“Without your soul nerve, you literally would not be human. But your soul nerve, like your lizard brain, has zero capacity to think.”Tweet
– Resmaa Menakem
Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, is a testament of body-centered psychology—namely, the way in which the stories of our lives, including experiences of trauma and harm—are written into our physical beings. Building from the damage done by racism to the bodies of both African Americans and white Americans, Menakem presents a very practical and pragmatic approach to healing through working with the body. My Grandmother’s Hands contains many exercised for connecting with the body and calming the nervous system, and especially centering on the role of the vagus nerve—what he calls the Soul Nerve—within the body’s parasympathetic system.
My grandmother was a strong and loving woman. But her body was frequently nervous. She often had a sense that something terrible was about to happen. It was an ancient, inherited sensation that rarely left her—a traumatic retention.
She would soothe that sense of impending disaster in a variety of ways. When she was in the kitchen, she would hum—not a steady tone, but entire melodies. Her humming was never soft and intimate, but loud and firm, as if she were humming for an audience. As a small child, if I knew the song she was humming, sometimes I would hum along with her, and my body would experience safety and settledness.
She also frequently comforted herself by rocking, both forward and backward and from side to side. When I would watch her rock, it never looked nervous or neurotic. Instead, it felt like a sacred ritual, imbued with meaning and purpose. Sometimes she would hum as she rocked.
She had a well-used rocking chair, but she could also rock comfortably on any sofa, chair, or bed—or standing up. Once, when we were visiting a sick relative in the hospital, I watched her rock on an uncomfortable chair beneath a heart monitor.
“The soul nerve is not a nerve in the way we typically think of one. It is a highly complex and extraordinarily sensitive organ that communicates through vibes and sensations. This communication occurs not only between different parts of the body, but also from one person to another. “
Sometimes she let us grandkids sit on her lap as she rocked. When I close my eyes, I can still feel my body settling into her soft, thick arm holding me steady and safe across my chest, and the wavelike motion of being rocked, of becoming part of a flow.
Most human behavior involves a part of the body that many people don’t know about—the soul nerve. The soul nerve is the unifying organ of the entire nervous system. Health and mental health professionals call it the vagus nerve or wandering nerve, but I call it the soul nerve—a much stickier and more descriptive term.
The soul nerve is not a nerve in the way we typically think of one. It is a highly complex and extraordinarily sensitive organ that communicates through vibes and sensations. This communication occurs not only between different parts of the body, but also from one person to another. Your soul nerve reaches into most of your body, including your throat, lungs, heart, stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas, kidney, and gut (both your large and small intestine). It is the largest organ in your body’s autonomic nervous system, which regulates all of your body’s basic functions.
The largest part of your soul nerve goes through your gut, which has about 100 million neurons, more than your spinal cord. This is why we sense so many things in our belly—and why some biologists call the gut our “second brain.” This second brain is where our body senses flow, coherence, and the rightness or wrongness of things.
One of the organs your soul nerve does not connect to, however, is your thinking brain. It connects directly to your brainstem—your lizard brain.
We are only now beginning to understand how the soul nerve works. The organ itself was not identified until 1921, and much of what we know today was discovered only in the past two decades. There are a great many things about it we still don’t understand.
“The largest part of your soul nerve goes through your gut, which has about 100 million neurons, more than your spinal cord. This is why we sense so many things in our belly—and why some biologists call the gut our “second brain.“
We do know that the soul nerve is where we experience a felt sense of love, compassion, fear, grief, dread, sadness, loneliness, hope, empathy, anxiety, caring, disgust, despair, and many other things that make us human. When your body has an emotional response, such as when your stomach clenches, your voice catches, your pulse races, your shoulders tighten, your breathing quickens, your body braces for impact, or you have a sense that danger is lurking, that’s your soul nerve at work. When you feel your heart opening or closing down; when you feel anxious in the pit of your stomach; when you sense that something wonderful or terrible is about to happen; when something feels right or wrong in your gut; when your heart sinks; when your spirit soars; or when your stomach turns in nausea—all of these involve your soul nerve.
When your body feels relaxed, open, settled, and in sync with other bodies, that’s your soul nerve functioning. When it feels energized, vibrant, and full of life, that’s also your soul nerve. When it feels tight, constricted, and self-protective, that’s your soul nerve, too. And whenever you have a fight, flee, or freeze response, that involves your soul nerve as well. In fact, one of the main purposes of your soul nerve is to receive fight, flee, or freeze messages from your lizard brain and spread them to the rest of your body. Another purpose is precisely the opposite: to receive and spread the message of it’s okay; you’re safe right now; you can relax.
Your soul nerve is vital to your health and well being. It regulates your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. It helps prevent inflammation. And it can reduce pain, improve your mood, and help you manage fear. We also know that your soul nerve is intimately involved with how your body interacts with other bodies, and with how your body makes memories. Without your soul nerve, you literally would not be human. But your soul nerve, like your lizard brain, has zero capacity to think.
Your soul nerve tells most of the muscles in your body when to constrict, when to release, when to move, and when to relax and settle. Much of this is outside of your deliberate, conscious control. However, as you will discover, with some attention and patience, you can learn to work with your soul nerve. With practice, you can begin to consciously and deliberately relax your muscles, settle your body, and soothe yourself during difficult or high-stress situations. This will help you avoid reflexively sliding into a fight, flee, or freeze response in situations where such a response is unnecessary.
From: My Grandmother’s Hands