for the sake of remaining active, but, instead, it reflects the ongoing generation of predictions, which relies on memory and enhances our interaction with and adjustment to the demanding environment.”
My yoga teachers often remind me that “monkey mind” is normal and with more practice, it will subside. Very cool to see a tie-in with modern research.