Body Intelligence

Our New Deck of Cards is here: Impeccable! The Integrity Deck

We have a beautiful new deck of cards for sale created by Katie and Leadership and Transformation Program Graduate Kirsten Jones.  The deck is called Impeccable! The Integrity Deck, and each card in it  communicates an effective way to shift into embodied alignment with ourselves again when we drift off-course.  Use the deck by yourself, in partnership, or in community to assist in solving problems, opening to more creativity and manifestation, and contributing with more effectiveness. Easily discover and develop your own easy action steps as you practice and play with these wise, light-hearted and beautiful cards.  To learn more and to order click here.

Rhythm of Breathing Affects Memory and Fear

Source: Northwestern University.

Breathing is not just for oxygen; it’s now linked to brain function and behavior.

Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered for the first time that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that enhances emotional judgments and memory recall.

These effects on behavior depend critically on whether you inhale or exhale and whether you breathe through the nose or mouth.

In the study, individuals were able to identify a fearful face more quickly if they encountered the face when breathing in compared to breathing out. Individuals also were more likely to remember an object if they encountered it on the inhaled breath than the exhaled one. The effect disappeared if breathing was through the mouth.

“One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation,” said lead author Christina Zelano, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”

The study was published Dec. 6 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The senior author is Jay Gottfried, professor of neurology at Feinberg.

Northwestern scientists first discovered these differences in brain activity while studying seven patients with epilepsy who were scheduled for brain surgery. A week prior to surgery, a surgeon implanted electrodes into the patients’ brains in order to identify the origin of their seizures. This allowed scientists to acquire electro-physiological data directly from their brains. The recorded electrical signals showed brain activity fluctuated with breathing. The activity occurs in brain areas where emotions, memory and smells are processed.

This discovery led scientists to ask whether cognitive functions typically associated with these brain areas — in particular fear processing and memory — could also be affected by breathing.

Image shows the location of the amygdala in the brain.

The amygdala is strongly linked to emotional processing, in particular fear-related emotions. So scientists asked about 60 subjects to make rapid decisions on emotional expressions in the lab environment while recording their breathing. Presented with pictures of faces showing expressions of either fear or surprise, the subjects had to indicate, as quickly as they could, which emotion each face was expressing. image is for illustrtive purposes only.

The amygdala is strongly linked to emotional processing, in particular fear-related emotions. So scientists asked about 60 subjects to make rapid decisions on emotional expressions in the lab environment while recording their breathing. Presented with pictures of faces showing expressions of either fear or surprise, the subjects had to indicate, as quickly as they could, which emotion each face was expressing.

When faces were encountered during inhalation, subjects recognized them as fearful more quickly than when faces were encountered during exhalation. This was not true for faces expressing surprise. These effects diminished when subjects performed the same task while breathing through their mouths. Thus the effect was specific to fearful stimuli during nasal breathing only.

In an experiment aimed at assessing memory function — tied to the hippocampus — the same subjects were shown pictures of objects on a computer screen and told to remember them. Later, they were asked to recall those objects. Researchers found that recall was better if the images were encountered during inhalation.

The findings imply that rapid breathing may confer an advantage when someone is in a dangerous situation, Zelano said.

“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” Zelano said. “As a result you’ll spend proportionally more time inhaling than when in a calm state. Thus, our body’s innate response to fear with faster breathing could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment.”

Another potential insight of the research is on the basic mechanisms of meditation or focused breathing. “When you inhale, you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network,” Zelano noted.


Other Northwestern authors include Heidi Jiang, Guangyu Zhou, Nikita Arora, Dr. Stephan Schuele and Dr. Joshua Rosenow.

Funding: The study was supported by grants R00DC012803, R21DC012014 and R01DC013243 from the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health.

Source: Marla Paul – Northwestern University
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Video Source: The video is credited to NorthwesternU.
Original Research: Abstract for “Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function” by Christina Zelano, Heidi Jiang, Guangyu Zhou, Nikita Arora, Stephan Schuele, Joshua Rosenow and Jay A. Gottfried in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online December 7 2016 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2586-16.2016

Northwestern University. “Rhythm of Breathing Affects Memory and Fear.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 6 December 2016.

Scientists Have Found a Way to Help You Learn New Skills Twice as Fast

By Fiona MacDonald for

The key to learning a new motor skill – such as playing the piano or mastering a new sport – isn’t necessarily how many hours you spend practising, but the way you practise, according to new research. Scientists have found that by subtly varying your training, you can keep your brain more active throughout the learning process, and halve the time it takes to get up to scratch.

The research goes somewhat against the old assumption that simply repeating a motor skill over and over again – for example, practising scales on the piano or playing the same level on your game over and over again – was the best way to master it. Instead, it turns out there might be a quicker (and more enjoyable) way to level up.

“What we found is if you practise a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practising the exact same thing multiple times in a row,” said lead researcher Pablo Celnik, from Johns Hopkins University.

The researchers figured this out by getting 86 volunteers to learn to a new skill – moving a cursor on a computer screen by squeezing a small device, instead of using a mouse.

The volunteers were split into three groups, and each spent 45 minutes practising this. Six hours later, one of the groups was asked to repeat the same training exercise again, while another group performed a slightly different version that required different squeezing force to move the cursor.

The third group only completed the first training session, so they could act as a control.

