There are more things under heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
W. Shakespeare in “Hamlet”
Even in the modern world among scientists and scientifically oriented physicians, belief systems play a controlling role in our perceptions of the world around us and inside us. For example we believe in science, something that goes beyond belief in the scientific method as a means to test ideas about the world. Ancient practices that purport benefits like meditation, yoga, tai chi and qigong but that don’t seem to have an easily explainable mechanism for those benefits often meet with resistance. We are often reluctant to accept what we cannot explain.
A big step in understanding the neuroanatomical basis for regulation of the adrenal medulla – the main effector of the stress response flight or fight reaction was published on August 30th 2016 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Dum et al 2016). Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Neuroscience Institute employed a novel labeling technique using rabies virus to label the innervation of the adrenal medulla, and what they found stands modern assumptions on their head, while confirming the anatomical basis for traditional and ancient practices such as meditation and yoga in controlling stress.
Rabies virus is taken up and transported in retrograde fashion trans-synaptically up to the sixth order neuron, tracing an intricate neural circuit or connectome. In this study the adrenal medulla of Cebus monkeys were injected with rabies virus and the spread of the virus was then plotted into the central nervous system.
What the researchers found was startling. In contrast to previous assumptions that postulated frontal executive centers as the main innervation of the adrenal medulla the main top down control originates in the primary and supplementary motor cortex with additional contribution from the somatosensory cortex. In fact 63% of the innervation is derived from the motor cortex. This innervation is densest from areas that also innervated to proximal musculature including the muscles of respiration.
Our conscious minds – the thinking-planning-worrying-ruminating elephant that we try to train through mindfulness has little to say about this process, it can only interfere with it. As the ancients knew – and as we strive to remember among the phone calls, emails, text alerts and pages – the deepest wisdom lies in the body; the feeling of the breath, the gut, the heart. The ancients had names for these – pranayama, chakras. Now we get a glimpse into that truth from a perspective that makes sense in the context of our modern belief systems.
If we want to tame our response to stress, we must begin with the body.