Crossing the Threshold of
Into The Basic Brain
I am not a suspended, rootless
thing in the world,
I am earth of its earth
and breath of its breath.
Nikos Kazantzakis, The Saviors of God
The deepest brain is about the
earth. It is about stability and security. It is about acceptance of life
as it presents itself. It is about life and about preservation and creation,
not in finished form, but in continuum. We are in the continuum. Life, or
basic wave-motion energy, goes on without us and also with us as we emerge
In the formations of the basic brain we make our first appearance as human
life. This is our first brain of basic rhythm, of motion, of reaction and
action. This brain exposes us to the earth through our skin, which no longer
slithers on the earth but which nevertheless clings to whatever is near.
If we notice the ways we invent to be on earth, we become conscious of our
being. We notice our efforts to be secure by making tribes and nations and
families or at least couples; to control and dominate by using our work,
our children, God, and finally ourselves; to become part of or to participate
by using any means possible, be they social or antisocial, positive or negative, criminal or good, freeing or possessive, original or addictive. We wrestle in diverse ways to become.
It is in this first brain that everyone tells us we are enough, God loves
us as we are, nature is, and we already belong. Again and again human life
keeps appearing and keeps not being able to hear this sound closest to the
earth, this ground of being. It is here in this first brain, when the other
brains no longer function, that we are still alive. What form of consciousness
the continuous beating of the heart
the continuous breathing of the lungs
the continuous expansion-contraction of this brain
Continuity, at the very least, is here.
What to Name this Brain
It is difficult to find an appropriate name for the deepest brain. From
the perspective of evolution it is our first brain. It was named the R-Complex
by Paul MacLean, because in physical formation it is similar to the brain
of reptiles. It is, however, also described in medical texts as part of
the central nervous system. Although our deepest brain is similar in formation
to that of reptiles, and although some of the basic activities of this brain
seem very reptilian such as repetition, imitation, and deception, there are
also subtleties in this brain not conveyed by these words. Especially when
we take into account the link between this brain system and the entire spinal
cord, including the afferent-efferent nervous system and extending to the
openings of our skin, the name nervous system brain would seem to convey
the much larger implications than I believe are involved. It-complex, first
brain, or nervous system brain -- all work -- but I have decided to resolve the
difficulty by calling it simply the basic brain, because it seems to me
basic both to the other brain systems as well as to the subtle management of energy. When relevant, however, I use all these names
We may be either conscious or unconscious of the energy that we call our
self or the energy that surrounds us. However, life goes on with or without
our consciousness. This basic brain continues to filter energy in any state
that we refer to as unconscious: whether caused by physical damage to the
brain, the normal rest periods of sleep, or just lack of awareness. While
there is life in the body, it is because energy is still passing through
this basic brain system. To access this energy we need at least the following
the ability to enter into the rhythms of what is happening
the ability to create parameters and to dissolve them when they are inappropriate
the ability of neutral observation of ourselves and all that surrounds us
the ability to move toward and away from, in tandem with life closest to
us, which is freedom in this deepest brain
Characteristics of the Basic Brain
Paul MacLean defines the basic brain as the it-complex, including the brainstem,
the reticular activating system within the brainstem, and the basal ganglia
surrounding the brainstem. "The...brainstem and spinal cord constitute
a neural chassis that provides most of the neural machinery required for
self-preservation and the preservation of the species."
The main structures involved in the basic brain are the brainstem and the
spinal cord, which serve as a channel for impulses and information between
the outside environment and the basic brain; the reticular activating system
within the brainstem, which channels information to the limbic brain and
neocortical systems; and also the basal ganglia, which provide motor function,
as well as the storage of basic memory of sensorial patterns.
BRAINSTEM AND SPINAL CORD
The spinal cord filters incoming vibrations into the brainstem and therefore
is essential for the full understanding of human behavior in relation to
this brain. The spinal cord extends the length of the back and conducts
impulses from the skin or outer world to the brainstem.
Along the spinal cord extends the afferent-efferent nervous system. Figure
10 shows the afferent system relaying impulses from the openings or pores
of the skin to the spinal cord and then to the brainstem. From within the
brainstem, these impulses are then available to be sorted through a group
of fibers known as the reticular activating system and passed into the limbic
system and then to the neocortex. Impulses are then returned through the
efferent nervous system to the muscles for action in the outside world.