At the end of the training period, everyone was tested on how accurately and quickly they could perform the new skill, and predictably, the control group did the worst after their one training session. But the surprise was that the group that had repeated the original training session actually did worse on the test compared to those who had mixed things up and trained in new areas – in fact, the group that modified their training did twice as well as those who’d repeated the original skill.

So how does that work? The researchers believe it’s due to something called reconsolidation, which is a process whereby existing memories are recalled and modified with new knowledge. It’s long been suggested that reconsolidation could help to strengthen motor skills, but this is one of the first experiments to test that hypothesis.

This is also why the researchers gave the participants a 6-hour gap between training session – earlier neurological research has shown that’s how long it takes for our memories to reconsolidate.

“Our results are important because little was known before about how reconsolidation works in relation to motor skill development. This shows how simple manipulations during training can lead to more rapid and larger motor skill gains because of reconsolidation,” said Celnik. “The goal is to develop novel behavioural interventions and training schedules that give people more improvement for the same amount of practise time.”

Although there’s benefit in mixing things up with your practise, Celnik said the key was adjusting things subtly – for example, adjusting the size or weight of a baseball bat, tennis racket or soccer ball in between practise sessions.

“If you make the altered task too different, people do not get the gain we observed during reconsolidation. The modification between sessions needs to be subtle,” he added.

Although these results are pretty exciting, this study has only tested one particular skill-set, and so further research needs to be done to confirm the findings. But if true, finding an easy way to double the rate at which people can learn new motor skills would be a huge deal.

In addition to helping us all tick off our 2016 resolutions in half the time – hello, finally mastering Debussy’s Clair de Lune – there are more altruistic impacts of the research. The research has “strong implications for rehabilitation”, the authors write in Current Biology. For example, the new information could help amputees learn to use their prostheses faster, or speed up the recover of people who’ve suffered from spinal injuries or stroke.

We’re pretty keen to try it out.

Read full article at

The Psychophysiology of Flow and Your Vagus Nerve from Psychology Today

This Psychology Today blog post is phase eight of a nine-part series called “The Vagus Nerve Survival Guide” which is designed to help you stay even-keeled in a topsy-turvy world. Each of the nine vagal maneuvers I’ve curated for this series can help you hack into the power of your vagus nerve in ways that will reduce stress, anxiety, anger, egocentric bias, and inflammation by activating the “relaxation response” of your parasympathetic nervous system. A variety of “self-distancing” techniques have also been found to reduce egocentrism and improve vagal tone (VT) as indexed by heart rate variability (HRV).

Interestingly, the latest empirical evidence suggests that there is a correlation between parasympathetic engagement of the vagus nerve and creating a “flow state.” Flow is a blissful and rewarding state of consciousness that feels good and occurs when a person “loses” him or herself wholeheartedly in an activity. Most simply put, flow tends to occur when you find the sweet spot where your skill level perfectly matches the challenge while doing any type of activity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” in his seminal book, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play (1975).

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow channel
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

From a psychophysiological perspective, flow is a state of “relaxed but heightened arousal” marked by a situationally perfect “yin-yang” balance within the two branches of your autonomic nervous system (ANS). This dynamic duo includes the “fight-or-flight” mechanism of your sympathetic nervous system and the “tend-and-befriend” or “rest-and-digest” mechanisms of the parasympathetic nervous system.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “Superfluidity and the Transcendent Ecstasy of Extreme Sports,” which explored the parallels between heightened experiences of flow during endurance sports and moments of secular and religious ecstasy explored by Marghanita Laski in the 1960s. This blog post was inspired by a May 2017 study, “Evoking the Ineffable: The Phenomenology of Extreme Sports,” that was published in Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice.

From the perspective of this vagus nerve series, a recurring theme has been the link between parasympathetic activity being part of a feedback loop that is often rooted in a smaller sense of self and reduced egocentric bias. According to the latest research on the phenomenology of extreme sports, a spiritual type of “overview effect” (when astronauts witness Earth from space and realize the oneness of humankind) occurs during sports when someone is in the flow channel and experiences such intense awe that it triggers a spiritual feeling of life-altering ecstasy. Notably, the word ecstasy comes from Greek and means “to stand outside oneself.”

High Positive Valence + High Arousal = Core Flow State + Ecstasy

Photo by Christopher Bergland
According to Peter Lang, creating high positive valence and high arousal is linked to “ecstasy.” Conversely, low arousal and negative valence is associated with depression.
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

The research of Peter Lang, who is director of NIMH Center for the Study of Emotion and Attention (CSEA) focuses on the link between the brain, behavior, psychophysiology and emotions. Personally, as an athlete and coach, his research findings have been fundamental in helping me to cognitively understand why creating high positive valence and high arousal is key to tapping into a flow channel and “being in the zone” both on and off the court in ways that I can share with others.

In 1995, Lang published a landmark study, “The Emotion Probe: Studies of Motivation and Attention.” For this research, Lang used an emotionally based picture library to monitor various degrees of valence (agreeable/pleasant or aversive/unpleasant) and emotional arousal.

Lang’s findings provide some empirical evidence which suggests that just about any stimuli that evokes positive valence and arousal (such as appreciating natural wonders, the arts, music, dance, etc.) can create a drug-free type of “ecstasy” that isn’t dependent on mastering a particular skill or becoming a Jedi Master of something.

