The title of this post may sound a tad pretentious. My apologies for that. But, as much as running has a physical side. it also has a psychological side. (I won’t call it a spiritual side, because I’m not a spiritual person. Instead, I want to look at enlightenment through the lens of neuroscience.)
Here’s a good working definition of the word that I found in a book called Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment, by Dr. David Perlmutter and Dr. Alberto Villoldo.
“In the language of neuroscience, enlightenment is the condition of of optimal mitochondrial and brain functioning that allows us to experience both well-being and inner peace and the the urge to create and innovate.”
What exactly does that mean? And what does it have to do with running?
I ran my first marathon in 1980, and, since then, have run five more marathons, three 50K ultras, and numerous shorter distance races. At first, I’d joke that running offered the only glimpse I’d ever get of enlightenment. When I started running ultra races, though, I started taking that seriously. Why did running do for me what other forms of study and meditation didn’t do? What were the physical and psychological elements that made running do what it did? And, perhaps most importantly, what could I do that would enhance my approach to enlightenment through running?
Let’s look briefly at the brain and how it works.
The Triune or Reptilian Brain
The first level of the brain, the triune or reptilian brain is all about the basics – instinct and survival. It governs the body’s autonomic functions, as well as species-specific instinctual behaviors involved in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays. When we get seized by a “fight or flight” response to external stimuli, it’s the reptilian brain that owns us.
As you can see in the image below, the reptilian brain is buried deep inside the brain. It goes all the way back to the beginnings of our evolutionary history.
The Limbic or Mammalian Brain
The next level of the brain is the limbic or mammalian brain, which includes includes the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus. It’s all about instinct and emotion, particularly the 4Fs – fear feeding, fighting, and fornication. More politely, the limbic brain is said to be responsible for the motivation and emotion involved in feeding, reproductive behavior, and parental behavior.
Next up is the neocortex, which is about the higher functions of the brain, the ones that make us human. The neocortex processes environment signals into coherent messages, enabling speech, writing, and higher-order thinking. In evolutionary terms, it’s the most recent step in the evolution of the mammilian brain, conferring the ability for language, abstraction, planning, and perception.
The Pre-Frontal Cortex
The pre-frontal cortex is where the human brain gets all fancy and high falutin’. It’s where reasoning, personal initiative, and the ability to project future scenarios takes place. It’s where we develop and own our individuality and our sense of self. This is where self-realization happens.
In the image below, the pre-frontal cortex is green.
Now, let’s look at how the four-circuit brain/mind relates to running. (Remember always that “minds are what brains do,” as in Marvin Minsky’s famous phrase.)
Coming to Enlightenment
When we run, we use – at the very least – the first three levels of our brains, the reptilian, mammalian, and neocortex levels. When we run well – whatever that may mean for each of us – the pre-frontal cortex gets involved. When a run goes really well, or when we involve ourselves in a lengthy training or racing series, and so get a “long view,” the pre-frontal cortex comes into play. And when we “hit the wall” or go through the “dark night of the soul” that inevitably comes when both the body and mind are completely exhausted, we go down deep into the reptilian brain, where we touch – or even stay for a time – in the place where “fight or flight” (or even survival itself) are the issues we have to struggle with.
It’s my feeling that only when we experience and integrate all four levels of the brain – from basic survival to self-realization – do we touch the “optimal mitochondrial and brain functioning that allows us to experience both well-being and inner peace and the the urge to create and innovate” that Dr’s Perlmutter and Villoldo describe as enlightenment.
That means that enlightenment’s not going to come easily, or come often. The ability to run to the limit of our abilities – and then beyond them – requires a rigorous training program. It requires meticulous attention to nutrition, to pace, to breathing. It requires a time and place where optimization can happen. It also requires the courage to give ourselves to previously unknown physical and emotional depths. The good news – and it’s very good news – is that all of those particulars are available to all runners, at least potentially.
The task we face as athletes is to apply ourselves to the journey of running to enlightenment. The rewards for addressing that challenge are immense and invaluable.