Redrawing Our Body Maps
Cliff Smyth, GCFT
Moshe Feldenkrais would be happy. Discussion of body maps is all the rage. Many musicians, for example, are using "body mapping" exercises to enhance their learning and performance. Recent neurological research, using brain imaging, has shown that the body is 'mapped' in the brain in various ways and locations. In a brand new book by Antonio Damasio he writes, "...complex brains such as ours naturally make explicit maps that compose the body proper, in more or less detail." We use these maps to guide our senses and movement, and to assess the state of the body - and therefore ourselves.
As Feldenkrais knew, these maps are not just a simple reproduction of the body 'in the brain', but they reflect how we function in the world. For example, in the sensory strip of the neocortex (near the surface of the brain) there as many sensory neurons devoted to the thumb as our whole back! Feldenkrais also knew that the maps - our images we have of our body - were dynamic. They are updated as we move, explore and learn. We can make the maps more detailed. Recent neuroscience now shows that, not only does the patterns of firing of neurons change with learning, but the physical structure of the brain also changes. For example, there is thickening of the neocortex in places that are activated with learning. This is "neuroplasticity".
Feldenkrais designed Awareness Through Movement lessons to allow us to modify these internal images of the body - using the intimate relationship between moving and sensing that is essential in all our actions. As we make movements and direct our attention to where are bodies are in space, the relationship with the floor, the sensations of effort, direction and ease, we can get a clearer image of our bodies. We can use this greater precision of perception to help us move more comfortably, with less pain and greater ease. It can help us do things we thought were impossible.
Recent research also shows that there are brain structures that are active with sensory stimulation, cognitive (thinking) tasks and emotional responses. Other parts of the brain seem to bring together information about the overall state of the body - using input from the nerve fibers that convey pain, temperature, the effect of work on the muscles, and for example the senses of thirst, hunger and itch! We are beginning to be able to observe the parts of the brain and the neural processes that sub serve the effects of sensation and movement on emotions, pain, and our overall sense of self. These are connections that Feldenkrais wrote about - and what many of our students experience as an outcome of Feldenkrais lessons.
There are now a number of popular books making this research available to the public. Exploring such intriguing topics as phantom limb pain, anorexia nervosa, and how we can use the imagination to strengthen muscles, are books such as The Body Has a Mind of its Own and The Brain that Changes Itself. They are a good introduction to this research and its relevance. Damasio's new book, Self Comes to Mind, devotes a chapter to 'The Body in the Mind'. One of his main contentions is that the body is central to the development of consciousness. He writes, "Thanks to the brain, the body becomes a natural topic of the mind."
Sandra Blakeslee and Mathew Blakeslee. (2008.) The Body has a Mind of Its Own. New York. Random House.
Antonio Damasio. (2011). Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. New York, Pantheon Books.
Norman Doige. (2007.) The Brain that Changes Itself. New York, Penguin.
Cliff Smyth. 2011