Neural Axis®

Neural Axis®

The Brain in Four ['integral' quadrant] Dimensions

 [Originally published on US News Health, 18 September, 2013.]

Rise and shine. It's morning (presumably), and you've just begun transitioning from the slower brain wave states of deep sleep and dreaming into the externally embedded reality of your waking life. Depending on your routine, life circumstances and disposition, you may selectively notice certain aspects or attend to the contents of awareness in a particular order. Your brain activates in a certain way, creating a pattern or neural groove that you then follow by habit, which in turn coordinates your behavioral patterns for the time being. We begin this general process when we wake up, extend it throughout the day and dwindle down in the evening, often in an automatic unconscious rhythm. Let's take a brief tour through the fundamental dimensions of awareness that the brain is wired to process, followed by a one-minute exercise for balancing them.

As you're reading this, perhaps among all the contents of your awareness you may come to feel your somatic sensations through interoception, the detection of stimuli from within your own body. Involuntary functions such as heart rate, digestion, muscle tension and breath are communicated up our brain stem (the oldest part of our brain that encodes basic drives) and the limbic system (associated with emotional coloring and subconscious assessment of our world) to the insula (a critical region that encodes interoception and self-awareness). You may notice the emotions you are feeling, the thoughts you are having and the motivations or intentions you have. These internal perceptions arise once signals from the aforementioned brain regions travel up to the middle prefrontal cortex, one of the most evolved brain regions in humans where we integrate our many perceptions to make a map of our internal world, allowing insight, morality, empathy and intuition to emerge. This completes the "resonance circuit," which allows you to feel yourself as a whole individual personality through introspection. This whole aspect of awareness is your interior individual ("I") dimension. 

You may become aware of another dimension: the exterior individual("It"). The five senses allow the space exterior to you to penetrate your inner awareness. You may notice individual objects along with their visual properties; physical sensations of touch such as clothes against your skin, or perhaps perspiration following a workout; the sounds around you, such as the electrical hum of your computer, human chatter and the sounds of nature; the smells and your capacity to distinguish them; and taste. See if you can take in the information from all the senses simultaneously. Each of these senses has its own pathway through the brain, integrating in the prefrontal cortex, where we make meaning of our senses. A template of the environment is formed as a spatial map in the entorhinal cortex, processing directional information that helps us orient ourselves in space. Our relationship with a physical object through touch is formed in part in the somatosensory cortex; after we learn to use a particular tool or device, our brain programs it as a virtual extension of our body, akin to a prosthetic limb, so that it becomes an operational "part" of us. You can also take in all your senses at once. Observe your behavioral in relation to the senses. Notice how this data is immediately available.

As you go through the day and observe more of your environment, you may notice that beyond the individual objects there is a strand of connectivity between them. Groups of objects come together in organized networks and interdependent systems of interaction. The arrangement of a chair, desk and laptop together is a purposeful and functional arrangement of objects in space. The distribution of city roads and highways that conduct traffic patterns is a system of seemingly separate objects functioning together. The awe that we can experience from recognizing the fractal patterns of nature, how the intricate designs of flowers, organisms and landscapes seem to follow some underlying blueprint facilitated by DNA. The way giant rocks in the solar system billions of years ago began rotating around the sun and spinning on axes to give us gravity, keeping us grounded in our day to day lives. The way the letters you are reading form words form sentences form a narrative structure that makes sense. The learned associations between objects from the senses is encoded in the perirhinal cortex. In case your head hasn't already exploded, see if you can grasp all these systems all at once for just a moment. This awe-full dimension of our awareness is theexterior collective ("Its").

The fourth and final dimension is the interior collective ("We"). In this dimension you become aware of your relationships. This is the felt sense of connection with another person or group of people. Feel into the connections you have with family, with co-workers, with friends and the core values that thread them together. Notice the difference in the "we"-ness between these groups. These are the codes of shared understanding that allow us to coherently relate with one another. The neural correlate of the experience of this shared meaning is the mirror neuron system, which allows us to reflect, as it were, and empathically resonate with the intentions and motivations of others, and to align our own emotional and physiological state with theirs. The capacity we have to resonate with others is closely linked with our capacity to reflect on our own mental state, as they both make use of the resonance circuit described above.

These four dimensions, the "I," "We," "It" and "Its" are all accessible to us at any given moment. Perhaps you noticed that there were one or two that may have been easier to access than the others. Since they are all integral to healthy brain function, it is important to work out all of them. Below is a one-minute exercise called "Integral Breathing" that you can do anytime. It is especially useful between tasks or when approaching a new situation.

1. I Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, become aware of what is arising within your subjective awareness. Rest within.

2. We Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, notice what arises between you and others, and rest in that connection of shared experiences and meanings.

3. It Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, open your senses and notice the qualities of surrounding space. Abide here.

4. Its Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, notice the larger context around you: the ecological and planetary information, legal, economic, environmental and educational systemic intersections. Rest everywhere.

5. Whole Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, become aware of and rest in all four dimensions at once.

Repeat three times, for a total of 15 breaths. Play with this every day for a week and see what happens.