The nervous system is a universe. It regulates everything in us: from body movements, bodily functions and body sensations to feelings, thoughts, thought processes. For a year, I’ve been learning about it, and I’ve been finding new and exciting connections.

The most important connection for us musicians brings forth the explanation:

It all comes down to the feeling of safety. How safe do I feel in this situation? How safe do I feel with the people that share this situation with me?

The nervous system is a complex network and can still be explained using a simplified system based on a theory by brain researcher Paul McLean. Today I will introduce the model, and next week I will talk about why it is important for us as practicing and performing musicians to know about it.

Reduced to one sentence: We have three brains, not one, and we have three nervous systems, not one. They are almost built into one another (not really, but for our purposes, please imagine that it’s like this).

The autonomous nervous system and the reptile brain

The first and oldest nervous system we have, the autonomous nervous system, is connected to a part of the brain that we speak of as the reptile brain. We have a couple things in common with reptiles, such as biological rhythms like breathing and digestion, and various life impulses such as the fight-or-flight response or the day and night rhythm. Our body sensations are also at home here, as is our gut feeling.

The limbic system and the old mammalian brain

The second nervous system developed during the period when reptiles developed into mammals: we call it the limbic system. The old mammalian brain is the source of our emotions and our emotional relationship with other people. Mammals usually organize themselves in groups, and humans do as well.

The prefrontal cortex

Finally, our third nervous system has to do with our rational thinking. The brain area associated with it is called the prefrontal cortex. Thus, we are not only able to feel impulses, but also to inhibit or drive some impulses, formulate abstract thoughts and ideas, reflect on decisions, past or future, and also put ourselves in the position of others.

Your advantage

What can we deduce from this? First, I want to drive home the point that when we say "brain" or "nervous system," we don't always mean the same brain or nervous system. In my experience, some people confuse talking about feelings with talking about thoughts, or impulses. When we know which system we have access to, when and which system is most effective at the moment, we can also find the right solutions that suit us.

The neurologist Hughlings Jackson made in the 19th century a discovery in this area, which still serves as the basis for virtually all models of the nervous system. What this discovery is, what it has to do with the feeling of safety and why it's important for us musicians, you can read in the second part of the series.

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