Neurobiology and Yoga:
From the Gods of the Amygdala
to the God of the Heart
by Antonio T. de Nicolas
New discoveries in perceptual psychology, brain-chemistry, brain evolution, brain development, ethology, cultural anthropology, the more recent work of MacLean on the structure of the brains and the discovery by Gazzaniga of the role of the, so-called, “interpreter module”, are the foundations of a new paradigm on human cortical information processing, called by its discoverer, Dr. M. Colavito, the “biocultural paradigm.” This paradigm shows that biology and culture act on one another as the conditioning parameters of neuro-cultural in-formation. Through mutual interaction biology in humans becomes culture, and viceversa, culture opens and stimulates the neural passages of the brains, accounting thus for the varieties of brains in humans, and for cultural diversity. Culture conditions and stimulates biology, while biology conditions and makes culture possible. Cultures and brains may be distinguished from one another through identification with certain functions or combination of functions that are exercised habitually, or become neural hard-wire through repetition, or habit, like reading, thinking or doing yoga. This new model has replaced older and simpler models of the nature/nurture controversy, such as the unextended rational substance of Descartes, the tabula rasa of Locke, the associated-matrix of Hume, the passive, reinforcement-driven animal of Skinner, and the genetically hard-wired robot of the sociobiologists. However, elements of these earlier models are included in the new one, but the conversation about human experience has changed, and therefore the human images of ourselves. This change was forced on scientists by the importance of the conditionality of the experience of “I” and ” not-I” as described by the Wisdom Literature of India and the practices of Yoga and was introduced in the common conversations by the conversation and practices some of us already had with each other. This conversation now focuses on the structures of “I” and “not-I” as experienced and formulated in the practices of Yoga and in the Wisdom Literature of India. Its summary would read like this: How can we pass from the conditioned and mortal gods of the amygdala, our mothers and the priests teach us, to the unconditioned and immortal God of the heart, as yoga teaches?
Key Words: Bio-cultures, epistemology, human development, human body, imagination, inner technologies, yoga meditation, mystics.
Alex Comfort summarized in l979 the problems of objectivity and subjectivity in science the way Shankara did in Indian tradition so many centuries earlier:
- What we call “nature” consists of “arrays” on which human mentation imposes structure.
- Phenomena, which are our only contact with these arrays, are exactly what their name implies, namely “appearings” in which structure has been imposed.
- In some instances what appears to be phenomena –time is an example– may turn out to be wholly structures, namely consequences of a particular manner of intuitivistic data-processing.
- What we call the “I” or self is the shadow of a delay mechanism in the brain between its “oceanic” state of world perception and its “substitution”, namely the selective reading of the same event through linguistic structures.
These postulates have come down to us from our most reliable source of sacramental knowledge, the observation of objective reality by controlled experimentation. However, these postulates bear a strong resemblance to the “wisdom” models of the past: Plato’s cave, Shankara’s description of mental “superimpositions”, or the efforts of mystics to manipulate the body to circumvent the determinations of the viewpoint of I-ness and claim an a-perspectival “That” or not-I experience. Hence, a description of mystical practice should be interesting, not because it produces euphoria, or bliss, but because it sheds light on human experiencing, on the activities of multiple brains on objectivity, on habit forming, and on our neural connections. Most of all, because it will encourage a conversation that due to “political correctness” is about to be closed.