What images or paintings evoke both high valence and high arousal for you in ways that could “take you away” and allow you to “stand outside yourself” for a moment? For me, just about every single painting by Caspar David Friedrich puts my emotions and consciousness in the upper right-hand corner of the “ecstasy” quadrant within Lang’s “affective space” graphic above.

Caspar David Friedrich/Public Domain
“Landscape in the Riesengebirge” by Caspar David Friedrich. circa 1810
Source: Caspar David Friedrich/Public Domain

The Romantic-era painter, David Caspar Friedrich (1774-1840) was known for his deep, philosophical connection to the sense of wonder and awe that he experienced in nature. Friedrich found spiritual significance in the wilderness and was said to have religious “conversion experiences” during his excursions to the mountains and coastline.

As an artist, Friedrich was able to transfer the sense of awe he experienced in nature onto the canvas so that anyone (like us right now) viewing his paintings can still experience these positive emotions on a visceral level over a hundred years later. Whenever I look at the painting above, I’m reminded of William James’ writings on The Varieties of Religious Experiences. James wrote:

“Religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge; only this time it comes over us at the thought of our supernatural relations; and similarly of all the various sentiments which may be called into play.”

I actually have a cheap (but beautiful) reproduction of the Landscape in the Riesengebirge hanging on my bedroom wall. Looking at this painting always fills me with a perfect blend of optimistic tranquility combined with a comforting sense of my own “small self” in the grander scheme of things. The vibe of this painting never fails to take the pressure off and calm me down while lifting my spirits at the same time. Based on extensive research, I have a hunch this unique blend of varying positive emotions is most likely tied to the psychophysiology of my autonomic nervous system and vagus nerve.

In 2015, Paul Piff and colleagues from the University of California, Irvine reported that experiencing a sense of awe promotes altruism, loving-kindness, and magnanimous behavior. The study, “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior,” was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Piff and colleagues described awe as “that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.” They point out that people commonly experience awe in nature, but also feel a sense of awe in response to religion, art, music, etc.

For this study, Piff et al. conducted various experiments to hone in on and examine various aspects of awe. Some of the experiments measured how predisposed someone was to experiencing awe. Others were designed to elicit awe, a neutral state, or awe-aversive reaction. In the final and most pivotal experiment, the researchers induced awe by placing individual study participants in a forest filled with towering eucalyptus trees. In a statement to the University of California, Piff described his research on awe saying:

Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others.

When experiencing awe, you may not, egocentrically speaking, feel like you’re at the center of the world anymore. By shifting attention toward larger entities and diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, we reasoned that awe would trigger tendencies to engage in prosocial behaviors that may be costly for you but that benefit and help others.”

I write extensively about the psychophysiology of awe as linked to the parasympathetic nervous system in phase six in this vagus nerve series. The main takeaway of that Psychology Today blog post, “Awe Engages Your Vagus Nerve and Can Combat Narcissism,” is that jaw-dropping moments of awe seem to create a type of “wow!” that stops you dead in your tracks. The hypothesis of some researchers is that the finely-tuned homeostatic balance within your ANS elicited by awe creates self-distancing and reduces egocentrism in ways that allow someone to soak up all the details of important and often complex information from the surrounding environment in a memorable way.

Michelle “Lani” Shiota is founding director of the SPLAT (Shiota Psychophysiology Laboratory for Affective Testing) at Arizona State University. She’s also a trailblazing pioneer in the study of the psychophysiology of awe. Her 2007 study, “The Nature of Awe: Elicitors, Appraisals, and Effects on Self-Concept,” laid the groundwork for the past decade of scientific research on awe.

In my aforementioned Psychology Today post on awe, I discuss a lot of the science involved in the clinical research about awe. In this post on flow, I wanted to revisit the lecture Shiota gave on “Awe and the Mind and Body” again because in the first part of this lecture she wears her “scientist hat”… But in the second part of the lecture (where the video below is cued to begin), Shiota puts on what she refers to as her “artist” hat and discusses how awe manifests itself while listening to music or experiencing other types of creative expression associated with flow. Please take a few minutes to watch this section of Lani Shiota’s lecture in this YouTube clip:

During this lecture, Shiota hypothesizes that when the parasympathetic nervous system creates a relaxed but semi-exuberant state of homeostasis that it’s easier for someone to let his or her guard down while simultaneously being more receptive to nuanced complexities of an “awe-inducing” experience such as flow.

My goal with this nine-part vagus nerve series is to pinpoint the role that the parasympathetic vagal system plays in universal human experiences that are rooted in our common, everyday psychophysiology. And to create actionable advice for people from all walks of life so that anyone can hack into his or her ANS by using a variety of easy vagal maneuvers that fit someone’s lifestyle.

As a first-person example, going to dance clubs has always been a welcomed opportunity for my brain to stop thinking about my day-to-day life and get some exercise while bonding with friends and total strangers in a festive environment expressly designed to have fun.

As an educated guess, I suspect that the Travolta-esque “vagal maneuver” of going out “disco dancing” triggers many of the same parasympathetic responses I’ve been exploring throughout this vagus nerve series. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of clinical research or empirical evidence on this topic. So, I decided to share some purposely unacademic and kind of quirky anecdotal findings based on going out dancing this past weekend. I had a blast. And the experience gave my vagus nerve exactly the type of stimulation it needed at this point in time.

