The Neuroscience of How Yoga Helps Your Mental Health – Part 2

In my last post I introduced a theoretical model for the neurobiologic mechanisms through which yoga influences mental health which was recently proposed by a team of researchers.

And as my excitement induced insomnia subsides, I want to break this article down in separate blogs, so you can really understand a few key concepts and the profound implications for yoga on mental health. I want to frame this for those of you who want to help improve the very scary mental health situation we are facing as a society and globally (did you know the World Health Organization ranked depression fourth among the 10 leading causes of the global burden of disease? But that is another blog).

Today I want to go into just one basic concept about how we self-regulate, (actually half of it): Top Down and Bottom Up.

Top Down essentially means using the higher functions of the brain to help self-regulate. A lot of this originates in the prefrontal cortex. The Frontoparietal Control Network (FPCN) is the network in the brain that creates a sense of self-awareness, figures out what’s going on, and inhibits inappropriate responses.

Let’s say a recently showered mom finds her suspiciously chewing toddler sitting in a pile of crayon and notices her freshly painted walls have just been artistically re-expressed. Her midbrain might want to scream at him or worse. But her FPCN appraises the situation, remembers that he is two, cleans out his mouth, takes a picture of the wall, redirects him to more appropriate artistic endeavors, and searches for the advil on top of the fridge. That process is top down self-regulation. (Although interestingly you can’t split it up entirely. The process of using the body, cleaning things up, taking pictures and even taking a pill are all using bottom up self-regulation as well, but we’ll get to that later.)

An associated network, the Central Executive Network, supports your attention and uses working memory to help you behave in a way that’s goal directed – and self-correct when you screw up. So here I am writing this blog, but occasionally I have to go to the web and check something out in an article or Wikipedia. And while I’m there, I’ll just swing over to Facebook and, Oh! that’s such a cute video of a cat swatting at an alligator over a chicken leg! Wait a minute, what was I doing? Oh yeah, I gotta finish that blog. You get the picture. Social media loves to challenge the CEN’s work.

Finally the Moral Cognition Network supports motivation and intention setting and does good things for others and yourself. Sounds like the yamas and niyamas right? Morality is the foundation of yoga for a reason – there’s lots of research that links morality to better mental and physical health outcomes. It’s a powerful tool for self-regulation.

So this is a summary of the top down processes that help us self-regulate. In the next blog I’ll cover bottom up self-regulation. And then (it’s coming!) how yoga influences these networks in really amazing, positive ways.