Whether you think about it consciously or not, your nervous system creates a mental “image” or idea of how your body moves. Walking, standing, sitting, and other everyday movements and postures are pressed into the totality of your body’s essence, forming a complete picture of what it means for you to move. Call them habits, call them muscle memory—whatever you call these movements, they help create the idea of “you.”
The ancients, from the time of Plato, used an analogy that compared memory to writing, specifically writing on wax tablets. These tablets allowed teachers a better way to approach writing instruction, easier and less expensive than ink and parchment, because the wax could be smoothed over and erased. Just as the stylus, or pen, made an impression on the tablet, they taught, so too do our experiences make an “impression” on the memory.
Our brain uses information about how we plan to move in order to predict how we will feel.
But it’s not just the strict sense of memory that shapes who we are. How we are able to imagine ourselves and our bodies’ abilities—to literally create a new “image” of our movement patterns and habits—also affects us. The ability to imagine ourselves and our movements positively can affect the choices that we make that help us change our habits.
Take weight loss, for instance. If I wanted to lose weight so that I could move more easily and feel healthier, I would have to make changes to different parts of my life. Increasing the amount of exercise would be one of the first changes I would have to make. But what if pain were stopping me from even starting an exercise program? I would have to address the pain first.
Inefficient movements result from past trauma and often lead to increased wear and tear on the body. Walking and sitting with a tilted pelvis for a long time can cause alignment changes and loss of motion in the hips and spine causing some areas, like the middle back, to be stiff and the lower spine excessively compressed. These changes, in turn, lead to more low back and leg pain when trying to exercise. If my goal is to lose weight, I need to first think about accessing a better movement plan to alleviate that pain or else the pain is going to keep me idle. Or if I exercise through the pain, it’s going to get worse and possibly lead to another area of body pain, limitation, or serious injury.
Imagined movements change our perception in the same way as real, executed movements do.
Imagination allows our awareness of the present moment to be fully accessible. When we can imagine a reality that is different from what is, only then can we start to make small adjustments that will help us live a better life. These small adjustments, when we make them incrementally, can contribute to positive changes that help us achieve our long-term goals. Neuroscience has confirmed that by simply imagining the movement, the brain will predict how we would feel if the imagined movements were executed. Professional musicians, dancers, top Olympic and professional athletes very successfully use “mental training” or their imagination to improve their performance. They not only envision the movement pattern as a whole, but they can break down the movement – imagining and sensing how each part of their body is moving in relation to the overall task or performance.
Imagined and real movements are controlled by the brain in the same way.
Neuroscience validates that imagined and real movements have very similar brain mechanisms, if not sharing the same one. These findings benefit anyone who cannot physically perform a movement because of chronic and acute pain and even if nothing moves, such as paralysis from a stroke.
In a way, the brain can “forget” the movement patterns that led to the pain in the first place because you can work with your imagination, creating new neural links that can improve your quality of life. Imagination can guide your brain to continue to grow and develop. Reaching a goal requires more than a sense of positive thinking, as valuable as that can be. It requires imagination that solves problems. Somatic interventions like the Feldenkrais Method offer a framework for people to imagine a different way of doing things. It is an approach that seeks to effect change by working with your nervous system. Your brain, directing the nervous system, is in charge of your movement patterns. So, if you want to move more easily and feel healthier, you must literally change your mind or the mental “image” or idea of how your body moves.
Carol is a physical therapist, a co-creator of Integral Human Gait theory, a certified Feldenkrais practitioner, and a Senior Trainer in Movement Intelligence. Focus, Align, Teach and Inspire! These qualities not only describe her work, but they also describe her presence. She is passionate when it comes to reconnecting learning with human function and health. Carol is in private practice at MontgomerySomatics.com in Columbus, Indiana.