by John Starman, M.A
The Universal Tao, founded by Master Mantak Chia, is moving toward both science and spirit. We are on the cutting edge of self-development and internal growth techniques. Learning about the brain and its workings is helpful in understanding and explaining to others what is happening during the internal practices of Qigong and the alchemy of Nei Gong.
“Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind”
“The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to true religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge”
Brain function is very complicated and intricate. The Western mind wants to know how the brain works, and that is fine. Science has compiled an enormous amount of information from research. We can use this detailed information to help bring students a clearer understanding the mind/body connection to show the benefit of Taoist practice and build our case. The Truth is: Taoists and other seekers have been achieving wonderful states of health and spiritual attainment for thousands of years without knowing any brain chemistry: Teach every cell how to smile and strive for balance.
“Trust and believe. Think and let it happen.”
Master Mantak Chia
The brain is 10 billion specialized nerve cells, or neurons, which allow the brain to learn, reason, and remember. If laid end to end they would reach 25 times around the world. Each nerve cell can have up to 100,000 connections. Carl Sagan explained the possible number of nerve connections in one human brain is greater than the number of grains of sand in the Sahara.
The instantaneous interplay of simple molecules in the brain influences and drives the many-faceted states of our consciousness, perception and behavior. Through the activity of neurons, the body responds and adjusts to changes in the environment creating a “dynamic equilibrium”.
When a message is sent through a nerve, it must be passed along the length of the nerve cell and jump across the gap from one cell to another. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals released at the end of the nerve cell. They move across the gap, or synapse, and fit into special receptor sites on the other cell like a key in a lock. This delivers the message and activates the new cell to take the next action called for.
Since 1977 dozens of nerve messenger chemicals have been discovered and studied. This includes brain chemical messengers, called neuropeptides, which are poured into the bloodstream in response to emotions. Peptides are protein: chains of amino acids, like the hormones from the pituitary. These messengers match receptor sites on cells of the immune system and other cells all through the body and bring about a full body chemical response. Now that the fact the emotions affect health is clear, the science of Psychoneuro- immunology is flourishing. Scientists can even identify what emotion a person is feeling [only 5 so far] by measuring body responses. This is one more way the view of emotions as separate, objective substances goes along with the Taoist teachings.
How this neurotransmitter system works is a complicated puzzle. There can be more than one type of receptor site for each messenger. The action of the messengers can vary greatly from person to person. Each individual is different in the use of the various messengers. That’s why the clinical psychoactive drugs have such a wide range of effectiveness, depending on the person. The basis for health keeps coming back to achieving and maintaining balance.
Researchers found a chemical called BDNF: “Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor” in adult brains. Neurotrophic factors promote the growth of nerve cells and direct the proper “wiring” of nerve cells in development. In adults, it rises or falls quickly in response to stress, fear or an upbeat mood, and then sculpts the brain accordingly. BDNF works with a network which communicates using serotonin. It appears to cause pathways to be “hard-wired” into the brain in response to daily experience. Researchers believe BDNF may be the signal controlling a coordinated effort aimed at allowing networks in the thinking gray matter of the cortex to adapt to long-lasting changes in activity.[Dec. 21, 1999 Proc. of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 96, no. 26 pp.15239-15244]
This could be a mechanism for some of the benefits of Healing Tao practices, which appear to promote brain development through increasing neurotransmitter balance and brain organization. This seems to increase integration and functional symmetry among the physical brain structures, increasing awareness and expanding the personal spectrum of control.
Two deep brain structures are important in Taoist practice: the pineal and the amygdala. Descartes believed the pineal gland to be the “seat of the Soul”. It is a little smaller than the tip of the little finger, located deep within the brain at the top rear of the brain stem between the paired thalamus. The pineal has one of the highest concentrations of serotonin in the brain, even though it is not made there. The pineal responds to light. A separate nerve connects the eye to the hypothalamus and to the pineal. Light slows the production of melatonin and increases serotonin, and vice versa in the dark. The pineal also makes pinoline, similar to harmaline, the active substance in the drink Ayahuasca, used by some South American peoples to promote psychic abilities such as clairvoyance in time and space, Shamanic healing and contact with the psychic world.
The amygdala consists of two almond shaped pieces of gray matter found on the lower inside front of the cerebral hemispheres. It is a key structure in the brain’s integration of emotional meaning with perception and experience. It is important for perceiving the emotions fear and anger in others. The Amygdala is necessary for emotional memory formation. Sensory signals go directly to the amygdala in a few thousandths of a second and signals are sent out to the muscles, organs and glands. The action bypasses the cortex where thinking takes place. The conscious part happens much later in the process.
Dr. Joseph LeDoux [The Emotional Brain ] pioneered the study of emotions as a biological response. He trained rats to freeze from fright when they heard a sound. In the training phase, the sound was followed by a mild electric shock. He found a nerve pathway from the ear to the sensory thalamus and directly to the amygdala. When this pathway was cut, rats could not be conditioned to fear a sound. Here is an example of the “ear to fear” connection we find in Taoism: ear to kidney, which holds fear. There are 12 to 15 distinct regions in the Amygdala and only two [so far] handle fear. There may be ways the amygdala acts to promote well being through the use of positive emotions also. What positive emotions will scientists find in relation to the amygdala? We are in a glorious era of discovery, proving the truths of Taoist practice with Science.
John Starman, Universal Tao Instructor of Qigong & Tai Chi [email protected]