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Social Engagement Cranial Nerves v1

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I love biodynamic craniosacral therapy; the art of using touch to support health. When you touch people they change. It is that simple.

Many people struggle with safety; it can be hard work negotiating being in the body. Coming into relationship with a skilled therapist can ease the pain. The inherent drive for self-regulation within our physiology is very powerful. Appreciating how the human body strives for health, and how health is expressed as coherence, connection, and a pulsing flow, is the skill of cranial work.

The essence of my work uses presence, education, movement, and touch to help people reconnect with health. I use embodied presence supported via non-doing touch.

Awe and wonder is a huge part of biodynamics. It is mesmerising being alive, being conscious, and being part of nature. There is is lot of spirituality in the writing about biodynamics. It often over complicates the simple process of touch. When people use the word spirit I just insert the word nature. Spirit does not speak to my experience, it is frequently far too speculative. There are many responses to the mystery of why there is ‘something other than nothing’. Religious frameworks are not part of my practice or teaching of biodynamic craniosacral therapy. I find they tend to obscure and confuse the simple path to the body.

The other big complication for me in the field of cranial work is a focus on alignment models. I am deeply uninterested in the position of bones and in trying to line up, stretch, and balance tissues if the focus is on an external model of how something should be positioned. Cranial work, despite the unfortunate name, is really not about how bones in the skull move. Sutherland’s model is in urgent need of an update in the light of so little evidence supporting rocking bones. The head probably creaks and accommodates tensions in membranes and muscles, but it is becoming increasingly hard to justify more than that.

There is wonderful evidence to support what happens in biodynamic cranial session. There is good science on the power of mindfulness and presence, touch feeding our sense of self, and on how education about pain and the nervous system works as a tool to relieve pain. We know that being in relationship with other people and the wild and natural world supports health. There are clear models on how interacting with the neurology of creating safety helps to overcome trauma. Systems theory helps us understand how intelligence emerges from complexity. That is a lot of great stuff without recourse to mysticism, esoteric anatomy and outdated paradigms of ‘issues in the tissues’.

Keeping it simple is my constant goal. I try to be as present as I can whilst using a light touch. As the relationship deepens I can be a witness to the patterns held in my client’s gently pulsing body. Something happens, always.

Easy really.


Our body’s emergency control centre – the amygdala. The amygdala, a pair of almond-shaped structures on the left and right of the brain’s medial temporal lobe, is particularly involved in emotional memories like fear, but also in pleasurable memories associated with food, sex, or recreational drug use. When a memory is particularly striking and unexpected, it activates this emotional memory system.

Nice article on fear and memory and some research on how to change memory.

They talk of giving beta blockers within 6 hours of a traumatic event (being used by the Israeli army) or stimulating the fear response some time later and then giving beta blockers (done on rats and a small human study). The beta blockers down regulate sympathetic activity. The goal is to uncouple the memory from the fear response.

Cranial touch, presence and being in relationship whilst someone is meeting the edge of a difficult memory could perform the same role as beta blockers.

  • “This suggests, says Phelps, that flashbulb memories differ from memories of more neutral events not because the details of the memory are preserved any better, but because we think they are. “With highly traumatic events we think we have this incredibly accurate memory,” she says. The truth is, many of the details we think are accurate are not. “Emotion focuses your attention on a few details, at the expense of a lot of others,”
  • We’re not changing your knowledge of what happened. We’re just changing its association with these fight or flight stress responses that we get”

Ged: ‘I’ve got this thing that you need to get to a sort of proficient skill level, then we’re all the same; all practitioners are equally effective. You don’t need to be in practice for 20 years. You know what I mean? It’s like the body needs a certain amount of skilful listening. Beyond that, it doesn’t matter, it can do it itself.’

You can download the transcript here


Ged: As you get more experienced and you’re in practice longer, I think it’s fairly typical that you do get simpler. I think that just goes across the board about anything actually. Don’t you think the more expert you get tends to be..? You just know the terrain, you know the way the body moves in these sessions. It tends to morph and shift in very idiosyncratic ways. Plus, I think your touch just becomes much more knowing. It’s like: “Yeah, I’ve felt that many, many times. Oh, that’s the pulls of the liver.” Or: “That’s a membranous, this or that. That’s the cymatics. Now there’s a visceral thing going on. There’s the vertebral column,” and so on.

I think that just starts to colour in wonderfully, so you know that. You know the feeling of: what’s the body doing in terms of health? How much health is showing? Maybe that’s one of the biggest things actually. Thinking back in time, I’m not sure… I think I’ve got better at relating to health, listening to health, and actually what it is. What’s the feel of health? Even people who are not well at all, chronic this or that, really strong pathologies – sometimes I touch them and think: “What pathology?” Because I think you’ve just become very honed at the skill of listening to the vitality of the body.

