Yoga and Meditation for Balancing the Insula of the Brain

Insula of the brain is one of the most vital components of the brain which controls our health and wellness. The word ‘insula’ comes from Latin and it means an island. Insula is really an island in the brain, which is deeply connected with all the major cities of the brain. Its volume is about 20 ml.  Insula is responsible for controlling our mental emotions and the regulation of the body’s homeostasis. Insula integrates the body and the mind.  Therapeutic techniques like integrated yoga and vipassana meditation are designed to directly control the activities of the insula.

Insula and Gut Feelings

insula and the brainThe insula is located deep within the brain in between the temporal and frontal lobes. There are two insula in our brain, one on each side of the brain. Again each insula is divided into two parts: the anterior insula and the posterior insula. The anterior insula is larger than the posterior insula. Among all these four parts right anterior insula is most important with respect to emotional intelligence and self-awareness. The right anterior insula is more developed in humans than in other species. The anterior insula is the seat of our so-called “gut feelings.” Social neuroscientists observed that there is a decreased activation of anterior insula for older people. Yoga and meditation improves the brain fitness. Optimal level of yoga and meditation keeps the insula active and efficient.

Insula and Cognitive Awareness

Insula continuously scans the physiological state of the entire body and then generates subjective feelings. In vipassana meditation, when we observe the bodily sensations, we activate our insula. Through awareness meditation we gradually develop more gray matters in the brain, which provides a framework that is higher than the normal insula. Insula continuously receives signals from receptors in the skin and internal organs like gut, heart and the lungs. Information is carried from the receptors along distinct spinal pathways. Through integrated yoga and vipassana meditation, when we develop awareness of the spinal cord, the spinal pathways are cleared. Yoga helps us to develop more intense feelings about the deeper parts of the muscles and the internal organs, which makes the insula work efficiently.

Meditation and Gray Matter

Position of the InsulaResearchers observed that greater the right anterior insular gray matter volume, the greater is the accuracy in the subjective sense of the inner body. They also observed that grater volume of this gray matter enables a person to control the negative emotions. The volume of our gray matter normally reduces as we get older. But scientists observed that meditation protects the brain from some of the effects of aging. Several areas of the brain are active when we meditate, but most positively affected areas are the prefrontal cortex and the insula. When we do yoga, our muscles and glands becomes stronger and healthy. In a similar way, when we meditate the brain becomes larger and denser with gray matter.

Meditation Insula and Pain Management

Meditation and relaxation increases the gray matter in the brain [3]. On the other hand, gray matter in the brain is inversely related to the pain. Researchers found a direct correlation between brain gray matter decrease and duration of pain [5]. Where does a pain hurt? Simple answer is in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and in the insula of the brain. ACC acts like a first level filter but insula has more wisdom and it manages the pain. Insula is more intelligent than ACC. Insula has deeper feelings of self-awareness and well-being. However, the exact relation between dorsal ACC (dACC) and insula is still haze. When there is a pain, our neural signals decide to take the economy route. If routes are clear pain management for the brain is easy. If the routes are congested pain management is difficult. If you pinch in your big toe, if you are sensitive enough you can instantly feel the pain signals as it travels through the spinal cord to the insula. Spinal cord neurons relay the message to the brain and the brain projects that the toe is throbbing and ignites the environment to take action. Insula coordinates with the prefrontal lobe for pain management.

Left fore-brain is associated mainly with parasympathetic activity (relaxation) and right fore-brain is associated primarily with sympathetic activity (survival emotions) and insula balance interactions between the two hemispheres. Yoga balances the activities of the sympathetic nervous system and meditation activates the under-active parasympathetic nervous system. The prefrontal lobe and the insula is tightly coupled to monitor the activities of the brain and the entire body system. Yoga integrated with meditation strengthens both the prefrontal lobe and the insula.

 References:

  1. Integrated Yoga and Vipassana Meditation by Dr. Amit Ray
  2. Oxford Journal: Special Issue on Mindfulness Neuroscience
  3. Age effects on gray matter volume and attentional performance in Zen meditation
  4. Functional imaging of brain responses to pain. A review and meta-analysis
  5. POLS One: Structural Brain Changes
  6. Functional neuroanatomy of the insular lobe
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