The Insular Lobe of the brain is a recent discovery; because it is tucked away beneath the Parietal and Temporal lobes, it was largely ignored until we developed the MRI scanner. And then neuroscientists found that, no matter what they were searching for, the most active part of the brain was always this Insular lobe thing.
If it is highly active, it clearly deals with an awful lot of stuff. It is connected to the amygdala – the ancient survival centre of the brain; to the thalamus – the switchboard of the brain, connecting everything to everything; and to other parts of the brain like the occipital lobe (vision) and the temporal lobe (hearing). It is an old part of the brain.
So what use is all this mumbo jumbo? Well, the insular lobe monitors everything going on inside us: heart rate, blood pressure, hunger, thirst, levels of tension – it’s a very long list. It keeps us in equilibrium – or homeostasis; we feel hungry, we eat; we no longer feel hungry so we stop eating and have been returned to equilibrium.
Let’s cut to the chase: weight loss. We stop eating when we feel satisfied; one symptom of a problem in the insular lobe is for it to feel happy, it likes the feeling of distension in the guts that follows eating and we can’t stop eating until we feel that. Funnily enough, the opposite is also true, some people hate any feeling of gut distension, so stop eating too soon. Balance the insular lobe and the need to over (or under) eat stops.
Getting healthier: for example we hear a loud bang: we jump; our blood pressure instantly rises and we tense up. Since it was only a bird scarer getting going, the faster we can return to normal blood pressure and a relaxed state, the healthier we are. All of which actually means if the blood pressure is too high (or too low1) – then the problem lies deep in the insular cortex of the brain rather than in a lack of blood pressure lowering tablets.
The Insular lobe is also linked to feeling pleasure – and, therefore, to addiction. Any addiction.
So as life builds up and we find ourselves with high blood pressure, drinking too much, addicted to food and on the road to diabetes we can take increasing amounts of medications, we can beat ourselves up for not exercising and having no will power at all when faced with a tube of Pringles. Or we can address our insular lobe. Fortunately so far an operation or drugs will not help, since
The insular’s importance makes it an ideal target for many kinds of treatment, including drugs and sophisticated biofeedback. But methods to quell insular activity must be approached carefully. People might lose the craving to smoke, drink alcohol or take other drugs, but they could simultaneously lose interest in sex, food and work.2
In other words, the usual routes to improve things – drugs, operations and expensive equipment are very risky in this case, since we can be left with little will to live, and certainly no zest for life at all. This leaves us Z-Health – or improving brain/body communication. Hurrah. And there is a lot that can be done to improve the function of the Insular lobe – exactly what depends upon the individual. For example, there is increasing interest in mindfulness to improve chronic troubles like gut disorders, and studies are done on how a course in mindfulness can affect the Insular lobe – the same applies to all types of meditation – and these can have a very good effect upon the insular lobe for some people – but not everybody. So if sitting on your bottom and trying to think about nothing for 20 mins always ends in frustration, you can comfort yourself that there are other ways of improving insular function.
For example: humming. This stimulates the cranial nerve that talks to the insular, the vagus nerve. It’s called the vagus nerve from the latin word Vagus, meaning wanderer, which describes the path of this nerve nicely: it wanders down from the ears, touching everything inside us, all the way to the pelvic floor, giving us lots of scope to make things better. Humming is a simple way to stimulate it: the hum should vibrate each side of the windpipe; a feeble British hum won’t do anything at all. By stimulating the vagus nerve, communication to the insular lobe is improved so it becomes more accurate in its knowledge of the state of affairs internally and therefore better at bringing things back into equilibrium. The exercises that improve brain/body communication are usually extremely simple; all we need do is find which we need and then to actually do them!