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Famous welcome sign, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Research into the fabulous vagus nerve is a gift that keeps on giving. Activating the vagus supports people to be less depressed, enhances the immune system, including regulation of inflammation, and reduces pain. The first section is a summary from Dacher Keltner of some vagal highlights. The second section has some tips on working with the vagus from a biodynamic craniosacral therapy perspective.

How can you become a vagal superstar? How can you help your clients become vagal superstars?

Vagal superstars

The following are all features of the vagus according to Dacher Keltner (1), researcher and author of ‘Born to be Good’.

  • The vagus nerve is almost like an alternative spinal cord.
  • When you stimulate the vagus you improve people’s capacity to make decisions, this is true of the vagus nerve but not so much the spinal cord.
  • The vagus stimulates the release of oxytocin.
  • It optimises your heart rate. It evolved to support communication, social engagement and prosocial emotions such as compassion.
  • Nice touch to the back, you see a smiling face, (compassion towards) images of harm; these all cause the vagus nerve to fire. It gives specific stimulation to emotional processing centres. (Italics added)
  • ‘Vagal superstars’ demonstrate elevated base activity in vagal tone. Vagal superstars are more generous, more trusted, and kids with high vagal tone break up play ground fights.

Tips on applying the vagal brake: increasing vagal tone inhibits the sympathetics

Enhance vagal tone

  • Stimulating the new vagus (2) is the best way of switching of the sympathetics and supporting homeostasis (3), (4).
  • Be soft, slow and present.

Engage the extensors

  • Think of a monkey grabbing onto a tree trunk; all the muscles being used are flexors and are associated with sympathetics, stress and making ourselves small. The sympathetics are switched on when we contract into the fetal position.
  • We are in parasympathetic mode when we come into an upright posture with the extensors engaged. We feel safe enough to show our belly, heart and throat. We can engage with our environment, make ourselves big and move towards new things.
  • On the treatment table you can engage the extensors by getting your client to orient to the back of the body: ‘Can you feel the weight of your body on the table? Push your elbows and/or feet into the table.’

Engage the feet

  • Loss of the vagal brake results in a surge upwards as we orient; the head gets hot and tight, there is increased activity in the neck, cranium, heart, and lungs. We lose relationship to the bottom of the body and tend to disappear from our belly and our feet.
  • Grounding, being present and firing in parasympathetics nearly always involves engaging the lower half of the body and feeling the feet.
  • On the treatment table keep asking people if they can feel the size, shape and weight of their feet and their belly. Be persistent.


Go slow and embody vagal states

  • Words associated with the vagal activity are trust, love, compassion, acceptance, joy. Work to find these qualities in your own body as you treat. The clients body will mirror your state.
  • Think of a perfect lazy afternoon, full of a delicious dinner, in front of a warm fire, cosy in a chair, chatting with old friends……

Know the anatomy of the vagus and its ganglia

  • The vagus can be influenced by supporting change around the jugular foramen, the superior and inferior sensory ganglia below the jugular foramen, the carotid sheath, the larynx (4), the tragus of the ear, freedom in the breath and diaphragm, and resolving inertia in and around organs (especially the heart, lungs and sub diaphragm organs) to free up vagal motor ganglia and the enteric nervous system.
The Vagus. Left: The territory innervated by the paired vagus nerves above and below the diaphragm.     Right: Vagus nerves in black, and sympathetics in white, supply the heart and organs above the diaphragm.

The Vagus. Left: The territory innervated by the paired vagus nerves above and below the diaphragm.
Right: Vagus nerves in black, and sympathetics in white, supply the heart and organs above the diaphragm.

(1)  Keltner D. (2009) Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. 1st Ed, W. W. Norton & Company. See also Dacher Keltner in Conversation.

(2) The ‘new vagus’ refers to the mylinated vagus controlled by the ventral vagus complex (nucleus ambiguus) that co-ordinates oxygen control inline with muscles of facial expression. Porges, S. (2011) The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. New York: Norton

(3) ‘The relative sympathetic activation seen in anxiety disorders may represent dis-inhibition due to faulty inhibitory mechanisms.’ The vagus inhibits the sympathetics.   – Thayer J. and Lane R. (2000) ‘A model of neurovisceral integration in emotion regulation and dysregulation.’ Journal of Affective Disorders 61, 201–216.

