Why Reiki is a Brain Friendly Practice
By Susannah Spanton – Reiki Master (1998)
The illusive nature of the brain has kept scientist and philosophers frustrated, curious and pondering for centuries. There was a time not long ago when we could only guess what might be going on in the master organ inside of our head. Autopsies using cadavers were the only option we had to study the human brain, limiting our knowledge because we were unable to explore the brain in an alive and active state. In the 1990’s the neuroscience community nearly exploded with excitement because finally they could see and learn about the brain in a whole new way! For instance, now they could see all the colors of the brain light up and find the answers to questions that were only theories, giving a whole new perspective so powerful that at first some scientists had difficulty believing it. Interestingly, President George Bush created a proclamation designating the 1990s as the “Decade of the Brain” to enhance public awareness of the new revelations.
The science of the brain is exponentially growing for the first time in recent history. Technology, through the use of PET scans and MRI machines has catapulted the findings providing discoveries, fascinating insights and exciting possibilities. Neuroscience research has created expansive opportunities for learning the extraordinary capabilities of our brain. The magnificent human brain, rich in complexity, will continue to teach us for years to come.
In an attempt to both appreciate and revel in the expanding wisdom of the brain it can be helpful to understand some fundamental facts and principles of the human brain and delight in the wonder of how it begins even before infancy. The heart, lungs and all other organs in a healthy human newborn are completely developed at birth. Horses, dolphins, tigers and all other mammals except the human are born with a fully developed brain. We are the only mammal born with the lower parts of the brain wired and the other seventy five percent developed through a series of use dependent experiences expanding over our first twenty-four months of life. This is the reason for the soft spot on the head of an infant. This principle of Mother Nature creates complete dependency on our caregivers to provide what is needed to grow healthy brain architecture. According to Dr. Bruce Perry from The Child Trauma Institute, it takes approximately twenty-four months to create the main operating system of the brain and twenty-five years for the brain to be fully developed and completely wired.
Some facts to consider:
The growing human brain during the delicate time of infancy is highly vulnerable to positive and negative outside influences, and brain development is greatly impacted as it grows during this time.
—> We generate new neurons throughout our lifetime, which is a relatively new finding in the field of neuroscience. The study of this phenomenon is called neurogenesis. We once believed we only had a certain finite number of brain cells. What an exciting discovery this is to behold!
—> The lower parts of the brain i.e., the brain stem and midbrain are much harder to change because they lack the plasticity found in the limbic system and cortex areas. Plasticity is a quality of the brain that allows adaptation and change to occur based on experiences.
—> The brain produces chemicals and hormones that can either calm or agitate both the brain and the body, depending on the incoming data and experience along with several other factors.
—> Cortisol, a stress hormone that our body produces, is not healthy for our brains in high dosages.
Becoming familiar with the inner workings and function of the following parts of the brain can begin the exciting conversation about how Reiki is undeniably a brain friendly practice.
The brainstem is the first part of the brain that is built and this construction begins in utero. It is responsible for the automatic systems of the body, such as breathing, blood pressure and heart rate. It manages our life-sustaining systems and reflexive functioning. The brain stem is sensitive to signals of fear, distress and danger.
The midbrain, also known as the diencephalon, is the command center for the sensation and reaction of fight or flight. This is an area that is reactive, not feeling, and controls appetite, sleep, eye movement, and vision. The midbrain directs our sensory impulses throughout the body. Our memories that are associated with touch, hearing, sight, taste, and smell are residents of this brain part.
The limbic system is a complex area and has many parts to it. Our feelings and emotional reactions reside here. Joy, fear, laughter, anger and all other emotions that we as humans are privileged to feel all find their home within the limbic system. The limbic system influences both the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. Homeostasis of the body is regulated by the well-orchestrated glandular system which is just one of many examples of the interconnected relationship the brain has upon the body.
The cortex is the most advanced section of the brain and is responsible for mental activity, judgment, logic and the many thoughts we create either intentionally or subconsciously. This is the area of the brain that can solve problems and make plans for the future. The cortex has the ability to change and create new cells due to its high level of plasticity.
The amygdala is an intriguingly small but mighty brain part. Incoming data from the world passes through the amygdala where decisions are made, determining whether that information goes to the brain’s brainstem, midbrain, limbic system, cortex or some combination of these. This small, almond-sized structure (there is one on each side of the brain) is part of limbic system. Some of the main functions of the amygdala are to decide where information should go and which parts of the brain should be in charge.
For example, the amygdala serves as a router directing incoming data and may send it to the hippocampus, cortex or limbic system depending on many specific factors driving those decisions. The amygdala has a relationship with the hippocampus and other memory banks deciding if, when and what hormones will be released into our system.
Daniel Goleman coined the phrase “amygdala hijacking” which is described as an emotional charge created by incoming data. When the emotional charge is strong enough the amygdala automatically takes charge and overrides the cortex along with its higher order thinking skills. This is why we can have the experience of “What was I thinking when I said that?” when in actuality our thinking was temporarily hijacked to some degree.
