The Brain Is a Map to Your Health

Krisstina Wise interviews Ashley Stewart

Hello, this is Krisstina Wise, and welcome to this edition of the Wealthy Wellthy Life, where I interview thought leaders who teach a counter-cultural approach to money, health, and happiness. Great riches don’t matter if you’re sick and good health doesn’t matter if you’re broke. Today, I tackle health wealth with my friend Ashley Stewart. Ashley is a PhD in Clinical Health Psychology. She’s double board certified in Neurofeedback and Biofeedback and has over a decade of experience in clinical education research and business in the areas of neuroscience and psychophysiology. She’s been published in multiple medical journals, and is a true expert on the brain, especially the study of physical processes in the brain that form the basis of our psychology. Her consulting business is called the Human Performance Institute where they specialize in neuroscience and neurotechnology for optimal performance.

Enjoy this brain bender episode.
 
 Ashley, it is so much to finally have the opportunity to sit down with you and talk. You are one busy woman. You’re traveling the world, you are a neuroscientist, an athlete, a speaker, a technologist, you are incredible. You’re my girl crush, girl.

Well, I didn’t know, thank you. Thank you, I’m so happy to be here.

And you’re beautiful to be with. You’ve got a perfect package of brilliant mind and inward and outer beauty. We met at the Bulletproof conference a while ago, but I wanted to say just publicly how much I enjoyed meeting you. Especially as a woman; you’re so strong, so vibrant, so smart and you’re really leading this new space of neuroscience with some different aspects. You’re moving over neuroscience to neurotechnology, and even blending into the space of neuro-wellness which I’m really fascinated by and curious about. I’m really looking forward to seeing where our conversation leads us today on some of these new science of the mind explorations that you’re delving into.

Give us a little bit of your background. What intrigued you? What got you into neuroscience and this field in particular?

When I was an undergrad, I attended all technology schools. I started out really wanting to pursue engineering. I found that there were solutions to all the questions, at least in my brief experience with studying engineering. I just wanted something where it continued to challenge me, so I started thinking about medicine. Someone invited me to a statistics course. It was a graduate level statistics course that was being offered to undergrads. After the first day, I was fascinated by the numbers telling me a story.

The professor was a clinical health psychologist, and a great deal of his work was in AIDS. He became a little bit of a mentor to me at the time, and then I began to realize that even though I really loved medicine, what I really enjoy is the numbers that can tell you a story and how that can lead to advances in medicine and technology, in wellness and the interaction of all of these things. Basically more from the physiological and psychological intersection. When I say psycho physiology is more my background, that’s where it stemmed from. It came from me wanting something that was a continual challenge. Somebody said: “The brain is the final frontier,” and I truly think that’s the case. I think that we’ll begin, we’ll continue to generate more questions and probably never have all the answers. I like a challenge.

You found the biggest challenge. Well, you’re a rock climber and an athlete. Clearly when you’re hanging on the edge of a cliff, you’re someone who likes a challenge. Mental, physical, adrenal challenges.

Let’s talk about this term, psycho physiologist. What is that?

The easiest way to think about it is the question of how the mind and body interact, and that’s different from how the brain and the body interact because that’s more than the physiology. The psycho physiology is the study of that mind/body question that people talked about for quite some time. I think that’s the easiest way to think about it.

For the longest time, we really treated the mind and the body as two separate things. We’re just coming into these discoveries that they’re so interconnected, and the more we understand these connectivities and treat them as such, or organize our lives and our wellness as such, we’ll be healthier physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.

It only makes sense, right? Not everything has to be separated as it has been for centuries. That gets back to needing to separate science from the church. This is how the whole separation came about, and I think now that we’ve just been trying to work against that paradigm and prove that paradigm for quite some time, the reason the paradigm became widely held in the first place is because it was necessary. Not that it really served to explain very much. It was just because it was necessary at the time.