(4) ‘We propose that these findings have important implications for the understanding of the two-way communication between the heart and the brain, and provide a connection among negative emotions and negative health consequences via the common mechanism of autonomic imbalance and low parasympathetic activity.’  – Thayer J. and Ruiz-Padial E. (2006) Neurovisceral integration, emotions and health: An update. International Congress Series 1287 (2006) 122–127

(4) ‘The vagus nerve innervates the larynx’ it carries ‘general sensation, including pain, touch and temperature’ from the larynx. –  Laryngeal nerve anatomy: accessed Feb 2014.


Above is a fresh dissection showing a superior view of the cranial base with the dural lining intact, tentorium removed. The image is taken from here. You can see the olfactory and optic nerves passing through the dura. Fabulous. How shiny is the fascia lining the skull? This is very different from the dead bones you normally see.

Note how the shapes of each middle cranial fossa are quite different between the left and the right. The left greater wing seems to be anterior (towards the nose/ top of the picture). It does not look like a side bend to me – there is no bulge to the left? In Sutherland’s framework, probably a left lateral shear?

In palpating a clients head on a table, orienting to a squashed fluid balloon head, this pattern might present as the left hand towards the ceiling and the right hand towards the table. Often these are the obvious shapes and directions you feel in lateral shears, rather than feeling lateral translation of sphenoid.

Whatever we name it, and it is easy to get confused here, there is clearly experience and shaping by conditional forces. A great clinical approach is to try and work out the forces that have acted on the babies skull to generate the shapes you perceive.

For comparison here are three more real skulls, showing a variety of shapes.


Cranial base - three real skulls side by side

Cranial base – three real skulls side by side

cranial base labelled




Being in 3 dimensions is part of being a member of the Universe. It seems to be one of the major aspects of it actually. Though sometimes we can feel distinctly 2 dimensional and thats not a great feeling. Anyway here’s an easy way to find your 3D. Simply come into relationship with your planes.

Most of us in the modern world are oriented to the front part of the sagittal plane. We are so front. So best to start there and notice what happens when you shift to the full sagittal experience of front and back. Yes there is a back! The sagittal plane is significant, its not just an arbitrary plane, it’s the body in stereo, a body of two halves. We are a physiological left and right organism and the sagittal plane defines that. So hang out with the plane for a just a minute and notice how your body physically responds. It loves to be reminded of it.

Now to plane no.2. The coronal plane. Named after the coronal suture at the top of the head. This one is even more significant. It’s the plane of our embryonic disk. So no small thing and a really good reminder to the body to relate back to where it formed from. Best way to get into this plane is open up to the sides of your body. Start with the felt sense of the sides of your head then follow that feeling down the flanks of the torso and outsides of the legs. Now open up to the space left and right. The lateral spaces. This is such a great feeling. It makes you instantly feel spacious. Makes you realize how lacking in lateral space we are.

And finally the transverse (or axial plane in the image). This is about the horizontal. Notice the word comes from horizon. Its a plane that is resonant with the horizon and brings all the horizontal structures of your body into communication i.e. all your transverse diaphragms which therefore brings you into relationship with the interior of the body and its volume/length.

So that’s 3 minutes to find each plane and establish your 3 dimensionality. You can see you can not only use this in daily life but also as a way to establish a state of balance awareness in BCST.

Wonderful article on mini brains in the New Zealand Herald – contributed by Angela Wheeler

A miniaturised “brain-in-a-bottle” has been grown by stem cell scientists who hope it will lead to new treatments for neurological and mental diseases. The tiny hollow “organoids”, measuring three to four millimetres across, have a structure similar to that of an immature human brain, including defined regions. But the scientists insist they are still far from the science fiction fantasy of building a working artificial brain – or even replacement parts for damaged brains. The goal was to produce a biological tool that can be used to investigate the workings of the brain, better understand brain diseases, and test out new drugs. One expert predicted the future creation of a simple animal-like brain that could be linked to sense organs and had the ability to learn.

Scientists have previously grown other laboratory “models” of human organs from stem cells, including those replicating the liver, intestine, pituitary gland and eye. But none possess the daunting intricacy of the human brain, the most complex structure in the universe. The key to the new research involved nourishing immature cells in a gel-like “matrix” that allowed the complex organoid structures to develop. These were then transferred to a spinning bioreactor which provided extra nutrients and oxygen, enabling them to grow much larger in size. After two months of development the “mini-brains” had become globular spheres up to four millimetres in diameter. Each one surrounded a ventricle-like inner cavity and mimicked the layered structure of a human brain growing within a developing foetus. Among the identifiable regions were a cerebral cortex, forebrain, choroid plexus – the body that produces cerebro-spinal fluid – and even a rudimentary retina. Tests showed that they contained active neurons.

