Notes From the Field: Integral Neuroscience: An Evening with Alan Watkins at the London Integral Circle Salon

Notes from the Field / January 2009

Dewan-HerrickThe London Integral Circle hosted Alan Watkins to speak at our November salon on the topic of “Integral Neuroscience”. Alan holds a medical degree from the University of London, as well as a Ph.D. in immunology and an undergraduate degree in psychology. He is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience and Psychological Medicine at Imperial College, London and Affiliate Professor of Leadership at the European School of Management. He has published numerous scientific papers on perceptions, emotions and immunity in various peer reviewed scientific journals. He has also written several book chapters and his own book on Mind Body Medicine. His second book, on Leadership, is expected to be published in 2009.

Alan began the evening with a description of his own medical training, in which each biological system and part was given its own “ologist”. Rather than seeing how each system (immunological, nervous, circulatory, endocrine, etc.) signals and interacts with the others, each specialty tends to stick to studying its own particular system in isolation. Although he remarked that systems theory has entered more into medicine in the past 30 years, he felt that mainstream scientific medicine was still too reductionist. In 1997, he left mainstream medicine to pursue his interest in a more integrationist approach, convinced that a single physiological system could not be understood in isolation.

In addition to a more systemic view of the human body, Alan also began to embrace integral theory’s recognition of all four quadrants. He suggested that neuroscience has tended to be too “brain-centric” and asserted that the brain has to be seen and understood first as part of the multiple systems that make up the body, but also in its relation with psychological, social, and environmental dimensions as well.

He provided the following examples to demonstrate the involvement and interaction of these various systems. Among people who have a panic disorder, 50% also have heart arrhythmia. Vagal nerve stimulator research shows that implants used to treat epilepsy also affect mood. Autonomic nervous system research shows that peripheral autonomic failure causes a flat affect. In these examples we see the involvement of both physiological systems and psychological/emotional experience.

He also reported studies showing the affect that contemplative and meditative practices have on the brain, citing the Mind and Life Institute and Daniel Goleman’s work with emotional intelligence. One of his PowerPoint slides showed Matthieu Richard smiling with over 200 electrodes stuck to his bald head. This led to a discussion about how positive emotion causes activation of the left superior prefrontal cortex and that a study showed that monks had greater activation (4.5 standard deviations above normal) in this area of the brain. He also shared that while it takes 360 milliseconds for the average person to see a picture of a face and recognize the emotion it expresses, monks are able to do so in 60 milliseconds.

Next Alan spoke about the importance of emotion in the evolution of consciousness and our sense of our selves. He suggested that consciousness evolved because it gives us a survival advantage. Consciousness enables us to conceptualize some sort of “map” of the world and of ourselves. This allows for greater behavioral freedom, as we are able to imagine things not immediately obvious to our senses. He provided an interesting account of the emergence of consciousness of self, saying that it is the recognition that “I am the constant. The other is the changing”. In fact he suggested that these three things evolved together; consciousness, emotion and the sense of self. Which is why when one is impaired so is the other. He offered an image of a “three braided rope” to illustrate the connection between emotions, consciousness, and self.

Having made the connection between mind and body he focused on one key bodily signal that influences consciousness, namely heart rate variability (HRV). He explained that the simple notion of a pulse rate (heartbeats per minute) gives extremely limited information. It’s like saying that out of an entire Mozart concerto the average note is C. What is of real significance is the variation in time between the beats. We are healthiest, apparently, when we have some variability between beats (not too much but not too little). Also, the pattern in the variability is important, as it indicates our general health and likely longevity. And it turns out that the pattern of our breathing affects our HRV, which in turn affects the coherence of signals in our prefrontal cortex. This turns out to be an important and extremely useful understanding, as we will see.

It seems there are at least 12 separate qualities of the breath that can be controlled, however some are more helpful to brain functions than others. The first is that the breath should be rhythmic. To take a few deep breaths is apparently not as helpful as taking a few rhythmic breaths. The second parameter to learn to control should be smoothness of the breath. Thirdly, we should breathe with our attention located on the heart, as this is more effective at attuning us to our positive emotions. He presented 12 qualities of breath in all with descriptions of the effects of each one. To sum up the most important ones in a way that we could remember, he said that we should Breath Rhythmically Evenly And Through (the) Heart Every day (BREATHE). Working with our breath in this way basically allows for more coherent signals in our prefrontal cortex, i.e. it allows us to continue thinking clearly in the midst of stress that might otherwise put us in a scrambled and less effective state.

