Part 8 – Seeking Source: Self in Motion
By Dr. Dana Leigh Lyons, DOM, AP
This is Part 8 in an Alchemist’s Notebook blog series exploring places of resonance, merger and synergy between neuroplasticity and Taoist-inspired Chinese Medicine practice.
Three focal points frame the series: Change, Relationship and Process.
For an introduction and overview, see Part 1 – Parallels & Possibilities.
For the three installments on Change, see Part 2 – On the Edge: Introducing Neuroplasticity, Part 3 – On the Path: Introducing Taoism and Part 4 – Past Meets Present: Plasticity in Practice.
For the three installments on Relationship, see Part 5 – Nature Plus Nurture: Mind in Context, Part 6 – Relationship Plus Resonance: Self in Concert and Part 7 – Practitioner Meets Patient: Achieving Influence.
Today’s post brings Change and Relationship together, as we begin exploring our final focal point: Process.
Embodied changes—the neuroplastic shifts of brain and mind—occur not only in relationship, but also in time. They emerge continuously, in motion over a lifespan.
The neuroplasticity story thus probes the nature of brain and mind—of learning, unlearning and neural patterning—within the context of process rather than place.
Through investigation of this process, it seeks the source of who we are and how we become.
Ultimately, this search for source cannot ignore the concept of consciousness, of the so-called self.
Yet it is exactly here that the neuroplasticity paradigm—for all its discoveries and evidence—comes up against an “explanatory gap” (1).
Despite increasingly detailed understandings of the “physiological mechanisms of perception,” neuroplasticians have been unable to explain “why that perception feels the way it does” or “how patterns of neuronal activity become transformed into subjective awareness” (Begley 135). This, asserts neurobiologist Robert Doty, “remains the cardinal mystery of human existence” (qtd. in Begley 135).
Keen to unravel the mystery, some neuroscientists are searching for a “physical substrate” of consciousness—seeking out “the self’s secret source, the fold of flesh that decides what to pay attention to” (2).
This elusive “neural correlate of consciousness,” or NCC, is defined as “the minimal set of neuronal events that gives rise to a specific aspect of a conscious percept” (Lehrer 185).
Neuroscientists such as Caltech’s Christof Koch contend that: “if science found the NCC, it could see exactly how the self emerges from its sensation. Our fountainhead would be revealed” (Lehrer 186).
Toward this end, he is investigating the struggle for neural dominance and organization in the brain, looking for cells that “impose a unity onto the sensory disarray” (Lehrer 186).
In Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, neurologist and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio tackles this problem from an evolutionary perspective, attributing development of human consciousness to the homeostatic and survival impulse.
Damasio posits that through the course of evolution, humans’ efforts to navigate their world became increasingly sophisticated. Eventually, responsiveness to environment precipitated “imagetic correspondence” in the brain that, in concert with memory, gave rise to self-conscious experience (3).
Mapped images, the physical stuff of neurons, represent internal body states and the outside world. According to Damasio, the result is biological creation of mind, self and consciousness.
In turn, Begley and Lehrer point to the limitations of such renderings.
They challenge the materialistic notion that all aspects of an embodied, relational self, or consciousness, can be reduced to brain biology or a neural correlate.
Lehrer underscores the diffuse centrality of relationship and repetitive process, maintaining that consciousness emerges from “recursive connectivity” distributed throughout the body-mind rather than from a particular moment or location (Lehrer 187).
He asserts that although “the NCC might describe where certain perceptual experiences take place, it will not reveal the origin of attention, or somehow solve the self, for those are emergent properties with no single source” (Lehrer 187).
Indeed, a new group of neuroscientists—the “emergentists”—also eschew biology-dominant dualism.
Rather than pursue a neural source of self, they embrace body-mind dialog and co-creation.
They propose that: “a high-order property such as the mind can affect lower-order processes that created it. What emerges has the power to act back on what it emerges from” (Begley 136).
This is not to say that consciousness or mental states are “disembodied supernatural forces independent of the brain mechanism,” but rather that, “the stuff of the brain can change in response to the whispers of the mind” (Nobel-Prize-winning neurologist Roger Sperry qtd. in Begley 136).
