A Brief Introduction to our Centred Brain.
After I was discharged from hospital my initial elation quickly gave way to quiet desperation. Our house was not wheelchair friendly and life became a series of frustrations. I wanted my freedom back as a matter of some urgency. Not so simple when you have severe brain and spinal cord injuries and only one leg. My head throbbed nonstop and my body felt very heavy and drained of energy all the time.
Desperation drove me to understand how the brain motivated and moved my body to obtain my goals in life. I knew this feeling very well from my racing days – how my fatigued body miraculously recovered, making me feel exhilarated and alive. One particular cycling race stands out – the feel-good rush happened towards the end of a very exhausting and very prolonged cycling race while I was cycling at a very high intensity.
On the laboratory bike I would have collapsed in a heap, but out there on the road, racing away from the breakaway group that I was in, I felt invincible! Knowing I would win were I to keep my intensity high caused my brainstem to flood the rest of my brain with dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and other chemicals, all in the right combinations. My brainstem also saturated my spine with serotonin and increased my bodily sympathetic drive, the combination of which up-regulated both my skeleto-motor system and my motivation to the maximum.
I felt like Spiderman on speed – an unbeatable combination.
If I could tap into these feel good chemicals while engaging in physical activity, I would surely be able to reclaim my body and keep in shape ‘effortlessly’. Fine in theory but coaxing my withered body to move at greater than walking speed required an extraordinary amount of effort. It felt just plain awful.
The only time something approaching a second wind became apparent was when I haltingly made my way to the supper table to tuck into yet another of mom’s sumptuous offerings. Though our hunting and gathering expeditions are far less demanding these days, walking to the fridge or down the supermarket aisles are none the less a type of physical activity. More correctly it is a hardwired behavioural programme that initiates what is known as foraging behaviour.
As it turns out the motor control of all our behavioural programmes – whether eating or reproducing or engaging in locomotor activities like running, cycling or swimming – are regulated by the same neural circuitry in the Mammalian brain.
Think of sprinting for the line in a race you won or did very well in; or tucking into a hearty meal after a hard day’s work; or walking over to visit your first girlfriend/boyfriend. What was the overriding thought in your mind at the time? Surely not “I’m tired” or “I don’t feel good”.
Not at all, your overriding thought would be the goal of the behaviour you are engaging in and how energising it makes you feel to be on the way to obtaining your goal. This single-minded focus on the goal of our behaviour or movement – rather than on how to contract our leg muscles to run, or walk, or how to contract our finger muscles to grip our knives and forks – is possible because our Mammalian brains co-ordinates our behavioural responses to obtain our ‘biological needs’. We have only 3 main types of biological needs, safety, nourishment and nurturing and our Mammalian brains are fully programmed to engage in the appropriate ‘motivated behaviours’ to fulfil these needs.
Our motivated behavioural responses tend to run themselves.
In a lot of ways I had to start from scratch to learn how to work with my body to whip it back into shape again. Before being run over by a truck, I simply pushed through all the discomforts knowing that it was just a matter of time before my body responded to all the high intensity hill repeats, exhaustive long cycles and running up and down the mountain. After my accident I was forced to be much more attentive to my bodily needs, forced to cut back completely on the intensity, forced to learn how to let my Mammalian brain take charge of my movements and behaviours.
This allowed my Primate brain enough ‘freedom’ to appreciate and eventually start enjoying physical activity. My primary objective was to practice KEEPING CALM throughout the day to enable me to listen out for – and address – my bodily prompts. We address our bodily prompts by allowing our Mammalian brains to take charge of self-regulation. The best way to practice KEEPING CALM is via teaching one’s Mammalian brain posturally correct movement sequences that serves to regulate the sympathetic nervous drive to our hearts and viscera. In tandem we must also discipline ourselves to stop mentally interfering with our Mammalian brains.
The key principle is to find the golden mean between the goal that is set by your Primate brain and obtaining that goal in synchrony with your Mammalian brain and the behaviours it governs. In short, to find the golden mean between idealistic Primate brain top-down control and the naturalness of Mammalian brain regulation of behaviour in obtaining your goals.