Back in school we were all taught that intelligence is a brain thing, mind is entirely a brain thing, and that mind is housed only in our brain. With advances in the new field of embodied cognition, this view of body, brain, and mind, is now seriously out of date.
Our bodily selves are systems—which is a technical term describing the characteristics of wholes. Modern neuroscience talks the language of systems analysts; of the body-brain as a Complex Adaptive Dynamic System (CADS). The brain is now considered contiguous with other body tissues, receiving as much information as giving out. In short, the brain is embodied; embedded in an ever-changing visceral soup of somatic information. Much of this has been uncovered by technologists trying to refine better robotics with artificial intelligence. One of the first things they discovered was that a centralized brain does not do as good a job as a distributed intelligence. Natural selection worked this out a long time ago. Our body is a somatic intelligence, providing information continuously to independent subsystems and the brain about where we are, how we feel, what we need or don’t need. This information is collated moment to moment to form how we feel right now. We do not have a body and a brain. We are a body-brain system.
“Research confirms the view that the brain is not just in the business of telling the body what to do. Bodily activity is influencing brain activity just as much as the other way round. Body and brain are tied together so intricately and so rapidly that it makes no sense to locate all the ‘intelligence’ in one and none in the other,” writes Professor Claxton of the University of Winchester.
Thought and action are so interlinked that, when we sleep, our body releases a hormone to block muscle contraction so that we don’t act out our dreams. Athletes make good use of this link by mentally rehearsing the actions they want to improve. As they mentally rehearse, their body simulates the actions—imperceptibly. Repeated thought-rehearsals create physical changes in the nerve-muscle pathways involved making the entire action easier and quicker when performed later. Emotions also involve physical changes. We cannot completely hide our emotions because emotions are a bodily event. Even if we try to disguise our emotional expressions, others can unconsciously pick up the meaning of subtle micro-expressions on the face lasting less than a second.
Thoughts and emotions are said to be embodied; that is, they are physical not just mental events. What is fascinating, and relatively new to science, is evidence that the embodiment of thoughts and emotions is bi-directional.
Smile, and you feel happier. Walk tall, and you feel more confident.
Such advice is not New Age nonsense but predicated on essential somatosensory feedback. Being happy, we smile, but the act of smiling—the contraction of muscles involved in smiling—informs the brain that we are experiencing happiness. So, if we artificially create the act of smiling, we feel happier.
The reason for this bi-directionality of information flow is important. Neuroscientists now understand that the brain is informed by the body as much as the other way around. This is not news to bodyworkers but big news for many of our clients and still not understood by many scientists outside of the field.
Higher mental processes, such as thoughts, sit on top of unconscious processing of information pouring in from the body all the time. What we think and feel results from the collation of information upwelling from the body. Our sense of how we are, right now, is the result of constantly updating information. If the information coming from the body changes, then, associated thoughts and emotions change.
This bi-directional flow of information means that we can change how we feel and think by changing information from our body.
Already, we can see one (of many) ways by which bodywork can influence our well-being.
A massage client is frowning because she is annoyed. She has a deep groove in her forehead created by forehead muscle contraction. As the massage therapist stretches the contracted muscles, information from their contraction lessens and so the client begins to relax.
The bi-directional flow of information occurs at the larger scale of posture too. Amy Cuddy and Dana Carney of Harvard University established the importance of this feedback loop. They realised that humans display power through open expansive postures and express powerlessness through closed contractive postures, and demonstrated that this relationship works both ways. People assuming a ‘power pose’ for just one minute increased their perceived levels of power and tolerance for risk—in other words, the posture made them feel more confident. Again, the reasons for this change in confidence are to do with the continuous flow of somatosensory information from the body. When the body is in a posture associated with confidence, the information flowing from body to brain changes to that associated with confidence. The updated collation of information is that we are feeling confident.
