Peggy La Cerra is the author of The Origin of Minds: Evolution, Uniqueness and the New Science of the Self (with Roger Bingham), which details an evolutionary model of the human neuro-cognitive architecture based on the physical laws of energy. She is a Silicon Valley consultant and research associate at the Stanford University Center for Mind, Brain and Computation. I spoke with her recently in the Bay Area.
Michael Taft: How does your understanding of the human brain affect the way you live your life?
Peggy La Cerra: I feel like I have a special lens that clarifies the details of an otherwise perplexing world and at the same time reveals ‘the big picture’. Understanding the brain makes it much easier for me to let go of little annoyances and big disappointments, and to be more compassionate toward others. Of course, I still get snagged by strong emotions sometimes, especially when I’m tired, but most of the time it’s fairly easy to recognize that emotions are just energetic information that can be considered and acted upon—or not.
Michael Taft: Knowing you, it’s impossible not to be impressed by how much you love dancing. What is it about dancing and movement that you find so intriguing?
Peggy La Cerra: Dancing—even for a few minutes—increases my vitality, makes me feel larger, freer, more joyful, more exploratory, more alive. I’m in love with dance because the simple act of moving my body around its edges and then beyond its normal boundaries broadens and deepens my perception of reality and expands my sense of self. When I dance, the self that appears is non-verbal and broader and bigger and more timeless and nothing like ordinary consciousness for me. In certain instances, dance seems to enable me to completely break free of the confines of the self. It’s a real meditative rest from my thinking mind.
Michael Taft: What other activities do you think might help people to connect to their own embodied experience in that way?
Peggy La Cerra: That's an interesting question. Certainly being in water, swimming. I saw a wonderful video on the internet the other day of a paraplegic woman in her wheelchair. A group of people gently lowered her overboard in a barrier reef somewhere. In the water, she looked like a sea creature herself—floating almost weightlessly. It was so beautiful, so fluid. Besides swimming, I think running and other repetitive activities can certainly take you out of your thinking mind and into an experience of the body. But I really like free-form activities. I like the idea of being carried downstream in a river as opposed to swimming laps in a pool. I like movement that’s different than anything you’ve ever done before, certainly different than anything you do in a normal day. That kind of activity will break you out of your rote mental patterns and allow you to become more fully aware of your body.
Michael Taft: What do you think are the benefits of tuning into the body?
Peggy La Cerra: There are huge benefits from tuning into the body. The mind, after all, was designed to guide behavior; movement is what it’s for. And instead, we in the United States use it while sitting still most of the time. People like you and I are using our minds all the time while sitting almost perfectly still. It’s ironic. We are ‘designed’ to be in motion, and our brain is 'designed' to coordinate that motion.
I’ve actually put an ironing board over a treadmill and put my laptop on it. That lets me walk while I do research and use Facebook and things like that. That helps me to stay in motion. Obviously there are all kinds of physiological benefits to moving. Increased circulation and all that blood carries with it, increased oxygen flow, cleaning up metabolic waste, and getting synovial fluid, cerebral spinal fluid, the lymph system all going. Everything starts flowing and nutrients are brought in and toxins flow out. So physiologically it’s fantastic and psychologically it’s taking you out of the reality tunnel you’ve been generating. It changes your perception, attention, cognition, emotion—everything.
Michael Taft: How does movement affect emotion?
Peggy La Cerra: I see emotion as the rudder of the behavioral intelligence system. Emotions are like a physiological drive, directing behavior to achieve something for the individual. Any emotion has a movement component associated with it. Some are hard-wired. Being afraid, we reflexively contract; being happy, we expand, we jump. So there’s an intimate connection between emotion and movement, and to an extent, we can direct that a little bit. You can work with an emotion physically, as many movement therapies claim.
One simple way is to just start moving in ways that are counter to what you are feeling emotionally. This activates something that competes with the emotion that was there. You know, if I’m feeling horrible, I like to do something like put on rollerblades and go down by the ocean and skate for hours. If you are feeling low energy or down, doing something that really doesn’t require any intrinsic motivation—because that motivational system is really down at that moment—can be helpful. For example, just bouncing on a ball can have the effect of beginning to change your mood. So doing something where there is a rebound, where there is an energy translation that works in your favor, like rollerblading or roller skating or bouncing up and down on a ball or a trampoline—just doing something small—you get a big physical return for it. I think those are great things to do when your emotional state is kind of below average.
Michael Taft: In your opinion, what does it mean to be a human being?
Peggy La Cerra: It means that we are the most creative creatures on the planet, and the most destructive – and that we have an awesome responsibility to use our gifts wisely.