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.

learnsomatics.ie

The Clues in Our Language

Look at the words and phrases below, think about what they describe, what do you notice?

Uptight, high strung, wound up, uneasy, nervy, restless.

All these words imply tightness or tension, and as we know, tension is always muscular tension. There seems to be a subliminal understanding, clearly reflected in our language, that excessive tension is negative, or at least unhelpful.

Now lets look at words/phrases that mean the opposite.

Calm, easy-going, laid-back, unworried, at ease, peaceful.

Again an implicit understanding that an absence of tension is a positive or at least more favorable state.

Which of these sets of words or phrases best describe you?

You can learn how to release muscular tension, resolve muscle pain and relieve stress through the practice of Somatic movements. Check out the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel to start right now. Need help? Take an online 1-1 session with me.

Photo by Clarissa Watson on Unsplash

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How do YOU walk?

Walking. It’s so simple. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. It’s one of those things you don’t really think about too much, or at all. That is, until you can’t do it any more, or it causes you pain and discomfort.

Walking upright on two legs is a quintessentially human characteristic. No other creature on earth walks like we do.

Well except for this guy, sometimes you just gotta strut!

Upright bipedal locomotion walking requires a different type of brain than that which is required for quadrupedal locomotion. So the fact that human brains are unique and our method of locomotion is unique are not coincidental. Daniel Wolport maintains that the only reason you (or any other creatures) have a brain is to organise movement. And the most fundamental human movement is upright walking. There are of course two other distinctly human characteristics we could discuss here. Namely speech/language and opposable thumbs. But I will save them for another day.

The entire first 0-24 months of our lives is a self-guided, self-directed developmental journey towards walking. Almost everyone learns to walk purely through a process of trial and error movement exploration. We learn to roll over, sit, crawl, and eventually walk, and run. And all of this before we ever learn how to think. Movement proficiency first, cognitive development second. Hmmm….

Compare this to the quadrupedal animals that can walk within moments of birth. Interestingly it is generally prey animals that can walk immediately, for obvious reasons; to escape predators. Predators can take a bit longer as their parents will provide food and protection in the meantime. Just like humans.

But how do you walk? Do you walk well? Can you walk freely and comfortably? That is, can you walk for long distances without getting fatigued? Or experiencing pain and/or stiffness? Or maybe you don’t walk much at all because it causes pain or discomfort.

Look at the soles of a pair of your shoes that you walk in a lot? Are the wear patterns symmetrical? If they’re not why do you think that is?

Do you wear high heels a lot? Do you think wearing them changes the way you walk? Do they make your feet/ankles/knees/hips or even your neck, hurt? Do you think that might be problematic in the long run?

Because walking is such a fundamental movement pattern it makes a fantastic means of assessment. In Somatics we use walking as a before and after. Why? Because it can tell us an awful lot about how free or stiff our bodies are and how much unneccesary muscular tension we may be holding. The three reflexes, when habituated, also have a very strong influence on our gait/walking pattern. Being unable to walk freely can indicate an injury, disability or simply excessive muscular tension.

Have you ever thought about how you walk? Why would you, you’ve been doing it for years. But walking smoothly and freely requires you to be relaxed. Particularly in your trunk. The arms should be able to swing freely and the legs too. The shoulder girdle needs to be resting squarely on the ribs and the waist needs to be relaxed so the hips can rotate forward and back and also tip up and down/side to side. Walking ‘freely’ requires you to be ‘free’. And running even more so.

Walking freely is low effort, efficient, smooth, comfortable and can be sustained over long distances easily.

Walking that is not smooth, efficient, comfortable and free cannot be sustained over long distances because it will cause either excessive fatigue, stiffness or pain.

It’s also worth noting that we evolved walking over highly varied and uneven terrain. Beaches, rocks, plains, mountains, sand, stone, grass. The uniform, flat even paths of modern civilisation are a very new phenomenon. Walking over uneven ground is far more demanding than walking on the flat and also requires much more freedom of movement through the trunk and also through the hips and ankles as you have to orient your hips, legs and feet so you can navigate the surface and maintain your balance as you do so.

If you’ve never really thought about how you walk, let me guide you through a Walking assessment via the audio file below. You can listen directly here or download the audio to your device and follow along the next time you go for a walk.

I’d love to hear what you learn from it.

Learn Somatics Walking Assessment – To download: Right click > Save audio as

Don’t forget you can Learn Somatics with me directly from anywhere in the world via 1-1 online Sessions. All you need is an internet connection and enough floor space to lay down.

