More about Dr. Laurie's work on our primate brains
Good day, my name is Dr Laurie Rauch. I am a Neurobiologist by profession, specialising in the brain-heart connection.
I happened on this type of research after being knocked off my bicycle by a drunken container truck driver. The impact broke my neck, I sustained very severe traumatic brain injuries, fractured 3 back vertebrae & 6 ribs and 12 days after the accident my right leg was amputated above the knee.
Reclaiming my life post-accident was extremely stress provoking; and it was not until I understood the different brain-heart perspectives of my primate brain and my mammalian brain that I was able to successfully regulate my bodily stress reactivity.
As an adjunct lecturer in Neurobiology of Exercise and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town (Google Scholar), I make use of 1) my sporting experiences from my triathlon, cycling, rugby & rock climbing days; 2) my experiences in regaining my health after my accident and 3) my 25 years of conducting Health Science research at the University of Cape Town, via academic and mainstream presentations, lectures and workshops to fine tune the scientific underpinnings of my Wellbeing Model.
Science of the Brain-Heart Axis
In quiet environments, Restorative interventions - such as deep slow breathing (references 1-5), music, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, meditation, qigong, yoga, Tai Chi, etc. – are regulated via a participant’s frontal cortices situated in his/her so-called ‘primate’ brain.
Our primate brains have a measure of regulatory control over our hearts and viscera via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve allows for two-way signalling. We can thus both monitor the state of our hearts & viscera as well as effect regulatory control over the same.
When it comes to our work (and other performance) environments our primate brains must transition from a Restorative to a Composed state. This is so because fuelling the increased bodily demands required for cognitive/work performances necessitates the deactivation of the vagus nerve to enable the heart to beat faster (references 5, 6).
It is thus essential that we regulate our sympathetic nervous activities via the spine. This regulation via the spine is co-ordinated by the mammalian brain (reference 8) that serves to regulate the sympathetic nervous drive through the celiac ganglion situated in the solar plexus.
Figure 1: Frontal cortices in the above primate brains are shown in colour (reference 10)
What is the difference between your primate brain and your mammalian brain?
Primates have the same 3 main types of innate behavioural responses as do non-primate mammals, namely: Fight & Flight; Rest & Digest and Tend & Befriend behavioural responses (reference 11).
Your mammalian brain directly connects you to nature via these innate behavioural programmes that ensure the fulfilment of your biological needs in a strictly hierarchical order: 1 - Safety, 2 - Nourishment and 3 – Nurturing. These mammalian brain behavioural responses of ours are co-ordination by the Basal Ganglia in our cerebral hemispheres and are mediated via the midbrain locomotor region & reticulospinal nerves that activate Central Pattern Generators (CPG) in our spines (references 7, 8, 9, 11).
The frontal cortices of primates are complex enough to enable a measure of regulatory control over the innate behavioural responses (Figure 1). Non-primate mammals have less dense neuronal development in their frontal cortices and do not have regulatory control over their innate behavioural responses.
Calming your primate brain
The tool you use to calm your primate brain is the breath (references 1-5), either breathing at ~6 breaths a minute on its own, or in combination with another modality. Each time you breathe in your heart rate speeds up; and each time you breathe out your heart rate slow down. This means that the power to slow your heart lies with the outbreath.
In this regard the greater your cardiovascular fitness the greater your ability to slow your heart with each outbreath. I’ve tested fit young guys who, with a single outbreath, dropped their heart beats by over 40 bpm (from ~80 bpm to ~40 bpm).
Interventions that use the breath to calm the primate brain include things like music, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, contemplative meditation, qigong, yoga, Tai Chi, etc. The breath is very effective at calming your primate brain when you are in a safe and a quiet space, i.e. when your pre-eminent biological need (Safety) has been met.
What about our mammalian brains? The question we must always ask is will this intervention be calming to a mammal in raw nature. If the answer is no, then chances are it also won’t calm your own mammalian brain, unless, that is, your primate brain gives control over to your mammalian brain to allow it to regulate your body’s behavioural responses without interfering.