Fig. 10. Afferent-Efferent Nervous System: The
Skin-Brain-Action Circuit. From Eric R. Kandel and James H. Schwartz, Principles of Neural Science, 2nd Ed., Appleton & Lange, 1985
Notice that our spinal cord links us to the outside environment by means
of the afferent-efferent nervous system, which is continually receiving
impulses from our muscles and skin. Also notice that our skin is covered
with pores, which are a system of openings constantly exposing us to the
world. Although we are used to thinking of our skin as a covering for our
body, almost as a form of defense, it would be more appropriate to see our
skin as our interface with the environment. Our pores are the eyes of our
body. They are the openings that permit energy to come into our deepest
brain, just as the nose, mouth, and genitals are openings into the limbic
system, and the eyes and ears are openings more directly related to the
neocortex. All openings are, of course, interrelated within the three brain
What is implicit in this description is that we are constantly exposed to
each other and to our environment. The connection between the outer world,
our skin, and this deepest brain provides a physiological basis for Thomas
Merton's comment "We are already one." It also helps explain the
"collective unconscious" proposed by Carl Jung that affects so
deeply our interior life. We can try not to be affected by others or not
to think about them, but in the basic brain we cannot keep them out. Collectively, we are all connected, whether we become conscious or remain unconscious of our connections.
Information from our environment enters at least as far as our brainstem
without our conscious consent. Only as it passes into our limbic system
do we become conscious of this information as feeling, or later as thought
or image or intuition as it enters the neocortex. It may well stay "unconscious"
until it appears as information in our left or right hemisphere. Our surroundings
and the people near us are continually conditioning us. The entire context
in which we live and work is informing our brain through the pores of our
skin in the same way that a symphony informs our brain through the openings
of our ears. We can infer that we need to look at the content of our immediate
environment just as carefully as we would look at the books we are reading,
music we are hearing, or art we are seeing. Our surroundings are continually
Our basic brain is affected not only by the surroundings in which we live
but is also, at the same time, affecting and creating the context in which
we live. The importance of context in our development brought me to conceive
of parameter intelligence, a search for the parameters that define and circumscribe
the context or different environments of our life, such as our home, our
work, our relationships, and our health.
Given that we are constantly being imprinted by our environment, there are
certain questions involved in consciousness. At what point are we actively
involved in accepting this imprinting? Or are we conditioned in an unconscious
manner by this imprinting? Do we participate at this deep level? For sure,
this deepest brain participates and in some way converts incoming impulses
into information, but how can we become conscious of what we are receiving
or what this brain has already received? It is exactly this process of how
impulse converts into recognizable information that we seek to bring into
enough awareness to permit our conscious participation.
One obvious first step for consciousness is to focus on this process of
reception from our environment through the openings of our skin. Consciousness
then involves observing, studying, and taking into account the the context
in which we live did not just happen, nor was it predetermined Rather, it
is the result of continuous impact-imprint-acceptance reaction to the people,
places, and information of our environment. Our deepest brain has been
recording, registering, and storing in memory different combinations of
information since birth.
To be behaviorally intelligent, we need to be willing to observe our interactions
from the point of view of an observer and not from the point of view of
an owner of that behavior. We need to be a fair witness to this interesting
combination of complex interactions that has gone on all our life and that
is influencing our behavior today. With such neutrality we will then be
able and want to study our childhood experiences with the same curiosity
and acceptance that we might use to study any history, whether it be of
a family or of a nation.
Ask yourself what occurred in the past that influenced your development
and is affecting you today. Rather than focusing on your mother and father
and what they did or did not do in your childhood, focus on what you probably
concluded under those conditions. Do the same with early imprints from your
culture, your religion, and your education. What did this organism probably
decide? You need to take into account the stimuli and your responses, as
well as the conclusions-reaction-decisions of your basic brain, if you
want to change your behavior. If not, your heritage serves as a network
of resistance against any new desire from your limbic brain or any new decision
by your neocortex. This network of resistance is why willpower alone, however
strong or well intentioned, does not do much to change behavior. Pattern
intelligence was conceived as a way to discover the early links made as
a result of the continuous exposure and interaction of this deepest brain
with its context.
RETICULAR ACTIVATING SYSTEM
The reticular activating system is found within the brainstem, as shown
in Figure 11.
Fig. 11. Reticular Activating System
Gatekeeper to consciousness, spark of the mind, the reticular formation
connects with major nerves in the spinal column and brain. It sorts the
100 million impulses that assault the brain each second, deflecting the
trivial, letting the vital through to alert the mind. The mind cannot function
without this catalytic bundle of cells. Damage to them results in coma
the loss of consciousness.
One hundred million impulses assaulting the brain each second! What happens
to them? They enter at least as far as the brainstem, then through the reticularactivating system the energy may pass into the emotional or limbic brain and then into the neocortex, as shown in Figure 11.
When these impulses are registered in our emotional brain, we begin to feel
or allow ourselves to be conscious of what we are feeling. When they are
registered in our neocortex, we begin to think, imagine, relate, or intuit.
