Thursday, June 29, 2006

Bellyaching about the Heartsick

Cosmonaught Lisa has been studying the enteric nervous system and came across the concept of the “abdominal brain”: “Studies have shown a vast overlap in neuropeptides of the brain and gut. This is a secondary autonomic nervous system that operates independently of the cephalic brain. Possibly more connected to the unconscious, and maybe even more directly connected to the divine because it does not have to think/do so hard because it just being/is. Perhaps when we feel something just isn't right and we feel it deep in our gut our enteric brain is working/being connected to the divine. Does this ring true?”

My gut instinct tells me it is true, although I can’t really explain why. Just sort of a fulness in my tummy.

I’m much more familiar with the idea of the heart-intellect, which is a universal spiritual archetype, than I am with the belly brain, but I can google as well as the next guy, and here’s what I came up with:

“In mammals there exist two brains of almost equal importance.... One is the cranial brain, the instrument of volitions, of mental progress and physical protection.  The other is the abdominal brain, the instrument of vascular and visceral function.  It is the automatic, vegetative, the subconscious brain of physical existence.  In the cranial brain resides the consciousness of right and wrong.  Here is the seat of all progress, mental and moral... However, in the abdomen there exists a brain of wonderful power maintaining eternal, restless vigilance over its viscera.  It presides over organic life.  It dominates the rhythmical function of viscera.... The abdominal brain is a receiver, a reorganizer, an emitter of nerve forces.  It has the power of a brain.  It is a reflex center in health and disease.... The abdominal brain is not a mere agent of the [cerebral] brain and cord; it receives and generates nerve forces itself; it presides over nutrition.  It is the center of life itself.  In it are repeated all the physiologic and pathologic manifestations of visceral function (rhythm, absorption, secretion, and nutrition).”

The author goes on to say that “the abdominal brain is centered in the solar plexus" and "is the primary control center of an extensive peripheral nervous system containing a number of ‘little brains.’” This is consistent with the idea that consciousness does not just reside in “our heads,” so to to speak, but that our bodies are permeated with it. Of course this makes sense, because nature does not know the artificial divisions we make, say, between brain and nervous system. Everything in our bodies is interconnected--both subjectively and objectively--in an inconceivably complex manner. That, by the way, is one of the reasons it is such a pain in the a** to have diabetes. Even if perfectly controlled, as in my case, you just don’t feel the same. One hormone changes all the hormones and enzymes in an irreducibly complex manner.

Interesting that in Zen, contrary to most other traditions, practitioners are advised to locate consciousness in the belly and to live from that region. In his magisterial Zen and the Brain, author James Austin notes that “The Zen Way plumbs depths that code for our strongest convictions,” including even the sense of taste. Eventually this primitive gustatory network "coordinates with other sensory impulses arising from the viscera.... Do you take a strong ‘visceral’ dislike to some things, find some person’s actions distasteful or disgusting? The links of taste-related circuitries may be compounding over more networks than you realize.... It is not the wisps of a few abstract thoughts which make us feel delighted or disgusted. The visceral roots of longings and loathings start very deep, even though they go on later to have extensive upward ramifications.”

By now, most of us are familiar with the yogic chakra system, as debased as the concept has become in popular culture. In talking about this system, you have to bear in mind that it was worked out in a pre-scientific world, so that the writings often include a lot of frankly mythological and fanciful speculations. But just like the ancient physicians who talk about the “four humors,” the ancient “chakrologists” were careful observers who were noting something phenomenologically real, even if they didn't necessarily understand its basis.

Running our of time here.... This is like a "speed-posting" competition.... Forgive any incoherence....

One of the reasons why psychoanalysis is so profound, is that it takes seriously the idea that we live and develop in a primate body. In other words, our consciousness is thoroughly entangled with our body. Immature babies interact with their mothers in such a way as to use them as an “auxiliary cortex” for the purpose of downloading programs from her brain into theirs. Interestingly,the latest research in attachment theory demonstrates that the right brain develops considerably ahead of the left brain during our first few years of life. Furthermore, the right brain has deep connections with the emotional limbic system, so that it is fairly clear that what we call the “unconscious” is located in the right brain. And this explains why most forms of psychotherapy are so ineffective, since they deal only with surface cognitions, when what you really need to do is “interrogate” the right brain and put its nonverbal reality into words. This is the basis of “free association” in psychoanalysis, which attempts to use language to bypass language. Our deepest traumas are literally encoded in the bodymind.

The Katha Upanishad states that “Radiating from the lotus in the heart there are a hundred and one nerves. The mortal in whose heart the knots of ignorance are untied becomes immortal.” By “a hundred and one,” the Vedic seers merely mean “a whole bunch,” which turns out to be true. In his book The Biology of Transcendence, Joseph Chilton Pearce cites research indicating how the heart “maintains an intricate dialogue with our brain, body and world at large.” He notes that half or more of the cells of the heart are neural cells like those that make up the brain. Furthermore, “the same neurotransmitters that function in the brain also function in the heart ganglia.” Pearce can sometimes be a little bit beyond the cutting edge, but he even cites research suggesting that heart transplant recipients occasionally pick up traits and idiosyncrasies from their donors.