Do non-primate mammals that engage in deep rhythmic breathing calm down?
Do non-primate mammals that engage in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction calm down?
Do non-primate mammals that engage in Yoga/Pilates/Tai Chi/Qigong calm down?
There are no validated laboratory studies to support any of the above.
Do non-primate mammals that listen to music calm down?
Many laboratory studies have indeed shown that dogs, cats, rats, elephants through to monkeys, etc. are indeed calmed by music. But what happens when the music stops? Picture for a while the gay chattering of monkeys suddenly falling silent, or the melodiously twittering of birds suddenly falling silent. Our immediate thought would be that a predator is approaching. What would the monkeys and the birds do when they sense a predator approaching?
Their innate fight and flight behavioural responses would immediately be engaged.
Note that in this state (when the music stops) and your primate brain becomes overwhelmed in a non-life or death emergency, there is a way to calm your mammalian brain. Slow rhythmic movement will instantly cut through your fight & flight behavioural response, if you use your highly developed frontal cortex to stop thinking, analysing and instructing yourself what to do and instead to focus on your movements.
Mammals in raw nature only have 3 movements in their fight and flight repertoire; freezing (no movement); fast movement and hard movement that require no reasoning or thinking about as it is done innately. Mammals do have many more movements at their disposal when they are at play, so called rhythmic locomotor movements, either rotational or circular in nature. Think of horses freely cantering in open fields, of elephants lazily grazing in lush forests, dolphins dancing in the waves and the like.
For more information please see my Keeping Calm website.
Prinsloo GE, HGL Rauch, WE Derman Heart rate variability (HRV): A brief review and clinical application of HRV biofeedback in sport, exercise and rehabiliation medicine. The Physician and Sportsmedicine. 42(2): 88-99, 2014
Prinsloo GE, WE Derman, MI Lambert, HGL Rauch. The effect of short duration heart rate variability biofeedback on measures of anxiety and relaxation states. International Journal of Stress Management, 20(4): 391-411, 2013,
Prinsloo GE, WE Derman, MI Lambert, HGL Rauch. The Effect of Biofeedback Induced Deep Breathing on Measures of Heart Rate Variability During Laboratory Induced Cognitive Stress: A Pilot Study. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback 38(2): 81-90, 2013
Prinsloo GE, HGL Rauch, D Karpul, WE Derman. The effect of a single session of short duration heart rate variability biofeedback on EEG. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 38:45–56, 2013
Prinsloo GE, HGL Rauch, MI Lambert, F Muench, TD Noakes, WE Derman. The effect of short duration heart rate variability (HRV) biofeedback on cognitive performance during laboratory induced cognitive stress. Applied Cognitive Psychology 25: 792–801, 2011
Rauch HGL, DJ Hume, F Howells, J Kroff, EV Lambert. Food Cue Reactivity and the Brain-Heart Axis During Cognitive Stress Following Clinically Relevant Weight Loss. Frontiers Nutrition; 5:135, 2018.
Rauch HGL, G Schonbachler, TD Noakes. Neural correlates of motor vigour and motor urgency during exercise. Review article, Sports Medicine, 43(4): 227-241, 2013.
Rauch HGL, S. Smit, D. Karpul, TD Noakes. Effect of Taijiquan training on autonomic re-activity and body position and postures during mock boxing. Book of Abstracts, 18th Congress of European College of Sport Science Barcelona, Spain, 25-28 June 2013
King M, K Van Breda, DJ Stein, K Lutz and HGL Rauch. Predicting the ergogenic response to methylphenidate. European Journal of Applied Physiology 118 (4): 777-784, 2018.
Semendeferi K, Lu A, Schenker N, Damasio H. Humans and great apes share a large frontal cortex. Nature Neuroscience 2002 5(3):272-6.
Swanson LW. Cerebral hemisphere regulation of motivated behavior. Brain Research 15;886(1-2):113-164.