Freedom & Control

At first glance freedom and control may seem to be somewhat opposing notions. They are however deeply intertwined, in fact they may be the same thing. How so? Let me elaborate…

The most immediate freedom one can attain is the ability to move ones self freely. To be free in ones own body. This is something we experience as children but somehow lose as we move through time/life.

As healthy children we generally have good freedom of movement but we lack real control. So we are loose and relaxed but lack the requisite control to coordinate ourselves skilfully. This puts kids in a great position to learn new movement skills (dance, sport, martial arts, etc) and explains why it is easier for them to do just that. They are already quite free in their movements, all they need to learn is the control aspect.

As adults we succumb to having no freedom of movement and no control. Essentially we become tight and tense and then lack the requisite control to relinquish this tightness. This puts us at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to moving freely and learning new movements. Thomas Hanna described this state, of having a lack of control, as Sensory Motor Amnesia. In this state we have essentially forgotten how to sense and move (motor) our muscles freely.

The net result of that? We lose control of our physical selves. We lose control of our ability to operate our muscles and in turn we lose our ability to move well. Or should I say to move freely. Ah, without control, we can’t be free. We must be able to control our ‘selves’ if we wish to be free. Otherwise we are inevitably subject to our own demise.

This is why it becomes more difficult to learn new movement skills as adults. We must address our ‘Sensory Motor Amnesia’ first. By relearning how to be free in our bodies again. And this requires re-establishing good sensory motor control over our muscles.

So how is our control lost? Everything that happens in our lives is expressed in and through our physical bodies, every grievance, every accident, every injury, every broken relationship, every confrontation, every thought, and every emotion, our entire history. And all these experiences are expressed how? As involuntary muscular tensions. How else could they be expressed?

These involuntary tensions accumulate, contributing to our SMA, and, because they are involuntary, they seem outside of our control, and as they accumulate they interfere with our freedom of movement.

You cannot do the things you want to do unless you have the ability to stop doing the things you don’t want to do.

Do you see where this is going?

You cannot go forwards when you are still stuck moving backwards.

But those involuntary (contr)actions that can entrap us, they can be made voluntary. We can do them of our own volition. And in doing so reestablish our voluntary control over them.

We have more power over them than we realise. In fact we have complete power over them. If we knew how to exert it. Or could learn how to.

“The basic somatic task during our lifetime is to gain greater and greater control over ourselves…”

(Hanna, Somatics p.15)

But what does this mean in practical terms. It means this; if your body is stiff and tight beyond your control, you must make it stiffer and tighter on purpose. Take control of the tightness. In doing so you become the master. Then you are free to choose to relinquish that tightness.

Control, freedom, freedom, control. Freedom and control are two sides of the same coin.

Weird right?

A regular Somatic movement practice will allow you to experience all of this not just as an intellectual idea but as an embodied reality, a somatic process.

Check out my Learn Somatics YouTube channel to start learning Somatics right now. Want some help? Book a 1-1 online session and get tuition from the comfort of your own home.

As always thanks for reading, until next time.

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

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How your Brain sees your Body

The Sensory and Motor Homunculus Men
The Sensory and Motor Homunculus Men

What is the deal with these weird looking figures? Why are they proportioned the way they are? Why the giant hands? And the oversized mouths? And what does it have to do with our brain? Lets investigate…

These figures are called the Sensory and Motor Homonculus Men. They are proportioned like this to illustrate how much of the sensory cortex and the motor cortex is devoted to sensing and moving the different areas of the body. So the hands and mouth are oversized because large areas of the brain are given over to operating the hands and mouth.

The Sensory Motor Cortex (below) is the part of your brain that deals with sensing (sensory) and moving (motor) your muscles.

SMA Brain Diagram
The Sensory Motor Cortex

Different areas of the sensory motor cortex are responsible for sensing and moving different parts of your body. The diagram below is called a sensory motor homunculus, it maps out which parts of the sensory motor cortex sense and move which body parts. The sensory homunculus (blue) receives information from the muscles regarding muscle tension/length, joint angles, load etc. The motor homunculus (red) sends motor commands back to the relevant muscles based on the aforementioned sensory information.