What are some of the newest discoveries? What are you seeing from your point of view? Do you have to treat the intertwining mind and body the same or work with them the same, or think about them as joint versus separate?

I think technology is where we’re going to see and where we are seeing the fastest advances, especially in medicine and wellness. You actually see new terms coined just because of the advances in technology, and where people are taking the various tractions of technology, medicine and wellness. Not only do we have neuro technology, but we have neuro wellness, and neuro gaming. I think we’re going to continue to see major advances in all of these areas and influence these advances throughout multiple industries from medicine to corporate training, to schools and universities, and learning disabilities within those and how those are addressed. I think it’s really going to change the phase of how people not only interact with their phone and their computers on a daily basis, but how they interact at the level of their job and at the level of their family and patient care.

I think we use the words brain and mind interchangeably, and I think most people treat them as the same. How do you explain the difference between the brain and the mind?

To me, I think about the brain as being the physical organ that we have, and the mind comprising our thoughts, our will, our emotions, but not thinking about where they come from in a physiological sense like what’s driving them.

You’ve said the word psychology a couple of times: how does psychology fit into this mix — the psychology, our mental health, mental performance, the health of our psyche?

My PhD is in clinical health psychology and I specialized in psycho physiology and technologies for progressing that area of research. I think that for a number of years people called that a soft science. It’s actually one of the most rigorous scientific fields that you can enter into. It’s not just about the mind, which is what you think about when people talk about the psyche and more areas of consciousness. There’s a real physiological research perspective to that.

I think the psyche and the idea of the psyche falls more into that understanding of what the mind is. As you’ve talked about before in previous interviews, there’s this somatic experience that occurs as a result of what is happening within our mind, will, emotions, and decision making. There’s always a parallel or reaction on a physiological level. What biofeedback, neurofeedback and technology in general have been doing for a number of years but in more advanced ways now, is offering a window into seeing the effects of that now. Instead of someone just saying, “I get anxious when I think about X”, you can now hook them up to technology, show them what’s happening when they say that, and you and they can watch their body beats in real time. They are in fact becoming more anxious, high in sympathetic nervous system activity. People talk about that fight-or-flight. We can now see it happening in real time.

How does that change things? The biofeedback, the ability to observe the physiological responses really, versus just body sensations that you think are happening?

In one respect, I think it’s very confirming to people that it isn’t all in their head. People have said that for quite some time; it is all in your head, but that just means it’s in your brain and then the rest of your nervous system. I think it gives people a real sense of empowerment. If you think about it, one of the most distressing aspects of living a day or a moment in someone’s lives, is feeling that they don’t have control over where they are. Whether it’s their emotions or their circumstances, and the ability to take on a different perspective or manage themselves in those certain circumstances in a different way. By being able to see your body’s response and manage your physiological responses, it then translates and enables you to better gain, more flexible or healthy perspective in general, because you start at the root which is actually changing your physiology. It makes it more readily available to you to have a different perspective.

Otherwise, we’ve been working backwards. We’re saying, “Well, if you change your perspective about this, if you just let this go or think about this in this way, then you’ll feel better.” I think it’ll impact and empowers people in a really different way.

Absolutely. We can be more aware of this somatic experience, that is not all in our head, and we can be more aware of our sensations or the somatic bodily feelings beyond emotions, but how we feel different true sensations in different parts of our body and touch base with that. Physiologically, it’s true. I think that it becomes more obvious, the mind and body connection — they are not separate.

A really simple way that can be helpful is I would say to people, “Here’s a piece of paper. Write down on this piece of paper what you think, say, and do in a day that you don’t want to.” Inevitably, people can fill in these blanks with something. At some point in the conversation, you realize that we will kick ourselves for things that we think, say, and do in a day that we don’t want to. We will kick ourselves and think this is a problem with will, this is a problem with volition. I just can’t stop doing this or I just can’t seem to stop thinking this.