The raw material the scientists started with consisted of human stem cells – immature cells with the potential to develop along many different pathways. Both embryonic stem cells, originating from early-stage embryos, and artificially “reprogrammed” skin cells known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) cells were employed.

In a further experiment to show the technique’s potential, the researchers used cells taken from a patient with the brain disease microcephaly to create the mini-brains. They found that the organoids’ growth was stunted, mimicking the disease which causes the brain to be much smaller than normal.

Professor Juergen Knoblich, from the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, who led the Austrian and British team, said: “We’ve been able to model one disease which is microcephaly. But ultimately we’d like to move to more common disorders like schizophrenia or autism. We are confident that we might be able to model some of these defects.” He said the extreme complexity and inter-connectivity of the adult brain made him “pessimistic” about the possibility of replacing whole brain structures with laboratory-grown versions. Professor Knoblich added: “Our system is not optimised for generating an entire brain and that is also in no way our goal.” Although the organoids were small, they were not very different in size from an early stage developing brain in the womb.

Scientists commenting on the research, published in the online edition of the journal Nature, spoke of its potential and implications, but also limitations. Dr Dean Burnett, lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Cardiff, said: “Saying you can replicate the workings of the brain with some tissue in a dish in a lab is like inventing the first abacus and saying you can use it to run the latest version of Microsoft Windows; there is a connection there, but we’re a long way from that sort of application yet.”

Neuroscientist Professor Paul Matthews, from Imperial College London, said: “This study offers the promise of a major new tool for understanding the causes of major developmental disorders of the brain such as autism and schizophrenia, as well as testing possible treatments. Treatments are still a long way off, but this important study illuminates part of the pathway to them.”


‘The traditional model of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) hydrodynamics is being increasingly challenged in view of recent scientific evidences. The established model presumes that CSF is primarily produced in the choroid plexuses (CP), then flows from the ventricles to the subarachnoid spaces, and is mainly reabsorbed into arachnoid villi (AV). This model is seemingly based on faulty research and misinterpretations. This literature review presents numerous evidence for a new hypothesis of CSF physiology, namely, CSF is produced and reabsorbed throughout the entire CSF-Interstitial fluid (IF) functional unit. IF and CSF are mainly formed and reabsorbed across the walls of CNS blood capillaries. CP, AV and lymphatics become minor sites for CSF hydrodynamics. The lymphatics may play a more significant role in CSF absorption when CSF-IF pressure increases. The consequences of this complete reformulation of CSF hydrodynamics may influence applications in research, publications, including osteopathic manual treatments.’

Chikly, B., Quaghebeur, J., Reassessing cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) hydrodynamics: A literature review presenting a novel hypothesis for CSF physiology, Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies (2013), j.jbmt.2013.02.002

(only the abstract is available here I am afraid)

Wavy millipede legs

I was on holiday in Sicily recently, lazing in the sun, and caught myself watching a millipede. I was fascinated by the waves of activity in the legs as it moved. It struck me a moving millipede is a really good example of rhythms within rhythms, just like the different co-existing tides we describe in cranial work.

I normally try and explain the interaction of cranial rhythms by talking about the waves of the sea going back and forth but gradually moving up (or down) the shore as the tide goes in (or out).

On the millipede we can watch one leg move back and forth, or a group of legs seeming to take part in an undulation along the length of the body, or the whole millipede moving forward. All the movements are there at the same time, all important and all of them perceivable depending on your focus. Nice.

Harmonics and combining sine waves

The top red wave is the result of combining the waves below

The top red wave is the result of combining the waves below

Above is an image from a website exploring harmonics in music. The top red wave is made up of the three underlying waves below. It is pleasingly similar to CRI (blue), mid tide (purple) and long tide (green).

Below is another link from a website exploring acoustics. There are some good animations of combining two sine waves.

‘The Protoplasm of a Slime Mold’  by William Seifriz

‘The rhythmic forces in protoplasm are even more basic than the flow’

‘The rhythm has continued underneath, so to speak, even though the protoplasm has been asleep, there is still something going on. We must be very close indeed to the question ‘What is Life?’ ‘

‘There is not one rhythm in protoplasm but many rhythms. Protoplasm is a polyrhythmic system.’

The above quotes are from the slime mold dvd. Seifriz talks excitedly about finding out that the rhythm of protoplasmic streaming is not just a single rhythm but is made up of a number of rhythms. Below are the images of the basic wave and the constituent waves from the Seifriz DVD.

The basic rhythm of slime mold as measured by William Seifriz

The basic rhythm of slime mold as measured by William Seifriz

The underlying polyrhythmic nature of the slime mold is revealed on analysing the basic wave.

The underlying polyrhythmic nature of the slime mold is revealed on analysing the basic wave.

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