Experience changes you. It can be for better or for worse. You may not have had control over how an experience initially shaped your thoughts and behaviors, but if those thoughts and behaviors aren’t working in your favor any longer, you have the power to change them. I’m not just speaking in metaphor, either. Your brain is the most complex organism in the known universe, and you are in control of its incredible neurophysiological power.
How do we access that power? Through knowledge. Learn the science of how the brain and nervous system operate and you’ll suddenly have the keys to changing anything and everything about who you are and the life you live.
Your brain and body are not separate units as we were once taught in school. The brain cannot develop or survive without the information it gathers from the body through the senses. Likewise, the body cannot function without direction from the brain. One does not control the other as much as they continuously exchange information and exist in synchronicity. Everything we experience in our bodies leaves an imprint on our brains. Experiences that are unique, intense or repeated over and over are the ones that leave the deepest imprints in the form of strong neural connections or pathways.
Unique, intense or repeated over and over—this is your key to changing how your nervous system behaves. Hang on to this concept as we explore a few basic structures of a complex organization.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) has three divisions: parasympathetic, sympathetic and enteric. The parasympathetic nervous system is a more slowly activated, dampening, calm, “rest and digest” system with nerve fibers originating in the cranial region. The sympathetic is a quick response, urgent, mobilizing, “fight or flight” system with nerve fibers originating in the thoracic and lumbar regions. (Side note: with our body’s natural stress response coming from the mid to low back, is it any wonder why so many of us have chronic back pain?) The parasympathetic and sympathetic systems both have fibers in the sacral or groin region as both are needed for the process of sexual intercourse, which is simultaneously a calming and stimulating act. Finally, the enteric nervous system occupies the digestive tract. Think: gut feeling.
The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems operate as a kind of yin and yang, respectively. Elements of both are typically at work, however, one usually dominates. This is another concept you can use to your advantage. If your sympathetic or stress response takes over during an event, higher cognitive function will shut down to make operating space for more primal survival instincts. This is often called “fight or flight.” In moments when stress is high but cognitive functioning is imperative, such as in a combat situation, being able to activate your parasympathetic system is of vital importance.
The key to activating your parasympathetic nervous system or your calm, yin state is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve, also known as Cranial Nerve 10, is the longest and most complex of your cranial nerves. It has two aspects—ventral and dorsal. Vagus innervates your throat, enabling speech, and exerts parasympathetic control over your heart, lungs and digestive system. To activate this nerve, you must exercise conscious control over the things it regulates. You sing, hum or chant because the vagus nerve regulates speech. You breathe deeply because it regulates breathing. These are the practices of monks for a reason—innately, they understood the effect that chanting and deep breathing has on the body. You become calm, focused. This is ventral vagal activation.
The vagus nerve does have a downside, however. In times of extreme emotional response, the vagus nerve can go into overdrive and send such strong dampening signals to your throat, heart, lungs and digestive system that they literally shut down. You’ve heard of “fight or flight,” well, this is “freeze.” You lose your ability to speak, you can’t breathe, your cardiac output drops and blood stops flowing to your brain. You can’t make decisions. You may even piss or shit yourself. This is dorsal vagal activation.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of autonomic nervous system response, let’s go back to the way your experiences have shaped your thoughts and behaviors and how you can change that with a little bit of brain hacking.
Remember that the strongest neural pathways in your brain have been created through experiences that were unique, intense or repeated over and over. Whether you were in a sympathetic or parasympathetic state at the time of those experiences also has significance. If you were in sympathetic or “fight or flight” mode, the memories associated with that event will cause a stress response within your body. You may react viscerally, defensively or even violently. Just the memory of the experience sends you into a kind of survival mode.
In order to change this, you must consciously practice activating your vagus nerve whenever you are triggered by these memories or whenever you feel yourself become distressed. This also applies to new experiences. If you want to have control over your reactions, control your speech and your breathing. Consciously bringing yourself into parasympathetic mode will give you the space to control your thoughts as well.
Repeating this exercise over and over is precisely how you hack your brain and reshape it so that the physical and psychological effects of your negative experiences lessen over time.