For some narrative background: Since 1988, I’ve spent countless nights boogieing in the exact same spot on the dance floor directly in front of David LaSalle’s DJ booth at the Atlantic House in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Every Labor Day weekend for the past 30 years, David has given me a compilation of the “greatest hits” and A-house anthems of the previous summer. In early June, my friends and I are always eager to identify what the “song of the summer” is going to be. And we take bets.

A few days ago, on Saturday night of Memorial Day Weekend 2017, the A-House was packed with people celebrating the beginning of summer. I was crammed onto the dance floor like a sardine and loving every minute of it. Near the end of the evening, DJ LaSalle (who is also a reporter for Billboard) said that he’d just gotten the promo for the new Carly Rae Jepsen song “Cut To the Feeling” and told me he thought it was a contender to become the song of the summer.

What transpired over the next seven or eight minutes on the dance floor when LaSalle started playing the latest turbo-charged Jepsen song was kind of mind-boggling. “Cut To the Feeling” starts with a sound effect that twinkles like a shooting star and is clearly an ode to “Lucky Star” by Madonna. Then, the intro bops into a kind of unusual tribal drum beat section with sparse vocals which unexpectedly ends…and then…out-of-the-blue “Cut To the Feeling” explodes into one of the most infectious and uplifting choruses I’ve heard in eons. Sir Nolan, who produced this song, really hit it out of the park.


Throughout this “transcendence inducing” experience of pure-pop perfection Jepsen is singing, “I wanna cut through the clouds, break the ceiling. I wanna dance on the roof…take me to the stars. I wanna play where you play, with the angels.” It’s a really jubilant song.

After hearing the chorus a couple times, it was clear that everyone on the dance floor at the A-House was hooked by this earworm and tuned into the same “psychophysiological” wavelength. We were all moving like one big amoeba without an ounce of self-consciousness or egocentricity at play. (As a side note: Through the lens of Barbara Fredrickson‘s work on “micro-moments” of feeling connected and simpatico with loved ones and strangers, this experience was off the charts.)

During the tribal drum sections of the song’s bridge, everyone would stay huddled closer to the ground and stomp their feet in unison while forming mini conga lines. Then, when the chorus blasted off again, everyone would start jumping as high as they possibly could as if we all had rocket boosters attached to our Achilles’ and were literally trying to “break through the ceiling” into the stratosphere and “play where the angels play.” I haven’t had that much fun in a long time and didn’t want the song to end.

As is usually the case, this experience on the dance floor nourished a strong sense of social connectedness and community on a visceral and parasympathetic level and most likely improved everyone’s vagal tone. Hopefully, this long-winded story will inspire you to go out dancing more regularly, if you don’t already.

Now, let’s get back to some more science-based research on music, the psychophysiological of flow, and the vagus nerve. Fredrik Ullén is a professor of cognitiveneuroscience at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden who studies elite-level performance and flow. He’s also an internationally renowned concert pianist, which makes it easy for him to be a guinea pig in many of his own experiments.

Using music as a model, Ullén has done fascinating research on how the parasympathetic response might assist people in creating an optimal flow state to perform at a world-class level within a specific field of expertise. His 2010 paper, “The Physiology of Effortless Attention: Correlates of State Flow and Flow Proneness,” was published by MIT Press.

During this study, Ullén et al. found that when professional singers were compared to amateurs, it became obvious that professionals’ heart rate variability (HRV) increased markedly, whereas no such increase was observed in the amateurs. This reflects a mixture of parasympathetic and sympathetic activity, with slightly more parasympathetic activity which increases vagal tone (VT) as indexed by higher HRV.

Another 2010 study led by Ullén’s colleague, Örjan de Manzano, “The Psychophysiology of Flow During Piano Playing,” found that professional pianists were able to immediately activate the parasympathetic system in the difficult prima vista “sight reading” situation of playing unknown music. The researchers of this study concluded,

“It appears possible, therefore, that the ability of experts to regulate the level of activity in both sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomous nervous system during performance is of importance for state flow, but further research is obviously needed to test this idea.

Furthermore, as we speculated above, parasympathetic mechanisms may be of importance for flow. During recent years, it has been pointed out that activation of the parasympathetic system is helpful in the recovery phase after an arousal reaction and that this stops inflammatory reactions that stimulate, for instance, the atherosclerotic process. The ability to activate the parasympathetic system could thus be of importance for flow as well as long-term health and longevity.”

The final study I’m going to include in this analysis of the psychophysiology of flow is, “The Relation of Flow-Experience and Physiological Arousal Under Stress—Can U Shape It?” from 2014. In this study, Corinna Peifer and colleagues in Germany found that a co-activation of both branches of the autonomic nervous system appear to facilitate task-related flow.

Again, coactivation of the autonomic branches during flow was measured by sympathetic and parasympathetic activation using measures of heart rate variability (HRV). The researchers identified a positive relationship of parasympathetic activation with flow-experience as measured through the flow-scale absorption. According to the researchers, “The association of flow with increased parasympathetic activation found in this study suggests a decrease of cognitive workload during flow.”

Fredrik Ullén cautions that more research is needed before drawing any set-in-stone conclusions about the psychophysiology of flow, given that so few studies have been performed. Please stay tuned for more research on this topic and my final entry in this series, “Paying It Forward: Generativity and Your Vagus Nerve.”

 See the complete article at

The Science of Happiness: Why complaining is literally killing you.

