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Emotions and Total Brain Development

by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD

Everyone sees the unseen in proportion to the clarity of his heart, and that depends upon how much he has polished it.
Whoever has polished it more sees more
more unseen forms become manifest to him.―Rumi

Modern science considers the heart to be a collection of muscle tissues that acts as a vital pump for the body. But in our everyday lives, the heart is understood to encompass all that the intellect misses, beyond our normal sensory perception.  “The best and most beautiful things in the world,” said Helen Keller, “cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”

We speak about the “heart of the matter,” meaning the most important essence of a subject. Sometimes we give the advice, “Follow your heart,” and other times we refer to a change of mind or mood as a “change of heart,”. If someone reveals that their heart is “broken,” we understand that they are deeply suffering.

Two thousand years ago Aristotle taught that the heart was the center of emotion and intelligence, while the brain was for cooling heated blood from the heart. In many great cultural and religious traditions, the heart represents the inner self.

The Self is hidden in the lotus of the heart.―Chandogya Upanishad

According to modern science, the brain controls our emotional behavior it is the brain which controls emotions. In 1937, neuroanatomist James W. Papez described an interconnecting neural circuit consisting of a number of structures in the brain which he believed to be involved in emotions. A decade later, Paul MacLean identified additional areas that are important for emotions and called this collection of structures the limbic system.  The name limbic system—limbic means “border”— was applied because of its ring-like formation bordering the center of the brain.

The limbic system is typically referred to as the “visceral” or “emotional brain,” since it is concerned with emotional and behavioral expression.  This system receives a wide variety of sensory inputs and either directs or influences most of the hormonal and neural outputs of the brain to the internal organs of the body, as well as modulating many behavioral responses.  As we have mentioned, impulsive behavior is kept in check by higher areas in the cerebral cortex, particularly the prefrontal cortex.  These areas in the prefrontal cortex serve as the ultimate level of control, enabling reason to manage impulsive emotional behavior.

Our physiology is designed in such a way so that our emotions have their own separate neural circuits. When a situation calls for immediate action in order for us to survive with no time to think or plan, our limbic system takes charge.  But even when circumstances are not so dire, it is important to understand that emotions are the driving force around which all of our mental processes are organized. Emotions underlie our motivations and goals. They are not a subset of our mind, they are basic to our mind. The brain has many ways of expressing and modulating emotions, whether by secreting hormones into our bloodstream, releasing a specific brain chemical, or activating a specific emotional circuit.  Pleasure and pain can arise from the activity of a few tiny cells.

We have explained that we can  “rewire” our brain by having new and different experiences, so that the neural circuits that support our damaging habits are no longer dominant. Since there is constant neural competition between pathways, strengthening new pathways has the benefit of weakening our more deeply entrenched pathways of negative habits and behavior.

In the popular book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, he explains that habits run our lives that each habit involves three basic elements: cues, routines, and rewards. The cues are the triggers or emotional buttons that cause us to perform a specific action, which may not be beneficial to our lives, like smoking or over eating. A destructive activity or routine rewards us with relief and a highly ephemeral feeling of fulfillment, like feeling better after eating some chocolate. These cues and and rewards are very difficult, if not impossible to change. What we can change, however, is our routine. Changing habits involves the replacement of an old routine which might not have been positive, with a new routine that is more supportive.

At the beginning of this book, the author gives an example of a woman called Lisa, who reaches a very low point in her life. Her husband has just left her for another woman and Lisa has spent the last four months crying, overeating, and feeling helpless, ashamed, and angry. Impulsively, she takes a trip to Egypt and when she is there, at a very emotionally depressed moment, when she is so disoriented that light up a pen instead of a cigarette, she decides that she has to change at least one thing in her life. She has a crazy idea, she wants to come back to Egypt at a later time, and trek through the desert.  She reasons that in order for her to be able to do this she will have to give up smoking.  By focusing on changing one habit, sometimes called a “keystone habit,” Lisa began a process of change that eventually lead her to replace a negative habit, smoking, with a positive habit, jogging. This one step allowed her to start to change every other aspect of her life. Eventually she ran a marathon, went back to school, bought a house, and got engaged.

When she was later included in a scientific study of habit change, and brain measurements were made and changes found, which the scientists felt indicated that her brain was being rewired.  They suggested that the urges of the emotional brain, which had lead her to an unhappy and unhealth life, were being altered by new activity in the frontal parts of her brain.

This is very similar to what we see in the research on the TM technique. We could think of starting TM as starting a new keystone or super habit, which results in many other improvements. Brain activity in the frontal areas change as a result of starting the TM technique. And the start of the TM practice can result in changes in a number of habits, even very difficult ones such as drug addiction. Studies show that TM increases happiness, self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-actualization, improving a wide range of psychological conditions from depression to addiction.

In a meta analysis of 146 studies on the effects of various different relaxation techniques on anxiety. The results showed that the TM technique was markedly more effective in reducing anxiety as compared to biofeedback, progressive relaxation, and other forms of meditation. In another study depressive symptoms decreased by almost 50% over a 12-month period in those practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique as compared to controls.

The development of our emotions requires changes on the physical level—changes in neural circuits, and in the levels of hormones and neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. Through our practice of meditation we create these changes, gradually releasing stresses and rebalancing our brain physiology, which enables us to replace negative habits with positive habits. The heart uses the mind to transcend to quieter and deeper levels of the thinking process, while the mind uses the heart to be drawn inward by increasing levels of happiness as we come closer to the state of pure consciousness.

In the Vedic tradition, especially Ayurveda, there is a description of a biochemical, Ojas, which is produced which help improve the health of the individual as well as their emotional state. Ojas is also equated with another substance that is mentioned in the Vedas called Soma. According to lectures given by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation program, both these substances are produced when both the nervous system and digestive system are free from stress, and they are the basis for experiences in higher states of consciousness. This is particularly interesting in the light of recent research on the gut microbiome which show that there exists in the body a gut/brain axis which connects many parts of the body and which has a major impact on emotions. The modern identification of Ojas could be extremely valuable for our ability to assess the development of emotions and total brain development.

Selected References

  1. The Neurophysiology of Enlightenment: How the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi Program Transform the Functioning of the Human Body by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD, Dharma Publications, 2016
  1. The Coherence Effect: Tapping into the Laws of Nature that Govern Health, Happiness, and Higher Brain Functioning by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD, Jay B. Marcus, and Chris S. Clark, MD, Armin Lear Press, 2020
  2. The Supreme Awakening: Experiences of Enlightenment Throughout Time – And How You Can Cultivate Them by Craig Pearson, MIU Press, 2013
  3. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, Random House, 2012
  4. Mapping the Mind by Rita Carter University of California Press, 1995