Movement therapies (including Qigong, Pilates, yoga) change the information flowing from body to brain. As the ‘power pose’ research showed, even changing how we hold ourselves for one minute can influence how we respond to the world for hours afterwards. This means that with regular movement therapy, we can bring about long-term changes in our well-being by changing the information we receive about ourselves from our own bodies.
Amasiatu, A.N. (2013) Mental imagery rehearsal as a psychological technique to enhancing sports performance, Educational Research International, Vol 1 (2) 69-77.
Claxton, G. (2016) Intelligence in the Flesh: why your mind needs your body much more than it thinks. Yale University press.
Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21, 1363-1368.
Bodywork is a catch-all term encompassing many different types of hands-on therapeutic practices such as massage, shiatsu, chiropractic, osteopathy, and movement therapies such as yoga, Qigong, Pilates, and tai chi. Although bodywork is growing in popularity, and becoming increasingly integrated within medical healthcare due to evidence of efficacy, explanations for how it works are not filtering through to the general pubic. This series of Blogs offer bite-sized chunks of referenced information—explaining why bodywork works.
Gong is the skill one develops through cultivation, practice, and embodied change over time.
A craftsman has gong.
In Qigong we learn many techniques but only through mindful practice do we attain gong. Learning a set of forms is not attaining Qi gong, and although Qi sensitivity is important, it alone does not bring progress.
Belly breathing—to take a very simple example—is a technique for calming the mind and switching the autonomic nervous system from high arousal Fight-or-Flight to low arousal Rest-and-Recuperation mode.
You do it a few times. You understand the technique. You get it. You don’t bother to continue practicing because you are confident that you ‘have’ it. You have understood it. Anyway, how can something as simple as belly breathing be important? You continue to breathe as you always have and there is no change. You have learnt a technique (Fa) but because you do not practice it you are not embodying skill (gong).
To develop gong (of any kind) we need to practice; not just mindless repetitions but with attention monitoring our technique, honing change. Skill is not merely learning. Skill is physically embedded. The skill of a craftsman is enabled by physical changes that occur through repeated practice. These changes are brought about by the natural plasticity of the body. The thickening of skin on one finger, a line of tensile strength through the body which is needed for the craft, and the habitual mental focus required to perform the craft. The muscular and neuronal connections (the routes) used for the craft are biochemically enhanced through practice and our craft therefore improves. Our body changes as we develop skill.
Gong is embodied. Skill is embodied.
In belly breathing practice, our diaphragm loosens and lengthens with the daily expansion which means we develop deeper longer breaths. Our nervous system adapts to the change in breathing and no longer automatically stimulates those high chest (anxiety) muscles for breathing. In other words, our breathing software is re-written and our choice of default breathing options increase. In the absence of regular practice our nervous system will not change and we will continue to breath the same way we always have.
Due to diaphragmatic stimulation of the vagus nerve in our daily belly breathing practice, our body gets a period of ‘rest & repair’ every day. Digestion and immune activity are switched to ‘max’. Many physiological improvements result. Our blood acidity changes due to improved exhalation of waste carbon dioxide. Less acidity leads to improvements in many aspects of chronic ill health such as pain and muscular tension. Physiological change from a daily breathing practice.
As Fight or Flight mode is switched off, our mind settles for a few minutes each day. We develop an ability to experience mental quietude which will be important in other aspects of our Qigong. Mental change from a daily breathing practice.
As belly breathing skill develops, we find we are able to control our level of arousal/relaxation. This is not possible just by understanding the technique. Our body needs to experience and connect the nervous system routes for self-calming so that it can be used when necessary. Gradually, we develop gong, in that, we can modulate our level of arousal, mental quietude, and physiology.
This example, illustrating how one technique can be transformed into Qigong is only the first step towards developing a more advanced gong called ‘Sung’. Sung cannot be achieved by conceptual understanding.
In short, we should not confuse the techniques we are taught with the development of Qigong.
A good Qigong teacher can show us techniques but only through practice can we develop gong.