Cartoon Digging Grave vector

Sometimes in life, all the experience and knowledge simmering around in that ol’ consciousness of ours combines itself in a way that suddenly causes the cerebral clockwork to click into place, and in this fluid flow of thought we find an epiphany rising to the surface.

One such point for me came in my junior year at University. It changed the way I viewed the world forever as it catapulted me out of the last of my angsty, melancholic youth and onto a path of ever-increasing bliss. Sounds like I’m verging on feeding you some new-agey, mumbo-jumbo, doesn’t it? Well, bear with me, because I assure you the point here is to add some logical evidence to the ol’ cliches, to give you what I would consider my Science of Happiness.

At the time of this personal discovery, I was pursuing a double-major in Computer Science and Psychology. Aside from these declared interest, I also had an affinity for (Eastern) Philosophy and Neuroscience. This led to semester course load comprising of two 300-level psychology courses, one 300-level philosophy course, and a graduate-level artificial intelligence course for both biology and computer science majors. This amalgamation of studies quickly tore my brain into a dozen directions, and when I put the pieces back together, I found myself resolute with rational reasons for optimism and for removing from my life the people who liked to complain.



This was the first phrase my AI professor told the classroom, and to this day it is still one of the most profound bits of logic I hold onto in order to dictate the decisions of my life. The principle is simple: Throughout your brain there is a collection of synapses separated by empty space called the synaptic cleft. Whenever you have a thought, one synapse shoots a chemical across the cleft to another synapse, thus building a bridge over which an electric signal can cross, carrying along its charge the relevant information you’re thinking about. It’s very similar to how nerves carry electric from the sensation in your toe all the way up to your brain where it’s actually “felt”.

Here’s the kicker: Every time this electrical charge is triggered, the synapses grow closer together in order to decrease the distance the electrical charge has to cross. This is a microcosmic example of evolution, of adaptation. The brain is rewiring its own circuitry, physically changing itself, to make it easier and more likely that the proper synapses will share the chemical link and thus spark together–in essence, making it easier for the thought to trigger. Therefore, your first mystical scientific evidence: your thoughts reshape your brain, and thus are changing a physical construct of reality. Let that sink in for a moment before you continue, because that’s a seriously profound logic-bomb right there.

Your thoughts reshape your brain, and thus are changing a physical construct of reality.

Okay, pull yourself together, cause we’re not done yet.


Beyond the absolutely incredible fact that your brain is always doing this, consistently shifting and morphing with every thought, even more exciting is the fact that the synapses you’ve most strongly bonded together (by thinking about more frequently) come to represent your default personality: your intelligence, skills, aptitudes, and most easily accessible thoughts(which are more-or-less the source of your conversation skills).

Let’s dig deeper into the logic behind that. Consider you have two pairs of people throwing a ball back and forth. One pair stands ten feet apart, the other at a distance of 100 feet. One partner from each team throws their ball to their respective partners at the exact same moment with the exact same speed. The first team that catches the ball gets to dictate your personal decision and mental state of mind.

So which team will get the ball first? Basic physics of distance, time, velocity tell us that it will always be the pair standing 10 feet apart. Well this is basically how your thoughts work. Through repetition of thought, you’ve brought the pair of synapses that represent your proclivities closer and closer together, and when the moment arises for you to form a thought ( and thus throw our metaphorical ball of electric energy), the thought that wins is the one that has less distance to travel, the one that will create a bridge between synapses fastest.



In the time of my scholastic renaissance, this is where Eastern Philosophy came in and handed me a sort of Occam’s Razor of simplicity that I could use to strengthen my forming ideology.
It was simple, every time a moment came my way and brought with it a chance for reactive thought, my two choices were simple, regardless of the flavor you put on them: Love or Fear; Acceptance or Regret; Drift or Desire; Optimism or Pessimism.

And now, my friends, we have our two pairs playing catch.

Naturally, for my own well-being, I realized that all I wanted to do was move the pair of lovers closer together so they would always beat the fearful, pessimistic pair.And so I began to implement a practice into my life of loving everything that came my way, accepting it while relinquishing the need for control. The Buddhists say that the universe is suffering, and I believe this is because the universe is chaos, and thus by its very nature out of our control. When we try to force desires, we are bound to find innumerable occasions where the universe will not comply. And so I decided to stop desiring to the point of attachment. I started to practice the acceptance that Buddhists speak upon, to Drift in the Tao, to accept the natural flow with an optimistic love, to say to every moment that came my way, good or bad, “thank you for the experience and the lesson, and now bring on the next moment so I can give it the same love.” Over and over I did this, moving those synapses closer and closer together, to the point where any synapses in my brain associated with sadness, regret, pessimism, fear, desire, melancholy, depression, etc had a smaller and smaller chance of triggering before the synapses of love gave me my reaction, my thoughts, my personality. And so my default state become one of optimism and appreciation, and the illusory burdens I attached to this existence lessened.

Now, as I pointed out, nature appreciates chaos, and our brain is no different. And so it’s important that I point out that this obviously is not a fool proof practice that will completely eradicate negativity from your consciousness; sometimes emotion weighs too heavy and sometimes the pair that catches the chemical charge will be the negative one; but, like any muscle, if you exercise those loving synapses enough, you will find yourself in possession of a new innate strength that will make the world shine more beautifully far more frequently. You will also find yourself being far more happy because of better health–which I’ll get to in just a moment, but hold on, because we’ve got one more point to discuss beforehand.



