Mind Your Brain
There are two areas in the brain involved with experiencing. The first is called the narrative circuit and involves judging whatever you are experiencing through the filter of your past experiences, perceptions and judgments. It’s the part of your brain that’s activated when you are worrying, stressing and planning. The narrative circuitry is verbal and chatty and it’s the part of you brain that’s activated when you can’t enjoy your day in the sun on the beach because you can’t help thinking about your job or the IRS or your dysfunctional family. If you’re washing the dishes and you haven’t noticed the feeling of the water on your hands or the smell of the dish soap as its molecules hit your nostrils you are probably dealing with an activated narrative circuit. For the brain scientists out there the specific areas of the brain that are associated with the narrative circuit are called the “medial prefrontal cortex” and the “hippocampus”. What’s most unfortunate about this narrative circuit, is that in addition to the way it obliviates the present moment is the fact that it is our default way of perceiving our experiences. That means that that this way of perceiving is active for most of our waking life and requires very little to intentional effort to operate. In other words, unless we pay attention to our experiences and sensations willfully, we are doomed to missing the immediacy of our experiences, spending much precious time in our heads rather than in our lives.
The second way of perceiving events requires activation of a second brain area called the direct experience circuit. If you are washing the dishes and you have an active narrative circuit you may not notice that you’re washing that delicate crystal glassware until you shatter it and cut your hand. At that point you will immediately switch on your brain’s direct experience circuitry and that change will probably be punctuated by a scream or an “Oh shit!” response. That’s because while the brain’s narrative circuit is activated by default, emergency conditions that require an immediate response activate the direct experience circuitry. The areas of the brain that activate direct circuitry are called the insula, which is involved with bodily sensations. That’s makes paying attention to your breathing or your body or any somatic qualities a great way to escape the constant narrative circuitry chatter.
The good news about the direct experience pathway aside from its serene and non-verbal nature is the fact that it is associated with the release of pleasure chemicals in the brain, specifically the neurotransmitter dopamine. This surge in dopamine is so delicious that sometimes people can become addicted to it. That’s why some brave folks crave real life-threatening experiences like sky diving or bungee jumping. And that’s why some slightly less brave folks crave pretend life threatening experiences like horror movies and roller coaster rides.
The trick to making the most out of the brains circuitry and biochemistry and life experiences as well, is to watch your brain and intentionally activate direct experience circuitry. If you find yourself with an overactive narrative circuitry which can show up as worrying and stressing about potential future events or regretting or replaying past events you can willfully turn on the direct circuits in the brain by focusing on your body or your breathing. Try picking a body part, like your hand or foot and placing all your attention on it. Feel its subtle energy and shape. Notice that for the few seconds that you’re focusing on it that the narrative chatter has quieted down and you can perceive a palpable sense of pleasure as the direct circuits have been activated.
With regular practice at paying attention to these two ways of experiencing you will gradually begin to know when your brain narrative’s circuitry is active and conversely, when the direct circuits have been switched on. And from that point it will become easier and easier to initiate the pleasure chemistry of direct experience whenever you desire.