Silence is under-rated in our stimulation-rich, things-to-do, must-never-get-bored, society. The ceaseless attentional demands of modern life put a significant burden on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where we organise thinking, decision-making and problem-solving. Over time, of course, our attentional resources become depleted. As a result, we become mentally fatigued, and may struggle to focus, solve problems or come up with new ideas.
But the brain can restore its cognitive resources when we lower levels of sensory input—during silence, for instance.
Silence can also regenerate brain tissue. Researchers have found that only two hours of silence a day can generate to new cells in the hippocampus, a key brain region associated with learning, memory and emotion. These findings suggest that silence could be therapeutic for conditions like depression and Alzheimer’s, which are associated with decreased rates of neuron regeneration in the hippocampus.
Silence does something tangible to our sense of self. When there is little input to process from outside, we have an opportunity to process inside. This is one reason why some of us avoid silence; it prevents any observation of our inner lives. But silence allows access to more than our internal processes. It allows us access to aspects of mind which are deeper, bigger, wiser.
Speech is a river, Silence is an ocean.
Reference: Kirste, Imke & Nicola, Zeina & Kronenberg, Golo & Walker, Tara & Liu, Robert & Kempermann, Gerd (2013). Is silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Brain structure & function.
Our breath is said to be the link between body and mind because the way we breathe directly reflects our mental and emotional state. When in a state of panic, we breathe high up in the top of the chest, visibly gasping for air. When depressed, our breath is shallower with long gaps in between. Different ways of breathing use different muscle combinations. When anxious, excited or busy, we breathe using mainly chest and shoulder muscles. If this is prolonged, it can create tightness in the neck and back. But, when deeply relaxed, we breathe predominantly with the diaphragm while our chest remains still and relaxed.
Fortunately, for the purposes of self-regulation, the relationship runs both ways due to biofeedback. We can induce relaxation through diaphragmatic breathing. By breathing as if we were deeply relaxed, we begin to feel deeply relaxed.
Why is deep relaxation good for us?
Our bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, breathing, and immune activity are controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which has two modes (it cannot be in both). ‘Fight or Flight’ mode prepares us for action, taking the focus away from non-emergency processes such as digestion and fighting disease. ‘Rest and Recuperation’ mode, on the other hand, reboots digestion and immune activity as well as growth and repair. If we never fully relax, we never allow the body to drop back into Rest and Recuperation mode and so our digestion and immune function is constantly subdued. Unfortunately, we do not necessarily fully relax even during sleep.
Luckily, there is a switch. And it is FREE. Abdominal, diaphragmatic or belly breathing switches the ANS from Fight or flight to Rest and Recuperation mode by stimulating the vagus nerve connected to the diaphragm. We can therefore invoke a relaxation response by simply learning to Belly Breathe and doing it regularly until it becomes available to us on demand.
Technique (min 20 mins per day):
Lay on your back with knees slightly bent. Let your belly go up when you breathe in and down when you breathe out. Check that your chest (above the breasts) is NOT moving as well. For this exercise we want no movement in the upper chest. You can place a hand above the breast to feel if the muscles are contracting or not.
After a few minutes, check that your breathing is soft, smooth, and long. Make sure you are breathing OUT fully. See if you can make the inhalation change to exhalation and back in a smooth, slow manner–there is no holding of the breath.
At first, your diaphragm may be tight and you might feel as if you cannot get enough air. Stay calm and take a few big belly breaths to stretch the diaphragm. Your belly will protrude out as you take a big breath. Just let it fall back.
Belly Breathing should feel like a wave gently rising and falling. It will be quiet, unforced, and smooth. We want the in and out breath to be the same length. Take some time to count the in and out breath so that you can adjust them to be the same length.
Then do nothing. Just belly breathe.
As your practice develops, your belly breath will get longer and smoother as your diaphragm gradually stretches. You will hear when your ANS switches digestion back on as your intestines will make gurgling noises. This is a good sign.