Written by Alan Littlefield
The connection between our minds and bodies has always fascinated me, and I’m not alone. The theme is popular in movies – Limitless, Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to name a few – and the topic is increasingly common in conversation at work too.
Mindfulness is now more widely applied and accepted in corporate life. But, I believe the idea of a ‘mind-body connection’ can create the illusion that our minds are in total control of our bodies; that our brain, through the nervous system, is the CEO with complete jurisdiction over our body.
It’s true that we consciously experience our mind in the ‘driving seat’, but we can also feel the opposite: that time the answer was on the tip of our tongue, but we just couldn’t recall it; that time we blurted out something angrily, and wondered where it came from; and, that time we froze like a rabbit in headlights, and couldn’t do or say anything.
In reality the brain is one of many interdependent systems that are constantly exchanging physiological signals with each other.
In fact, the most powerful signal in the body is the heart beat – it has around fifty times the electrical power of the brain. It needs that power to co-ordinate the pulsing contractions of the heart. When the heart rate – the beats per minute – fluctuates wildly it generates a chaotic electrical signal that travels through the nervous system into the brain. This impairs frontal lobe function reducing our perceptiveness, clarity, creativity and inhibitions. Under extreme pressure the chaotic signal can cause complete brain shut down, as if we have given ourselves a lobotomy!
Brain ‘shutdown’ evolved as a useful survival mechanism to stop time-consuming thinking when we were under threat and limit us to a speedy reaction of either fight/flight or freeze/faint. The problem is we still react this way even though we’re not encountering sabre-tooth tigers any more.
The good news is that if the heart rate varies in a regular, even way, instead of erratically, we generate a coherent signal that switches the frontal lobes of the brain back on. You can create coherence in the heart’s signal by regular, even breathing. When we are coherent we can recall memories more easily, speed up reaction time and think more clearly to choose our response. Our heart-brain connection is often overlooked, but it has a powerful impact on our performance.
Keywords; Brain, heart, mindfulness, performance