In the last post in this series, we “stick-figure” sketched the brain, identifying three regions to consider: The pre-frontal cortex, the limbic brain, and the amygdala. Also, we shook hands with “Attachment Theory,” and “Affect Regulation Theory,” while explaining the difference between right brain and the left brain functions.
In this post, I am going to build on that base, introducing mirror neurons to the discussion, and talking about how chemicals affect the brain. I will also introduce the Vagus Nerve that runs from our brain stem, through the back of our throat, our heart, our lungs, and elimination system. What I hope is that we (and by “we,” I mean the Church) will begin to understand the mind-body inter-dependence. It is a misnomer to say that our mind is our brain. It is not. Our minds are much bigger than our physical brains. Indeed, they are much larger than our nervous system. The discovery of mirror neurons has turned all of our thinking about what we knew of the mind and the soul on its head. If it hasn’t, you aren’t listening to the Spirit’s rumblings. Mirror neurons were discovered in primates in the 1980s and have been studied since then. It is only in the last ten to fifteen years however that inroads have occurred in psychological research.
Mirror neurons fire when we observe another’s person’s behavior or emotions. They reflect the other person’s experience to us as if the behavior was one’s own. They facilitate empathy and allow us to enter into the story of another. As I watch you feel or behave, I feel as if I am feeling or doing the same thing. As you feel, I feel with you. As you accomplish victory, I can feel it as if it were my victory. As you experience defeat, I feel a feeling of loss or disappointment. Now, it has to be noted that I do not feel in the same way that you feel. My memory, in concert with my mirror neurons, recognizes your feeling, determining my emotion. If I am watching you experience or act, my mirror neurons reflect your actions or experiences to my system, and I feel emotions as if I were you. Mirror neurons reside in the prefrontal cortex. When it is offline, mirror neurons are also offline, and empathy is no longer possible. This directly impacts our ability to love and move toward one another. If we are defensive, our amygdala is in control of our limbic brain we are not free to love.
Before we go any further, we have to talk about some chemicals that affect our brain and even function as a switch to give control to either the amygdala or the pre-frontal cortex. Once again, we are only scratching the surface of brain chemistry. Let me introduce you to three important chemicals that play important roles in our ability to love: Cortisol — the chemical that surrounds the amygdala determining how on edge we are; dopamine — the chemical that determines our peacefulness; and, oxytocin – the chemical that helps us feel connected to another human being. Though all of these chemicals impact the mind’s function, none of them are exclusively triggered or regulated by the brain. The Vagus Nerve plays a role in how they are produced and controlled.
The Vagus Nerve runs from the brain stem (which handles all your automatic body functions such as heart rate, body heating and cooling, hiccups and yawns, and elimination system functions) through the back of the throat through the pulmonary and cardiovascular centers and down into the intestines. It is the reason that our throats get dry, or our stomach is tied up in knots. It is the reason our heart races, we catch our breath, can’t speak, and have digestive issues. It also affects how much cortisol, dopamine, and oxytocin is created and sent to the brain to regulate or stimulate emotion.
The Vagus Nerve is not a one-directional, body-to-brain- freeway. It carries information both ways. Trauma and shame travel down the Vagus Nerve, from the brain into the body lodging there. Because of this, our bodies “remember” better than our brains. As Dr. Dan Allender says in nearly every class he teaches, “All memory is a myth.” 1 While our right, limbic brains store images, smells, sounds and feelings arising from those events, the narrative our mind holds is strictly a memory of our last thought of the event, rather than the event itself. It is our bodies that store the feelings that arise from or are inflicted directly from the experience. Because of this, our bodies hold our best memory of it, even if we cannot remember any of the narratives.
Because of this, if we hope to love people who are victims of trauma, or who are suffering from chronic shame, merely helping our clients change their thoughts will have little impact. If we are limited or focus on this modality, our attempts to love our clients well may cause harm. This is also why Evidenced Based Theories (CBT, ACT, and DBT, etc.) that are very helpful in addressing problem behaviors and addictions, as well as creating psychic space for work deeper work to be done, can retraumatize someone who is suffering from either early, chronic PTSD or chronic shame. Their thoughts are not the problem their non-verbal memory that is stored in the right limbic brain, brainstem, and the body is. To love these people well, we have to rethink how we work.
All of this has practical ramifications for loving our spouse, or our children or our neighbor or enemy. We’ll talk about that next time.
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