So if your mind hadn’t already exploded when you learned you could alter reality with your thoughts, you may want to get ready for it.  Because guess what? It’s not just your thoughts that can alter your brain and shift those synapses; the thoughts of those around you can do it as well.
If there’s any ability that truly separates us from our primate ancestors, it’s that of imagination. It’s the root of all art and architecture, of the (fictional) stories that formed religions that now control the lives of billions—even to the point of war over which fairytale is the “right one.”

That human failing aside, imagination lets us live in the past and in the future, and by escaping the present moment we can use our memories of the past to predict what will happen in the future; ie: I know from past experience that fire burns skin, so I know inside my minds-eye that if I stick my hand into a fire I will lose my flesh. This is so instinctual we don’t even recognize it’s constantly happening with every symbol that we’re perceiving in our day-to-day moments. But it is this ability that allows us to navigate the complexity of our society. Even more exciting is the fact that this skill also works with emotions, not just situations.

The premise, again, is quite simple: When we see someone experiencing an emotion ( be it anger, sadness, happiness, etc), our brain “tries out” that same emotion to imagine what the other person is going through. And it does this by attempting to fire the same synapses in your own brain so that you can attempt to relate to the emotion you’re observing. This is basically empathy. It is how we get the mob mentality, where a calm person can suddenly find themselves picking up a pitchfork against a common enemy once they’re influenced by dozens of angry minds. It is our shared bliss at music festivals, or our solidarity in sadness during tragedies.

But it is also your night at the bar with your friends who love love love to constantly bitch, whether it’s about their job, the man, the government, or about their other so-called friend’s short-comings, or whatever little thing they can pick apart in order to lift themselves up and give themselves some holier-than-thou sense of validation when you nod your head in acquiescence, agreeing like a robot afraid of free-thought : “Totally, man. It’s bullshit.”

But it’s not bullshit. It’s life, it’s chaos, and as you continually surround yourself with this attitude, you are continually trying out this attitude by firing the synapses in your brain. And as I explained above, every time you fire these synapses, you’re reshaping your brain. This is why it is so important to spend time with people who lift you up, because your friends are moving those fearful, cynical, pessimistic synapses closer together, making your default, short-path-personality as jaded and bitter as your peers. Want to be happy? Surround yourself with happy people who rewire your brain towards love, not towards fear of being invalidated.  [[EDIT 11/8/15 : I’m NOT saying don’t be there for friends who are having a hard time and need an ear or who need to work through a difficult situation. Nor am I saying you can’t be critical about the failings and injustices in the world. Positive change usually requires critical thought.]]


You see, the thing about all this negativity, of regretting, of attachment to desires, of pointless complaining about impermanent things that will always continue to pass in an existence where time moves forward—the thing is: it all causes stress. When your brain is firing off these synapses of anger, you’re weakening your immune system; you’re raising your blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes, and a plethora of other negative ailments–as psychologytoday points out below.

The stress hormone, cortisol, is public health enemy number one. Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels: interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease… The list goes on and on.Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy. This week, two separate studies were published inScience linking elevated cortisol levels as a potential trigger for mental illness and decreased resilience—especially in adolescence.Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. — psychologytoday

And if you need more evidence for the damaging effects of stress, there are innumerable more studies that show the negative impacts of pessimism, bitterness, and regret on your health. Here’s one from the MayoClinic and another from APA.

The bottom line is this:

The universe is chaotic, from unpreventable superstorms of wind and rain, to unpredictable car accidents or to the capricious whims of our peers whose personal truths even have the ability to emotionally damage or physically hurt others. And every moment holds the potential to bring you any one of these things, any shade along the gradient of spirit-soaring bliss and soul-crushing grief.

But regardless of what it brings your way, your choice is simple: Love or Fear. And yes, I understand it’s hard to find happiness on those nights when you feel like you’re all alone in the world, when a loved one passes, when you fail that test or get fired from that job; But when these moments come, you do not have to live in regret of them, you don’t have to give them constant negative attention and allow them to reshape your brain to the point that you become a bitter, jaded, cynical old curmudgeon that no longer notices that the very fact that they’re alive means they get to play blissfully in this cosmic playground where you get the godlike power of choice.

What you can do is say; “Yes, this sucks. But what’s the lesson? What can I take away from this to make me a better person? How can I take strength from this and use it to bring me closer to happiness in my next moment?” You see, a failed relationship or a bad day doesn’t have to be a pinion to your wings, it can be an updraft that showcases to you what things you like and don’t like, it can show you the red flags so that you can avoid them. If there was a personality your ex-partner had that drove you insane, then you now have the gift of knowing you don’t want to waste your time with another partner who acts the same way.

If you are mindful to the lessons of the failures, there is no reason that you can’t make the default of every day better than the one before it. Do something new everyday, learn its lesson, choose love over fear, and make every day better than the last. The more you do this, the more you will see and appreciate the beauty of this existence, and the happier you’ll be.

By Steven Parton from

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To Dance Is a Radical Act

The practice of dancing is vital to our survival as humans on earth.

Published on November 29, 2011 by Kimerer LaMothe, Ph.D. in What a Body Knows

To dance is a radical act. To think about dance, to study dance, or to practice dance in this 21st century is a radical act. 


Because if dancing matters—if dancing makes a difference to how we humans think and feel and act-then dancing challenges the values that fund modern western cultures.

