Describing Brain Functions for Our Work

by James Lawer
[Prefacing Note: This is a somewhat crafted dialogue to serve the purpose of information. It is not, however, fiction. Some of the dialogue is actual reporting of discussions with a live person—I mean, on this side of the veil—a clinical researcher who reviewed the article for scientific accuracy. Some of it is this writer’s internal dialogue with teachings familiar to all of us at the Cuyamungue Institute. And some of it is this writer’s internal dialogue with an actual research article originally published in October, 2012, by the Oxford University Press on behalf of the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. I believe this to be a highly important article for our work. The original article referenced is titled “Functional Connectivity Measures After Psilocybin Inform a Novel Hypothesis of Early Psychosis,” by 10 contributing authors, with the research centered at the Imperial College London, Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology.]

In the past, we have talked about different types of mental functioning in terms of a left-brain and right-brain dichotomy.  This model, offered by neurologist Michael Gazzaniga in the 1980s, has been a simple, descriptive way of creating a sense of anatomical distinction for different modes of thought: linear and computational versus intuitive and imaginative.  In addition, this has become a common descriptor in the culture, with “right brain/left brain” becoming a shorthand for this important distinction in describing consciousness.  More recent research into brain function, however, suggests an alternative model that can serve us as a more descriptive (and anatomically accurate) basis for understanding ways that brain and mind relate to one another.

Researchers today now talk about DMN (Default Mode Network) and TPN (Task Positive Network). These modalities are not split between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.  Instead, there are networks of regions on both sides of the brain that underlie both types of cognitive function. The DMN and TPN each are composed of multiple sites in the brain, sites that connect to one another in a predictable and stable manner. It is one of the marvels of our brains that these networks coordinate to create two distinct functional networks that tend to show reciprocal inhibition. In other words, when one is active the other is quiet or dormant. Thus, in ordinary circumstances, we are not “split-brain” but “whole-brain” people.

In some ways DMN and TPN seem something like the former “right brain – left brain” description, but the differences, I believe, actually help us describe our work as a whole brain-whole body experience and thus can guide further discoveries.

The “default mode network” represents the anatomical basis of our sense of self, our experience of having an identity or self, and our capacity for introspection.  It is active (as evidenced by increased blood flow and oxygen utilization) when we are contemplating such questions as who we are, how we perceive ourselves, how we experience our inner worlds, including reverie, daydreaming and imagination; i.e., when we are totally into ourselves.

The “task-positive network” is just what it sounds like—it is active when we attend to things in the external world (the “other”). It is in gear when we have externally focused attention, when we get wrapped up in getting something done and relatively forget about ourselves in the process.

These two functions are located in discrete circuits that are scattered throughout the brain. They are not split between the right and left hemispheres.  Therefore, it is inaccurate to say that when the rattling/drumming starts that the left-brain deactivates while the right brain becomes more active.  This newer model suggests that DMN and TPN are continually in balance with one another, rather like a 4-dimensional complex of evolving sets of X’s: one can slide between task-positive and introspection (and vice-a-versa) fluidly under normal circumstances.

The left-brain/right-brain model, however, is similar in one way.

Background: The DMN is a network of regions (dare I name them?: including the posterior cingulate cortex; the medial prefrontal cortex; the lateral inferior parietal cortex) that show greater activity during internally oriented cognition than externally focused attention. In other words, those regions actually receive more blood flow and consume more energy than other brain regions. This is also the network of the brain that has undergone significant evolutionary expansion. It serves as an important convergence zone or “connector hub” in the cortex. The DMN is activated during high-level thinking, such as predicting the future, making personal, social and moral judgments, and contemplating the past. There is some speculation that the evolutionary development of the DMN is the biological basis for our psychological sense of “self” or “ego.”

Here’s the similarity: when we are engaged in external, task-positive, focused-attention activities (TPN), the DMN deactivates, receiving less blood and energy. When we are engaged in introspection (DMN), the TPN deactivates. That is, we are regulating blood flow and energy consumption between different parts of the brain depending on what type of consciousness we are using. Furthermore, these two modes of consciousness do not, in ordinary waking consciousness, become activated simultaneously. These two networks exist side-by-side and in a somewhat competitive relationship, each becoming active when the need arises, even though they can alternate with extraordinary rapidity.

When I described to a clinical researcher what we do at the Cuyamungue Institute, he said that there was no room in this model for the involvement of a third network, a sort of third line interacting with the other two, a third “capacity” representing our relationship to Spirit-world reality.  To which, honestly, I had to say that the newer model might use some revision because of experiences of the reality of the Spirit world, a world perceivable by our minds, and went on to describe what happens in our work.

I proposed to him that what was needed was a third, intersecting line—rather like a 3-dimensional X with fluid, non-fixed intersections.  (I can’t draw that on this computer program.)  This third line represents what happens when the Spirit world, as an external and genuine reality, interacts as an “other” influencing both of our brain networks.  I described ways in which our self-perception (DMN) changes when we have an expanded (or deeper) sense of ourselves in the universe.  What is typical of what is reported by individuals undergoing psychedelic experiences in a research context is, “That journey was the most meaningful spiritual experience I’ve ever had.” This has also been reported to me by people who experience a rattling-trance session.