Thanks for visiting, until next time…

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

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A Tight Belly Means a Tight Body

There is a preoccupation in the modern world with tight toned bellies. In an effort to hold in our bellies we constantly contract the muscles of our stomach and torso, sucking our guts in. As we continue this ritual every day we gradually forget how it feels to let these muscles relax. The feeling of holding our bellies tight becomes ‘normal’.

But what are the implications of habitually tight belly muscles?

  1. Poor posture: a tight belly will draw your ribs down, and your head and shoulders forward, instantly creating that stooped bent over posture so reminiscent of the old and infirm, yay!
  2. Painful Back: this bent over posture then places extra strain on your back as your back muscles must compensate for your tight belly, working even harder than normal to keep you upright. Sweet!
  3. Tight, stiff, sore Shoulders: a tight belly limits your ability to extend your thoracic spine and in turn your ability to raise your arms overhead.
  4. Shallow Breathing: A tight belly will inhibit your ability to breathe deeply. When you cannot relax your belly muscles, your diaphragm cannot contract or relax fully and your ribcage cannot expand fully, this limits the amount of air you are able to inhale. Gasp!
  5. Anxiety: the reduction in your ability to breathe can contribute to low level anxiety as your body responds to this ongoing oxygen deficit. 😦
  6. Chest Breathing: when you can’t breath in to your belly, you have to breath into your chest, chest breathing is inefficient and uses far more energy than belly breathing and can lead to even more tightness in the neck and shoulders.

The above are all characteristics of what Thomas Hanna called Red Light Reflex. or Startle Reflex. An involuntary and automatic reflex that tightens all the muscles of the front of the body.

You can avoid all of the negative consequences of a tight belly by pandiculating the belly muscles and all the muscles of the front of the trunk. The result is more upright posture, freer breathing and broader chest and improved shoulder mobility. Check out the video below to see just how easily this can be achieved using the simple Somatic Movement called Arch & Curl. Give it a try and see if you like how it makes you feel.

By the way, there is nothing wrong with wishing to have a toned belly or a lean body. It’s a perfectly reasonable and admirable goal. But being lean and being tight are two completely different things. You can have a lean body that is relaxed or a portly body that is tight. Or vice versa. In reality leanness and muscular tonus have very little to do with one another. But certainly sucking in your gut all day by constantly contracting your belly muscles is a not a habit we want to form.

As a further irony if your low back muscles are tight, they will push your belly forward as your back arches. Thus creating a belly. In that case relaxing your lower back muscles will allow your belly to recede as if by magic. No diet required!

Everything feels easier when your muscles are relaxed, consider practicing Somatic Movements daily so you can stay relaxed, limber and comfortable all over. If you need help or would like to learn from me, hit me up!

Thanks for reading! 

www.learnsomatics.ie

Relax and Comfort Your Lower Back

What if there was a safe, quick and simple way to make you lower back feel less tight, less painful, and much more comfortable. Wouldn’t you want to hear about it?

Often times lower back pain is caused by the muscles of the low back simply being too tense. This muscular tension is an anutomatic and involuntary response to stress. Muscles that are too tense are being held tightly in contraction by your brain. If you suffer from low back pain, check the tension of your lower back for yourself by simply feeling the muscles with your fingers. Press the muscles on either side of the spine in the lower part of your back, from the base of the spine up to where the ribs begin in the back . If they feel hard to the touch and also tender when you press them you can be pretty sure your brain is holding them tighter than is necessary.

So what can you do about it? If you watch the video below you will see a demonstration of ‘Arch & Flatten’, a simple Somatic movement that when performed correctly will relax and lengthen those tight, sore low back muscles.

We do this by tensing and tightening the lower back muscles deliberately and then slowly, and again deliberately, relaxing them back to their proper resting length. This act is called ‘pandiculation’, animals do this reflexively throughout the day. Give it a try and afterwards see if your back doesn’t feel lighter, longer and much more comfortable. You can also feel the muscles again with your fingers and you will find they feel softer and more pliable. Soft muscles are relaxed muscles, and relaxed muscles are comfortable muscles. Win, win!

Arch & Flatten: the simplest way to relax your lower back muscles

Congratulations. You’ve just learned how to more fully control your lower back muscles. Practicing this simple movement every day for just a few minutes will help you to maintain a pain free and comfortable back. Try it for a few days and let me know how you get on.

If you found that video helpful and would like to learn more you can find more videos here.

Enjoy your more comfortable lower back! I’ll be posting new videos regularly so you can start to integrate a Somatic movement practice in to your daily routine.