How so?

1. Mind over body. A first and fundamental value of western cultures is the one that privileges our mental capacity, in particular our ability to reason, over and against our feeling, sensing, moving bodily selves. I think therefore I am. We believe that “we,” as thinking minds, can exert control over our bodily actions, and that we should. We believe that achieving such mind over body mastery is good, and even our ticket to success in any realm of endeavor.

This idea that reason is our definitively human part was greeted with much hope and fanfare by early modern philosophers and politicians, economists and poets. If only all humans can learn to exercise their reason, it was thought, then many minds will be able to arrive at the same answer–at true and certain knowledge, at a common good, at world peace.

However, we humans are not rational minds dwelling in bodily containers. We are bodies. We are bodily selves whose movements are making us able to think and feel and act at all. And if we are to achieve a just and sustainable world, then we must make sure that our processes of getting there honor the wisdom and agency present in the movement of our bodily selves.

To dance is a radical act because dancing reminds us that the bodily movements we make make us who we are.

2. Individuals first. Second only to the value we accord mind over body control is the value we grant to a sense of ourselves as individuals first. We aim and claim to be independent and self-sufficient, generating our own resources and meeting our own needs. We enter into relationships, ready to stay or go based on the benefits of that relationship to us.

Yet, we humans are not individuals first. Before we can ever think or say “I,” we have already been formed and enabled by others. We are who we are by virtue of the relationships we create with those who support our lives, from the day we are born to the day we die. And if we want to create healthy and life enabling relationships with others, then we must acknowledge that we are interdependent bodily selves.

To dance is a radical act because it reminds us that we, as bodily selves, exist only as an expression of the matrix of relationships with ourselves, others, and the natural world that enables us to be.

3. Write it down. A third value we hold dear is that of writing as a medium of knowledge. We grant an authority to words over and above any other medium as the one most able to document, preserve, and transmit truth and knowledge of any kind. This valuing of the written word flourished with the invention of the printing press and its first use: printing Bibles. People of any class or race or gender could access for their own individual selves the greatest mysteries of God. All they needed to do was learn to read.

However, as we now know, not everything that is written down is important, and not everything important can be written down. There are forms of knowledge that exist in media other than verbal ones. Reading and writing themselves are bodily activities demanding the precise articulation of muscle movement. Words cannot grant themselves authority. That authority comes from the lived experiences they express, and the lived experiences they enable.

To dance is a radical act because doing so implies that there are forms of knowing that cannot be mediated to us in words, which give words their meaning.

4. Sit whenever possible. A fourth value derives from the other three. We privilege the kind of work that we can do sitting down, while thinking, reading, writing. We spend years of our lives learning to sit still so that we can master these tasks. When we succeed, we are rewarded by forms of employment that allow us to sit some more. When we are tired at the end of the day, we sit to be entertained, to be fed, to be cared for. We want someone else to do the heavy lifting. We work hard, so we can sit.

Yet, as bodily selves, we are born to move. We are born moving as the medium in which we learn, adapt, invent, and nurture the relationships that support us in becoming who we have the potential to be. Moving our bodily selves in such ways gives us pleasure—even our greatest pleasure.

To dance is a radical act, because when we do it, we remember the primal joy of moving our bodily selves.

In sum, if we dance, and if we claim that dancing matters, then we are also affirming that we are not simply rational individuals whose best health is served by sitting and writing. We are bodily selves, sensing, feeling, stretching-and reaching for the knowledge, justice, and peace we desire.

So what are we to do?


We need to find the dancer in each of us, and the dance in what we do. We need to breathe to move and move to breathe, and so cultivate a sensory awareness of our bodily selves as movement. When we do, we will have what we need to be able to think and feel and act in ways that remain faithful to the body of earth and our bodies of earth.


When we understand dance broadly, we know that anything that happens to us in our life, pleasing or not, offers us an opportunity to deepen our experience of dancing and enrich our ability to dance.

4. Keep the love alive. After spending time learning a new form, the novelty may wear off and our enthusiasm pale. Suddenly the movements that seemed so life-giving are routine. They don’t produce the same sensory excitement. Inevitably the four-fold values named above creep in; we begin to try harder by exerting the power of our minds over our bodies, or we long simply to sit.

We humans are so good at creating habits. We are so good at getting caught in our habits, and forgetting that we were the ones who created them—even when we dance. Yet dancing remains our most potent resource for stirring to life the sensory awareness that reconnects us to our own creativity. As we play with movement possibilities, we open to the life-enabling currents in us that are always looking for places to break out in new forms.

So when we dance, it is up to us to keep the love alive—to return to the pulse of our breathing, to reconnect with the movements that are making us, and so open to receive the energies of the universe coursing through us.

There is a dancer in each of us, and a dance in everything we do. Once we find that dancing energy, we have the most powerful resource there is for evaluating the impact of the movements we are making in all realms of our lives; for comprehending and empathizing with the pain we are creating in ourselves and others, and for sensing how to move in ways that will better enrich our lives as bodily humans in community on this planet. If we are to survive the 21st century, we must.

Why Body Intelligence (BQ) and Why Now?

Humans have the opportunity to make the shift now from fear-focused, adrenaline-fueled living to full-body-intelligent living. Body intelligence expands our perspective beyond fear to the rich, millennia-long wisdom we carry in our cells. BQ includes all feelings and inner experience, informs responsive choices, heightens wellbeing, and opens perception based on curiosity and possibility rather than scarcity and prejudice. BQ allows us to connect deeply with our essence and the flow of life that sparks genuine appreciation and collaboration with others.