Sensory Motor Homunculus Map

The commands from the motor cortex are a signal to the muscles to either increase the level of tension (contract), reduce the level of tension (relax) or maintain the level of tension. This back and forth of information, from the brain to the muscles, creates a sensory motor feedback loop. Sensory input arrives from the muscles into the sensory cortex > motor impluses exits the motor cortex and go back to the muscles > sensory input in > motor impulses out… and round and round it goes.

As you can see from the image above, your hands and face/mouth/tongue take up a huge part of both the sensory cortex and the motor cortex. Physically they may be small but neurologically they are massive. This makes sense when you begin to consider a) the many, many ways which we can use our hands and the very fine control we have over them and b) the fine control of the mouth, tongue and larynx that is required to speak.

Handwriting for example, requires a huge amount of brain processing power to be executed correctly. Perhaps that is why learning to write is such a laborious process. Writing, drawing, painting, playing an instrument, carving, pottery, sculpting all these activites require great skill and sensorimotor control of the hands. So to do any sort of fine work with the hands is to use and stimulate large portions of the sensory motor cortex of the brain. This suggests that the old saying “to be good with your hands” should maybe be understood as “to be good with your brain.” A point that is well illustrated in this interesting article that asks “Why does writing make us smarter?”

Interestingly the advent of computers, smartphones and touch screens has led to a sharp decline in real world hands-on skills being practiced. Now we seem to do everything virtually, on a computer screen. We have begun to use our hands mostly to tap keys and swipe screens, and in doing so we have reduced somewhat, the amount of stimulation that the sensory motor cortex receives. If we are not using our hands to their full potential, then maybe we are not using our brains to their full potential. I wonder what the long term implications of this will be on us and our society? As the old saying goes “Use it or lose it”. Only time will tell.

But for now let’s get back to the sensory motor cortex. As noted previously, another very large portion, approximately one third of the sensory motor cortex, is devoted to the sensing and controlling of the face, mouth, lips, tongue and larynx. Again this makes sense when we consider that as humans we speak. Speech requires a great deal of brain power to orchestrate. The lips, tongue and larnyx have to coordinate with our diaphragm in order to deliver intelligible speech or in a further refinement, to sing.

So with one third of the sensory motor cortex dedicated to the hands and another one third of the sensory motor cortex dedicated to the face/mouth/lips/tongue/larynx, there is only one third left. Just one single third of your sensory motor cortex devoted to the largest parts of the body! Your trunk, spine, hips, shoulders and limbs.

That is comparatively a very small section of the sensory motor cortex that is responsible for sensing and moving a very large area of the body.  Is it any wonder then, that the areas of our bodies that have the least cortical (brain) representation are the same areas that are most susceptible to movement deficits and muscular pain? Back pain, hip pain, shoulder pain anyone?

The trunk, hips, shoulders, and neck are supported by a very small section of the cortex. This means less processing power for a large area of the body. This being the case it would make sense that we might have to spend a little more time maintaining our brains control over these parts of our body, making sure the modest amount of the sensory motor cortex that is apportioned to these areas is stimulated regularly.

Movement of all and any kind provides massive amounts of stimulation and sensory information to the brain. We traditionally think of information as purely intellectual, words, numbers, facts, data etc. But for your sensory motor cortex, MOVEMENT IS INFORMATION. And the more information your brain has about your body, the better you can sense and organise your movement.

So how can we help ourselves in this regard? A Somatic movement practice is a great place to start. Practicing somatic movements slowly and smoothly allows us to re-establish, maintain and refine our sensory awareness and our motor control. By relearning how to move our trunk and spine comfortably through their normal and natural ranges of motion. Then when basic control has been re-established, we can get on with enjoying our favourite acvtivities whatever they may be. (Running, walking, lifting, climbing, dancing, yoga, gardening, tennis, the options are endless).

You can start learning how to do all this right now by checking out the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel. If you’d like some help with a particular movement or muscular pain I offer online 1-1s via Zoom. No matter where you are in the world, it’s never been easier to Learn Somatics. So take advantage today.

As always thanks for reading.

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