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  • Marcia

Brain/Body Communication

"The vagus nerve innervates the heart, gut, and lungs directly, bypassing the spinal cord to snake straight up through the middle of you. Eighty to ninety percent of vagal nerve fibers are afferent - meaning they send signals to the brain rather than receiving signals from the brain. We tend to think of the brain as a top-down command center, but this is about as outdated as thinking the world is flat. The brain in our head receives vastly more 'bottom-up' input from your visceral organs than the reverse. In fact, in many instances it makes more sense to say the body leads the brain."

- Amanda Blake, Your Body is Your Brain

Tell me if this rings a bell - you're trying to talk with someone but they won't let you get a word in edgewise. They are very interested in telling you what they think, but completely disinterested in what you have to say. In other words, this is a monologue, not a conversation.

What about this? Your boss at work has his or her agenda, and will not hear any conversation that discredits, discourages, or detracts from it. They will not listen to your relevant input, even though you know things that will make or break their goals. No conversation here, just taking orders.

Or this: the parent that disapproves of their child's behavior, and administers punishment to discourage future reenactments without stopping to consider that the child's behavior may be the only way he or she has to communicate their needs or ask for help.

And now let me ask you: does this sound like your relationship between brain and body?

It definitely did for me. I didn't question the top-down model of communication I was taught. The brain was in charge of everything, and that's that. Which means that if you couldn't do something it was weakness of will, plain and simple. You should toughen up, and if your body complains then you should ignore it. Or even punish it. Definitely be ashamed of it. Brain knows best, body is weak and will-less, and needs a stern hand at the helm or all hell breaks loose.

Put another way, the brain was talking, and there will be no discussion. Orders are given, no talkback, and if they are disobeyed there will be consequences. Communication, but not conversation.

As I progressed on my journey, I came to understand things differently. Take, for instance, the quote at the top of the page. As I (and humanity at large) learned more about the brain, I discovered that the brain's role might still be as leader, but with a VERY different leadership style. Rather than the militaristic style of orders given, the brain is at its most effective when extremely collaborative. The role of the body is to communicate everything, and the brain's task is to compile that information, compare to knowns, predict outcomes, and condense all this into an action.

But without the body's input, the brain is left completely blind and utterly unable to measure the appropriateness of an action or its chance of success. The body no longer has a way of expressing its needs, and the less it's heard the louder it gets. What began as a whisper ends as a scream if the brain/body communication breaks down. And as we've all experienced in actions with others, a screaming match doesn't accomplish much.

As we've discovered through the study of nerves, our brain is much more equipped to listen to the body than to speak. The wisdom we possess is embedded in our body, creating an embodied intelligence, and we access this wisdom through the felt sense. In order for this sense to speak we must listen and feel, the two things I most needed to learn!

Imagine how different you feel when you're talking with someone and they actually listen, then give relevant information in return based on really hearing you.

Or a boss with a vision who appreciates the contribution of team members and makes realistic decisions based on solid information while inspiring everyone to bring their best.

Or the parent who observes their child's negative behavior, takes the time to determine what that display may be a symptom of, and then makes truly effective action to remedy the situation.

I like to think of my brain as a humble, affectionate mayor who's door is always open to hear the important information of the townsfolk (the body parts, in case my analogy is confusing you). The Mayor holds meetings all the time, and allows everyone to say their piece without jumping to conclusions. The Mayor makes everyone speaking feel truly valued and equally important, and tries hard not to interrupt or infer prematurely. Mayor Brain negotiates conflicting information, and always tries to listen for the truth. Only once all the information has been considered carefully does Mayor Brain settle on a course of action that is most effective and beneficial, and continues to check in through the process and change course as new information becomes available.

Who wouldn't want to have a leader like that?

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