Running to Enlightenment


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.

Triune brain

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.

Brain map

The Neocortex

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.

Pre-frontal Cortex

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.



  1. Nicely said Alan – I think we’ve all come in some way closer to that state through running, and I’m with you on the spirituality side. Neuropsychology may never have all of the answers (although I think it will one day have enough of them), but it’s potentially a better way to understand things like behaviour and conciousness than resorting to mysticism. My apologies to anyone who thinks otherwise of course, just my two penneth!

    I have to admit I do wince when I see reference to the ‘reptilian’ brain; unfortunately that’s the sort of tag the more touchy-feely side of psychology has given these structures. I may not have mentioned that my field is palaeoneurology – I study the evolution of the vertebrate brain, specifically birds which, being descended from dinosaurs (or certainly a close relative), are technically reptiles (a wider group called Sauropsida – the last common ancestor of sauropsids and the lineage that gave rise to mammals lived around 330 million years ago). Pretty much all vertebrates, no matter how ‘primitive’ (in a strict sense rather than one implying any concept of what ‘advanced’ may be) have a similar brain plan, and those ‘reptilian’ structures are present. In other words, they have nothing to do with reptiles other than that they were inherited by reptiles AND mammals. As you say, they do go back a long way in the evolutionary history of the vertebrate neurosensory system.

    Crikey – sorry for the lecture! It just drives me up the wall when researchers like Perlmutter and Villoldo give away that they have the same flawed understanding of evolution as the general public tend to have. I suppose they have to use terms like that to engage their audience, but it really just does perpetuate the myth that evolution has anything at all to do with a ‘Scala Naturae’, or ‘progress’ or ‘advancement’. I’ll shut up now!

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Stig. Not a lecture at all. I really appreciate it. The Wikipedia articles I looked at re the brain structure did, in fact, say that the triune or “reptilian” brain was common to primitive birds as well. And Perlmutter and Villoldo aren’t responsible for the “reptilian” tag, by the way, just for the enlightenment quote.

  2. Remains only the question what the transition from optimal mitochondrial and brain function to (conscious) experience is. My professor used to say that if our brain would be so simple we could understand it, we wouldn’t have enough brains to understand it 😉

    1. Brilliant comment, Menno. That’s the piece that was missing from my article. Though I wonder if the fact that the “realization” is so solidly based in the physical that the transition simply takes place. That’s the “ineffable” part, isn’t it? 😉

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