As always thanks for visiting.

learnsomatics.ie

Learn Somatics on the Prymal Podcast

I was honored to be a guest on the excellent Prymal Podcast hosted by my friend Danny Campion. I have to admit, I was a little nervous at first, but it was a fantastic experience. Dan and I had a great conversation about Somatics and lots more. If you’ve been enjoying the blog you should hopefully enjoy the podcast too.

You can listen to the podcast here

Be sure to checkout Danny’s podcast library for more great content. I’ll have a freshly baked blog post for you next week.

In the meantime, thanks for reading (and listening).

learnsomatics.ie

You Are Not a Mind and a Body

I often use the following diagram to help explain the concept of the ‘Soma’. I have found it to be a useful way to elaborate on this idea. In his book Somatics, Thomas Hanna defined ‘Soma’ as ‘the body experienced from within’. That is, your first-person internalised experience of yourself.

So let’s say the circle above represents your physical body and all its associated physical sensations. Hunger, thirst, hot, cold, pleasure, pain, tension, fatigue, and so on. These sensations are constantly changing. So we include arrows on the circle to reflect this ever changing flow of sensations

Now we add a second circle to represent your mind or mental faculties. All your thought processes essentially. We add an arrow to this circle to indicate that thoughts and mental activity are also always in flux, changing, flowing.

And we add a third overlapping circle. This overlapping circle represents your emotional world, your moods and feelings. Again these are transient, fleeting ever changing, so we add the arrow.

Traditionally in western culture we tend to look at these facets of ourselves as somewhat separate from each other. Mental health as distinct from physical health etc. But the reality is…

…you exist right in the middle where all these elements converge and overlap. That is the point from where we live out our first-person experience of ourselves. The ‘Soma’;And what is it that we experience? The constant flow of ever changing physical sensations, mental activity, thoughts and emotions. All three aspects of our experience are overlapping and concurrent, and they all have direct influence over each other. The following would be a closer visual representation of what we experience…

The divisions between our physical, mental and emotional experience becoming far more indistinct.

Our thoughts influence our emotions and in turn our physical body – mind racing, feeling anxious and tense.
Our emotions influence our physical body and in turn our thoughts – one can be physically sick with worry/fear/apprehension.
Our physical body influences our emotions and in turn our thoughts.- angry and frustrated by chronic muscular pain.

Because they can all influence each other we can use one to make a change to another. Like using exercise to improve mental health, or breathing exercises to calm our emotions and quiet our mind.

But it is not so much that these elements influence each other, rather that they are different elements of the same thing as illustrated by the diagram. Looked at it in this way we begin to realise that there is no such thing as a mental state that is distinct from a physical or emotional state. There are really only unified states of being that encompass all facets of our experience; mental, emotional and physical. ‘Somatic’ states if you will.

To ‘experience your body from within’ is to experience all these facets of yourself, simultaneously, in real time, like we all do, all day every day.

So what is the relevance of all this?

Of the three elements, mental, emotional, and physical, the easiest one to manipulate is actually the physical, because we have, or can very quickly develop, direct control our our muscular system. This is where a Somatic movement practice comes in. By learning how to regulate your own muscle tension and increase your awareness of your physical body, you are also learning how to regulate an increase your awareness of your thoughts and emotions. Because as we have discovered, they are all just different elements of your ‘Soma’, your direct first-person experience of your own process. When regulating the ‘physical’, what you are actually doing is regulating your physical, mental and emotional, your unified state of being.

When you can release the muscular tension that accumulates in the physical body, you are also releasing the associated thoughts and emotional states that are bound up in the physical state. Because it’s all the one process. You are not a mind and a body, you are a constantly moving, changing, evolving, growing, self-aware process. You are a body, experienced from within. You are a ‘Soma’.

If any of these ideas resonate with you and you think you’d like to learn more about Somatics, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to get in touch. You can contact me here and you can find my online Somatic movement classes and 1-1 options here.

Thanks for reading!

learnsomatics.ie

Neuroscience and Somatic Education

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the function and structure of the Brain and Nervous System.

Somatics is the exploration of the first hand experience of the Brain and Nervous System through movement.

So if you are practicing Somatics you can call yourself a Neuroscientist!

Below is a link to an excellent article by Carrie Day CCSE, and Martha Peterson CCSE that explains in detail how Hanna Somatic Education takes adavantage of neurological principles to eliminate chronic pain and improve movement. Check it out…

The Science of Somatics

Learn Somatics online. Classes and 1-1s available here.

Visit the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel to start learning today.