When we value what our body is communicating to us, we open the doors to a level of vitality that cannot be achieved by following advice from a book. Every BODY has a different road map, and by becoming intimate with what our own body is asking for, we unleash our inner physician. It is through this level of nourishment throughout our daily lives, that regeneration of cells proliferate. It’s an “in the moment” experiment, and you know you are on the right track, if you notice feeling energized by your choices (as though your cells are humming the words “Thank You”).


Grin and Bear It! Smiling Facilitates Stress Recovery

When you’re bummed out, the mere act of smiling can cheer you up. The reasons for this effect have yet to be pinpointed, but one study at the University of Kansas in Lawrence reveals that flashing a grin slows down your heart rate during stress and chills you out. And if you can’t bear to smile? Sadness and the occasional bad mood are natural, too. No human can be happy 24/7, and maybe that’s the happiest news of all.

July 30, 2012
For Immediate Release

Contact: Anna Mikulak
Association for Psychological Science

Stress-Busting Smiles – The Wall Street Journal – February 25, 2013

Just grin and bear it! At some point, we have all probably heard or thought something like this when facing a tough situation. But is there any truth to this piece of advice? Feeling good usually makes us smile, but does it work the other way around? Can smiling actually make us feel better?

In a study forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychological scientists Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman of the University of Kansas investigate the potential benefits of smiling by looking at how different types of smiling, and the awareness of smiling, affects individuals’ ability to recover from episodes of stress.

“Age old adages, such as ‘grin and bear it’ have suggested smiling to be not only an important nonverbal indicator of happiness but also wishfully promotes smiling as a panacea for life’s stressful events,” says Kraft. “We wanted to examine whether these adages had scientific merit; whether smiling could have real health-relevant benefits.”

Smiles are generally divided into two categories: standard smiles, which use the muscles surrounding the mouth, and genuine or Duchenne smiles, which engage the muscles surrounding both the mouth and eyes. Previous research shows that positive emotions can help during times of stress and that smiling can affect emotion; however, the work of Kraft and Pressman is the first of its kind to experimentally manipulate the types of smiles people make in order to examine the effects of smiling on stress.

The researchers recruited 169 participants from a Midwestern university. The study involved two phases: training and testing. During the training phase, participants were divided into three groups, and each group was trained to hold a different facial expression. Participants were instructed to hold chopsticks in their mouths in such a way that they engaged facial muscles used to create a neutral facial expression, a standard smile, or a Duchenne smile. Chopsticks were essential to the task because they forced people to smile without them being aware that they were doing so: only half of the group members were actually instructed to smile.

For the testing phase, participants were asked to work on multitasking activities. What the participants didn’t know was that the multitasking activities were designed to be stressful. The first stress-inducing activity required the participants to trace a star with their non-dominant hand by looking at a reflection of the star in a mirror. The second stress-inducing activity required participants to submerge a hand in ice water.

During both of the stressful tasks, participants held the chopsticks in their mouth just as they were taught in training. The researchers measured participants’ heart rates and self-reported stress levels throughout the testing phase.

The results of the study suggest that smiling may actually influence our physical state: compared to participants who held neutral facial expressions, participants who were instructed to smile, and in particular those with Duchenne smiles, had lower heart rate levels after recovery from the stressful activities. The participants who held chopsticks in a manner that forced them to smile, but were not explicitly told to smile as part of the training, also reported a smaller decrease in positive affect compared to those who held neutral facial expressions.

These findings show that smiling during brief stressors can help to reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response, regardless of whether a person actually feels happy.

“The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress,” says Pressman, “you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment. Not only will it help you ‘grin and bear it’ psychologically, but it might actually help

The researchers recruited 169 participants from a Midwestern university. The study involved two phases: training and testing. During the training phase, participants were divided into three groups, and each group was trained to hold a different facial expression. Participants were instructed to hold chopsticks in their mouths in such a way that they engaged facial muscles used to create a neutral facial expression, a standard smile, or a Duchenne smile. Chopsticks were essential to the task because they forced people to smile without them being aware that they were doing so: only half of the group members were actually instructed to smile.

For the testing phase, participants were asked to work on multitasking activities. What the participants didn’t know was that the multitasking activities were designed to be stressful. The first stress-inducing activity required the participants to trace a star with their non-dominant hand by looking at a reflection of the star in a mirror. The second stress-inducing activity required participants to submerge a hand in ice water.

During both of the stressful tasks, participants held the chopsticks in their mouth just as they were taught in training. The researchers measured participants’ heart rates and self-reported stress levels throughout the testing phase.

The results of the study suggest that smiling may actually influence our physical state: compared to participants who held neutral facial expressions, participants who were instructed to smile, and in particular those with Duchenne smiles, had lower heart rate levels after recovery from the stressful activities. The participants who held chopsticks in a manner that forced them to smile, but were not explicitly told to smile as part of the training, also reported a smaller decrease in positive affect compared to those who held neutral facial expressions.

These findings show that smiling during brief stressors can help to reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response, regardless of whether a person actually feels happy.

“The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress,” says Pressman, “you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment. Not only will it help you ‘grin and bear it’ psychologically, but it might actually help

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