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Posts Tagged ‘Central nervous system’

Your brain is a beautiful universe!  Enjoy it via meditation. Love it & spend time getting to know it.  Its a wonderful place!

 

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Hatha Yoga Video - Revolving Lunge Pose
Image by myyogaonline via Flickr

Does yoga feel good?  Do you feel good during the practice – moving your body through the bending, twisting, inverting etc.?  Be honest. I mean, since you’re probably sore as hell the next morning … if you don’t feel good during the practice, why would you bother at all?

Now that I have a tad of strength in my arms and shoulders, I think I can say that, “yes” I do feel good and enjoy the practice … but usually just for the first 20 minutes or so before I start playing the frantic “just keep up with the instructor and hope for a break” game.

Some say that their good feelings come from the relaxed meditative state that yoga puts them in.  Some folks just like to move their bodies and are attracted to the strange and exotic beauty of the postures.  I always enjoy the music.

But where do these good feelings come from?   Aren’t they just in my head?  Do I really need to move my body to feel good?  Why not just sit and breathe?

It turns out that there is a scientific theory on this topic.  The so-called Somatic markers hypothesis that suggests that afferent feedback from the body to the brain is necessary for generating our feelings.  For example, stimulation of the vagus nerve (aka Kundalini serpent) makes us feel good, while individuals with spinal cord damage who lack afferent input from the body reportedly have blunted emotions.

In his research review article, Human feelings: why are some more aware than others? [doi:10.1016/j.tics.2004.04.004] Dr. Bud Craig from the Barrow Neurological Institute reviews the science of this topic and lays out the neural circuitry that goes from body to brain and is necessary for us to FEEL.

These feelings represent ‘the material me’, and so this broader concept of interoception converges with the so-called somatic-marker hypothesis of consciousness proposed by Damasio. In this proposal, the afferent sensory representation of the homeostatic condition of the body is the basis for the mental representation of the sentient self.  Recursive meta-representations of homeostatic feelings allow the brain to distinguish the inner world from the outer world. Most strikingly, degrees of conscious awareness are related to successive upgrades in the cortex (a target of visceral afferent activity), supplementary motor cortex (involved in manual responses), and bilateral insular cortices. This pattern supports the general view that a network of inter-related forebrain regions is involved in interoceptive attention and emotional feelings.

Amazingly, it seems that humans have evolved several unique adaptations that make us able to convert bodily sensation into self-awareness.

For instance, a novel cell type, the so-called spindle cell, is exclusively located in these regions of the human brain. Recent evidence indicates a trenchant phylogenetic correlation, in that spindle cells are most numerous in aged humans, but progressively less numerous in children, gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees, and nonexistent in macaque monkeys. Notably, this phylogenetic progression also parallels the results of the mirror test for self-awareness.

The rapid development of right Anterior Insula within a brief evolutionary timescale suggests that nested interoceptive re-representations could be directly related to the advantages of advanced social interaction.

So it seems that we human beings rely on bodily awareness to attain emotional awareness.  This sounds very yogic and something the yoga practice helps to develop.  Feel your body –> feel your emotions!

 

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Myelin Repair Foundation Logo
Image by Myelin Repair Foundation via Flickr

from Ye et al., 2009:

HDAC1/2 genes encode proteins that modify the epigenome (make it less accessible for gene expression).

When HDAC1/2 functions around the HES5 and ID2/4 (repressors of white matter development) genes, the epigenetic changes (less acetylation of chromatin) helps to repress the repressors.

This type of epigenetic repression of gene expression (genes that repress white matter development) is essential for white matter development.

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A young woman and man embracing while outdoors.
Image via Wikipedia

Please forgive the absurd title here … its just a play on words from a flabby, middle-aged science geek who is as alluring to “the ladies” as an old leather boot.

Like a lot of males (with active fantasy lives I suppose), my interest was piqued by the recent headline, “What Do Women Really Want? Oxytocin” – based on a recent lecture at this years Society for Neuroscience annual conference.

Oxytocin is a small hormone that also modulates brain activity.  Many have referred it as the “Love Hormone” because it is released into the female brain during breastfeeding (where moms report feeling inextricably drawn to their infants), orgasm and other trust-building and social bonding experiences.  So, the premise of the title (from the male point of view), is a fairly simplistic – but futile – effort to circumvent the whole “social interaction thing” and reduce dating down to handy ways of raising oxytocin levels in females (voila! happier females more prone to social (ahem) bonding).

Of course, Mother Nature is not stupid.  Unless you are an infant, there is no “increase in oxytocin” without a prior “social bonding or shared social experience”.  Mother Nature has the upper hand here … no physical bonding without social binding first!

So, what the heck does this have to do with yoga?  Yes, its true that yoga studios are packed with friendly, health conscious females, but, the practice is mainly a solitary endeavor.  Aside from the chatter before and after class, and the small amount of oxytocin that is released during exercise, there is no social bonding going on that would release the so-called “love hormone”.  Thus, even though “women want yoga”, yoga class may not be the ideal location to “score with chicks”.