All of this seemed to be a prelude to his presentation on “Integrated Performance”, which appears to be a much deeper and more comprehensive approach to performance than the more popular notion of “performance management”. To begin with, he suggested that we typically think of performance as a particular shaping of behavior. We know what a good performance is and try to shape behavior accordingly. This is all on the outside. Meanwhile, however, we must also recognize the inside and that behavior is a product of thinking. We behave in accordance with how we think. Yet it is not our thinking alone that shapes our behavior, but also our feelings. Furthermore, there is a reciprocal relationship between our thoughts and our feelings, in that they tend to cause each other. Yet prior to our feelings (or perhaps correlating with them) are our emotions. While our feelings are our subjective awareness of how we “feel”, our emotions are the sum total gestalt of all of the electrical, chemical, and other signals interacting between our physiological systems.

So from one point of view, we move from a basic physiological level all the way up through our emotions, feelings, thinking, and behavior and finally to our level of performance. This perhaps begs the question of whether the direction of causation might also go the other way, i.e. how might we affect our physiological systems by starting higher up in this chain? His presentation about working with the qualities of breath had already offered some ideas about this, but he had some further points and suggestions to make.

Apparently we have both physical and emotional skills that can be developed. We can cultivate “physical intelligence” through gaining greater awareness of our physical state, and based on this we can develop “physical management” skills, i.e. control our physiological signals (esp. our heart’s electrical signals as mentioned earlier). Alan then distinguished three separate skills related to emotions: awareness, discriminating or labeling, and management. First we have to consciously feel our emotions. Alan remarked that men tend to be less aware of their emotions, while women tend to have greater awareness, but less ability to manage them. (Don’t shoot the messenger.) Once we are aware of our feelings, then we can notice that they come in all different types and name them. There was some discussion about different systems of naming emotions, including the Tibetan system with over 34,000 distinguishable emotions. However, simply being aware of our emotions and naming them, while important and useful, may not be such a good thing without the skill to manage them. Having awareness and even the ability to name our emotions may actually be dangerous without the ability to also contain and use them, as we might become overwhelmed and not be able to function at all. Sometimes suppressing awareness of our emotions can serve a vital survival function.

Our awareness and ability to manage feelings that come from our instincts (gut) and from our intuition (heart) leads to insight, or “a knowingness that comes from instinct and intuition”. Finally, Alan suggested that decision making is “a feeling state justified by logic.” A similar notion comes from Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, where it is said that “Wise Mind” is an integrated blending of “Reasonable Mind” and “Emotional Mind”. And isn’t this the essence of good and even excellent performance?

In just a little over two hours Alan was able to cover an astonishing amount of material. While he answered many questions, he stimulated even more. We went over time and I believe that those present could have listened to him speak well into the night, elaborating further on other helpful physical and emotional skills and practices.

Alan Watkins has 20 years of scientific experience, three degrees in psychology, medicine and immunology plus 8 years of experience working in corporations and has a breadth of knowledge in what makes individuals perform optimally and also how to coach people into exceptional performance. Dr. Watkins BSc MD PhD is an international expert in health and performance. He is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience and Psychological Medicine at Imperial College London, the UK’s top university. He has published a wide variety of scientific papers on perceptions, emotions and health, and his first book on Mind Body Medicine was published in 1997 with two more in preparation. Since 1996 he has trained over 8,000 people in a range of performance skills in over 15 countries. His approach to performance integrates cutting edge advances from multiple fields of scientific research teaching individuals how to control their physiology and manage their emotional state to facilitate brain function. This training and coaching is supported by state of the art medical technology that he has developed over the last two years with the world’s leading manufacturers of this technology. He is also Chairman of the UK’s leading provider of behavioural training to infants and children with autism. Learn more at

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Michael Dewan-Herrick has recently re-married and moved to the UK from western Massachusetts, where he was the Executive Director for Windhorse Associates, a non-profit organization applying principles of Buddhist psychology to the treatment of people in severely distressed states of mind. He earned a Master’s degree in Contemplative Psychology from Naropa University in 1984 and has been studying and applying integral theory in his work as a psychotherapist and as a leader for the past 25 years. He is currently looking to continue his career and start a new life in London. and phone: 440 7503 598 168