In all esoteric traditions, the brain is felt to be an instrument of the heart, and the deepest aspect of our intellect is actually located in the left side of the chest. There is a constant dialogue going on between heart and head, likely mediated through the right brain. Which means that if you are sick “in the right brain,” you are likely to be heartsick as well.

Yesterday I was particularly heartsick upon learning of the fate of that beautiful Israeli boy who was kidnapped and butchered by bloodthirsty Palestinian savages. Naturally I thought of my own beautiful son, and the inconceivable depravity of a mind that would harm a hair on his head. And yet, such people exist. They exist in the millions. Like me, they are heartsick as well, but in a rather different way. They enjoy torturing our G.I.’s, cutting off heads, blowing up women and children. One can only wonder what sorts of parasites and psychotoxins, hidden away in the right brain and extending their tentacles into their cancerous hearts, make them enjoy the murder of children, including their own.


Dan Spomer said...

I think someone mentioned this on an earlier thread, but the old Sting song "I hope the Russians love their children, too" comes to mind.

The fact that the Russians do love their children enabled our long standoff with the USSR to come to a screeching yet peaceful halt.

However, it is absolutely meaningless as a deterrent to a "society" that glorifies death; including and especially the death of their own children.

Sal said...

A happier note:
we are delighted to announce the safe arrival of Luke Palmer, June 28. 7 lbs. 13 oz. 19 1/2". Mother, dad, baby, and big sister all doing well.
His Mimi (that would be me) is back off to the hospital to sit, hold and bask.

Kahntheroad said...

Congrats Sal!

(BTW, What's a Mimi?)

Lisa said...

Congratulations Sal! What a blessing!

Thanks for expanding on my thoughts, Bob. I also came across some medical articles talking about how the enteric brain was linked to epilepsy, IBS, autism, and migraines. It seems that most incidences occur from the abdominal brain rather than the cephalic brain. It will be interesting to see if they can research harnessing the enteric nervous system and apply new medical techniques and treatments. The enteric brain contains it's own major neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, norephinephrine and nitric oxide. Imagine how cool it would be if we could consciously control the release and secretion of certain neurotransmitters. It would be like having a drug store in our stomach! Definitely food for thought.

Dan Spomer said...


All the joy in the world to you! Gotta throw in another Cactus Ed quote:

"If we had the power of ten Shakespeares or a dozen Mozarts, we could not produce anything half so marvelous as one ordinary human child."

will said...

high-five, Sal.

Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, cosmic mega dittos!

Petey said...

Give him a kiss for Uncle Petey.

Sal said...

Thanks, guys and gals!

Kahn - 'Mimi' is my grandma name.

ben usn (ret) said...

That is good news!Congratulations, Sal.

Sal said...

On ignoring studies, intimacy and the dysfunction of the "mother-hung":

Checked out Bible Gateway for various renderings of the term "bowels", as in "bowels of compassion" and the like. In the King James Version, there were a few anatomic-specific uses; but it also was an all-purpose term that other versions translate as "heart", "womb", or "loins". The 'heart' uses could just as easily be referring to this post.

The April '06 issue of "Spirituality and Health" had a long article on the heart, which contained several of the ideas here. Not sure how much is good science, but the idea that the heart puts out an electro-magnetic field up to as much as 10 feet might help to explain a few things-like getting in someone's "space" or mob behavior.

Gavin deBecker, the well-known security consultant, is adamant that we all have the intuition, or 'gut instinct' to avoid or extricate us from a lot of dangerous situations, if we don't overthink ourselves.

Brian said...


Could you post links or references to any scientific articles on this you've found? A quick search online didn't reveal more than speculative stuff. It's interesting but I'd like something more empirically grounded, if you know what I mean. Thanks. ;)


Just delurking to say I enjoy your posts very much and am slowly working through your archives. Always thought-provoking.

Lisa said...

Hi Brian,

This article is a good start on the fundamentals of neurogastroenterology. I don't think much research has been done yet, but it seems like an interesting and exciting new field.

Were you aware that if you reverse the two vowels in your name it's Brain!? ha ha ;0)

Brian said...

Hi Lisa,

Thanks for the link to the paper. You gotta love a journal called GUT ONLINE. Sincerely sister, I truly appreciate it and will file this topic in my "new and developing sciences" file.

Lisa wrote:
Were you aware that if you reverse the two vowels in your name it's Brain!? ha ha ;0)

Brian the Brain responds:
I've often been told by countless and exceedingly concerned passers-by the earth-shattering revelation that I am losing my hair too. One of these days I really must buy myself a mirror and see if they are right! ;P hehe