The comparison to people who are study subjects in psychedelic research is not accidental. Brain studies after psilocybin (a commonly studied psychedelic medicine) show an increasingly fluid interaction between DMN and TPN. That is, the ordinary, competitive separation of brain activities breaks down, and they become increasingly interactive with each other. Introspection and focused daily tasks start to become united activities occurring simultaneously, mutually influencing each other. I would like to suggest that rattling/trance induction sessions evoke similar effects, and the startling, profound effects reported after psychedelic experiences have marked parallel with reports from individuals undergoing sessions with me in rattling work.

After work with the Cuyamungue Method, people consistently report changes in their behaviors or other ways they go about living their lives (their TPM—externally focused actions) with new, internal awareness (DMN).  I am suggesting that the introduction of the third, spiritual stream changes and unifies both networks of brain function. The Cuyamungue Method may function by altering brain function by softening the ordinary, competitive boundaries between the DMN and the TPN. The Cuyamungue Method is, I would agree, an intentionally structured fusion of states—in which the Method induces a planned ambiguity—that looks, in some ways, like early stages of a psychotic episode.

[Observations from the practice of Cuyamungue rhythmic trance induction work:

It is my perception that, once the ritual Posture begins, people enter a zone of ambiguity, within which they let go of ordinary reality as a prelude to entering into the altered state. It appears that moving successfully through this “grey barrens” is necessary for the trance state to happen. It’s my own 7th Step to the Cuyamungue Method, and one I watch very, very carefully when observing participants. My belief is that experienced practitioners maneuver this zone more easily, because the fears associated with “letting go” are more easily released with practice: they know that they will return from the trance into ordinary reality. Shamanic death, in other words, involves a profound complement of developed trust. When the rattling stops, the body naturally and normally returns to ordinary functioning, but the trust factor that this will reliably occur is cumulative.]

To continue the conversation, I can agree with this newer model of the brain. I must also argue for the third intersecting network for a more complete description of how the brain functions within spiritual reality. This belief is based on actual experience in working with spiritual seekers over nearly five decades, utilizing many different types of spiritual practices.

Therefore, it is an inadequate model that describes the brain as independent of the rest of the world. In fact, the biological functioning of the brain is more accurately understood within a context of “mind,” and as such, is situated in an authentic relationship with spiritual reality. It is only upon engaging true relationship between all three networks (DMN, TPN and Spirit) that the narrative of our deepest, human capacities can begin to be discovered.

The current research being done by, or being supported by, the Cuyamungue Institute, is strongly persuasive that the literal reality of the Spirit world is in fact not “merely” metaphorical, but it is also literally descriptive of the way our bodies are designed to experience and understand the world: continually deepening, continually expanding and growing in wisdom.

Therefore, a more useful and accurate brain model will not only include a third, intersecting line, but will also be far more descriptive when it includes the Spirit. In this context, Spirit is an authentic reality to which we can pay attention as if it were an external, focused activity. Additionally, it is in constant, internal relationship with us. The doors to this authentic relationship are opened via rattling or drumming as taught by the Cuyamungue Institute. This practice, as an expression of a unique aspect of the human organism, may offer researchers a context through which to expand their own awareness of brain description and function. In other words, the brain is not exactly the context for perceiving the Spirit world, but rather the Spirit world is the context for understanding brain functioning.

My correspondent and I agree that current research suggests a model for understanding the Cuyamungue Method: that it perhaps leads to increased DMN-TPN coupling, and that an aspect of its safety lies in the technique’s ability to provide a clear entrance and a clear ending to the experience. This increased coupling of the two ordinary networks (of the DMN and the TPN) has been found in experienced meditators, particularly those who practice “nondual awareness,” which specifically promotes a unitary state of awareness.

Well, I said, the brain studies that I know of demonstrate that brain wave patterns are different in meditation from trance state. Perhaps what we are exploring in common is a more fluid understanding, a kind of heightened plasticity of consciousness, to which the Cuyamungue Method contributes some significant and specific methodology. One of the central features of our Method is that we do not want people to try to empty out their minds in order to achieve a “nondual awareness.” Instead, we want physiological arousal to remain conscious, intact, preserved, excited even, so that while our inner thought processes and our external focus become blurred (the DMN-TPN merger), we are more fully present while interacting with the Spirit world. The Spirit world, then, is not at all separate from us but instead is the Greater Mind within which we can be active participants.

Thus, I believe, we are fundamentally altered by what happens in our trance sessions.

I, at least, now follow this line of reasoning when describing what we do.

About James Lawer
James was raised in the Army, became a teacher, professor and United Church of Christ clergy, from which he exhaled a pleasing breath and became a Pagan Druid Priest.  He is Provost for the Druid College of North America, plays the harp for personal pleasure, and is a Certified Teacher for The Cuyamungue Institute, specializing in Ecstatic Postures as rediscovered by Dr. Felicitas Goodman.  His personal motto is “Reclaiming the human capacity for ecstasy.”  Twice he has worked in the midst of death and dying, first for the UCC AIDS Ministry (No CA/Nevada Conference) at the height of the AIDS crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area, and then for hospice, from which he retired.  Jim currently uses trance states, induced with the help of rattles and drums, to provide a context within which people may find connections to ancestors and to their own inner wisdom, in order to make meaningful transitions and expansions of consciousness.  He works with individuals and with groups.  His other motto:  “Laughter is a prophetic act,” and one of his closest friends is an old woman who was a street clown back in the day.

James is a does regular presentations and hold events in New York City.