As always thanks for reading.

www.learnsomatics.ie

Is your Movement Account Overdrawn?

Pay attention…

Isn’t it interesting that we must PAY attention? The very notion that we PAY attention suggests that in return for paying attention we might receive something. What might the payment of attention garner in return?

Awareness? Information? Knowledge?

In the case of Somatics in return for the paying of attention to the internal sensations of your own movement you receive rich sensory information or feedback from the sense receptors within your muscles. You receive more awareness of what muscles are tight and stiff and which muscles are free and relaxed. You receive an opportunity to voluntarily relax and lengthen stiff, tight muscles. And when you pay attention to carefully and slowly relaxing and lengthening your stiff, tight muscles you receive more comfort and more freedom of movement.

And what happens if you never pay attention to sensory receptors within your muscles, or never pay attention to your ability to move? Your ability to move is taken away, little by little until one day you realise that your movement account is empty, or worse still overdrawn.

A daily Somatics practice gives you an opportunity to pay your attention dollars into your movement bank account. This will accumulate over time into a surplus of movement potential. Then when you need to withdraw from your movement account you will have plenty of movement credit (ability to move freely and without pain).

Start investing today!

The Somatic Exercise below allows you to pay attention to your back muscles and learn how to relase and relax them quickly and easily…

Arch & Flatten – Martha Peterson

~

www.learnsomatics.ie

 

It’s Never Just One Muscle

Often, when we have pain, there is a perception that there is one particular muscle that is causing the problem. Such as, “Oh its my psoas/piriformis/hamstring” etc. And while that may be where you feel the pain or restriction, it is not necessarily where the problem is.

Muscle never work in isolation, they can’t. In order for one muscle to contract, another, opposing muscle must relax, this immediately means you have another muscle brought into play. Muscles work in groups and fire in patterns of contraction to facilitate movement. So a sore or tight psoas/piriformis/hamstring is really just one part of a much bigger habituated involuntary full body pattern of contraction. In Somatic Education we call this Sensory Motor Amnesia.

The Three Reflexes we work with in Somatic Education; Green Light Reflex, Red Light Reflex and Trauma Reflex, are examples of universal full body patterns of muscular contraction. These reflexes are common to all creatures with a spine and nervous system so it is important to be able to recognise them in yourself.

hamstring runnerIt’s that pesky hamstring again! Or is it?

From a Somatics perspective, we look for the connection between the problem/pain area and the three Reflexes mentioned above. For example tight/sore hip flexors, could be as a result of habituated Red Light Reflex. If it is only the hip flexors on one side, or perhaps the piriformis on one side, it may suggest a Trauma Reflex. A chronically tight and painful lower back can be caused by habituated Green Light Reflex. In order to address problems like these you must first relax the muscles of the relevant reflex and then improve the functioning of the entire movement system. As a living, breathing, conscious Soma* you are a SYSTEM OF MOVEMENT. Movement dysfunctions must be addressed by looking at that system in its entirety and improving its functioning in its entirety.

How is this done? Well, first we look at posture for signs of habituation of the Three Reflexes. Usually all are present to some degree. In that case which one is most dominant? What way is the brain and nervous system holding the body? Looking at the entire system.

We watch the client walking. What parts of the body move freely, which parts of the body do not move freely? Which side bears more weight? Again, we are looking at the entire system.

Then we palpate, that is we feel the tonus or hardness of the muscles, both standing and on the plinth/worktable. Are they tight? Which ones are tight? Which ones are soft? What is the relationship between them? What changes in the tonus from standing to laying down? Where is the Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA)? Again looking at the entire system.

Then we decide which reflex to address first based on our observations. With that decision made we educate the client through gentle guided movement patterns and full body pandiculations. They learn how to sense the Three Reflexes (see links above), these universal full body patterns of contraction. How to recognize them, how to contract into them VOLUNTARILY and more importantly, how to RELAX out of them VOLUNTARILY.

Working in this way, by educating the client, allows for systemic improvements in movement, comfort and pain reduction. Because clients learn how to do these movements for themselves, they can repeat the process at any time by themselves. Thus becoming more self aware, self correcting and independent.

So with all that said. Do you have a muscle that seems to be tight or sore? If so, explore your movement a little further. Which parts of your body move freely and comfortably? Which parts do not move freely and comfortably? With a little investigation you may find that it is never just one muscle.

*Soma: the body experienced from within

Learn Somatics online with me, check out my online learning options here!

Or checkout the Learn Somatics YouTube Channel to start learning right away.

As always thanks for reading.

www.learnsomatics.ie