I think that resonates with a lot people but that to me is the place where you go, “Ah! See? There is something going on that I can probably shift physiologically.” If you want to say that it’s happening subconsciously, okay that’s fine, that’s the way to think about it because initially people understand what that means. But this is not all about your will and your volition. This is about there being some sort of propensity that’s driving that you haven’t tapped into. Maybe you aren’t as aware of it, maybe you aren’t as good at regulating it, that just needs some help becoming a little more flexible. Having a feedback in real time gives you the ability to build that flexibility, and also enables people to see that it’s not just because you can’t do it or because you’re not trying hard enough.

Exactly.

People begin to approach this from less of a passive powerless perspective to a more confident hopeful perspective. They go, “Oh, wow. Look at that, I can decrease my heart rate at will. I can change my breathing and actually enable myself to meditate for longer. There are a variety of examples or things that maybe seemingly are beyond my volition or will that may have more of a physiological root that I haven’t tapped into that I could train, that would enable me to just generally feel better.”

You’re right, and it does give power back. It’s not “something’s wrong with me and I don’t have the willpower to change this”, but it becomes more of an experiment. It takes the pressure f what you should or shouldn’t do and allows you to be more curious and see how you feel if this happens as oppose to when that happens. Through that connectivity to our somatic experience and our physiology, we become a lot more aware. It brings some things out of the unconscious to the conscious into a point. It gives us power back: “I can do this, I can lower my heart rate. I can control my mind that if I try to meditate, I now notice when it goes out and I have the ability to bring it back.”

I think that people began to see how their internal thought really impacts their health and their well-being at a physiological level, and it’s greatly underestimated. Proof says that something like biofeedback or neurofeedback brings you into very close awareness of those cell changes within your body in response to what’s happening. This is mainly in your thoughts and emotions that are occurring in it. What you’re doing essentially with these technologies is multiplying a signal that may be undetectable to you in everyday life. You’re magnifying that sometimes thousands of times to make it a known number, or a known experience to you. Then you begin to see how your body changes in very subtle ways to your frame of mind and internal dialogue that you’re having with yourself.

Now they have other studies about this. There is a guy — whose name I forget — doing some studies with water and positivity. There were studies about how food changes; if you speak negatively over a food, it will mold and degrade over time. We’ve talked about ‘woo woo’ science or ‘woo woo’ philosophies, but now, science is starting to really approve . Maybe we can measure these things.

Could you take a minute to talk about the nervous system, parasympathetic, sympathetic, fight-or-flight, and how these responses work? How can they can be so reactive and how our stressful life is doing this, in the context of what we’re talking about? I think that helps people to understand how our nervous system works physiologically, in response to certain stressors or triggers. It is very physiological, and this direct correlation between mind and body does affect our overall wellness psychologically, mentally, but also true physical health.

The autonomic nervous system comprises of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems that we’re talking about. I think about it as almost like a gas and a brake system; they need to be in balance. The parasympathetic nervous system is the braking system, it brings everything back in a homeostasis. The sympathetic nervous system is a system that is activated when we’re under a threat. Obviously, for reasons of safety and detection of danger, that system is required and necessary within us. But when activated, chronically it has significant and deleterious effects on us, and even mortality.

The CDC estimates that 90% of diseases are caused and exacerbated by stress. The lack of that braking system and the overly sympathetic activation that people tend to operate in on a daily basis is a root cause for much of what we see and a root cause for the exacerbation of much of what we see in terms of diseases these days, and disease processes. Your system is made to be flexible and it’s meant to be flexible, that’s when it’s at its healthiest. There’s more overall well-being and longevity in a number of ways. There’s clarity, there’s better restoration, and that’s when your system is flexible. Over time — because of how the decisions that we make, the environment that we live in, our level of co-activity, our nutrition, potential toxins that have been reared into our environment — these things begin to create a more rigid system with unhealthy patterns.

But wait…there’s more?!

This post has been adapted from The WealthyWellthy Life podcast. Listen here for the full interview and story of Ashley Stewart and to download a PDF of this entire conversation.

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