The wires of electrical circuits run through a house to deliver power where it is needed. Nerves in the body are like electrical circuits, except, rather than transporting electricity, nerves convey an energy with electrical and chemical components that the body uses to transmit information.
Another important distinction between electrical circuits and nerves is that in a house the electrical power runs in one direction: from the service box to the outlets. Nerves move energy/information in two directions.
The nervous system is an energetically charged information feedback loop. The brain and sometimes the spine are in the middle that loop. The sensory nerves in our body collect sensations and send the information to the spinal cord and brain where the information is processed, decisions are made, and the motor nerves carry instructions back to our body. This is the somatosensory system. Its peripheral receptors and neural pathways detect and process information about touch, pain, temperature and the position and movement of parts of the body. This loop of information enables the muscles to move the bones.
Much of what the nervous system does happens without our conscious awareness. For example: we slip; we immediately move and catch our balance; this happens before we are aware that we have slipped and need to rebalance. This is called a reflex. It is not a conscious thought. In the case of a reflex, the decision of what to do with the incoming sensory information is made in the spine. The body responds to life threatening circumstances more quickly by making decisions in the spine and not the brain. Some describe reflexes as “primitive.” The brain is not at the center of the feedback loop. The loop only reaches to the spine and back.
Breathing can be viewed as a primitive reflex that keeps us alive. If we do not breath, we will die. The primitive reflex happens; the rate and the depth of breathing is adjusted so that the blood gases are appropriately balanced; this is all accomplished unconsciously.
Most people are seldom aware of their breathing. There is hardly any need to be aware of the breath; the breath takes care of itself. Understandably, most people let breathing happen automatically, no thought is necessary.
Breath can happen unintentionally or intentionally. Anytime we want, we can choose to be aware of our breath. Once we are aware of breath, we will notice patterns in our breathing. Using that information, we can consciously choose how we breath, the pace, the depth, the direction, the pauses between inhale and exhale.
The effect that conscious breathing has on the mind and the body concerns the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Conscious breathing helps these two systems stay in balance. For most people, conscious breathing turns the parasympathetic system on in order to bring the sympathetic system back into balance. This state of stable equilibrium is called homeostasis. The world we live in activates the sympathetic system relentlessly. The parasympathetic system is enlivened by conscious breathing and the systems are brought into balance. Some would describe the feeling when we are well balanced as blissful.
Electrical circuits in our homes and nervous systems break down in different ways. In a house the electrical circuits either deliver power in the appropriate voltage and currency or they don’t. They are either broken or working. Nerves can be broken like the electrical circuits, usually because of trauma that crushes or severs a nerve.
More frequently, however, nerves break down when, even though they are intact, their function is reduced. The intensity of sensations conveyed through the nerves may be less. Instructions coming through the motor nerves may be muddled and confusing. Even though the nerve is there, and the muscle is there, the feedback loop is just not working as it should. Sometimes the dysfunction is like a rheostat that involuntarily dims the lights in the room. Sometimes the muscle seems to have developed amnesia; it has forgotten that it can move in a certain way. Sometimes the feedback is that the muscle is cranky, or irritated or wants to be ignored.