The Body Has a Mind of Its Own

I just read this awesome book by the same title. And since I haven’t written a book report since 10th grade, I figured this would be a good time to engage my neuroplasticity (see below) and share what I found to be the book’s most engaging and useful nuggets.

1. Our brain is always developing.

It’s a now well-disproven myth that our brains, and our ability to adapt and learn, peaks in young adulthood and then begins the slow, inevitable ossification in which learning new skills becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible. It’s just not true. Much more accurate is a kind of “use it or lose it” law. The adult brain can change—literally change and grow and all that—just fine. They call this ability to adapt neuro (some of the tissue of the brain) plasticity (plastic can change shape).

2. We have a body map, and a body image, and they’re not necessarily the same thing.

And guess which one we tend to believe, our eyes or our whole-body sense about what we’re seeing? The body image is powerful, an actual phenomenon rooted in parts of the brain that are different from where we store our body map. (This could be akin to proprioception and interoception, but I’m making a bit of a leap.)

We see this rift between body map and image very expressed in people suffering from psycho-somatic disorders like anorexia. We’d be foolish to dismiss any dissonance between map and image as just a simple choice to make or not; it’s often part of a process very deeply engrained in the body-mind (or: that part of the brain).

3. Mental training works really, really well. It’s crazy how well, actually.

This kind of training—mentally rehearsing moves of a performance, visualizing an exercise without actually doing it—can be hugely effective when done well. The secret? You have to know the movement with your full body first. As in, if you’re not a skier and you try to visualize racing a tricky slalom course, you’re going to be engaging much less to none of the actual body-mind link parts of your brain than someone who has felt it, and can visualize with a strong felt sense (which will tend to just happen naturally for most).

On that note, here’s an interesting phenomenon you may have noticed: the difference in looking at a snow-covered mountain if you’re a skier or not. We’re all looking at the same thing, but one’s understanding of the terrain is vastly more intricate and associative. For the skier that is able to literally feel the lines of the mountain, their body map has a certain association, or we could even say merging, with the terrain. Same visuals, different areas of the brain lighting up.

4. I am he as you are he as you are me. And we are all together.

Mirror neurons explain how we can get the sense of being another. This expresses as mild empathy on one end of the spectrum (“oh, I get what you feel right now” and you actually do) all the way down to a sense of fully merging with something else.

There have been all kinds of crazy experiments where our brains will include inanimate objects in our body map (i.e. in what you understand to be “you”). This includes tools we’re using (as long as we’re using them as tools, i.e. a rake only becomes a rake when we get its association with what it does to leaves). It also includes amputees resolving pain in their phantom limbs by watching someone else get healing work done in their corresponding, actually-there limb.

The sense of self, of an “I” consciousness, can lose its hard edges when our body map expands to include something else, which it turns out happens all the time.

That’s it for now. I’d very much recommend this book  for anyone who works with people, especially in any kind of empathetic way.

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