At any given moment there’s a story playing in your head. It’s like a never ending, run on movie that were it not for sleep and moments of deep meditation it would be constantly streaming. Just like a movie it has vision and sound and emotion. You can think and dream, have memories and make plans. This eternal Netflix in your head is your stream of consciousness. And this never-ending movie, your stream of consciousness, is what makes you uniquely human. It has been argued that without it life would have no meaning. Without our ability to reflect on self, on others, on our life – our lives would be meaningless.
So if it’s so important then why do we understand so little about it? It turns out consciousness is likely the most complex thing in the known universe. In fact, it has been referred to as the ‘hard problem of science’ and scientists pretty much stayed away from trying to understand it until the early nineties when Francis Crick (yes that Francis Crick) published a paper entitled, Towards a neurobiological theory of consciousness. 1 That paper sparked a new curiosity and willingness to delve into the hard problem of science.
Fast forward to present day and hundreds of scientists have spent thousands of hours diving into uncovering a deeper understanding of consciousness. Now there are two prevailing theories. One has your brain as the storehouse of consciousness. That your brain matter creates your consciousness and without your brain consciousness wouldn’t exist. In the second theory your brain is merely a conduit with consciousness in the field. So consciousness is outside of us and the brain is merely interpreting, transmitting, as it were, the field around us. It’s kind of like how your eyes do not see, they are merely conduits for the visual information to enter and then be processed by the brain.
For the sake of this discussion, we’ll put aside that argument for now and accept that either the way the brain is involved somehow. That whether the brain creates consciousness or merely transmits it from the field, there has to be some specific of the areas brain that are doing the creating or transmitting!
The challenge then is this - where is it? Neuroscience research is pointing to some particular areas. Dr. Richie Davidson did some of the early work in the neurobiology of consciousness at the University of Wisconsin in the 1990s. Their landmark research supported the theory that the mind, both conscious and unconscious, was a function of the nervous system and specifically the brain. Of even greater significance is the particular areas within the brain that have been attributed to be the seat of conscious experience.
Over the last 3 decades neuroscientists have been able to pinpoint a proposed anatomy of consciousness. Through advancements in neuroimaging, researchers have been able to show structural and functional evidence of neuroplastic changes in response to the human experience. The brain areas showing the greatest evidence of change are the prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and insula. So great are the brain changes observed in experienced meditators that they found that 20 experienced practitioners of one type of Buddhist meditation had a greater volume of brain tissue in the prefrontal cortex and insula than a control group! 2
This is where the story gets interesting for the Chiropractor. Turns out that the areas that are involved in consciousness are the same areas most impacted by the chiropractic adjustment! Chiropractic studies in neuroscience have elucidated several central nervous system sites that evidence change when adjustments are made to the spine. Electrophysiological, metabolic and fMRI studies all point to some very specific and similiar brain areas.
Haavik’s electrophysiology studies clearly demonstrate that the prefrontal cortex is one of the primary areas influenced by the chiropractic adjustment. The New Zealand team used Electroencephalograph (EEG) to evaluate the impact of spinal adjustments on electrical brain activity. They demonstrated “…solid scientific evidence that adjusting the spine changes the way the prefrontal cortex of the brain is processing information”. 3
Ogura’s metabolic studies mirror these findings in the prefrontal cortex and other consciousness rich areas. This team used Positron Emission Tomography (PET) to assess glucose metabolism in the brain pre and post chiropractic adjustment. The research demonstrated changes in metabolic activity post adjustment in a number of areas including the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, temporal cortex, visual cortex and cerebellum. 4
Functional MRI studies evaluating functional connectivity between brain areas also support the premise that the chiropractic adjustment impacts centers of consciousness. One award winning study that investigated changes in functional connectivity between brain regions that process and modulate the pain experience posits “…it is reasonable to assume that the underlying therapeutic effect of manual therapy is likely to include a higher cortical component.” 5
Across all of these studies one area in particular was commonly found to be of significance. It doesn’t matter how you evaluate the brain. Whether it’s EEG, PET or fMRI, all of these researchers when studying the impact of a spinal adjustment to correct vertebral subluxation found the same underlying area – the Prefrontal Cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is deemed to be responsible for executive function, including things like, cognitive function, working memory, critical thought, planning, goal setting, impulse interpreting and understanding thoughts and mental states of ourselves and others. It becomes most active when you think about yourself and even more so if those thoughts are emotionally charged.
The prefrontal cortex also has the largest cortical component of the human brain and is the latest to develop of any other species. In fact, it continues to develop until about 25 years of age. This could maybe explain the impulse control behaviour we exhibited as teenagers! I would argue it is the frontal cortex that makes us uniquely human and that without it life would hold no value. It is responsible for our ability to interpret what we hear and read and write, paint masterpieces, build cathedrals, fall in love…
One other commonality was significant across all of these studies - they all demonstrated that when we adjust the spine we change the brain. Now if the brain is the primary orchestra conductor for every cell, organ and tissue in the human body and neuroscience proves that we are impacting the brain with the chiropractic adjustment then why aren’t more people under chiropractic care?
Maybe, just maybe, it’s because not enough of us are sharing that message. When we adjust the spine, we change the brain and not in a random fashion and as we now know not in a random place! We are impacting the prefrontal cortex and the insula, the areas of the brain responsible for our ability to sense, emote and interact with our internal and external world. The areas of the brain responsible for making us uniquely human, the areas responsible for our ability to experience the vast richness that we call Life!
I once heard Donny Epstein say “We are not adjusting spine, we are adjusting destiny.” I couldn’t agree more. We live our entire lives through our nervous system. Above Down Inside Out. The research shows that chiropractic creates positive changes in the brain in the areas that are responsible for human consciousness. That’s the closest evidence I’ve seen for uniting the physical with the spiritual. Never before have we been offered a deeper understanding of our chiropractic purpose. I don’t need a better argument for chiropractic. Do you?
Change someone’s brain and you change the life. It’s as simple as that!
Photo: Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, photo by Brian Ulrich.
1. Crick F and Koch C (1990) Towards a neurobiological theory of consciousness. Seminars in the Neurosciences 2: 263–275
2. Fox et al. Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners May 2014 Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 43
3. Lelic et al. Manipulation of Dysfunctional Spinal Joints Affects Sensorimotor Integration in the Prefrontal Cortex: A Brain Source Localization Study January 2016 Neural Plasticity 2016(8)
4. Ogura et al. Cerebral metabolic changes in men after chiropractic spinal manipulation for neck pain
Ogura et al (2011). Alternative therapies in health and medicine. 17. 12-7.
5. Gay et al Immediate changes after manual therapy in resting-state functional connectivity as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging in participants with induced low back pain. October 2014 Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics 37(9)