Where Darwin stops with the evolution of species, the paradigm of biocultures starts by describing how the human species has bioculturally acted upon itself and the environment. Biocultures, in this context, is the same as biological foundations (the evolution of the human brains) as they are activated and formed by cultural exercise in human individuals and communities. Neither biology nor culture ( nature/nurture) is determinant of the other, but rather their mutual fecundation, through exercise and repetition, gives rise to our possible multiple brains. We humans have acquired five brains, not one, as Descartes, in neurobiological error taught ( Damasio l994): the reptilian, limbic, the right and the left hemispheres of the neocortex, and the “interpreter module”, (Colavito,l995). These brains did not appear simultaneously in humans but evolved according to need or exercise, building themselves as neural paths in the brains and as external realities or cultures for the humans who used them. Thus we know of ancient cultures as being ( using Dr. Colavito’s terminology) maia types, since the brain serving as the “pilot” was primarily the reptilian, as in the child after birth; or mythos types, since they primarily developed the limbic brain, as in children between the ages of one to eleven; or right brain mimetic, since they acted on the language of images of the right hemisphere of the neocortex, as in children between the age of four and fifteen (magicians, leaders, the demiurge); or left brain mimetic (theoreticians, ideologues, theologians, social scientists), since they acted primarily from the left hemisphere of the neocortex, as in children from the age of seven on; or logos types, those whose experiences are imageless, experts in the creation of substitution systems, not able to deal with any of the other forms of knowledge of the right brain hemisphere . These biocultural types are invariant in the sense that they represent individual and social possibilities of human realities and development, but unless these brains are exercised they do not develop in full (Pearce,l992), or if one is socially sanctioned over the others, then cultural imperialism and individual loss may follow. Thus, we might find ourselves as individuals or cultures to be using one brain only, say the left brain mimetic one, and thereby giving to that brain the powers of a dictator or the arbitrariness of an emperor- king. Imperialism at its worst may be the result of arrested development in the culture or the individual. Examples in history are many. Early Hinduism in the Rig Veda is primarily a maia type of bioculture, while the Bhagavad Gita around 600 B.C. is clearly a mythos type, while Buddhism is right brain mimetic, Christianity left brain mimetic, and modern scientism is the logos type. This might explain not only how to read their mythologies, but also the difficulties in translation and the fight of supremacy of one group over others, ecclesiastical inquisitions and religious wars.
Furthermore, humans divide bioculturally, that is, our reading and acting with ourselves or others is generally determined by the type of bioculture we primarily are/use, not by the color of our skin or our countries of origin. Since, with rare exceptions, the left brain gets all its information from the right brain, not the outside world, and can only read selectively (by its own criteria) what it wants from the right brain, none of the information “spoken” by the left brain has any higher authority than itself. This revelation has enormous consequences for our dealings with others, with “knowledge” and primarily with religion. Thus, our primary concern as a culture is the education and nurture of our infants and children, for they are the repository of our biocultural development and integration. This follows because the lack of development of biocultures in children, the development of the five brains, up to the age of twelve, and in some cases earlier, is an irreversible process (Pearce,l992). In other words, if the children’s reptilian, limbic and right brain mimetic phases are not exercised, as early as the first months of their young life, the children do not develop sufficient neural links for the life of these brains, and atrophy follows. The child’s “windows of malleability” are closed by the age of puberty. By this age all the brains are either present or absent. The child is thus forced to live the rest of his/her life as a left brain mimetic, or simply a logos type. He/she becomes a victim and a problem to himself and to others, as in a jail, not able to reach either the right brain world of images and sensations or the outside world.
I remember a student of mine who approached me after class to question what she called the interpretation of the people of the Rig Veda ( 2.500 B.C.). According to her, I had to be wrong for she could not conceive how people could see images with the brain, much less make them. I tried to explain to her that images are something everyone has or makes. For instance, I asked her, what is your image of your own mother when you are not with her and I ask you, as now, about her? Her answer was: ” The only image of my mother I carry with me is m-o-t-h-e-r.” Spelling was as far as her brain could imagine. I found this example subsequently repeated by other young people.
Indeed, the clients of the Ascent of Man, of the climb up the ladder of movements, feeling, auditory, image and finally REASON, of the rule of reason over the chaotic field of the senses, of the rational over the emotional, of the objective over the subjective have ended up in a desensitized individual and culture, with the ability to manipulate the body pharmacologically, bent on avoiding the boredom that has become the sign of the times. But the fact is that we have five brains and that these brains function either independently or in harmony, either as dictators or as balanced multiplicity, either as a democracy or as victims, and thus there is still room for further human development.
No human development is possible, however, if we are unable to reach the human transparencies, our mental and bodily extensions through which we humans extend or curtail the reach of our sensations. Through these human transparencies, our mental and bodily extensions, we inhabit the world from the inside and through them we inhabit that fissure between creation and manifestation, sight and seeing, sense and sensation, stagnation and movement. Thus we must distinguish between a “primary text”, i.e.,our human body as the source of action and meaning and a “primary technology”, i.e.,the instrumental extension of the sensory system, like language, that makes our inner orderings available to others, a system of public signs. These signs are a “secondary text”, one of the commentaries of the primary, original text that is thus made known and public. The “primary text” lies hidden and is associated with some forms of bodily structures and behaviors that are not reached through philosophical analysis. A commentator or reader of the secondary text, however, can come to know the primary text as the origin of the secondary text and correct the interpretation and bias of one by the interpretation of the other. Third party readers of the secondary text(s) may be able to decipher it because they were trained in the use of the primary technology ( de Nicolas, l986).
