Corpus Callosum: At the Still Point of the Turning World
Early in this blog adventure, I explored fractals. Fractal thinking is often a jumping off point for me: the information for the whole is contained within the part. My recent thread of musings began with researching the small middle part of the brain, the Corpus Collosum, and as I should have guessed, I discovered a pattern here that carried over into many other larger aspects of body, psychology, spirituality, and artistry:
“The middle way.”
This may ring a bell if you are familiar with Buddhist philosophy. Sometimes Buddhism itself is called the Middle Way. Here you can find a concise explanation of why Buddhism, with its total embracing of opposition and integration, is The Middle Way.
Beyond Buddhism, most people are familiar with the concept of “middle:” the moderation, the space between, the “yes, and.” But perhaps you can observe afresh how the concept resonates with you at different times in your life. I’d like to share a couple of throughlines of research that helped me understand how it resonates with me at this time in my life—maybe you’ll also find some nuggets of inspiration.
THE CORPUS COLLOSUM
My initial spark this time around was an article I read about Leonardo Davinci and the possibility of his larger-than-average Corpus Callosum. Apparently, his mirror writing (ability to write from right to left and left to write with equal clarity) gives us a clue about his brain. Leonard Shlain notes that, “Based on what we can extrapolate from the brains of people who share Leonardo’s ability to mirror-write, the evidence points to the presence of a large Corpus Callosum that kept each hemisphere well informed as to what the other was doing.”
The Corpus Collosum is essentially a bridge. In order to function at our highest level, the information gathered from one side of the hemisphere must be communicated to the other hemisphere. It is like a crack between worlds. A pathway to make integration and communication possible.
Although the collective scientific understanding of the brain maps it with “centers” of emotion, “types” of intelligence, localizations, right brain/left brain divisions, as well as recent metaphors of ecosystems and networks, we mustn’t forget two key points: the brain is indeed one unified mass, and messages of the specialized sections pass through the middle Corpus Collosum in order to inform the other sections.
Leonardo Davinci was a special kind of genius in that he excelled and innovated in both art and science. Shlain notes that this might also be evidence of a thick and strong Corpus Callosum. It seems that a strong bridge is one that passes information back and forth frequently and thoroughly. It reminds me of oscillating waves. Imagine these waves oscillating quicker and quicker until they oscillate so quickly they almost look like a single line. The more the hemispheres talk to each other freely, the more they begin to function as one unified entity, via the Corpus Collosum.
Davinci was also “unorthodox” during his time for aspects such as homosexuality, which brings me to another point:
“MRI research by Sandra Witelson found that the anterior commissure, the largest of the Corpus Callosum’s anatomically distinct “component cables,” can be up to 30% larger in women than in men, and other studies have found that it is 15% larger in gay men than in straight men.”
Yeah, ponder that one for a bit!
Now, it's important to consider the other specific brain structures that are all around this middle section. In this fascinating and articulate essay, Gary Osborn points out that the thalamus, the pituitary gland, and the pineal gland are all worthy of special attention.
The “third eye” referenced in certain spiritual traditions (the Ajna chakra, the seat of seeing and understanding many overlaying worlds, observing, and experiencing that which transcends time) may relate to the Corpus Collosum generally, or maybe specifically the pineal gland, or pituitary, or thalamus, or maybe all of the above? Osborn seems to be in the thalamus-as-seat-of-soul school of thought, and I would highly recommend reading his article in entirety. There is another blogger that drew a cool connection between the Corpus Callosum area and the Eye of Horus. Check this out:
In any case, many philosophers and spiritualists seem to be in agreement that bringing awareness to that entire middle area will have positive blossoming effects.
Furthermore (this is where it gets really juicy for me), I find that the Corpus Collosum and pineal gland relationship mirrors the connection between the vagina and the clitoris. As this article published by MIT notes, "many sympathetic nerve endings terminate directly on the pineal cells, instead of on blood vessels or smooth muscle cells as in most other organs.” Where else is there a really large number of nerve endings? The clitoris! Visually and intellectually, it makes sense:
I should say that it makes sense kinesthetically as well. There are some wonderful tantric breathing exercises out there in which you might discover how bringing awareness and heightened sensation to the clitoral area can stimulate energy that directly flows upwards and stimulates the pineal gland/Corpus Callosum area, creating a unified and potentially ecstatic stream of bliss.
So, let’s now allow this brain investigation to lead us outward.
THE MIND AND TRANCE STATES
When Scott Fitzgerald said that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” I think he could have gone a step further and called it a “test of the mental plane reaching its full potential.”
Oppositions are very much a part of the physical world. Possibly the whole point of living in this physical body is that we get to explore extreme opposition, which we wouldn't be able to do in a purely spiritual state. So the question becomes: what can we really learn from these oppositions, and how do we play with them, and balance them?
I would venture to say that masters of Fitzgerald’s idea are the shamans, actors, dancers, poets, people who intentionally go in and out of trance. These people are comfortable with living in at least two worlds at once and still functioning. Butoh dance taught me what it means to keep one foot in the physical world, and one foot in the world of everything else happening on other planes (spiritual, ancestral, or otherwise). Actors do it too: they keep one foot in the world of “themselves” and one foot in the world of “the other.” They are an antennae-like, bridge-like Corpus Collosums receiving, channeling, expressing information from different parts of this cosmic brain.
Poets also understand the middle-way bridge: by speaking and writing in poetic metaphor, they activate both hemispheres simultaneously— both the left side, which processes language, as well as the right side, which processes more of the intuitive and imagistic.
And what is a trance, really? It is a “magical” middle way, the perfect balance of attention and relaxation. In hypnosis, there are many ways of finding this balance between attention and relaxation, which measurably alters your brainwaves, guiding you into a deep flow state, a very receptive, creative state of mind.
