All of us know that our famed fight-or-flight response works like a typical fire-alarm. It ‘sirens’ anytime in the face of danger — be it daytime, middle of the night, or through any lurking cerebral insight that tells us that something is wrong. This is nothing but heightened, or jazzed-up, physiological response — a reaction that occurs within a fraction of a second with the following epilogue. Our heart starts pumping blood to the extremities, our blood pressure zooms ahead to ‘gush’ blood to the muscles, just as our skin exudes surplus sweat to cool our body temperature. This is accompanied by the ‘excess rush’ of a plethora of chemicals, right from epinephrine to cortisol, to ‘drive’ sugar and free fatty acids into the blood stream for energy. All of this emerges by way of a natural reflex mechanism — a sophisticated glut of events that protects us from imminent disaster, or even death.
Agreed that the fight-or-flight response, or physical survival, is not what it was earlier, when our forbears had to deal with an impromptu meeting with a tiger, or raging fire in the vicinity. Stress has changed today — it’s no longer a question of physical danger, terrorism notwithstanding. Most of us seldom find ourselves in the clutch of a physical peril. Yet, the fact is our physiological fight-or-flight response is always fully prepared and waiting in the event we need it. More ironically, we trigger the fight-or-flight response, our survival alarm, for the run-of-the-mill ‘threats’ of everyday life — traffic jams, purging a computer bug, or virus, and configuring our tax returns. What’s more, our fight-or-flight response is activated when some software goes kaput, or when the mobile network plays truant — more so, when you want to talk shop with a friend, or whisper sweet nothings to your soul mate. The repercussion is imminent. Our fight-or-flight response has undergone a transformation — from a precious advantage, at the dawn of civilisation, to a surging burden that threatens our health and wellness and triggers stress-related illnesses, or diseases, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
New research suggests that a predominance of stress hormones not only impacts new brain cell growth, it also undermines our emotional thought processes, including the dexterous workings of our brain and the endocrine system. That we are hardwired to stress is passé. That’s the downside. On the upside, as Andrew Newberg, MD, a neuroscientist, explains in his perceptive book, Why God Won’t Go Away, we are wired for spirituality. He describes information from brain-imaging data collected from Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns, practicing meditation and contemplative prayer, respectively. He highlights how a SPECT [single photon emission computed tomography] machine shows the manner in which their blood flow to the prefrontal cortex correlates with neuronal activity and exemplifies their register of a transcendent or mystical experience. Newberg also explains that when the brain is starved of archetypal sensory information, the ‘censor’ of conscious thought is unplugged, and, thus, space and time are perceived differently.
Most people who meditate often portray an advanced conscious state of ‘being in touch’ with infinity, or one with oneself, or everything. The clinical search for such a cerebral ‘G’ spot in the brain has led to ‘neurotheology,’ the study of the ‘neurobiology of spirituality’ — a new scientific discipline. To state the obvious — meditation promotes our relaxation response. It augments our ecstatic experiences. The fundamental fact also is each of us has the brain circuitry, or chemistry, to bring about mystical experiences. To quote a Zen adage, ‘the best way out is through’ — to beat stress tactfully and usher in harmonious balance into our lives.