Ideology and practice in science or in religion ( what we do in reality and what we “say” about reality) follow different paths. The biocultural model takes each brain as a “primary text”, that is, it focuses on what it does or can do, and also on a “secondary text”, showing how and by which criteria it reads or formulates its own activity. Furthermore, a ” primary technology” is then applied to activate and set in motion the different biological brains, thus clarifying the mental “faculty” involved in “doing”, while a “secondary technology” is used for reading the previous technology and texts and making them public. The discrepancy between the reading here suggested, where primary text and primary technology, secondary text and secondary technologies coincide, and the actual reading we are accustomed to with the secondary technology becoming the standard for the description of all realities, is equal to our ability or inability to activate our multiple brains, to keep them in exercise or extinct, to be at war within ourselves or in harmony. If the reading does not coincide with the technology in use, we have “a reading ideology” or cultural imperialism, which is the way we understand history, or the supremacy of one bioculture writing/reading itself and demanding that others do as it does. In any case, the outside world, or what we call reality, is an extension of the brain in use, or the brain in use extends itself to form worlds, holograms that become the world, or reality.
The justification for concentrating on experiences, like those produced by the practice of yoga that bypass I-ness, is not the pursuit of some nonrational source of knowledge. Rather it is a science starting from naive objectivism which has been able, by the force of experiments and mathematical analysis, to develop a counterintuitive model of perception empirically, which a large number (read, other biocultures) of humans arrived at without any physical experimentation. They simply cultivated mental states and bodily manipulations in which the model was not inferred but actually experienced ( Comfort l979). Similarly, when social scientists talk about science, their talk is limited by their linguistic structures that may not reflect accurately the actual structures of discoveries and inventions of science. Thus they become “theologians” of the words of science. Similarly, the theologians of old talked about the models of God, not on the experiential grounds of the mystics, but rather on the “biological/ideological” bases of God’s spirit impregnating the world and them as the “legitimate” heirs to this teaching ( Comfort l984).
The study of mystical experience and the practice of yoga is undertaken here as separate from religious theology. The first is bioculturally based, the second is socially or ideologically based. Religion, as based on biocultures, separates religious experience from other somatic pathologies, like schizophrenics, masochistic, or drug induced experiences. Mystics leave us epistemologies. The others do not. Mystic experience is always a delimiting case of various I-delimiting concerns, and so is science. Scientists and mystics are also “I’s”, and must pass all their observational input and interpretative output through the circuitry involved in the human identity expression. So, they must also become experts in interpretation. Even computers bear the mark of Adam, for his descendants programmed and targeted them ( Comfort l979). Ironically science has been able to operate as if it were truly objective, but subjectivity is the base of any scientific claim of objectivity, while mystic experience, in appearance a subjective notion, can be regarded as objective because it is totally so: the experience of not-I.
Science and mysticism part company in their own intuitive understanding of modeling itself. While science has adopted a traditional, mathematical equation-based modeling of the systems it examines, mysticism has traditionally taken a counter intuitive model where the basic unity is “individually-based,” or “agent-based,” an “algorithmic” simulation where entities are modeled as individuals rather than as aggregate “compartments” in a differential equation model. Thus the largest individual unit to be considered in this model is the “family” and the interaction among its members, biologically and culturally, bio-culturally. The wisdom literature of India has ample examples of this intuition with the oral transmission of texts by and through families, as in the Rig Veda, or the classical crisis of Hinduism in the Bhagavad Gita by the fact that the “family” structure of the Pandavas and Kauravas had come to a crisis. It is perhaps in this reconciliation of modeling that science and mysticism have a future together and with it our own understanding of our “individual” and “social” structures ( Colavito, l995).
What follows is a description of how mystics gain their experience, by concentrating in the technologies that lead to opening the heart, or that open the heart, that most powerful of all our intelligence systems, hoping to bring old knowledge and contemporary interests together, and the possibility that if we develop the separate intelligence systems of the brains and of the heart, then eliciting the experience of not-I, union, love, may not be so uncommon.