The hippocampus stores our short and long term cognitive memories. Like a computer chip, it records images and interpretations so when something familiar happens it triggers memories and beliefs it has stored. It functions like a memory bank and it is shaped like a seahorse even though it sounds like it is named after a hippo.
Reiki is a brain friendly practice for many reasons. The first amongst many is the importance of tender loving touch and the presence of another caring person from the perspective of the brain. Neuroscience research now provides exciting discoveries on the impact which sensory practices like Reiki can have on the brain and its many needs. Although Reiki can be transmitted with or without touch, for the purpose of this conversation I will be discussing the style of Reiki that uses touch.
Nearly a decade ago, neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison spent months in the mountains with monks performing experiments by connecting devices to their heads while they meditated. The findings were riveting. Dr. Davidson and his team could see inside the brain and where it lights up during meditation practices. The team also learned that the brains of experienced meditators had significantly different wiring in their cortex compared to non-meditators. In an article from the Wall Street Journal, Sharon Begley who wrote about Dr. Davidson’s findings said, “Neuroplasticity is a term that refers to the brain’s recently discovered ability to change its structure and function, in particular by expanding or strengthening circuits that are used and by shrinking or weakening those that are rarely engaged. In its short history, the science of neuroplasticity has mostly documented brain changes that reflect physical experience and input from the outside world.”
For these reasons and many others, frequent Reiki sessions can change the brain! The brain loves repetition. When an activity is performed over and over the neuro-transmitters that wire together become stronger. Similar to what research has shown about meditation practices impacting the brain, regular Reiki sessions can create new and powerful wiring in the brain pathways. When a client is receiving a Reiki session there are benefits to each part of the brain we have outlined above.
For a fun comparison, the different parts of the brain seem to be symbolic in relationship to the chakra system, the spinning wheels of energy that are located throught the human body. The brainstem could be a symbol of the root chakra. The root charka is the foundation of the chakra system in charge of connection and grounding. The brainstem is at the base of the brain and is rooted to our spine. Reiki has a strong impact to this area because there is often an increase in oxygen and blood flow and a lowering of blood pressure and heart rate. These automatic systems functioning like a silent comlicated dance responding effortlessly to the touch of Reiki allowing deep relaxation to take place.
The midbrain resembles the solar plexus chakra. The solar plexus chakra is located at the belly and both our gut reaction and power center is located there. The midbrain houses our senses, perhaps our sixth sense of intuition and, like a power center, serves as a great protector to instantly and automatically move us from danger. The midbrain is hungry for Reiki touch because the sensation of energy and hands on touch provides the somatic sensory bathing, which can calm and sooth this fight or flight center. When people have experienced trauma the memories that are embedded in the five senses are stored in this section of the brain. Sometimes traumatic events can cause a negative association and interpretation of touch. The loving sensations of Reiki provide new information to the brain allowing rewiring to take place once again by reprogramming an imprint of healthy tender touch.
The heart chakra is the center of our energy system where forgiveness, love, inner peace and all our emotions pulsate vibrationally. The limbic system is where the seat of our emotions resides. During a Reiki session, the limbic system of the brain can often be ignited as clients may cry or laugh or speak incessantly about a life struggle. When people are in need of a deep emotional release Reiki can be a powerful vehicle to safely let go of suppressed feelings, which frees the body and mind of excess energy and allows for a lighter, more peaceful experience.
The cortex is located right at the brow chakra. The brow chakra has long been associated with wisdom and insight. The cortex is often filled with stories we tell ourselves that sometimes create anxiety and stress. The neurocircuits will strengthen or weaken depending on usage. There is a common phrase now spoken amongst many brain experts, that is, “What fires together wires together.” Regular Reiki sessions can wire new firing of neurons and teach the mind to quiet more easily.
In his book The Neuroscience of Human Relationships” Louis Cozolino states, “The human brain is a social organ criss-crossed with neural networks dedicated to receiving, processing and communicating messages across the social synapse.” The brain actually likes new feelings, information, and sensations, which only strengthens the principle that Reiki truly is brain friendly!
How exciting that the next time you are giving a Reiki session or receiving a Reiki session you can think of it in a whole new brain friendly way. Reiki and the beautiful energy it provides will allow your cortex to relax and calm your mind, your limbic system will feel loved, your midbrain will delight in all its senses, your brainstem will regulate your automatic systems, your hippocampus will make new healthy memories and your amygdala may get hijacked less often!
- Daniel Goleman “Emotional Intelligence” Bantam Books – 2006
- Bruce Duncan Perry & Maia Szalavitz – “The Boy who was Raised as a Dog” Basic Books – 2008
- Sharon Begley The Wall Street Journal Online Science Journal 2004
- Louis Cozolino The Neuroscience of Human Relationships WW Norton & Company
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