To some extent, these various takes on the neuroscience “explanatory gap” are complementary rather than contradictory—filling in different parts of an open-ended dialog.
Indeed, Damasio, in sketching his “imagined view of a brain caught in the state of containing a conscious mind,” acknowledges: “There are facts to support parts of this imaginarium, but it is in the nature of the ‘mind-self-body-brain problem’ that we must live for quite a while with theoretical approximations rather than complete explanations” (Damasio 16).
And yet, for neuroscientists and other practitioners, the discourse surrounding this problem is more than an intellectual exercise.
It has very real implications for deliberate cultivation of neuroplastic change.
The continuous emergence of a plastic brain and body-mind involves altering what is present and bringing what is not present into being.
This applies even to neurons—long believed incapable of regeneration.
Studies have shown that new neurons are being generated constantly in certain brain areas, discrediting the myth that “we are born with all the neurons we will ever have and that it’s all downhill from there” (Begley 72).
These new neurons are active and functional: “They migrate to structures where they weave themselves into existing brain circuitry and perhaps form the basis of new circuitry” (Begley 65).
And regardless of a person’s age, increased neurogenesis translates to improved functional performance (Begley 58).
Within the context of the neuroplasticity paradigm, researchers are investigating ways to boost neurogenesis and influence brain maps and the process of neural development generally.
They have identified key supports to optimize the brain’s capacity to regenerate, rewire itself and change body-mind patterns.
These include: paying close attention, embracing novelty, engaging in physical exercise and existing within an enriched environment (4).
These supports form the basis of diverse therapeutic modalities with neuroplastic effects, and a number of research-based programs are leveraging new discoveries to enhance, reconfigure or rehabilitate child and adult brains.
Scientific Learning, for example, couples neuroscience expertise with innovative technologies in its Fast ForWord program, providing neuroplasticity-based treatment for learning disorders. And Posit Science develops, tests and implements brain-training programs targeting auditory, visual and cognitive processing.
Meanwhile, the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Clinic in Toronto developed a program based on evidence that guided-mindfulness therapy can “systematically change faulty brain chemistry in a well-identified brain circuit,” as patients learn to make “self-directed brain changes” through “wilful, mindful effort” (Begley 141, 147).
Scientists and developers at these and other institutions are demonstrating that the “trained mind or brain is physically different from the untrained one,” and these physical changes can precipitate dramatic shifts in mental-emotional patterns and functioning (neuroscientist Richard Davidson qtd. in Begley 241).
One study using brain imaging to measure effects of mindfulness meditation, for example, found that subjects who meditated for 30 minutes a day for eight weeks showed significant changes in grey-matter density (5). While grey matter increased in the hippocampus, a brain area associated with learning and memory, it decreased in the amygdala, an area associated with stress and anxiety.
And another study found that seniors who took brisk walks at least three times a week increased the size of their hippocampus and scored better on memory tests, indicating that regular moderate exercise can delay and even reverse loss of brain volume and memory (6).
Notably, such studies and the aforementioned programs all recognize that brain-based therapy—like the emergence of body-mind—is a process.
Change, guided through evidence-based and clinically tested techniques, unfolds along a continuum with consistent, repetitive effort.
Our next installment will bring Taoism into this discussion, exploring de (德) and zi ran (自然) as qualities that support this process of unfolding.
1. Sharon Begley, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves (Ballantine Books, 2007), 135. Citations of Begley here are from this work.
2. Jonah Lehrer, Proust Was a Neuroscientist (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 185. In Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Lehrer explores how 19th- and 20th-century artists and visionaries intuited truths about the mind that were subsequently “discovered” by neuroscientists. 185. Citations of Lehrer here are from this work.
3. Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (Pantheon, 2010), 317. Citations of Damasio here are from this work.
4. Begley, 156; Joe Dispenza, Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind (Health Communications, 2007), 405; Rick Hanson, with Richard Mendius, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happinesss, Love & Wisdom (New Harbinger Publications, 2009), 177; Daniel J. Siegel, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation (Bantam Books, 2010), 84.
5. Hölzel, et al., “Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density,” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 191.1 (2011), 36-43.
6. Erickson, et al., “Exercise Training Increases Size of Hippocampus and Improves Memory,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108.7 (2011), 3017-3022.