Beyond the “skull-based brain”

I’ve been watching the videos of Dr. Dan Siegel, over the past couple of weeks, and he’s really got me thinking. He talks about “the embodied brain” — the physical experiences of life and how they interact with the neural networks in our heads to produce certain firing patterns, which make up the fabric of our lives. He also talks about the brain being more than the organ that’s in our heads.

As I now understand it, the “brain” as we know it, is the organ inside our skull which directs the activities of the central nervous system, but it’s not the only brain in the body.

We have other masses of neural connections throughout our body, in particular, in the gut and around the heart. They look very different from what’s in our heads, but they do the same type of work – regulating the system they are attached to in ways that are responsive to our surroundings.

The brain in our gut, the “enteric nervous system” manage[s] every aspect of digestion, from the esophagus to the stomach, small intestine and colon.

enteric nervous system

Just like the larger brain in the head, researchers say, this system sends and receives impulses, records experiences and respond to emotions. Its nerve cells are bathed and influenced by the same neurotransmitters. The gut can upset the brain just as the brain can upset the gut.

The gut contains 100 million neurons – more than the spinal cord. Major neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, norephinephrine and nitric oxide are in the gut. Also two dozen small brain proteins, called neuropeptides are there along with the major cells of the immune system. Enkephalins (a member of the endorphins family) are also in the gut. The gut also is a rich source of benzodiazepines – the family of psychoactive chemicals that includes such ever popular drugs as valium and xanax.

And then we have the heart, which has a complex intrinsic nervous system that is sufficiently sophisticated to qualify as a “little brain” in its own right. The heart’s brain is an intricate network of several types of neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells like those found in the brain proper. Its elaborate circuitry enables it to act independently of the cranial brain – to learn, remember, and even feel and sense.

The heart communicates with the brain and the rest of the body in three ways documented by solid scientific evidence: neurologically (through transmissions of nerve impulses), biochemically (through hormones and neurotransmitters), and biophysically (through pressure waves). In addition, growing scientific evidence suggests that the heart may communicate with the brain and body in a fourth way – energetically (through electromagnetic field interactions). Through these biological communication systems, the heart has a significant influence on the function of our brains and all our Systems.

The Little Brain In the Heart
The Institute of HeartMath has a great page here showing pictures of The “Little Brain In the Heart”

Most of us are familiar with the concept of “gut feelings” or “following your heart” — and those ways of orienting ourselves in life play a huge part in how we manage our lives. It’s almost like we have two extra “backup” brains in those areas of our bodies, which work with the brains in our skulls to keep our whole system moving, breathing, living.

And these two “extra” brains communicate freely with the brains in our heads. We feel it in our bodies when our head-brains observe our surroundings and reach certain conclusions about what it all means. Our guts get turned around, as do our hearts. Or quite the opposite takes place, with the butterflies in our stomachs subsiding and/or our hearts slowing down their frantic beating.

On top of it all, we have the central nervous system with all its amazing connections, the nerves, the ganglia, the axonal connections, the neurons, the constant flow of energy and electricity throughout our systems. We are literally electric, with charges and pulses carrying messages from one microscopic member of the system to another… all of us comprised of millions and billions of neurons, each of which makes 10,000 connections and on-off firing patterns that provide us with infinite potential to become what we most desire.

If you think of the “brain” as a central processing unit of neurons and axons and synapses and all the controlling activity that goes on in them, then our entire body is filled with our brain. It’s just just inside our skulls —  it’s all through our bodies.

Now, knowing more about this brain stuff today than I did a month ago, I have to say it changes my perception of “brain injury” a bit. All along, I’ve been thinking about brain injury as being something that happens only to the head. I’ve been thinking — and saying — that brain injury and head injury are the same thing. But now I have to rethink this. And I have to start saying “head injury” a whole lot more than “brain injury” because while my head may have gotten banged up over the years, my gut brain and my heart brain have not taken the same sort of beating — they’ve taken different ones, of course, but they haven’t had the same specific sorts of physical impacts that my head has had.

At the same time, I have to consider other injuries I’ve had — such as when I fell out of a tree when I was 14 or 15 years old and landed across a log on my back — that affected my spine, which is chock-full of nerves and connections. And let’s not forget the car accidents. Don’t want to leave them out of the picture. I need a broader view of what makes my life more “interesting”. And I need a broader view of what makes my life more whole.

Indeed, when I think about the brain as encompassing body experience and knowledge and processing, as well as what’s in my head, it offers some pretty good clues as to how I’ve managed to stay in the game, so to speak, despite these injuries. If there’s more to my brain than what’s in my head… if my brain is actually distributed throughout my body… if I have other “backup brains” that are able to jump in and help out with information and energy processing throughout my whole system, then it relieves some of the intensity around my head injuries, and it offers me clues about how I am able to keep keepin’ on, despite my various setbacks over the years.

It’s complicated, of course… The head-brain clearly plays a part in regulating the rest of the body, and its importance is vital — we need it to live. But at the same time, what happens in the heart and the gut has its own intelligence, which impacts what goes on in the head, and that often goes unnoticed. I’m going to have to start thinking more carefully about this, as I go about my business. Pay more conscious attention to what my heart-brain and gut-brains are telling me — not just what my head-brain is gong on about.

Our systems are marvelously complex and interconnected. And it feels good to “get” that and be connecting things that I hadn’t really given much concentrated, focused thought to, in the past. It’s impossible to separate the system out into distinct pieces and truly make sense of it. I would even venture to say that the only truly thorough way to understand the system that is our “brain”, is to consider first the interconnections and interactions between its various elements, and then move from that point to understand the distinct parts.

I guess the bottom line is, there’s more to the brain than what’s in the head.