The Awareness Connectome
Implications for Mind/Body Practices
by Gérard V. Sunnen, M.D.
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The connectome is the ensemble of the neuronal population in the nervous system. In this ensemble are billions of neuronal bodies and their myriad interconnections that, in life, constantly teem with electro-chemical flux. The connectome includes the brain and the spinal cord, and in all fairness, all the peripheral nerves exiting from, and flowing into the system.
But conceptually, the connectome’s ultimate reach does not end there. Nerve tendrils, as they fan out to the outer edges of the nervous system, interface with endocrine glands and their hormonal outputs, heart and blood conduits, visceral organs, and muscles and joints. The connectome, as a master harmonizer of bodily functions, has no clear boundaries, intersecting with every neuron within its territories, and with the world of all bodily cells.
Commonly repeated, is the notion that we use only a small portion of our brain’s neurons. Meant as a reminder that our potential is far from achieved, the message is false. We use all the brain’s networks, but not at the same time. Instead, sub-networks are recruited, at different times and in different circumstances, depending on tasks at hand.
While the anatomical connectome is the hard wiring of the brain and its extensions, the functional connectome represents the activated brain networks in operation at any one time. As such, the functional connectome has plasticity in its operations. One particular connectome has much more fluidity than any other: it is Awareness. Visualized as a conglomeration of shifting neuronal lights, awareness can electively be directed to move through chosen brain networks, tending to the intention of the moment.
The functional connectome thus has the capacity to generate a dimension of brain function we all live with but whose fundamentals we are (still) unable to grasp. We talk and walk and think and feel in awareness, but have no clear scientific knowledge as to what it is, nor how it may relate to neuronal activity. Indeed, consciousness may be as enigmatic as neutrinos.
In mind/body practices, awareness is a fundamental common denominator. How can understanding the workings of this highest human endowment contribute to harvesting their promises?
The awareness connectome
Awareness cannot be sharply localized in the brain; it seems that every neuron lends a hand to it. But there exists a galactic network of neurons more specialized than others in the creation of awareness. Neuroimaging has long been sleuthing for awareness networks, which have extensive ramifications in the brain’s cortical areas and the deep crevasses of its convolutions. Cartographies of awareness may highlight certain neuronal circuits involving deep brain structures such as the limbic and thalamic nuclei and their cortical projections, but the fact remains that awareness circuits appear to be remarkably integrated and inter-dependent. Herewith, this consciousness-elaborating cellular network operating within the brain’s global connectome, is referred to as the awareness connectome (AC).
To be fully aware one must first be fully awake. Wakefulness is a precursor to awareness. The nervous system needs a certain amount of activation before awareness can take full bloom. Many machines, industrial and electronic, need priming before they can come to life. Comatose patients don’t have this basic priming because injury, metabolic imbalance, or poisons have depressed their nervous systems. In a previous paper, reference was made to the animating actions of the reticular activating system: http://www.triroc.com/sunnen/topics/meditationtherapies.htm; also: (Garcia-Rill 2015, Vincent 2000, Kinomura 1996, Steriade 1996).
Once the brain is jolted to wakefulness by the kindling of primal alerting systems, successive levels of awareness can then begin to layer on it, each superseding and complementing the other. This progression is seen in people who come out of coma. In exiting out of light coma, first is the welcomed appreciation for the immediate environment, of time and space. Then comes awareness of other people and social relationships. Finally enters the full recognition of one’s personhood.
Beyond awareness of personhood are other levels of awareness. First in a series of levels, is the awareness of being aware, which exists in different levels of intensity. And beyond that, are levels often described as “transcendental.” These planes are depicted as moving higher in gradations of “metaconsciousness” (Spiritual epiphanies during hypnosis: http://www.triroc.com/sunnen/topics/spiritualepiphanies.htm, or as the “Overself” (Brunton 1965).
Developing ever more extensive configurations of awareness is central to mind/body practices.
The awareness connectome in mind/body practice
Suppose you decide to close your eyes and, after taking a moment to take stock of the sensations in your body, you send, in internal space, your attention into the substance of one of your hands. You can feel your hand within your sensory universe, and can even explore each finger, one at a time.
What then is happening to your awareness connectome? It has shifted, because you have directed it to do so, channeled to the sensory homunculus in your brain, that little gargoyle guy shown on neurology maps, and more specifically to one of its hands. Your awareness connectome has morphed, having moved its constellation of neural lights and grown linking tentacles to another connectome, the one that oversees the knowledge of your hand.
In mind/body practices, the awareness connectome is sent on deliberate linking expeditions. In Hatha Yoga, awareness is dispatched to the body’s neuronal circuits, via centering on postures and breathing. Yoga invites the entente, if not fusion, between central awareness in the brain and all bodily connectomes, thus bringing them, through activation, to ever-higher levels of health and function.
The awareness connectome can also be directed to illuminate itself, as awareness kindling awareness. Zen meditation, as only one example of such practices, can lead to the creation of states of mind processed as new ways of experiencing self-perception. One perspective on this phenomenon is that it becomes possible to determine and direct the unfolding creation of selfhood.
Mind-Body practices, by activating awareness, enhance the proliferation of corresponding neuronal networks. Growing evidence gathered from brain imagery documents that such practices induce selected brain neo-growth (Luders 2015, Fox 2014, Gould 1999, Guo-Li 2005, Hölzel 2011, Lazar 2005, Xue 2011, Vestergaard-Poulsen 2009).
The concept of the awareness connectome (AC) strives to clarify dynamics of mind/body techniques. Knowing how the AC connects and disconnects neuronal sub-connectomes makes mind/body practices more graspable in their mission and practice. The familiar “monkey in the brain” phenomenon, for example, the intruding erratic thoughts contaminating the meditative experience (and the bane of meditators), can thus be seen as the interference of pirate connectomes encroaching on intended meditative pathways.
The awareness connectome is dynamic. Constantly in flux, it can be directed to the body’s sensory circuits, to muscular action, to abstract problems questing for solutions, to distant futures, or to the far reaches of the past. Yet, caveats need mention. In multi-tasking, for example, when awareness is made to perform simultaneous or rapidly changing tasks, the AC can be pushed to broaden its activity spectrum. But, while multi-tasking sharpens the AC’s dexterity, it does not necessarily develop awareness intensity, nor quality.
Mind-body practices, on the other hand, enrich awareness essence. To make this happen, awareness may be channeled unto itself, as in Zen meditation; or into sustained meditative streams, as in centering on bodily configurations, breath and breathing. In these examples, the stoking of awareness stimulates the expansion of neuronal networks and their corresponding mental dimensions.
But what (or who) drives to push awareness to attain ever-greater territories? This special connectome will be explored in a future paper.
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Gérard V. Sunnen M.D.
200 East 33rd St.
New York, NY 10016-4831
Board Certified in Psychiatry and Neurology.
(Ret.) Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry,
Bellevue-NYU Medical Center, New York