Starting on the Path
Before we start on a journey we need to know at least two things. Where we are coming from and where we are going, that is a map. And secondly what mode of transportation we are going to use, walk, bicycle, car, train, plain, jet plain. The second question is equivalent to asking ourselves which is our primary bioculture, with which glasses are we going to read the landscape? Are we a maia type, a mythos, a right brain mimetic, a left brain mimetic or simply a logos type? Are we right brain dominant or left brain dominant? Regardless of our good intentions the journey we are about to undergo will give us back only what we bring to it. The color of our glasses will be the whole landscape. So, which is our bioculture? But still, even if I know my bioculture, what do I need it for, where am I really going? Can you show me a map?
On paper, on the written word we will be traveling through the Rig Veda, The Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita to some particular practice of yoga as administered on us by a Guru, or Gurani. And that is fine, but are we really moving? But moving from where to where?
These are the questions.
To begin with the Classical Texts of India, the shruti tradition, are all composed by the
three brains of the right hemisphere of the neocortex: maia, mythos, right brain mimesis. What we call the “mind” (manas), the left side of the neocortex, the Indian Tradition took it only as one more of the senses, not a faculty, that is, a distraction in perception. And what if all I can do is think, and think, and think. Well, if you have no right brains available for the journey, may be this journey is not for you. Stay home, try to be good to others, don’t litter the road. However, if your brains of the right hemisphere are operating, please, climb aboard and let’s start on this journey. You will feel at home slaying the dragon in the Rig Veda, or sitting by the Guru in the Forest of life, or undertanding why in the Gita they speak of the three gunas as being the real doers of your actions, your biocultures in action not really you the ahamkara, and why it is easier to slay dragons than to enter the heart of the living God. Yoga is the journey. Yes, but from where to where?
The Neural Map
What is there besides the three brains of the right hemisphere of the neocortex and the two of the left hemisphere? Isn’t this the whole “biocultural paradigm”? We wish. All we would have to do is either fight for prominence of one brain over the others or forme some balance among all the brains. Aristotle gave us the first option. Plato footnoted Classical India by showing us a way to balance the different brains, or how to use education to balance the different brains and gain “the knowledge of knowledge.” This sounds like a bland project. It lacks the passion and immediacy of my own life. We can do this sitting down in a class room. I am bored, I am frightened, I am restless, I feel nothing, I feel everything, I hate, I love, I am in constant agony. What to do next?.
There are two other elements in the formulation of the paradigm that are of the utmost importance for understanding our thesis. One is the goal of the journey: the opening of the heart.
The other is the starting point: the amygdala. It is only recently that the intelligence system of the heart has been discovered. The heart is not just a pumping machine. It is an intelligence system. It is in fact the most intelligent system of all our brains, with its own receptors, its own electromagnetic force, from 45 to 70 times more powerful than the brains of the neocortex, and the only force capable of changing our own DNA.It can turn the mortal into immortal, glial cells into heart cells, mortal center into immortal walls in any cell. It is in fact he heart that turns each one of us from dead into living cells. No one of us is human until the heart beats. And viceversa, that first beat of the heart is what makes us human. In summary we can affirm the following: a) The heart contains its own nervous system and nerve ganglia that process information and send it to the neocortex. b) Th heart is a hormonal gland producing its own neurotransmitters, dopamine, epinephrin, norepinephrin, the catechlomines, which affect the kidneys, the adrenal gland, the circulatory system and the neocortex. c) The heart generates from 45 to 60 times more amplitude electrically than what we call the brain, plus all emotions alter the heart’s electrical field. d) Electricity emanating from the heart of person A can be detected and measured in the brain waves of persons near or touching person A. e) Cellular memory resides in the heart cells, as can be seen from transplant cases. f) DNA can be altered in the hands of a person practicing head/heart “entrainment,” or what we know as yoga.
The second beat, and the first in what will determine our identity, is the amygdala. The amygdala starts forming immediately after the heart’s first beat. It stores all the memories of our life in the womb, with the placenta, the water, the fluids of life and the terror of losing them, and also the joy of being fed, of bouncing, of moving. But the amygdala stores also the life of the mother, her depressions, her fears, her life. And this accumulation of memories goes on in us till the age of three. Which means that all this time we have lived, our life has been recorded for us in the amydgala. After the age of three the hippocampus matures in us. In it conscious memories are stored and we have access to them However, the hippocampus, we, have no access to the memories and the life we lived in the amygdala of the previous three years, even if from this point on amygdala and hippocampus converse with each other ( Carter, Rita, 1998). What happens to the memories of the amygdala? They become our individual nightmare, the invisible conditioning of all our actions, the blind spot of our lives, the origin of all our terrors, the unknown reason why we do what we done even when we do not know why we do it. And this is the reason why there is karma, and why we speak of previous lives, and we create those vengeful gods waiting to destroy us around every corner, and the faces of the gods are so distorted and our bodies are paralyzed with fear and inaction. And this is why there is yoga. Can we distroy these nightmares to which we have no access to, can we change those distorted faces of the gods, can we dissolve our conditioning? The answer is, of course, yes, and the path is YOGA. And this, why? Because the conditioning of the amygdala can only be removed by the intelligence system previous to it, and this is the heart, with its electromagnetic force and its power of transformation. Otherwise, the amygdala can act on its own by passing the intelligence centers of the neocortex. The gunas keep acting in spite of our good intentions. We live in vain tied to the wheel of samsara.
The Cultural Map of Yoga
When reading the Classics of India try to read them by the same criteria they were composed. Being primarily right brain creations go from the words, to the functions they perform, their definitions, and then to the images. When you dismember these images you will find yourself face to face with the knowledge of knowledge, an embodied geometry, a god, as Plato taught us, and yoga practiced before him. Thus you will find that for the Rig Vedic seers creating the hymns is not an academic enterprise, it’s a family affaire, a survival mechanism. A biological unity and a cultural unity define each other. The “varna” of the family is not their color, but the flag of the god they follow, the color of the god. For the god is not an arbitrary name, a god against the other gods, but the result of a dedicated discipline of creation through intelligence centers, from the Asat, the empty geometries of possibilities, the world of non-existence, to the Sat, Existence, the world of visible forms, to the Sacrifice, Yajna, of all creation and of all the gods, to the harmony of the movement of Rita, (the balancing acts of the heart).
- “The sages searching in their own hearts, with wisdom,
found in non-existence the kin of existence” R.V. 10.129-4
” Then came to me speach, Rita’s first born!
And quick I am a portion of Her.
The immortal is of the same origin as the mortal
He moves up and down by its own power.
They take different directions,
Moving around, fixed in continuity.
When men see one, they do not see the other. R.V. 1.164.37-38
And how is this elusive harmony accomplished? A god, Indra, stands in constant vigil slaying the dragon, by dismembering him, again and again, for one god, one image, always demands to stand fixed for others to follow its incantation. In neurological terms we can see that for the seers of the Rig Veda the one sin to be avoided was the idolatry of one image, one god, to stand fixed against the others. Magic would follow as in Hymn 7.104. and therefore the destruction of the family and of the social order. The images of the right side of the neocortex are formed as a hologram of the vibrations of the other two earlier brains, the reptilian and the limbic. To give these forms substance is not only idolatry but also a biological lie, these forms have no biology, they are not real. And therefore they have to be dismembered by returning to the geometries of the Asat and starting over with real vibrations. This is the model on which the discipline of yoga is based. But to understand its workings one must have the whole map, and not just portions of it, like quotations about the heart, or about yoga itself in front of every step we take. If the whole map is not in front of us we will think we walk when in fact we trip over our selves.
The journey of yoga continues in the Upanishads. In the Katha Upanishad 6.l6-l7 we read:
- ” There are one hundred and one channels flowing from the heart.
Only one climbs to the crown of the head.
Going up with it, one goes to immortality.
The others lead in various directions.
The inner soul is for ever seated in the heart…One should draw her out of one’s own body
Like an arrow-shaft out of a reed, with firmness.”
The firmness of this activity is what we know as the discipline of yoga.
And the Bhagavad Gita reiterates in l5.l5
“I am seated in the hearts of all;
From me are memory, wisdom and their loss.”
But which Yoga is my yoga? Which path is my path?
Come upanishad, sit by me, there is no rush. Do not forget that it took Indra, a god, one hundred and one years to learn this secret at the hands of another god, Prajapati, as narrated in the Chandogya Upanishad. ( Do you wonder what Prajapati’s mother’s problem was?) You have many choices. The Bhavagad Gita offers you eighteen yogas to choose from. Each chapter is one yoga. Which is yours? When, in clear conscience, will you be able to reach the state the Gita proposes: yatha icchasi, tatha kuru,do as you desire? But let the Gita itself be a warning of how important this choice is. The only person to survive the massacre of the families of Kauravas and Pandavas is the son of Arjuna by Krishna’s sister. One would expect as much from a descendant of Krishna, or is it that Krishna was, had the right bioculture? Little attention has been paid, in fact none, to the setting of the Mahabharata in the field of the Kurus. If you remember correctly it is in this field of the Kurus where the families of the Panadavas and Kauravas had been cursed for having been cruel to the dog, Sarama, in a serpent sacrifice. These two families were condemned to be mortal regardless of how heroic they appear in the Gita, because they prefered to find legitimacy in their procreation lineage rather than in the lineage of the heart, the serpent rather than the dog. By the end of the Mahabharata it is only Yudhisthira that becomes immortal, in his own bodily form and enters heaven with Krishna, because Yudhisthira has been kind to his dog, (the dog and the heart go togteher as much in Hinduism as in Sufism) and he will not enter heaven without him; thus he keeps his heart lineage alive. But why not the others? After the vision Arjuna saw in chapter eleven one would think he was the chosen one, that this would have been enough to save at least him. Well? It wasn’t. Why? Those who do yoga know better than to dwell on the signs that accompany meditation. No matter how powerful a “vision” is we know it is only a temporary sign to be dismembered. Signs, visual signs, are bioculturally conditioned and they do not guarantee anyone Moksha or liberation. As the Sufis say, ” the cat does not chase the mice for the love of God.” Yoga takes care also of dismembering the accomplishements of meditation. But on the most positive sign I promise you that by doing yoga, under any conditions, even if you do not find unconditional moksha, you will know much more, about things and about knowledge itself, than if you do not.
If you are doing, or think of doing yoga make sure you know the bioculture that guides you, your blind spot.
Do not think of yoga as the key to open your heart. Only the gods can do that, but if you do not do yoga the gods will never open your heart.
The immediate goal of yoga is to cancel out the conditioning of your amygdala. This you may try to do, but not on your own. A guru or a gurani is a must on this trip. The amygdala bypasses all your intelligence systems and acts, in your name, on its own, but it does not bypass the intelligence systems of the guru or gurani, and does not act in their name, unless of course the
guru, gurani belong to he same Mother Church of your mother and are also one of its priests. You must learn to choose, as Plato says ” that person that will teach you to choose by
habit from among the possible the best.” Or as Yoga has it : ihamudrartha phala bhoga viragaha, here or anywhere else (act) with detachment to the enjoyment of the fruits of action.
And finally remember that what I have just told you here in the name of science and in the name of the authority of the Indian Tradition is not what yoga is. Yoga is the path you discover as you uncover the conditioned path of a placenta on you and the memories of three years you have but do not remember and have no access to. Yoga is the exercise of passing from one brain to another and to the exercise of doing so, but not of talking about it. Language has its seat on the left side of the neocortex, mostly, and it only translates what it is already on the right side of the same neocortex. Experience comes first, then speech. What I am doing here today is not to tell you what you ought to do, but rather to tell you what I had to do in removing or trying to remove my own conditioning. If in doing so something strikes you as familiar then, bingo, we made contact, two on the road. Thus is how communities are formed. Hopefully these are communities of the heart and not of the amygdala.
Antonio T. de Nicolas
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
SUNY at Stony Brook
The Biocultural Research Institute,
St. Augustine, Florida 32080
The new discoveries regarded as the foundations of the “biocultural paradigm,” which are discussed in the abstract for this article can be referenced in the following: Berlyne and Mdsen, l973; Laughlin and d’Aquili, l974; Blakemore, l977; Olds, l977; Gazzaniga, l978,l987; Uttal, l978; d’Aquili et alia., l979; de Nicolas, l980, l982, l989, l990; Routtengerg, l980; MacLean, l986.
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