Sunday, May 20, 2012

mBraining - Balancing your ANS

As you know... Over the last decade, the field of Neuroscience has discovered we have complex and functional brains in both our heart and gut. Called the cardiac and enteric brains respectively, scientific evidence is emerging that these neural networks exhibit intelligence and wisdom. In my book with co-author Marvin Oka, 'mBraining', I've described how to communicate with and harness this intuitive intelligence of your multiple brains, and in the post below, I'll share one of the ways you can begin to control what mode your brains are operating in.

The role of your Autonomic Nervous System

In order to do effective mBraining -- to work powerfully with your multiple brains (head, heart and gut brains) -- it helps to understand the role of your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and how it affects the quality of the way your brains function.

For example, your heart brain may be attempting to fulfill its prime functions in a particular situation by emotionally expressing either sadness or joy. These are two very different expressions that are based on the same prime function. What accounts for the difference? And what can we do to shift from a debilitating expression to a more empowering one? To answer these questions, we need to look to your ANS.

Your nervous system has two major divisions, the voluntary and the autonomic. The Voluntary System is mainly concerned with movement and sensation. The Autonomic Nervous System on the other hand is responsible for control of involuntary and visceral bodily functions. The functions it controls include:

•    Cardiovascular
•    Respiratory
•    Digestive
•    Urinary
•    Reproductive functions
•    The body’s response to stress

It’s called ‘autonomic’ because it is operates largely automatically and outside of conscious control. It’s divided into two separate branches — the sympathetic and parasympathetic. These two branches work in a delicately tuned, reciprocal and (usually) opposing fashion.

The sympathetic system can be considered to be the ‘fight or flight’ system. It allows the body to function under stress and danger. The parasympathetic system is considered to be the ‘feeding and fornicating’ or 'rest and digest' arm. It controls the vegetative functions of feeding, breeding, rest and repose. The parasympathetic system also provides constant opposition to the sympathetic system to bring your total system into balance or homeostasis.

In times of danger or stress, the sympathetic system, which has a very fast onset and response, kicks in and gets you moving to handle or resolve the situation. The slower acting parasympathetic system begins to operate after the danger has passed, and brings you back to a normal state. Without the opposing function of the parasympathetic system your body would stay amped up, burning energy and fuel and eventually exhaust itself.

[BTW: an easy way to remember which of the two systems is which, is to remember that ‘para’ means beside or beyond, and therefore the parasympathetic system works beside or beyond the sympathetic to bring it back to alignment. So just remember, sympathetic does fight/flight and the parasympathetic kicks in beyond the stress to bring you back to normal.]

Why is this important?

The reason you want to know about the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems is because they innervate the heart, gut and head. There are major connections between the head brain hemispheres, the cardiac brain, the enteric brain and these sympathetic and parasympathetic arms of the ANS. And as the two ANS components work in opposing ways, the dominance of one or the other leads to very different modes of processing throughout our multiple brains.

In the gut, parasympathetic activity enhances intestinal peristaltic movement promoting nourishment during quiescence, whereas sympathetic activity inhibits such activity during times when physical exertion requires catabolic (energy) mobilization. Parasympathetic activity generally slows the heart, whereas sympathetic activity accelerates it.

You’ll notice here that a powerful functional principle of opponent processing is operating for autonomic control across your total system. Your brains can function in ways that are sympathetic dominant, parasympathetic dominant, or some combination of the two, but that each of these systems typically opposes the other.

So what?

The really interesting thing about these sympathetic and parasympathetic activation processes is that while they normally operate in opposition to each other, they don’t always have to. In certain circumstances they can operate in patterns where one, the other or both are dominant in chronic patterns. What you’ll also see shortly is that when your brains are operating in sympathetic or parasympathetic dominance, they have access to differing psychological qualities and core competencies.

Physiological coherence – balance between the systems

The diagram above summarizes the four modes that your system can operate in. In the top mode, when your two systems are in balance and harmony, when you are in a powerful state known as physiological coherence (more on this coming up in a future blog post), you are able to respond optimally to the world. This mode is connected with feelings of joy, happiness, peace and relaxation.

Sympathetic dominance

In the next mode, your sympathetic system is dominant. This is the stress and danger response and in this mode you have access to competencies that typically serve you to respond via fight and flight processes such as anger, aggression, defensiveness and avoidance. It can be linked to lifestyle patterns of stress, such as taking on too much work, or worrying excessively about things you can’t control.

Parasympathetic dominance

In the third mode, your parasympathetic system is dominant. As we’ve seen above, this is the mode that quietens and settles your neurophysiology. It’s normally designed to bring you back to homeostasis after a sympathetic dominant experience. However, in certain circumstances parasympathetic dominance can be chronically activated and lead to withdrawal, depression, despair and down regulation of all your vital functions. People in this state have essentially given up and are living with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Poor diet, toxic metals and chemicals in our food, water and air can lead to issues of parasympathetic dominance.

Parasympathetic over-dominance can also activate in acute stress situations as an overreaction to an intense sympathetic response, and lead to what is called parasympathetic rebound. This leads to the ‘freeze’ response and in really extreme cases can cause the heart to stop completely and result in death. This is what causes people to literally die of fright, fear and shock.

Mixed dominance

In some cases, a person can have both sympathetic and parasympathetic systems operating in high states of activation. When these are in relative balance, the snapshot that the person presents is somewhat similar to the first mode described above. However, with this mixed dominance mode, the system is in what’s called a ‘meta-stable state’ and can flip rapidly from one state to the other. The two systems are in effect maxed out and fighting one another. So the dominance can rapidly oscillate from one extreme to the other. Some researchers suggest this mode may be associated with bipolar disorder and involve rapid changes from a manic phase to deep depression. Certainly this mode is not a healthy one and is representative of diminished control in the system.

|| Cool Fact: The sympathetic and parasympathetic dominance of your ANS controls the operating modes of your three brains and influences the core competencies they evince.

So the mode in which your brains function is determined by the state of your ANS. For example, neuroscience research over the last decade has shown that the head brain's processing mode is influenced by sympathetic and parasympathetic dominance so that the left hemisphere is dominant when the nervous system is under parasympathetic control, and the right hemisphere is dominant when the sympathetic arm is in ascendance. And the two hemispheres, left and right, have very different ways of processing, thinking and responding to the world. When you shift dominance from one to the other you shift into a very different state of mind. Equally, the heart and gut brains respond and process very differently depending on ANS mode.

What you can learn from this

What you need to know is that Autonomic Mode is the controller of your state of being and the controller of the competencies and functions you are able to express. And the most generative and life enhancing mode is when the two arms of the ANS are in balance. There are simple and powerful techniques for bringing your ANS into balance, and that's what you'll learn in my new book 'mBraining - Using your multiple brains to do cool stuff'. So if you haven't already, pop over to the CreateSpace eStore (or Amazon for the ebook version) and grab a copy.

with life enhancing appreciation,


  1. Grant, I appreciate your device for remembering which of the two ANS branches is which; I've always had trouble with that! Your way of leading readers step-by-step through the process makes mBraining seem perfectly doable.

  2. Insightful and easy to understand as always. Thanks for making such a clear case for getting the balance right Grant.

  3. I just came across this last year at a conference. Thank you for your work Dr. Soosalu!


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