Instinct – Find It In You

Please note – words in bold are explained in the glossary section below.

Since the moment the Animal is born in the Wilderness, it is subjected to the laws of nature. In order to survive, the Animal discovers that it has been granted a musculo-skeletal structure. By instinct, the Animal starts moving towards food. The Animal uses its senses to alert it to danger and guide itself in the unknown territory. The Animal is unaware that it is not immune to survival, but nature takes care of this – the Animal has an irresistible instinct to mate. Beneath the skin – an organ system regulates digestion, cardiovascular and sexual arousal. The Animal knows nothing of this. The Animal only understand – Food. Sex. Danger. For the most part, we are also unaware of our bodily process driven by the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

Nijmegen Institute for Infection Diseases – 12 healthy volunteers are injected with an experimental endotoxin (Escherichia coli). Under normal circumstances, the bacteria would cause severe flu-like symptoms (abdominal cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue) for the next 3hrs. However, in this particular trial, none of the 12 subjects show any of these symptoms. Instead, the researchers find a voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system with excessive release of epinephrine and suppression of the innate immune response (Kox, M., et al. 2014). The video below shows a trained volunteer during the experiment. The green, red, purple, and white text overlays indicate the parameters on the monitor.

In a separate experiment, researchers found that autoimmune dysfunctions such as rheumatoid arthritis can be restored through electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve – a process that extinguishes chronic inflammation without affecting healthy immune function (Tracey, K. J. 2002). In both cases, the nervous system suppressed immune function yet restored the bodies natural balance. The nervous system is lightning fast and can localize invasion or injury before a nascent response. This happens before the immune system gets a chance to mobilize – through a slow, distributed, non-integrated and dose dependent process.

Are the internal biological processes of the Animal truly autonomous? What was previously thought to be beyond our control, is now under question. The development of Neurofeedback and Biofeedback devices is already challenging the threshold of voluntary capacity.

Can we gain full control of our psychophysiology?

Neurovisceral Integration

Of all the cranial nerves reporting peripheral (afferent) information, the 10th cranial nerve (vagus) is revealing insights that are borderline scientific-enigma. The vagus nerve originates from the medullar oblongata and branches into the dorsal motor nucleus (innervating the digestive tract) and the ventral vagal complex (innervating facial, pulmonary and cardiovascular regions). The brain communicates with the body in terms of Food (glucocorticoids e.g., cortisol) from the medulla, Sex (pituitary hormones e.g., ACTH, prolactin, growth hormones) from the pituitary glands and Danger (catecholamines e.g., epinephrine, norepinephrine and inflammatory cytokines e.g., IL-1, IL-6, TNF-α) from the adrenal cortex. The body understands this information as fight or flight (sympathetic) or feed and breed (parasympathetic). It is well known that the brain directs these bodily functions. However it is less commonly understood that the flow of information is bidirectional. In fact, 80-90% of the signals traveling in the vagus nerve are afferents (McCraty, R., 2014), communicating the state of the body’s organs to the central nervous system (CNS)!

Brain networks are constantly under competition, similar to the Animal under natural selection in an ecosystem. The evolution and extinction of neural networks are dependent on the frequency of engagement. This consolidates behaviors into habits and repetitive lifestyle choices. The use of our bodies, or lack there of, results in extinction of the neural complexity involved in receiving physiological and sensory-motor afferents. This disassociation with our body based feedback has resulted in a unidirectional dialogue between cognition and action.

The reciprocal communication integrating sensory-motor, autonomic, emotional and cognitive loops can be measured through vagal tone. Specifically, vagal tone can be indirectly calculated by one of two ways – respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) or heart rate variability (HRV). The RSA is a biological phenomena where the heart accelerates during inspiration to saturate pulmonary oxygen concentration. The heart slows down with each out breath. Whereas, HRV refers to the peak-to-peak variability between successive heart beats (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Variation in heart rate per beat

Figure 1. Variation in heart rate per beat

High vagal tone is associated with improved autonomic function, coordinating organism-wide neuroendocrine release, emotion processing, and social bonding – indicating coherence in brain, body and behavior. Since breathing influences cardiac rhythm, the simplest most direct approach for regulating vagal tone is through breathing practices. To be effective, breath can be used to train the ANS to be dynamically adaptive to stressors. Breath regulation using pauses in deep inhalation activates the hippocampus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and stria terminals resulting in excitation of baroreceptors (stretch receptors) in the lungs, providing feedback to vagal nuclei and facilitating increased vagal tone. It is no mistake that Breathe is perhaps one of the most prevalent  techniques for relaxation. Using breathing techniques (similar to the Wim Hof method shown in the video above), prolonged reduction in sympathetic response to acute emotional reactivity shifts the physiological set point to a new baseline. In other words, more physical, physiological and emotional stress is required to elicit a “stress response”. The normally quiescent parasympathetic network now has the capacity to send interoceptive signals to the brain. The strengthening of vagal tone reconditions reactivity across all contexts (e.g. at work, in traffic or at home).

The brain is a highly expensive structure with a metabolic cost 10 times more than what is estimated for its weight. The metabolic demand drives competition between old maladaptive habits and newer, more adaptive ones. This results in a subtraction of stressful thought patterns from adaptive habits such as sensory–perceptual clarity, compassion and increased emotional awareness (Gard, T. 2014) .

Because of a system wide integration of iterative “loops” among cortico-subcortical and vagal information, the hedonic state is implicit – experiential rather than intellectual, independent of context, with a sense of clarity, sharpened by neurovisceral integration.

Implicit Intelligence. 

The explicit and implicit learning mechanisms are competing neural networks in the brain balanced by flexibility-efficiency trade-offs.

