At a seminar on child neural development last year, I was sitting in the audience marveling at two single neurons that had just received a rousing ovation. Bruce Perry, the developmental psychiatrist, had played us a video of a single neuron from the auditory cortex in a baby being activated at the same time as a single neuron from the visual cortex. With each activation the two individual neurons wiggled and edged closer and closer to one another. They reminded me of two mixed martial artists, warily moving about the middle of the cage. Finally, when proximity was sufficient, in one surprising dramatic burst, instead of a knockout, they instantly embraced and fused together. When they did, applause spontaneously erupted in the audience.
What we were looking at was neural integration. In the actual room where this neural drama was being played out, a mother was playing with her baby, and scientists were observing using some of the latest brain imaging technology. What Mom was actually doing was taking her index finger and placing it on her nose over and over again; at the same time she was saying, “nose” aloud. With each repetition the two neurons wiggled and moved closer. When they finally joined together, baby had learned what a “nose” was.
Technology has given us extraordinary entry into the mysterious workings of the body and brain. For many years the gold standard for brain research has been functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Scans from fMRI machines measure blood flow to the brain signified by color variations that look much like this:
New technologies however, like diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) are affording increasing ability to discriminate even finer detail, all the way down to individual neural connectivity. These new scans show up looking like this:
I Can Feel Clearly Now
There are many benefits to be had from being able to see things going on in the brain more clearly. For example, here’s a recent practical application that turns out to be an effective Dsylexia Cure. That’s a relatively straightforward intervention. As we become able to provide an early deficiency diagnosis in the “resonance circuits” – the neural highway between the limbic structures and the middle prefrontal areas – we will begin to pave the way for optimal development of the nine integrative functions that Siegel identifies in The Developing Mind. Those nine functions involve body regulation, empathy, emotional regulation, response flexibility – the ability to pause and think before acting, resonance – our capacity for empathy and attunement with others, insight or self-awareness, fear extinction, morality and intuition.
Bonnie Badenoch, writing in her new book, Being a Brain-wise Therapist has this to say about integration as it pertains to intuition:
The sometimes mysterious capacity of intuition may actually be the ability to pay attention to the messages of our viscera (i.e., stomach, intestines, heart, lungs). Our bodies’ signals are intimately involved in affective experience, and often the first awareness we have of our emotions comes from a bodily response. When we suddenly “know” something without a path of logic, it often comes directly from the body into the right hemisphere, where the integrated map of the body is assembled, and only then flows to the left hemisphere for understanding and expression in words. (p. 31)
The Thoughtful Bowel
If we could integrate the resonance circuits such that only our intuition improved, my hypothesis would be that a whole host of ancillary benefits would accrue. If we could receive, understand and trust the information obtained from the one billion strong enteric nerve cells in what gasteroenterologist Michael Gershon calls “The Thoughtful Bowel,“ I’m guessing our serotonin levels would be positively affected. Serotonin is “the happy molecule,” and over 95% of it is produced in the bowel. Optimizing serotonin production and distribution, I’m guessing would also lead to improved immune function, greater resilience, increased social and emotional intelligence, etc. Because they are raised by parents who fully understand the power of this Second Brain, “trusting your gut” will become second nature to our children. They will have learned how to befriend their bowel, and to include it in many of the difficult decisions life requires of us.
I fully expect new and current imaging technologies to enable us to learn how to help those long axons from the prefrontal cortex join up and fully embrace the enteric nerves of the bowel, similar to the way the auditory and visual neurons did above. As this happens, I think the world will become a much safer and happier place. This is, after all, the 21st century!