Spirituality & Health Magazine

2009 March-April

A Neuroscientist Explains how to Manifest with Metaphors

In literature, writers use metaphors to transfer information inherent in one context to another to infuse the target with an extra layer of meaning. For example, “Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings” conveys the basic idea that the Psalms’ author is happy to stay near the listener, God, in order to receive his assistance, but it also imparts an empathic sense of a fledgling expressing its deep contentment and appreciation for the protective embrace of a loving parent. Our conscious experience of the beauty and power of the Psalm is created in our brains and minds when the neural networks that represent each of these contexts (the basic message of appreciation and the fledgling allusion) fire in concert. This “synapse” is a neural associative bridge between two cerebral stores of information. And while an awareness of the neural creation underpinning the magic of the metaphor isn’t required to appreciate it, an understanding of this process can be extremely helpful on a path of physical and spiritual self-transformation.

Consider a simple example in yoga: You’re hanging in a forward fold, when your teacher says, “Imagine that you are a waterfall”; in an instant, your hips release and you fall into a much deeper inversion. To understand the transformational power of the metaphor, let’s take a closer look at the neural creation underlying this experience of release.

Each of our experiences results in the creation of a unique neural network in our brains. All of the disparate bits of information about a particular event — information about where we were in the world and what was happening there, how we felt and thought, how we and others behaved, as well as the consequences of those actions — gets yoked together as a single fundamental unit of behavioral intelligence, an experiential network. (When the activation of one of these networks results in a conscious experience, we call it a memory.) At a later time, when we’re in a similar place in the world, witnessing similar events, or experiencing a similar feeling state, this network will automatically be activated. And because it includes the neural circuitries that represent the thoughts and behaviors we executed way back when the network was created, we will usually find ourselves thinking and doing very similar things again.

This type of neural processing is happening all the time at the most foundational level of our behavioral intelligence system, but that’s just the beginning. All the while these networks of experience are forming, our system also is engaged in a higher level of neural processing — in what might be considered the neural realm of our wisdom.

Across various sets of our experiences, all of the common aspects of those experiences are registered as new, higher-level neural networks that represent anything and everything that is essential to a particular set of experiences. The essential physical information we have about liquid falling from a height is one such example. Now, let’s return to our yoga posture.

When we’re in the physical posture of a forward fold, we’re bending over from our hips as best we can, given the sets of neural networks that are activated at the moment and the muscle groups they control. Some of these networks and their yoked behavioral outputs are appropriate to the posture, enabling our lower body to support the weight of our upper body’s pulling forward and down, but some of the engaged muscles have simply remained contracted from a previous posture. When we process the image of a waterfall, another network is activated, a higher-order network that embodies the motion of free-falling fluid. The moment we imagine our torso as a rush of falling liquid, all the muscles that can release, do so. The deepening of our yoga posture is the direct result of the fusion of these two pools of knowledge.

This is just one simple example of the power of metaphor to transform, but the possibilities of fusing two or more pools of knowledge to promote our own self-growth are countless. Imagine what synergy you might create for your self...


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