It is also possible that we do not become conscious of much of the incoming
energy until later. At night, entering into the deep relaxation of sleep,
we may allow ourselves to access more information, which may appear in images
or verbal messages we call dreams -- the most subtle language coming from this
The energy may also show up in sudden realizations or unexpected awareness.
It may be that some weeks or even years later, when we are engaged in a
totally nonassociated activity, all of a sudden we "get it;" we
have a realization, an "a-ha!" moment. Somehow, we have given
ourselves permission to access the information that was already stored within
us, forming it in a new and meaningful way.
The basal ganglia are formed around the brainstem and include the caudate
nucleus, the putamen, and the globus pallidus. Damage to certain parts of
this area may result in inability to control motion. Although we believe
we control our actions and although we want to control them, we have to
count on the participation of the basal ganglia of our basic brain. As describedby Richard Restak in The Brain, we can decide to write our name and want to write it, but in order to act on this decision and desire, our basal
ganglia have to be involved.
MacLean emphasizes that the basal ganglia are involved in far more than
motor activity, however. Instead of waiting for the results of additional
brain investigation, I decided to probe further based on studies of human
behavior. I asked myself: Could it be that the basal ganglia store certain
data that are learned as instinctive reactions for the protection of life?
Could it be that the first data of stimulus-and-response are stored in this
brain as patterns, which then continue to direct our behavior? Could it
be that impulses basic to life stored themselves as sensory patterns, available
for automatic retrieval?
For example, we learned to walk as a child in interaction with our environment
and by means of responses to stimuli. We stored the pattern of how to walk,
and now we walk without thinking about how to do it. In the same way, we
were impacted by various kinds of behavior, rather than just motor behavior,
from people in our environment, and we learned to act in response to what
was happening. Our reaction to the stimuli could have been either imitation
or a contrary reaction. All we know is that we were exposed and that our
basic brain registered our reaction. Therefore, the censorial memory, message,
or pattern, whatever we wish to call it, is registered in our basic brain.
Even though reptiles may access these patterns directly through their reptilian
brains, perhaps humans can retrieve these instinctual patterns only upon
command from the neocortical centers in collaboration with desire from the
limbic system. Or perhaps it is here in the basic brain that all patterns
are stored and may, on a more subtle level, be activated through stimuli
from the environment even without conscious agreement from the neocortex
or limbic system. We have all had the experience of deciding not to take
another drink or piece of cake and believing we did not want to, when the
drink or cake was in our hands before we realized what we were doing. We
say "it just happened." We have decided many times that we will
not react, even if the other person makes us furious, but somehow or other
something happens and we do react.
Something in ourselves is stimulated by something in the other. Until now
we have called this lack of specificity "the unconscious" and
in that way felt ourselves free from knowing our own behavior or even free
to blame the other person, the situation, or life itself. Now, knowing about
our basic brain, we can become conscious that what is stimulated is that
message or pattern that we have stored in our own memory.
Instead of blaming the other or hiding ourselves from our own memory as
if it were an unmanageable darkness or shadow, we can take another look
at this memory and find ways to form new decisions. When we are not able
to make a new decision, at least we can become conscious that the root of
a specific problem lies within ourselves and not in the other person. The
other is only a mirror that stimulates us.
The existence of sensorial patterns stored in the basic brain also explains
the process of addiction, in which we are all involved, if not with alcohol
or drugs, then with habitual and repetitive behaviors. I believe it is important to realize and to admit that we are all addicted to something. Indeed, positive addictions can be very helpful. The issue is to become conscious of the addictive process and to choose addictions that will favor our lives.
We have been concentrating on the motor memory of this brain rather than
on our patterns of behavior. I believe we must search in the basic brain
to discover the roots and the repetitive subtlety of our patterns.
Fig. 12. Learning and Behavior as Repetitive Wave Motion
Please read from the bottom up as if you were reading a neutral repetitive
process that begins with attraction and repulsion and, through repetition
over time, converts itself into a route and then routines. Once routines
are repeated, they become habits and then addictions, values, rituals, religions,
professions, and finally institutions.
Day and night we move subtly and sometimes not so subtly toward and away
from people, places, ideas, colors, feelings, things, and events. We know
this as instinct, although we often refer to this basic sensorial process
as the unconscious. We don't yet know how this takes place within the brain,
but our behavior reveals a continuous repetitive rhythm. When we move toward
something again and again, pulse with it, are attracted to it, imitate it
again and again, then we can. If we can again and again, we will, we persevere,
and we are then able to enact it or reenact the action. When we do this
enough, it becomes our route, our routine, a habit, something we deeply
By adding conscious thoughts, art, and music to a routine, we have ritual.
