Sunday, October 18, 2009
Neuroanatomy & Yoga
It's all in your head.
That's the idea I've been toying with for a while anyway -- that there's a neurological component to yoga, which thus far has not gotten the attention I think it deserves. I suspect that this is because so much of our metaphysical lexicon -- the vocabulary of yoga -- is rooted in the past.
Adopting a scientific approach to understanding our yogic development might promise more precision. For example, if I told a room full of new agers that I'd developed some conscious control over my muladhara chakra, I suspect we'd have a room full of people all with very different takes on what I'd meant by that statement.
The term is old and imprecise and not really susceptible to examination through evidence.
But if I told a room full of people that I'd developed some conscious control over my amygdelae, they'd have a fairly uniform understanding of what I'd meant (or they would after first checking its definition on Wikipedia!).
So, I think integrating scientific advances into our practice of yoga can only benefit us. It might also give us further insight into the paradox we've been discussing. In other words, perhaps there's a neurological explanation for how a person could be capable of both an exalted meditative state and sexual misconduct.
Before we go there, though, let's think about this idea more generally.
Some time ago, my practice included concentrating on the various chakras or subtle nerve centers, which are said to tie one's physical organism to the larger universal forces at play in the world. One day, while I was thus concentrating, it occurred to me that while I was concentrating on my heart chakra, the action was taking place in my brain.
To understand my point, consider the phenomena of phantom limbs.
Some small percentage of people who have a limb amputated report still feeling the presence of their lost limb. The feeling is real, but obviously the existence of the limb is not. What's going on?
As it turns out, the primary motor cortex -- that part of the human brain responsible for processing sensory and motor information -- maintains a neurological map of the individual's body. Though bizarre looking, neuroscientists have produced a visual representation of this mental map, which is called the cortical homunculus or the "little man" inside the brain.
So, while a person might lose her hand in an accident, the neural map within her primary motor cortex might remain out of sync or not updated. Thus, to her the mental image of her hand, along with all its associated feelings, still exists in a very real way. As I began to hear about some groundbreaking work being done by neurologist V. S. Ramachandran to ease "phantom pains" being experienced by amputees, it occurred to me that neurology might have some application to yoga as well.
What if -- even though we experience them in designated areas of the body -- the chakras are actually seated in the brain?
Through the use of magnetic resonance imaging technology, neuroscientists are beginning to map areas in the brain that appear to be associated with our entire subjective life. The nervous systems and sex drive, for example, appear to be strongly associated with the aforementioned amygdalae, small areas within the medial temporal lobes of the brain, which operate below the conscious radar most of the time.
Our more conscious emotions appear to be processed by the ventral prefrontal cortex. One study suggests that those people who engage in consciously accepting and labeling negative emotions tend to gain some control over the autonomously acting amygdalae. Sounds like neurological support for tantra.
Communication and creativity may be centered in the medial prefrontal cortex. See this article about the use of MRI scans on jazz musicians while they improvise.
Insight seems to be associated with the right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus, as discussed in this article.
The "presence of God" -- at least for the nuns in one study -- activated some 12 areas of the brain, quite apart from the areas of the brain activated when experiencing more worldly emotions.
Now, obviously, I'm no scientist and I've grossly oversimplified an extremely complex and new field of scientific study and discovery. (Here's a link to a nice overview of this emerging field by David Brooks.) Nevertheless, I can't help thinking that there is some real value to modern yogis in thinking about these types of studies and their findings.
I suspect that, like the amputee experiencing the phantom limb phenomena, my subjective mystical experiences are rooted in my brain. When I feel a psychic flame reaching out from the center of my chest, the action itself is taking place inside my own head -- just as the images I see, the scents I smell, and the things I taste are all experienced in differing areas of the brain.
That said, I'm not proposing that we are our brains. As I've previously posted, I assume that consciousness precedes matter. But if the process of yoga is a physical one, then it seems to me there's a place for a more modern view of the seat of our consciousness -- our brains.
I think this idea also provides us with another way to think about Guru's paradoxical nature.
Whether it's actually true in Guru's case or not, it's at least conceivable -- neurologically anyway -- that a person could have ready access to "high" spiritual experiences and yet engage in unethical behavior. Particularly, if such traits are governed by different and distinct areas of the brain.
If, for example, a person's orbitofrontal cortex is compromised or undeveloped, then that person will likely exhibit disinhibition or a disregard for social conventions which can manifest in many ways.
Likewise, with damage to (or lack of development of) the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, one's ability to distinguish between right and wrong -- to think in moral terms -- may be compromised (here's an article from the Wall Street Journal on the subject).
That wouldn't mean, however, that such a person couldn't experience spiritual ecstasy in a completely different and distinct area of the brain.
To my mind, everything must be learned. We're not born with a knowledge about human relations and how to maturely navigate our sexual desires and romantic feelings. Instead, they're skills that we must learn -- either from others or from our own trials and errors -- and practice.
Just like meditation.
It's entirely conceivable to me that Guru -- born as he was in the first half of the 20th Century, in India, orphaned, and raised in the strict confines of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram (the very model of our own Sri Chinmoy Center) -- never learned about sex, never learned how accept his natural desires, and never learned how to communicate his emotions in a healthy way.
That's why, I expect, he exploited the trust of some of his female disciples.
I'm not convinced, however, that his exalted meditations weren't just that: exalted.
Credit for the photo above goes here. I just stumbled upon this interesting two-year old article on Slate, which suggest how one might wire the brain for spiritual ecstasy.