The Information Highway Inside Your Brain
How can practicing your favorite sport in your imagination improve your game? Why do you still feel fat after losing weight? What makes video games so addictive? The answers to these and other nagging questions are to be found in our body maps.
Body maps, you say? Yes, indeed. Science writers Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee’s groundbreaking book, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, presents us with a dynamic understanding of the human brain based on the latest brain research. We may marvel at the Internet and WiFi, but each one of us comes into this world equipped with an organic hard drive that tracks and files—maps out—everything we do, say, see or feel.
That’s the key to understanding the concept of body maps. And just as road maps represent interconnections across the landscape, body maps represent all aspects of your bodily self, inside and out. All your emotions, feelings and your sense of individual selfhood stem from the interaction of these maps in your brain. The science of body maps may hold significant promise in treatment of debilitating disorders, including stroke.
But it all begins with the sense of touch.
Each of your body parts is faithfully mapped based on the touch receptors embedded throughout your skin, as in your fingertips for example. This is your primary “touch” map. You also have a primary “motor map,” for making movements. Instead of receiving information from your skin, this map sends signals from your brain out to your muscles. Together, these two primary maps are the foundation of your mind-body interface.
So your brain is actually teeming with maps that underlie your ability to touch things, move about, act freely, feel emotion and interact with others. But unlike road maps, your body maps are dynamic—they grow, shrink and morph to suit your needs.
Practice Makes Perfect
Your brain also has maps of the space around your body, right out to the end of your fingertips and beyond. These “personal space maps” stretch every time you do something, whether that’s riding a bike, putting on your shoes or hammering a nail. Each time you reach out to grasp an object, your body map is actually extending to include it. When you drive a car, your personal body space grows to envelop it. When you play a video game, your body maps automatically track and emulate the actions of your onscreen character.
Moreover, your maps change dynamically with use. So it stands to reason that given this elastic mapping ability, you could tap into the power of the body map and learn to do almost anything better—from dancing and swimming to raising your children or coping with stress. The phrase “practice makes perfect” truly makes sense in this context, and we have the scientific proof: the more you do something, the more your body knows how to do it because your brain has mapped it out.
And there is also abundant evidence that a form of mental practice called “motor imagery” (immersion in the imagination of movements) can hone your skills as effectively as the real thing. As such, motor imagery has become an active area of research for sports psychologists.
However, some of our most amazing body maps are made up of special brain cells called mirror neurons. These cells fire when you observe someone doing an action—say, sipping a cup coffee or laughing at a joke. Mirror neurons map the actions, intentions and emotions of others directly into your own system of body maps, creating as close to a telepathic link as the known laws of nature allow.
And we all know that you can learn to do something by simply observing someone else perform the task; most people have experienced this at one time or another. Every time you watch a cooking program on TV or a DVD that teaches you how to play better golf, your mirror neurons are fired up.
Using Body Mapping in Treatments and Therapy
By far the most extraordinary implications of body mapping, however, lead us to a clearer understanding of self-image, compulsions, disorders, even chronic pain. Anorexia, bulimia and obsessive cosmetic surgery we find are determined more by how a person perceives their personal reality and how he or she responds to that perception than what is actual truth.
That’s because one’s body schema derives from the dynamic physical properties of the body while one’s body image stems from stubbornly held attitudes about one’s body. In other words, reality can't set in because your body image is locked into an idée fixe.
But it is the plasticity of these maps that holds the potential for positive, new treatments: body maps are capable of significant reorganization in response to damage, experience or practice. So the science of body maps has practical application in treating people with debilitating disorders and issues both physical and psychological. Stroke patients, for example, are being treated increasingly with motor imagery. By imagining repeatedly that they can move a paralyzed limb, it is possible, in some, to restore lost function.
Undoubtedly, understanding the nature of body maps has significant implications for future medical treatments and therapies, yet we have barely begun to explore and apply new techniques based on this knowledge. Clearly, however, the brain's body-mapping system is now forcing us to re-examine the mind-body connection with fresh eyes and, indeed, an open mind.
If you want to know more about what makes you “you” or if you would like to improve your skills, your health and your emotional attitudes, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own provides an accessible, fascinating read.
The Body Has a Mind of Its Own
Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee