Dr. Peregrine Kavros is a friend of ours who is a licensed Psychologist & Clinical Neuropsychologist who provides individual psychotherapy, couples counseling, and sex therapy. She founded Management Focus to address the often overlooked needs of students and professionals in academia and the workplace: Among the many tools she uses, Dr. Kavros has found that mindfulness techniques can change the moods that control your life. So, obviously we wanted to pick her brain and share with you what makes her work with others so successful. She explains the neuroscience that proves that there is indeed a connection between emotions and the physical body. This science also proves the need for all of us to learn mindfulness techniques to help maintain a functional mind/body relationship.
SB: Dr. Kavros we believe the physical, emotional and mental bodies are distinct, but connected. Can you speak to that?
Dr. K: There is a clear systemic or neurological basis for the inter-relationships of the body, mind and emotions. That is why having a physical movement practice is so important in helping us to affect the change that we would like orchestrate in those relationships. Centering the body can be helpful when we feel out of control either mentally or emotionally. It’s also important that the physical movement we engage in be fun and enjoyable!
SB: We are big anatomy and neuroscience nerds. Can you describe some of the brain functions that fit into the context of this conversation about the body/mind and trying to create a practice that allows us to keep that connection healthy?
Dr.K: The specific neurobiological underpinnings of Mindfulness, in this context, can be read about in the work done by Drs. David Vago and David Silbersweig. In the linked article, they describe how one may, “through meditation…modulate self-specifying and narrative self-networks through an integrative fronto-parietal control network.” (Thankfully, Dr. K will now translate for the rest of us.)
Rather than our thoughts, emotions or body controlling us, with practices of mindfulness, we develop a greater capacity to choose which part of us needs to be in control at any given point in time. Until a regular practice of mindfulness is enacted, the Narrative self, which is associated with the structures of the brain that are more likely to hold our “stories”, (the hippocampus, ventral medial prefrontal cortex, and other memory related structures), may be overly dominant. The Narrative self, the voice that does not seem to fade and replays over and over again, reminds us of what we’ve experienced in the past and how that past may influence our experience in the future. This process of recollection can be an overwhelming sensory experience. For instance, if an experience triggers a memory of an event you had when you were 8 years old then you can also re-experience the physical sensations that go along with that memory.
SB: So the neurobiological process you have described can make moving beyond past trauma difficult as well as make it challenging to remain in “reality” due to our ever-shifting emotions. How does practicing mindfulness effect that process?
Dr K.: These Narrative brain structures that we have been speaking about compose what neuroscientists refer to as Task Negative Networks. When Task Negative Networks are shown during functional magnetic resonance imaging (a test that measures blood flow in the brain) individuals are engaged in non-goal related activities such as, daydreaming. Alternatively, Task Positive Networks, which involve structures such as, the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, precuneus (a structure involved with episodic memory, visual processing and self-awareness), frontal eye fields, primary motor cortex, parietal lobe, among others, activate on a conscious and unconscious level when individuals engage in goal related activities. In one study, prior to a sustained practice of mindfulness, the posterior part of the Insula (one of the brain structures associated with emotion) was activated at the same time as the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (the Narrative Self). After a sustained practice of mindfulness, the Insula was activated with the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, thus shifting from rumination to a stronger capacity to attend, initiate, execute and follow through. Drs. Vago and Silbersweig suggest that the brain actually becomes more efficient in integrating information and switching between the Task Positive and Task Negative Networks; thus, coordinating our processing of emotion and physical sensory in a much more helpful manner. Rather than being lost in our emotions and physical sensations, we can direct our activity where it needs to be directed, while at the same time feeling grounded and centered in our experience.
SB: Nice! So can a physical practice, like yoga or dance, that demands your focus be part of a mindfulness practice?
Dr.K: Absolutely! Engaging in a physical practice, while also directing one’s attention, can help us develop our muscles, so to speak, as we shift our brain activity. The brain does not function with separate conversations happening in distinct areas of the brain. Activity in the brain is more like a chorus of voices and we are the conductor.
SB: Aaaah. A tenent of SMARTer Yoga™ is that your physical practice should increase your awareness of your body, of your mental processes and of your emotions. We believe that with this increased awareness comes the ability to make better choices. Do you believe that this relates to the neuroscience we are talking about here?
Dr.K: Absolutely! A mindfulness practice (physical or meditative) can help one to discriminate among the voices that make up the chorus in an active brain. With mindfulness it is easier to choose the voice that will help us to pay closer attention or complete our task without necessarily being distracted by memories that can negatively influence our experience. We become less reactive and are able to stay focused in the moment.
SB: This is so exciting! Integrating information in a way that lets us make good choices is ultimately the reason we have a practice that is physically demanding, yet meditative. Taking our time while confronting uncomfortable sensations, breathing, staying focused and making good movement choices is the way we learn how to evaluate pieces of information in daily life, but not be overwhelmed by triggers. Mindfulness can be an incredibly empowering experience. How would you recommend someone begin practicing?
Dr.K: Start with what you have: your body. Begin by focusing on your breath for 5-10 minutes a day. A really simple beginning to your practice can start by counting to 4 on the inhale and then counting to 4 on the exhale. One can also go to Dr. Dan Siegel’s site for more information and examples on how to begin.