Education should not only teach us how to collect and analyze conceptual information, but sensitize us to the tone of our environment and help us use our energy more effectively in this complex and changing world. To put it another way, education of the human brain should not only focus on developing the higher-order processing skills of the neocortex; we must also pay attention to the subcortical structures which govern our senses, emotions, and bodily functions.
The importance of subcortical brain functioning can be understood more concretely through the example of caring for a dog. There is something about being a good dog master that reflects educated use of the human brain as a whole. Cesar Millan, star of the television show “The Dog Whisperer,” has a skill for working with troubled dogs. With brief interventions, he can redirect them away from such misbehaviors as aggression, obsessiveness, or disobedience.
According to Millan, the dog master needs to have balanced energy. Specifically, one’s energy should be “calm assertive.” If the energy is not assertive enough, then dogs do not develop respect for the master as leader. Yet the energy must also be calm, so that the dog will trust the owner. If the owner’s energy is too assertive or too calm, then the dog will sense this imbalance, and its own behavior will be unstable or inappropriate.
Whether he realizes it or not, Millan is attuned to the importance of balance in the autonomic nervous system. Calmness and assertiveness are the energies of the two main branches of our autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system plays a major role in sensory awareness, emotions, behaviors and basic organ-system functioning. Its two main branches are the sympathetic and parasympathetic, and they are managed by subcortical brain structures.
“Assertive energy” is the energy of our sympathetic nervous system. This is the energy of our “fight or flight” response, which raises the heart rate and blood pressure, releases energy stores and prepares us to handle a perceived threat.
“Calming energy” is the energy of the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the energy of our “rest and digest” response. This system regulates and fine-tunes the fight-or-flight response, promotes energy storage, receives information from internal organs, and helps us to optimize our skill for social engagement and communication. The parasympathetic division also mediates a “freeze” response, which takes over when we are in situations of overwhelming stress.
Through various types of stressful experiences — especially perceived threats or emotional isolation — we can get “stuck” with either the sympathetic or parasympathetic systems in an inappropriately dominant state.
Many researchers have concluded that imbalance between these two systems is a major contributor to human suffering, including cardiovascular disease, digestive disorders, chronic pain, immune dysfunction, psychological and neurological disorders, and other challenges. Post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, is an example of the fight-or-flight response staying on, despite one’s being in a safe environment.
How can one enhance balance in the autonomic nervous system? There are many ways, including conscious breathing with a focus on exhalation, meditative exercises, and walks in nature.
Computer-assisted brainwave training appears to be a superb way to facilitate this balance at a deep level, and research is being done to shed more light on this and other modalities.
Whether we are dog owners or not, we can all benefit from being more “calm assertive,” especially in fluid, chaotic situations, or when we are involved in a large undertaking. And humans, more so than dogs, are enmeshed in a wealth of different social networks and situations, sometimes as leaders, sometimes as followers. Even the most junior member of any group should develop their calm-assertive power — regulated by deep structures of the brain — as one never knows when they will be called on to use it.
Sung Lee, M.D., M.Sc., is research coordinator for Brain State Technologies and also provides computer-assisted brainwave training for well-being and performance enhancement in his private practice in Sedona, Arizona.
This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.