However, there may be one aspect of yoga practice that can facilitate social bonding (and hence oxytocin release).  One benefit of a yoga practice (as covered here, here) is an increased ability to “be present” – an improved ability to pay closer attention to your own thoughts and feelings, and also, the thoughts and feelings of another person.

The scientific literature is fairly rich in research showing a close relationship between attention, shared- or joint-attention, trust and oxytocin, and the idea is pretty obvious.  If you are really paying attention to the other person, and paying attention to your shared experience in the moment, the social bond will be stronger, more enjoyable and longer-lasting.  Right?

Soooo – if you want the oxytocin to flow – look your partner in the eye, listen to their thoughts, listen to your own reactions, listen to, and feel their breath as it intermingles with your own, feel their feelings and your own, slow-down and enjoy the minute details of the whole experience and be “right there, right now” with them.  Even if you’ve been with the same person for 40 years, each moment will be new and interesting.

Yoga will teach you how to do this.

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Have you ever seen the list “100 Benefits of Meditation“?  Of course, many of these benefits are psychological. You know, things like: helps control own thoughts (#39) and helps with focus & concentration (#40).  But many of the 100 benefits are rather physical, bodily, physiological, immunological and even biochemical benefits (such as #16- reduction of free radicals, less tissue damage).

These are awesome claims, and I’ve certainly found that mediation helps me feel more emotionally balanced and physically relaxed,  but I’m wondering – from a hard science point of view – how legit some of these claims might be.  For example, “#12 Enhances the immune system – REALLY?  How might yoga and mediation enhance my immune system?

In a previous post on the amazing vagus nerve – the only nerve in your body that, like the ancient Kundalini serpent, rises from the root of your gut to the brain – AND – a nerve that is a key to the cure of treatment resistant depression – it was suggested that much of the alleviation of suffering that comes from yoga comes from the stimulation of this amazing nerve during postures and breathing.

Somehow, the ancient yogis really got it right when they came up with the notion of Kundalini serpent – so strange, but so cool!

I happened to stumble on a paper that explored the possibility that the vagus nerve might also play a role in mediating communication of the immune system and the brain – and thus provide a mechanism for “#12- Enhances the immune system” Here’s a quote from the article entitled, “Neural concomitants of immunity—Focus on the vagus nerve” [doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.05.058] by Drs. Julian F. Thayer and Esther M. Sternberg (Ohio State University and National Institute of Mental Health).

By the nature of its “wandering” route through the body the vagus nerve may be uniquely structured to provide an effective early warning system for the detection of pathogens as well as a source of negative feedback to the immune system after the pathogens have been cleared. … Taken together these parasympathetic pathways form what has been termed “the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway

The scientists then investigate the evidence and possible mechanisms by which the vagus nerve sends immunological signals from the body to the brain and also back out to the immune system.  Its not a topic that is well understood, but the article describes several lines of evidence implicating the vagus nerve in immunological health.

So bend, twist, inhale and exhale deeply.  Stimulate your vagus nerve and, as cold and flu season arrives, awaken the serpent within!

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What if you had magic fingers and could touch a place on a person’s body and make all their pain and anguish disappear?  This would be the stuff of legends, myths and miracles! Here’s a research review by Kerry J Ressler  and Helen S Mayberg on the modern ability to electrically “touch” the Vagus Nerve.

The article,  Targeting abnormal neural circuits in mood and anxiety disorders: from the laboratory to the clinic discusses a number of “nerve stimulation therapies” wherein specific nerve fibers are electrically stimulated to relieve mental anguish associated with (drug) treatment-resistant depression.

Vagus nerve stimulation therapy (VNS) is approved by the FDA for treatment of medication-resistant depression and was approved earlier for the treatment of epilepsy20.  …  The initial reasoning behind the use of VNS followed from its apparent effects of elevating mood in patients with epilepsy20, combined with evidence that VNS affects limbic activity in neuroimaging studies21. Furthermore, VNS alters concentrations of serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA and glutamate within the brain2224, suggesting that VNS may help correct dysfunctional neurotransmitter modulatory circuits in patients with depression.

This stuff is miraculous in every sense of the word – to be able to reach in and “touch” the body and bring relief – if not bliss – to individuals who suffer with immense emotional pain.  So who is this Vagus nerve anyway?  Why does stimulating it impart so many emotional benefits?  How can I touch my own Vagus nerve?

The wikipedia page is a great place to explore – suggesting that this nerve fiber is central to the “rest and digest” functions of the parasympathetic nervous system.  As evidenced by the relief its stimulation brings from emotional pain, the Vagus nerve is central to mind-body connections and mental peace.

YOGA is a practice that also brings mental peace.  YOGA,  in so many ways (I hope to elaborate on in future posts),  aims to engage the parasympathetic nervous system (slowing down and resting responses) and disengage the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight responses).  Since we all can’t have our very own (ahem) lululemon (ahem) vagal nerve stimulation device, we must rely on other ways to stimulate the Vagus nerve fiber.  Luckily, many such ways are actually known – so-called “Vagal maneuvers” – such as  holding your breath and bearing down (Valsalva maneuver), immersing your face in ice-cold water (diving reflex), putting pressure on your eyelids, & massage of the carotid sinus area – that have been shown to facilitate parasympathetic (relaxation & slowing down) responses.

