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One crew, eight rowers, 32 brains... Wait a minute. How many brains?

This article appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of Spirituality & Health.

There’s a rowing race coming up for the brand-new crew I coach at Southern Oregon University. We don’t yet know when, where, or whom we will race. But the answers to these questions matter enormously because they will probably define the nature of this team. An eight-oared shell can become a glorious community more powerful than the sum of its parts. Not just the strokes fall in unison, but heart rate, breathing, and more transcendent rhythms that science is just beginning to measure. To achieve this blessed state requires a goal. So the question becomes: What regatta will offer the perfect amount of possibility to focus their hearts, minds, and guts so that their spirits soar, their muscles sing, and their shell seems to leap out of the water and fly?

Good question. But at this moment I’ve got bigger concerns. I have come to realize that I don’t know how to row.

Sure, I’ve got credentials. Twenty-two years ago I made a U.S. Olympic team. I’ve won international medals and currently hold an age-group world record. I’ve written books about rowing and developed a training program with the best physiologists at Nike. But what rattled me the other day was rowing in an eight-oared shell with a group of adults at Ashland Rowing Club, with an experienced coach, my friend Jim Sims. He was prattling annoyingly about a way of tilting the hips during the stroke that seemed to me wrongheaded. But I figured this hip tilting was harmless, so I rolled my eyes and kept doing what I always do, thinking that those following my stroke would get it right eventually despite the coach. Then, a few days later, on a rowing machine before a mirror, I watched myself carefully, thinking about Jim’s advice. Then I realized...oops...I was doing exactly what he had said all along.

Now, there’s an explanation for my confusion. The U.S. rowing associations coaches’ manual explains that there are three phases of learning: cognitive, associative, and autonomous. Simply put, Jim tells the new rowers what they should do cognitively; then, following my stroke, they associate with the proper technique. Eventually, the perfect stroke becomes automatic — mapped into the mind as what we call muscle memory. Over time the cognitive memory may fade so that we forget how we learned, or even that we learned. Yet, like remembering how to ride a bike, when we get into a shell, the old mental pathways fire up and our muscles unconsciously do the right thing. It’s only a problem when we try to tell someone else how to do it, and find ourselves saying, “Gee, I don’t know. Just do what I do.”

But it’s not that simple. Theologian Anne Foerst, who made a name helping to build humanoid robots at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, tells me about “mirror neurons” in the premotor cortex of the brain. These are “monkey-see, monkey-learn” cells. When one monkey watches another monkey perform a given leap, the same mirror neurons fire up in the brain of the watcher as in that of the performer. Thus the watching monkey does a virtual leap and begins to learn how to perform it.

We humans apparently have these mirror cells, too. Foerst is interested in them because they may explain how newborns learn to do things such as smile by mimicking their mothers. They also may explain the biology of “mind reading” and of empathy. When we watch someone’s face, our mirror cells read the person’s intentions; when we see the face of someone triumphantly winning a race, our mirror cells apparently fire up the same pathways, so we feel it, too.

The new brain science is strange and destabilizing, but what I find moving and humbling is the recognition that I, as a rower, am a body of knowledge. My ability to row is not conscious and to a large extent probably never was. Instead, over many years and millions of strokes, I have come to embody the knowledge of my coaches and those with whom I have rowed. As I coach, I try to figure out specifically where that knowledge resides, to better pass it on. That’s the plan, anyway. My athletes may ship me off to the opposition to confuse them.

Mirror, Mirror Cell, Who Am I?

Mirror neurons help explain how our bodies know how to do so many things that we don’t remember being taught. They also point to a larger truth. Neurologist Antonio R. Damasio, author of The Feeling of What Happens, points out that in evolutionary terms, we learned and performed many complex tasks before there was an “I” to learn them. Before the brain evolved into being able to think something clever like “I think, therefore I am,” its basic structures had been around for millions of years. And, like my own forgetful path as a rower, once that brain became conscious of itself, it chose to ignore or forget the other brains in the body.

Other brains in the body? Apparently so. What got me thinking about this was, once again, the humanoid robots at MIT. A big advance in making robots move like humans was Rodney Brooks’s development of “distributed intelligence” — small brains spread throughout the robot that concentrate on particular tasks. Without these small brains, the problem of walking is too complicated for the robot’s central processor.

Humans had the same problem. We had vastly different systems evolving more or less simultaneously, each too complex to develop under a single big brain. So they had, and have, their own.

