Category Archives: research

You have 3 brains. Why not use them?

you have three brains mary kastle music bowen island bc jazz pop singer songwriterDid you know that you have 3 brains?

The latest science suggests that we have 3 brains: a brain in our head, a brain in our heart, and a brain in our belly! We all know the pithy sayings about following our guts or trusting our hearts, but it turns out they actually have scientific validity. It’s too bad we’re often so stuck in our regular brain (especially the left side!) that we can be totally tuned out of what our other brains are telling us. Wouldn’t it be great if we could make regular use of all three? 🙂

Often people say their barometer for great art is whether it makes them feel something.

Except most of us don’t let it be that simple. I’ll never forget the first time I went to an art museum with my visual artist husband. What an education! I never liked going to galleries much as I always thought you were supposed to linger over every piece, humming and hawing over every detail and trying to make sense of it. I’d come out 4 hours later exhausted and ready for a nap! My hubby however whipped through the whole museum in less than an hour! He’d look at a piece and if it didn’t immediately speak to him on some emotional level he would move on. Wow! It was so liberating. After that I felt permission to sit with what spoke to me and leave the rest. Now I love the experience of walking through a museum for a short burst of inspiration.

So what about these 3 brains?

It turns out that our “belly brain” (also known as the ENS or enteric nervous system) is a rich and complicated network of neurons and neurochemicals that sense and control events in other parts of the body, including the brain.” The most important discovery is that there is more information traveling from the gut to the head than vice versa. It’s also designed to be a barometer of our emotional states and known as the “hara” or the seat of higher wisdom in Japanese culture.

Then of course there’s the “heart-brain”, or “intrinsic cardiac nervous system. An intricate network of complex ganglia, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells, the same as those of the brain in the head. The heart-brain’s neural circuitry enables it to act independently of the cranial brain to learn, remember, make decisions and even feel and sense.

Our body is telling our brains what to do, not the other way around.

Well, thank goodness science is validating what we always knew instinctually. We CAN trust our guts and hearts, maybe even more so than our heads! And psychologists are applying this information too. Somatic therapy is simply the art of feeling things in the body again. Which is ironic because we clearly wouldn’t need such a therapy if we didn’t spend so much time in our damn heads! (specifically the left side, did I mention that already? ;))

This doesn’t mean we should never engage with things that challenge us on a mental level. On the contrary, I do think it’s wise to throw on some death metal once in a while, or go to a Trump convention, or see a fringe theatre piece you know will challenge your assumptions. But following our guts and hearts can also be a way to filter out the hordes of media that doesn’t speak to your inner muse. It doesn’t always have to result in lovey-dovey feelings either. The trick is simply to pay attention to whatever the information is, positive or negative. A curious, inquisitive attitude is key.

Our bodies are constantly giving us so much information and so many cues.

In its most basic form, if you want to practice Somatics, all you need to do is focus your attention on a part of your body, like your heart or your belly. Sit with it for a minute and see what your feel there. Does it feel like a tight mass? Constrained? Relaxed? Do you feel butterflies? Does it feel like a knot? Heavy? Warm? Cool? Upside-down? Sick?

Especially if you put yourself in front of a piece of art, or put some headphones with music on, there’s an immediate emotional response from your body. And that can give you a really good cue about whether you’re engaged with the art in a positive way, or whether you’re appreciating it on a more logical and mental level.

Like everything else, listening to our belly and heart brains takes practice.

Bill Evans once said… and I must paraphrase because I can’t find the actual quote… but here’s the essence: he would rather play for a non-musician than a professional because they could only rely on their feelings to tell them if they liked the music or not. They didn’t have the vernacular to start analyzing things and breaking it all apart.

But I want to feel this as a creator too. I want to be tuned in to my gut and heart responses even though I do know all the theory. I mean, who wants to live in analytic mode all the time? But like all things worth doing in life (especially in our noisy analytics-heavy world), getting tuned in to your heart and gut is a PRACTICE.

Try it out for yourself!

So the next time you take something in: art, music, media, literature, the morning news, a conversation with a friend, a phone call, a work email, take a minute to ask yourself: “How does this make me feel? In my heart? In my belly?” We’ve all heard how much untapped power lies in the brain, but perhaps the experts meant other brains that we are still barely even aware of, let alone know how to use.