But these “Vagal maneuvers” are not incorporated into yoga.  How might yoga engage and stimulate the Vagal nerve bundle? Check out these great resources on breathing and Vagal tone (here, here, here).  I’m not an expert by any means but I think the take home message is that when we breathe deep and exhale, Vagal tone increases.  So, any technique that allows us to increase the duration of our exhalation will increase Vagal tone. Now THAT sounds like yoga!

Even more yogic is the way the Vagus nerve is the only nerve in the parasympathetic system that reaches all the way from the colon to the brain.  The fiber is composed mainly of upward (to the brain) pulsing neurons – which sounds a lot like the mystical Kundalini Serpent that arises upwards from within (starting at the root – colon) and ending in the brain.  The picture above – of the Vagus nerve (bright green fiber) – might be what the ancient yogis had in mind?

some updates:

here’s a great post on the importance of, and teaching of exhalation

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signaling (animated)
Image by Genista via Flickr

One thing I’ve learned doing yoga is that introspection – like the postures – takes a lot of practice.

Here’s a pointer to a great new science article on the basic brain biology of introspection, or “thinking about thinking”.  The article, Relating Introspective Accuracy to Individual Differences in Brain Structure by Fleming et al., describes experiments where participants had to (a) make a rather difficult perceptual observation and then (b) self-report how confident they were in that judgment.  From the introduction …

Our moment-to-moment judgments of the outside world are often subject to introspective interrogation. In this context, introspective or “metacognitive” sensitivity refers to the ability to discriminate correct from incorrect perceptual decisions, and its accuracy is essential for the appropriate guidance of decision-making and action.

… sounds a lot like the way people describe meditation as being an active or “aware” state where (a) very basic perceptual information (sounds, feelings, vibrations) are (b) seamlessly coupled, labeled or processed with more abstract and/or deeper thoughts.  As Thomas Metzinger suggests in his book, The Ego Tunnel, the ability to become “aware” of early sensory perceptions is an important aspect of understanding the so-called “real world” as opposed to the world that our ego, or conscious mind normally builds for us.  Metzinger points to Paul Churchland‘s ideas on “eliminative materialsm” as emphasizing the importance of (a) early sensory experience and its (b) coupling with introspective abilities.  Churchland’s ideas (from p53 in Metzinger’s book):

“I suggest then, that those of us who prize the flux and content of our subjective phenomenological experience need not view the advance of materialist neuroscience with fear and foreboding.” … “Quite the contrary.  The genuine arrival of a materialist kinematics and dynamics for psychological states and cognitive processes will constitute not a gloom in which our inner life is suppressed or eclipsed, but rather a dawning, in which its marvelous intricacies are finally revealed – most notably, if we apply [it] ourselves, in direct self-conscious introspection.”

Churchland’s notion of a revelation of our true inner lives (via an understanding of sensory processes) – loosely – reminds me of some of the ancient yogic notions of a gap between the “real” world and our everyday “mental” world.  These notions are a core of yoga spirituality.  As covered in-depth by Mircea Eliade in Yoga: Immortality and Freedom:

For Samkhya and Yoga the problem is clearly defined.  Since suffering has its origins in ignorance of “Spirit” – that is,  in confusing “Spirit” with psychomental states – emancipation can be obtained only if the confusion is abolished. (p14)   …   Yoga accepts God, but we shall see that Patanjali does not accord him very much importance.  The revelation is based on knowledge of the ultimate reality – that is, on an “awakening” in which object completely identifies itself with subject.  (The “Self” “”contemplates” itself;  it does not “think” itself, for thought is itself an experience and, as such, belongs to praktri.)(p29)

So it seems that both the ancient yogis and some modern scientists suggest that there is indeed a gap between the way the world really “is” and the way we “think” about it.  To close this gap, it may help to train ourselves to the difference between “contemplating” – which emphasizes basic sensory information (listening, feeling, etc.) – rather than just “thinking” about stuff.  I think this aspect of our mental life may be, in part, what Churchland is emphasizing and also is one of the most basic tenets of vipassana meditation.

Just focus on the basic sensory perceptions … live in this moment!

The brain scientists who performed the research on the relation of (a) basic sensory perceptual processes to (b) judgments of its accuracy used brain imaging to examine correlations in brain structure (gray matter volume and white-matter integrity) with performance on the (a) and (b) tasks and found a number of brain regions in the very front of the brain that were correlated with “introspective ability” (more on the science here).  I wonder if they were thinking of mediation when they wrote:

This raises the tantalizing possibility of being able to “train” metacognitive ability by harnessing underlying neural plasticity in the regions that we identify here.

I suppose a few old ascetic yogis out there might have chuckle at the thought of a western “training program” (just 10 minutes a day, no batteries required etc.) … methinks it takes practice – A LOT of practice!

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