The explicit system is associated with the higher cognitive functions performed by the frontal and medial temporal lobe structures which has allowed the evolution of bayesian like cognitive flexibility. It is now understood that the brain pre-calculates most of what we perceive (know as the Default Mode Network). This internal simulation of reality gives rise to self generated thought trials. Each thought iteration is filtered through the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) for rationality so that only pseudo-realistic thoughts are available for conscious processing. The temporal integration of self referential thoughts are buffered in the working memory, creating a hypothetical solution space for past and future scenarios. Such conscious reasoning is characteristically slow, serial with capacity limited by working memory.

The implicit system treats all events as true and as a result all possibilities exist simultaneously. Lacking an overall strategy or plan, the implicit system relies on moment to moment adjustment. For example, the smooth execution of sensory-motor responses in action-adventure sports in is free from the inflexibility of procedural calculations and may underlie the effortlessness experienced in states of flow.

Interestingly, complex movements involving large scale bodily motion requires massive neural integration and makes it impossible to sustain excessive activity in networks linked to the Prefrontal Cortices (PFC). This decentralization of frontal activation exerts anxiolytic and antidepressive effects reducing the body-brain imbalances. This appears to relieve negative thinking, stress and anxiety that would normally be active in depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD and ADHD. Indeed, physical movement is as effective as SSRI medications (e.g. Zoloft) in reducing depressive symptoms (Blumenthal, J. 2007). It has been shown that that implicit training involving movement and at least one other mechanism such as spatial memory,  vestibular-proprioceptive integration, sensory-motor integration or joint coordination can improve cognitive functions such as working memory (Alloway and Alloway 2015).

Therefore, the investment in linearized tools for the development of explicit brain training may require reconsideration. The quantum leap in neurotechnology may find better use in body-based implicit training. Unlike the computational model for cognitive training (explicit), implicit augmentation of neurofeedback training using strategy free approaches has lead to higher focus yet mentally relaxed states in contrast to neurofeedback techniques that have used mental strategies resembling explicit learning (Kober, Witte et al. 2013).

An outdoor environment encourages physical movement and is essential for cognitive enrichment (Figure 2).  The unpredictability of the environment demands cognitively stimulating movements. In this context, the body produces movements that are independent of any learned technique (implicit intelligence). These instantaneous techniques are commonly referred to as Flow State or The Zone. This is in contrast to instructional use of the human body (explicit intelligence). Everything the body can do is potentially enjoyable, yet in a sedentary culture, the ability of physical activity to produces flow remains unexploited (Csikszentmihalyi 2013). It is not that we don’t know how much we don’t know, its that we don’t consciously learn implicit intelligence in the first place. Discovery based implicit learning thrives in the absence of knowing how to perform a task. The greater behavioral flexibility in a changing environment may facilitate higher vagal tone by increasing high-frequencey HRV and RSA. Such high coherence in neurovisceral integration means that implicitly learned skills may be inherently free of frustrations and more robust under stress. This is perhaps why play and sympathetic activity are unable to coexist.

diagram - environment and cognition - 1b

Figure 2. Examples of direct and indirect associations between environment and cognition (source – Cassarino and Setti 2015, modified by Dan Frybot)

The Animal shifts its mental perception of explicit self awareness to an implicit interoceptive awareness. The instinctual triggers to Food, Sex and Danger now aligns with its intrinsic motivation where the value of the reward does not decay with time. The Animal recognizes the relentless struggle for survival is stimulated in response to lack. The Animal engages in primal play where it is aware of its own nature rather than controlling what surrounds it. The Animal requires no explanation for its wildness.

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Autoimmune dysfunctions – antibodies or lymphocytes produced against substances naturally present in the body.

Anxiolytic – reduction of anxiety.

Bayesian – using the experience of prior events to calculate the probability of future ones.

Default Mode Network – residual activity of the brain when at rest.

Endotoxin – a toxin that is released when a bacteria disintegrates.

Hedonic – a state of happiness or pleasure.

Interoceptive – stimuli produced within an organism.

Iterative – repetitive trials.

Nascent – displaying signs of future potential.

Prefrontal Cortices – foremost part of the frontal lobe of the brain.

Quiescent – a state inactivity or dormancy.

SSRI – Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors 

Temporal integration – integrating time related information.

Vestibular-proprioceptive – relating to the integration of information from the semi-circular canals and joint positioning.


Alloway, R. G., & Alloway, T. P. (2015). The Working Memory Benefits Of Proprioceptively Demanding Training: A Pilot Study 1, 2. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 120(3), 766-775.

Blumenthal, J. A., Babyak, M. A., Doraiswamy, P. M., Watkins, L., Hoffman, B. M., Barbour, K. A., . . . Waugh, R. (2007). Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder. Psychosomatic medicine, 69(7), 587.

Cassarino, M., & Setti, A. (2015). Environment as ‘Brain Training’: A review of geographical and physical environmental influences on cognitive ageing. Ageing research reviews, 23, 167-182.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Flow: The psychology of happiness: Random House.

Gard, T., Noggle, J. J., Park, C. L., Vago, D. R., & Wilson, A. (2014). Potential self-regulatory mechanisms of yoga for psychological health. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8. 

Kober, S. E., Witte, M., Ninaus, M., Neuper, C., & Wood, G. (2013). Learning to modulate one’s own brain activity: the effect of spontaneous mental strategies. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7. 

Kox, M., et al. (2014). “Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(20): 7379-7384.

McCraty, R., & Zayas, M. A. (2014). Cardiac coherence, self-regulation, autonomic stability, and psychosocial well-being. Frontiers in psychology, 5.

Tracey, K. J. (2002). “The inflammatory reflex.” Nature 420(6917): 853-859.

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  1. […] a previous article, I shared how the Wim Hof Method (WHM) voluntarily engaged the immune system to prevent a nascent […]

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