One other brain, not surprisingly, is in the heart. Medical science has long known that the fetal heart starts beating before the brain is formed, and that the heart need not be connected to the head to keep beating. More recently, research at places such as the HeartMath Institute in Boulder Creek, California, has shown that the heart has its own nervous system, complete with as many neurons as are found in the subcortical centers of the brain. The heart secretes the same neurotransmitter and hormones as the brain, including oxytocin, the bonding or “love” hormone. Our emotions are reflected in our heart rhythms, which affect the brain’s ability to process information, make decisions, and solve problems. In other words, the heart is a real brain, just as shamans and poets have always said.

None of this should be news to athletes, for whom pulse matters and “putting your heart into it” feels like — and apparently is — a real phenomenon. When heart and rhythms are in sync, now a measurable state, you can feel it. It’s part of what we call flow. By the same token, one’s emotional state can put the heart and head out of sync. That’s why rowing in a rage feels like slogging through glue.

Another brain is the “gut brain,” or enteric nervous system. Thanks to work by researchers such as Michael Gershon, M.D., professor of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia University and on the staff of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, we know this brain is located in the linings of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon. Considered a single entity, it is a network of more than 100 million neurons. Much like the brain in the heart, the enteric nervous system develops on its own and is only later connected to the central nervous system by the vagus nerve.

Major neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, norepinephrine, and nitric oxide are in the gut. So are enkephalins, one class of the body’s natural opiates. The gut is even a rich source of the anxiety-reducing benzodiazepines — the family of psychoactive chemicals in such drugs as Valium and Xanax.

The gut brain even has its own “sleep cycles.” When it has no food, the gut’s brain produces 90-minute cycles of slow-wave muscle contractions punctuated by short bursts of rapid muscle movements, like the 90-minute cycles of slow-wave sleep and rapid eye movements of the head brain. When the gut is unhappy, it messes up REM sleep and becomes a nightmare.

While the gut brain’s familiar methods of expression — butterflies, cramps, diarrhea, constipation, heartburn — are difficult to ignore, these lower-level communications have been easy for the modern big brain upstairs to discount. It takes a sophisticated mind to conclude that an ulcer is “all in your head.” In fact, the ulcer is where the less sophisticated might expect to find it: in your gut, compliments of bacteria and the brain that happens to be in the same place.

By the same token, the big brain in the head says that butterflies in the stomach before the race or throwing up afterward are part of being an athlete. Not so; stomach disturbances mean the gut brain is not fully on board. Sure, I’m still nervous before races, but if I’ve prepared correctly, my guts are making sure that I get to the starting line completely empty, relaxed and ready to race. If my gut tells me something different, I know I have a problem.

Chakras, Anyone?

Now, if there are brains in the head, the heart, and the gut, the Eastern thinkers who came up with chakras must also be right about a brain in the reproductive organs. I’m still trying to track down the number of neurons involved and how the system developed, but a “sex brain” must exist, if only because evolution wouldn’t leave reproduction to a brain that could evolve to become so unconscious of itself. There must be more than hormones nudging the big brain upstairs. There’s an intelligence down there that makes people do the darnedest things. How could it be otherwise?

Which brings me back to the original question: What is the goal that creates the new crew? What unites these various brains distributed among eight rowers and a coxswain? When I was rowing at Yale, the answer was easy: Harvard. On the U.S. team, it was East Germany or the U.S.S.R. So my first thought for Southern Oregon University is to beat the University of Oregon, a lofty goal for a new crew. A goal that captures the imagination for a small university, one we might even pull off.

But some intriguing research suggests that the goal may not matter so much — or least, that a lofty goal is a means to a more basic end. I’m thinking now about research on muscles and what’s called proprioception, the sense of where we are in space. The proprioceptive sensors tell us where our hand is in relation to the ball we are trying to catch. Our proprioceptive senses are plastic. When we start training, our largely dormant muscles fire up and we literally feel bigger. Those senses can also extend to inanimate objects such as the cars we drive or the shells we row.

The strange thing is that during deep meditation, the brain’s parietal lobe, which receives these proprioceptive sensations, is essentially cut off. When the sensory input is cut off, the body has no limits and we feel one with everything. At least that is how brain scientist Andrew Newberg, M.D., author of Why God Won’t Go Away, explains the high of meditation.

In my experience, something similar happens when rowing in an eight. But instead of cutting off experience to feel one with the universe, rowers bring virtually all their muscles and brains together with seven others into synchrony. The strength and resolve of the entirety is felt by everyone. So like the goal of intense meditation, the goal for the crew, I believe, is union with God.

But I’m not sure it helps to tell them that. They’ll feel it or they won’t. In any case, I now understand the traditional and profound advice of the great rowing coaches: “Just shut up and row!”


Stephen Kiesling is a former Olympic rower, cocreator of the Nike Cross Training System, and editor at large of Spirituality & Health. A 35th anniversary edition of The Shell Game: Reflections on Rowing and the Pursuit of Excellence has just been published.


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