THE BODY’S OPPOSITIONS AND CENTERS
The brain is in dynamic relationship to the rest of the body. Just as the brain has its center, think about how the spine marks the center of the body and notice the semi-symmetries (like the hemispheres). Often in performance arts classes, the first task the student is set to is “centering themselves.” How do you balance your head, heart, and pelvis? How can you spread your weight equally between your feet? How can your body find a sense of ease standing vertically, your body being like a center point between heaven and earth?
I’ve come across some simple physical exercises which strengthen your middle-way bridge by either reinforcing the integration of brain hemispheres or inviting a balance between tension and relaxation. Check out my personal favorite ideas:
- Alternate nostril breathing
- Draw large figure 8’s across the body and using different body parts (i.e draw figure 8’s in the air with your toes, knees, etc).
- Yoga: most poses will be great for this, but try Eagle Pose specifically
- Perform daily tasks such as brushing teeth, eating, or writing with the opposite hand that you are accustomed to using. Or/also perform a task with both hands simultaneously (i.e. stir two cups of coffee at the same time, catch a ball in each hand at the same time)
- Practice reading and writing in mirror language (detailed instructions can be found on this page)
- Visual practice:
Sit 1 to 3 feet from the image. Look at the image and cross your eyes so you see a third circle between the black circle and the grey circle. When you get your eyes focused right, the middle circle will seem to have a cross on it. Watch the cross on the third circle. Every few seconds, it will change from a horizontal line to a vertical line and back. This is because the hemispheres of your brain are alternating in dominance for this activity. When the right hemisphere is dominant you see the black circle and vertical line on top; when the left hemisphere is dominant, the grey circle and horizontal line are on top. Look at the illustration again, but this time, try to see just the cross, not a horizontal or vertical line.
- Sit in a chair and practice relaxing every single muscle and bone in your body, then practice tensing and clenching as much as you can, and then try to find the perfect middle amount of tension and relaxation that comfortably holds you in a chair.
- Listen to “Binaural Beats” or other ambient resonance-based music that will incite positive brainwave entrainment. (Some of my favorites can be found by scavenging through the compositions of Dr. Bob Singley)
- Just go for a walk! Take in your surroundings. Notice your feet as you walk. Notice the things you didn’t notice before. Notice your breath. Maybe sing while you walk!
THEATRE, COMMUNITY, AND THE PLANET
Currently, I am attending a 3-week physical theatre workshop at the Dell’Arte International Summer Intensive in Blue Lake, California. One of the key themes of our daily practice is “finding 2nd circle.” The “circles” are a way of defining your state: 1st circle is generally a little collapsed on yourself, stuck in the past, energy inward into your own thoughts. 3rd circle is forward and future focused, puffed outwards, a little aggressive, maybe a little show-offy.
Then there is 2nd circle: the middle path between 1st and 3rd. Radical presence and availability. Centered. Connected with what is in the moment. The exact middle between tension and relaxation. This is the still point of the turning world that Eliot speaks of, the “neither from nor towards.” From the 2nd circle center point, anything is possible. You are ready to play in unexpected ways.
This state is actually a lot like a trance. Here is the key, though: in the hypnotherapeutic trance, you are in your own world, in your own flow, the middle path 2nd circle of YOU and your mind, whereas in the theatre practices the task is to find 2nd circle with your community, with the people and the space around you.
One way of describing why hypnotherapy is healing is that via the trance state of mind, through that initial centering, you become radically open to all the possibilities within yourself, you begin to acknowledge and experience unexpected sensations, and often from this state, the solution to a previously self-limiting problem can easefully emerge.
So the analogy is that just as the 2nd circle in the hypnotherapy context can heal the personal body, the 2nd circle in a community of people helps heal that community as the members become radically present with each other and the infinite possibilities therein. As I have experienced during just the first week in Blue Lake, a community that begins from a place of 2nd circle is a community in which the members have a kinesthetic awareness of when to move, when to wait, when to change, where to go. They are unified in this kind of agreement, yet there is generosity and spaciousness to express the individual impulses in response to one another. They are in a communal flow that suspends judgement as they set about their tasks. They are open to all possibilities.
So now, my question is: can we take this idea beyond the community? I have seen this model working in small groups, perhaps even some towns and cities these days. But my question is, can we create a global community, a planet that dwells in the 2nd circle?
The planet is actually inherently 2nd circle. Look at the plants and animals around you. They are not in the future or past, they are available to each other. It’s the people and communities on the surface of the planet that too often dwell in 1st or 3rd circle. And it’s partly because of our complicated brains, emotional selves, analytical desires, and of course EGO… it takes some effort for the human to deal with these things and re-learn what 2nd circle really means.
What would happen if neighboring communities, neighboring countries, all shifted into 2nd circle? What if they became open to all possibilities, seeing each other, being vulnerable with each other? Not stuck in the past, not planning too aggressively for the future?
Just how far can we move the magical center point out of the Corpus Collosum and the centers of the body, through community, through entire nations? Isn’t this planet earth the real center of Earth-dwelling humanity? What if we collectively and intentionally thought of Earth as the Corpus Collosum for all Earth-dwellers? What if our actions were always somehow radically in relationship to Earth?
It’s a pretty tough thing to suggest. Personally, as I go about my busy little life, I certainly don’t always make time to consider how my thoughts or actions are/are not in positive relationship to Earth. There are too many far-reaching implications to consider, and I just want to have a good time, right? As long as I get what I need, it’s all cool, right? …So how can I expect entire nations to do this?
Truly, all those things we hear about “rooting down into the earth” and “grounding yourself” are real, vital things. This isn’t just some hippy mumbo jumbo. It might be the way of saving the planet. But! As Michael Jackson reminds us: if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change. May we all look, and really see.