From these routines and rituals come our values and conscience. If we construct
a routine in space, it becomes an organization or institution. On a larger
scale and over time, these routines, rituals, values, and institutions emerge
as our routes, our culture, or the nation. Looking back through our personal
and family or institutional histories, we can detect the routes that we
have traced over time.
In the same way that we move toward, we also move away from. When we repeat
that process of withdrawal or distancing again and again, we are no longer
pulsating with; we reject, we become distant and deceive ourselves, we say
we are no longer able, we do not want to do the action, and we avoid. We
continue to avoid until we displace, meaning that we are not even aware
of our own avoidance. We may develop deceitful habits, hiding from ourselves
and others. As we move away from persons, things, ideas, or groups, we may
very well go on to develop antisocial routines that may then become criminal
I believe this subtle and neutral movement of the basic brain explains why
antisocial routines, habits, rituals, and values become as deeply entrenched
as any socially rewarding values. We also develop antisocial organizations
and professions such as gangs and organized crime to continue this behavior.
Observe the high rate of recidivism when we try to change criminal behavior.
Neither reward nor punishment has had much success in changing antisocial
behavior. Even programs that are well thought out by the neocortex and carried
out with the greatest desire, heart, and willingness of the limbic brain
do not succeed. I believe we will obtain results with criminal behavior
only when we learn to take into consideration this basic brain of pattern
Wave Motion in Other Forms of Life
The basic toward-and-away motion is found not only in human behavior, but
in many other areas of nature. We see it in the waves of the sea and in
the more solidified waves of rock formations. The river also moves toward
and away from its banks. In nature the wave of water flows towards and away
from, in constant motion against the parameters of the riverbanks of earth,
which also continue to form themselves in interaction with the water. The
reptile clearly moves toward and away, its skin close to the earth. The
fish follows the same motion, pulsing toward and away through the water.
Birds fly through the air using the same wave motion, this time in up and
down movement. Thus we see life in water, on land, and in the air all involved
in this basic repetitive wave motion.
It would indeed be surprising if human life were not also involved in this
constant wave motion. The wave configuration of toward and away from is solidified in the physical human structure of the spinal column. This basic wave structure protects the spinal cord and carries vibrations into the brainstem. Inspired by this characteristic wave motion, I began to study the active, conscious use of the wave as a type of intelligence and formulated the idea of basic intelligence.
This basic wave energy has a "sweetness" that I have difficulty
describing. I think it comes from a brain chemical different from those
that affect the emotional brain and different also from the meditative bliss
of the right hemisphere of the neocortex. I know that its vibrational frequency
is different. It is pleasurable, but it is not pleasure. The energy of this
brain has quietness, tranquillity, as if it could go on forever. It has calmness, ease of movement, gracefulness of motion -- not form or grace, just ease -- as if in any order, the motion will be right.
Its energy is peace. It is alignment. It is as if one is being carried.
As much as I love the feelings of passion and excitement and the bliss of
meditation, this energy has an addictive quality. There is an elixir, a
quietness, a rightness. I get it while in motion, while attending to ordinary
things, such as washing the dishes, tending the garden, or rearranging furniture. What I notice is that my body is confined within a certain space. I move easily doing one thing or another without the distraction of thought or
feeling. I do not know if my mind is wandering. All I really am sure of
is that I am attending to the action and usually within a defined space
and defined time. I want to experience this more. I want this energy in
all the areas of my life: work, home, play, health, relationships.
As I have described it thus far, this brain's energy is of being gently
carried. I have, however, also experienced other energies I attribute to
this brain that are more intense. They have the same quality of alignment,
such as being in sync while dancing, that sensation of completely going
with and being held. At the same time, it is as if my energy is not with
the activity I am doing. I feel compulsiveness and a sense of being driven
in which I think myself not in control. The moment I feel or think I am
out of control, I am in the feeling brain or the thinking brain and not
in this brain of action.
Staying in the basic brain, I sense I am not relating my body proportionally
to the action I am doing, and the sensations I experience are various: chaos,
discomfort, fear, anxiety, and sometimes panic. I feel overwhelmed. I have
the sense of doing an action when I don't want to and feel controlled by
it. There is the same sense with all compulsion. We say we are driven rather
than saying we are being carried. I believe this is because this brain is
in control, but our focus or concentration is somewhere else, not in this
brain system and not riding the rhythm of the energy. The essence of control
in this brain is entering the rhythm, focusing in this rhythm, and through
that focus being able to slow the speeds in relation to what we are doing.
Elaine de Beauport
From The Three Faces of the Mind: Developing Your
Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Intelligences. Elaine de Beauport with Aura
Sofia Diaz. Quest Books. The Theosophical Publishing House, P.O. Box 270, Wheaton, IL 60189-0270
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