A mom on MOOCs: Educating my (inner) child in the digital age

mooc imageEvery time my son grabs for my phone or laptop I say to him, “that’s not a toy honey, it’s a tool”. It’s my go-to phrase around technology because it’s a good reminder for me too. He’s barely a toddler, yet I’m already preparing for the day he gets his own “device”. And I don’t want to deny him the experience. Our household revolves around technology and I want to create a healthy rapport with it and find a boundary that’s consistent for everyone in our family. To me, evaluating the purpose of all that screen time is a key factor in the decision.

It’s sad to read the abundance of articles claiming the internet is making us dumb and depressed. It’s true that constant connectivity can be over-stimulating if you don’t set any boundaries, but I personally feel that my quality of life has been hugely improved by the internet’s myriad offerings. I believe the solution to our distraction is in our own brains. In contrast to TV which truly is passive, the internet is waiting for us to direct it. And if done with a bit of imagination, it can become a gateway to an immense amount of information, leading to new ideas and creativity.

Most of us have benefited from the convenience of the Internet through apps like Skype, Google search, maps, online shopping, etc. But now the internet is radicalizing education on a global level via the massive open online course, or MOOC. This spring I was turned on to an amazing website called Coursera which is a pioneer in the MOOC revolution. Reputable universities from all around the globe are now offering their courses online for free.  The courses are taught via video lectures, and structured into weekly units with assignments and quizzes, and supported by forums filled with thousands of engaged learners from around the globe. There is no credit offered (although some courses now offer a completion certificate for a small fee), but if all you’re looking for is information, it’s an incredible resource.

Why are MOOCs so revolutionary? Blogs and video tutorials have abounded for more than a decade, right? Well, as my husband says, you only get one chance to learn something for the first time. As much as possible, you want that experience to be high quality, and before MOOCs came along the quality of information on the internet was inconsistent at best. Now, the quality, the instruction, and the structure is everything you would expect from a university level course. So now anyone who wants to pursue higher education but can’t justify the time or expense in going back to school has the opportunity, right from their own computer.

I’m obviously a big fan. This year alone I’ve already learned the four tenets of Greek rhetoric, the archetypes of fantasy and science fiction, and the intricacies of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. I’ve revisited songwriting techniques, the history of Western classical music, and the foundations of audio engineering. And now I’m taking a jazz improvisation course through Berklee taught by master vibraphonist Gary Burton. It’s ah-ma-zing! I don’t always have the time to do every assignment or quiz, but even watching or listening to the video lectures while sewing, walking the baby, folding laundry, etc. leaves me with new perceptions of the world.

Of course these resources are only half the equation when it comes to learning. The other half is the blood, sweat, and tears to work yourself through the information. Angela Lee Duckworth refers to it as “grit” in her TED talk on the key to success. There is no doubt that we all need to find our own way to motivate and discipline ourselves to work through new information. And the more I study online, the more I realize it’s a process of being patient and kind to yourself as you figure out how you truly learn best. In some ways it’s even better than university. There’s no competition, nothing to prove. Nothing between you and the knowledge you seek. Perhaps this is also where creating boundaries around the educational vs. entertainment aspects of the Internet come into play. Taking a break to surf Facebook for a while can be a nice change after all that learning!

But once you get bored, the knowledge is waiting there, beckoning like a seducer. Have you heard about the Mexican teacher who applied a similar concept to his classroom? When he realized the standard curriculum was boring his students to death, he radicalized his approach by allowing them unlimited internet access and challenging them to research and write about subjects they loved. What happened? He discovered he had a class full of geniuses. Self-regulating ones too. They were far too engaged in their work to be trolling Facebook for hours or checking email every 5 minutes. And even if they were, it didn’t matter anymore, because they were by and large communicating with people connected to their work, so it made sense.

There’s no reason to limit this mentality to children. We can apply the same principles to ourselves. And thankfully, more and more evidence is rolling in to support the potential the Internet has to help us learn, grow, and develop. Perhaps the web is really just a mirror for our own behaviours, like any other relationship in our lives. In my experience, if you can put the blinders on to all the distracting trash vying for your attention, and unleash your inner “grit”, you can harness the immense power of the internet to expand your mind, your skills, and your life. And what could be a more positive example to our children on using technology than that?

Interested in reading more about MOOCs? Check out this link for more information.