I’ve recently begun taking an online course in neuroscience. The brain. Wow. It’s mind-boggling. One of the questions neuroscience is increasingly grappling with is this: what is the “mind”? And how does the mind differ from the brain? When Lucy was around nine or ten years old, she used to freak out over the concept of infinity, the idea that there’s no final number. You can just keep counting forever. She couldn’t sleep one night because she got thinking about infinity and it made her feel so small. I feel a bit this way when pondering the relationship between brain, mind, and spirit. If it all just comes down to the brain, to hardware and wiring, I have to admit, I feel diminished. I am a big believer in the spirit, or the very least, in the “group mind” that I’ve so often experienced as spiritual connective tissue. When someone says what I was thinking at that exact moment; or when a notion (let’s say “mindfulness,” for the purposes of this post) goes “viral”; wherever unexpected like-mindedness emerges: these synchonicities have always resonated deeply in my soul. I blanch at the thought they might be reduced to chemistry.
Dr. Sarah McKay is the Australian neuroscientist who conceived the course, which she frames as a primer in neuroscience for non-scientists, particularly for those of us who work in wellness-related fields and want to understand cutting edge brain science in working with our clients. She’s a terrific teacher. She has beautifully organized the material in a way that respects our intelligence while recognizing that many of us couldn’t tell a cerebellum from a cerebrum from a rutabaga before we signed up.
Here’s something we learned on day one: Make a fist with your fingers tucked over your thumb. Turn the fist so you are looking at the thumb side. Et voilà: brain schematic! Your wrist is your brain stem, your thumb is your limbic system (which supports, among other things, emotions, behavior and motivation), and the rest of your hand comprises the cortex. Your fingers make up your pre-frontal cortex, which moderates decision making and controls social behavior. Now “flip your lid” – quickly straighten out your folded fingers, exposing your thumb. Look who’s in control now? The pre-frontal cortex has left the building, and the limbic system is running the show. I love that. This is brain science I can USE.
Our first assignment was to join the class FB group and introduce ourselves with a few words about why we are taking the course. Here’s what I wrote: 1. I love to learn. 2. I’m fascinated by what I’ll call whole-life-ecosystem wellness: body, mind, spirit, work, family, community, environment, and 3. I’ve recently been mulling whether I should start a life-balancing/spiritual direction coaching practice, and I believe grounding in brain science will be extremely useful. Say the word “spiritual” and some people think “woo-woo!”: scéance time! Or it conjures science-denying-religious-zealot-ideologues with a crazed gleam in their eyes and a hand on the tiller of the US congress. I’m particularly fascinated by learning about the brain as it relates to our existential/spiritual leanings, and also our creative imaginations.
The other students are from all over the world, nurses, teachers, healthcare practitioners, executives. There’s another Nia teacher, Ulrika Bergstrom from Stockholm (hi, Ulrika, if you’re reading! So nice to meet you.) I’m excited to participate in this new virtual community of learners. I guess it doesn’t really matter whether it all comes down to synapses and chemistry, or a web of spirit. It’s all cool.