Have you ever wondered why we think, feel and act as we do and how that may or may not be connected to the problems our clients are seeking to rectify through therapist like massage?

The evolution of the brain holds many secrets as to why emotions affect us the way they do.  Research in the Neurophysiology of Emotion has recently unlocked many of these secrets. In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman (1997) describes how over the course of millions of years the brain evolved from a very primal organ incapable of learning to one capable of a complex array of emotional and conceptual, preparation, organization, and wisdom.  The brain stem, limbic system and the neo-cortex are the result of that evolution.

The brain stem is situated at the base of the brain and at the top of the spinal cord. Sometimes called the root brain, it is the oldest and most primitive part of the brain.  The brain stem is pre-programmed - it doesn’t learn, second guess or change how it regulates the body.  That would jeopardize survival. 

The emotional brain or limbic system started out as two layers of gathered neurons which formed what was called the Olfactory lobe, the function of which was to analyze smell.  One layer identified the smell; the other told the body how to react (run, hide, eat, etc). As the olfactory lobe evolved, additional layers of the emotional brain grew to eventually encircle the brain stem.  This new group of layers developed to be capable of learning, memory and more refined emotions (pleasure, sexual arousal, fury). 

Two key parts of the rhinencephalon, the hippocampi and the amygdala, evolved into the cortex and the neo-cortex.  The hippocampi play major roles in short term memory and spatial navigation.  The amygdala is especially designed to store emotional memories. The more the amygdala is aroused the more intense the memory. This is important because the amygdala also filters incoming sensory information for signs of trouble and the filter is based partly on past experience.  When stimuli that produce extreme fear or anger are perceived, the initial response to act comes from the amygdala.

The neo-cortex developed on top of the limbic system. It is divided into frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes. The neo-cortex allows for the traits that are purely human.  The ability to think about our feelings, to strategize and plan ahead, to create art and to comprehend concepts are each functions of the neo-cortex. The neo-cortex (thinking brain), in addition to the emotional centers (limbic system), allowed for the fine tuning of emotions.  Without the neo-cortex there would be no altruistic love, nor would you be able to refrain from acting out when enraged!

You may ask, “What does any of that really have to do with massage?”  My answer, is “EVERYTHING!”  Our emotional selves are always in play, whether a client seeks massage because they are stressed out, have a physical injury or need help correcting posture of breathing patterns.

Stress and injuries can negatively affect our disposition, making us crankier or short tempered. Postural and breathing issues limit oxygen to our brains and also change biofeedback rhythms, which can also affect mood.  Understanding that many of the processes are happening deep in the “feeling” brain and not just in the “thinking” brain can bring a broader awareness to your session, resulting in a more connected and compassionate therapy.


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