Our Many Brains

showing the complex interactions between the neurons in our guts and our brains

There are as many neurons in our gut as in the brain of a cat.

Science is now learning that two organs outside the brain have concentrated neurons that send more messages to the brain than they receive from it. Turns out, “my gut tells me” and “heart sense” are experiences that reflect the reality of how our nervous system functions. Our brain relies on certain functions in our intestines and cardiac muscle to both sense and make decisions about some aspects of our lives. This has led to the popular notion that we have a “brain” in both our hearts and guts as well as inside our skulls. We can use that idea as a metaphor to better understand the functioning of our nervous system and it’s relationship to what we experience as our “mind”.

In this way, we could say we have at least four brains: the two hemispheres within our skulls, which serve distinct functions in our perception and experience of the world around us; the “brain” in our digestive tract; and the “brain” in our hearts. If it is true, as we’ll discuss below, that Dominant Culture values the functions of only one of these four centers—the detail and linear logic function of the left hemisphere—we wouldn’t just be “half-brained” we’d be using only a quarter of our brain’s functionality!

Jill Bolte Taylor showing how the brain is divided

Jill Bolte Taylor showing how the brain is divided into two almost completely separate lobes or hemispheres

The best explanation for the reason we have two nearly completely separate lobes in our brain is described by Iain McGilchrist in his book, The Master and his Emissary. He observes that our brains (and those of other animals) are required to do two very different things simultaneously. For example, a chicken must both be able to isolate and distinguish a speck of corn scratch on the ground in front of her while, at the same time, be aware of her total surroundings and synthesis a gestalt of data to recognize the chicken next to her and, in an instant, what her social relationship to the other chicken is. Chickens, like many animals, have very little overlap between the field of vision in each of their separate eyes (unlike humans where the overlap in the field of vision in each of our eyes allows us to gauge how far an object is from us). McGilchrist notes that birds frequently turn one side of their head or the other toward what they are examining—even if it is the less convenient eye to look from or requires them to turn their head completely around—depending on the kind of thing they are trying to observe. Those things that require them to distinguish among discrete, individual items or to pick them out of a background cause the chicken to turn the eye connected to the left hemisphere of their brains. For those things, like an approaching chicken, that require them to rapidly assess an array of information, to assemble a gestalt, and to recognize complex relationships or categories, they use they eye that informs the right hemisphere. Knowing whether an approaching bird is a predator or a chicken, or whether the chicken is a member of your flock—or even if she is in a fighting mood or friendly—all require the rapid assembly of details into a complex pattern or whole. McGilchrist presents a cogent case for why we have two different ways of comprehending the world going on at the same time: one allows us to isolate details from the cacophony of sensory data around us; the other allows us to perceive details as a pattern or synthesized whole, to quickly recognize their significance to us.

Jill BolteTaylor, Ph.D., gained first hand insight into how the two hemispheres of our brain function together. A neuroanatomist, she was in a perfect position to observe and understand what was happening one morning when a massive hemorrhage in her brain shut down her left lobe entirely. She describes getting ready for work when her ability to read, plan or carry out a sequence of actions started glitching in and out. When these functions kicked back in, she knew she was in trouble and that she had to get help. When they went “off line” she describes experiencing an almost euphoric sense of wholeness and connectedness with everything. As she describes it in her TED talk:

“Our right human hemisphere is all about this present moment. It’s all about “right here, right now.” Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information, in the form of energy, streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems and then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like, what this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like. I am an energy-being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy-beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment we are perfect, we are whole and we are beautiful.” (TED talk transcript minute 3:44) 

She ends her talk with and invitation for us to “…purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres…,” she goes on:

“ So who are we? We are the life-force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here, right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere, where we are. I am the life-force power of the universe. I am the life-force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form, at one with all that is. Or, I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere, where I become a single individual, a solid. Separate from the flow, separate from you. I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: intellectual, neuroanatomist. These are the “we” inside of me. Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when? I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.” (TED talk transcript minutes 15:25 and 16:40)

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