Bodymaps and “sensorimotor amnesia”

Bodymaps and “sensorimotor amnesia”

Ok let’s follow this theme and see where it leads us.

One thing I didn’t really emphasize in that first post is this idea of “sensorimotor amnesia” described by Thomas Hanna. My first google search for sensorimotor amnesia led me to this great post on Todd Hargrove’s “Better Movement” blog (which is consistently fantastic, check it out if you’re interested in moving better).

The idea is very simple and hopefully familiar to all of us: parts of our bodies which we don’t use much become “forgotten”, we lose our ability to move them in a coordinated way and often we can’t even really feel them at all. A lot of us can’t really tell what our shoulder blades are doing, where they are in space or how they are moving. Other commonly forgotten areas include the “rotator cuff” muscles and others connecting the shoulder blades to the humerus (upper arm bone), the deep hip muscles, pelvic floor and deep abdominal muscles, the intrinsic muscles of the feet, back extensors and deep spinal muscles, muscles between the ribs…it can happen anywhere in the body, depending on each individual’s history of movement.

Everyone who has done any fun movement or fitness classes of any sort will remember a time when some movement had them feeling and engaging parts of their body that they “didn’t even know existed”.

So, you can’t feel your right hip very well compared to other parts of your body, and you can’t move it voluntarily in a coordinated way, this means that the parts of the “maps” in your brain representing your right hip are not “wired up” as well as other parts. There may be less neurons devoted to creating an internal “picture” of the right hip. Whatever neurons are being used for that may not be as well-connected synaptically to each other, to neighbouring areas devoted to the pelvis or thigh, or to other areas responsible for vision or balance or self-image. They may even be over-connected to brain areas concerned with fear or perceived threat or memories of pain. The pathways between these connected neurons can also be less “myelinated” (myelin is “white matter” which makes an insulating sheath that grows around neurons allowing for faster transmission along the nerve), making the “signal” slower and weaker.

All of these parts of the brain are constantly re-modelling themselves according to changing stimuli.

So most of what we call “Yoga” or “Qigong” or whatever is an exploration our own sense of our bodies, as they are represented in the different “bodymaps” in our brains. Each of these maps is often referred to as a “homonculus”, (which I believe means “little person”, in Greek) so a term being used in neuroscience-oriented physiotherapy circles (these circles are still fairly small, but growing!) to describe a wide range of activities is “homoncular refreshment”.

Let’s do a bit of quick and easy neuro-anthropological translation: The above video was the first result of a google search for “Chinese pai da”, an extremely common form of exercise which you can see hundreds of people doing every day in any park in China. Pai da “patting and hitting” sets are found in almost every system of Chinese martial art and “Qigong”. The traditional explanation is that such exercises “improve the flow of Qi and blood through the meridians”. We can now translate this and say that such exercises “refresh and improve the resolution of bodymaps in our brains including but not limited to the somatosensory cortex”. Regular practice of such exercises will, according to established principles of neuroplasticity, reduce and reverse the process of sensorimotor amnesia, helping us to develop and maintain a more complete cortical map of the vascular and neural activity through the surface of the body.

Interesting. Waking the body up with tactile stimulation of nerve endings = “stimulating the flow of Qi”.

So what else?


Above is a classic picture depicting the “Chakras” and “nadis” described by ancient Yogis like Goraknath and Milarepa. Below is a picture of the main branches of the human nervous system (if it showed all of the little branches all we’d see is a human-shaped ball of fuzz):


Now, I ask you, which is more likely: a) that ancient yogis were feeling some sort of magical non-physical energy while they were focusing on their bodies in meditation, b) that “yoga” is bullshit, “prana” is not real, and “chakras” don’t exist, or c) that pictures like the one above are depicting the subjective experience of how the body feels to a highly trained nervous system?

Given that it’s the job of the nervous system to feel and control the body, I am leaning towards option c).

Vipassana, anyone?

Here’s another visual representation of the Jing-Luo “channels and vessels” of Chinese Medicine. Again, the point I am trying to make is that these kinds of images should not be taken as depictions of “real stuff”, but instead be seen as depictions of the subjective experience of practitioners of inner awareness methods:

Decide for yourself.

More to come. I’m going to keep going on this theme, but figure I’d might as well just chuck stuff up here whenever I get some time to write, rather than trying to make each post perfect and complete at this early stage.

PLEASE tell me if any of what I’m writing is wrong or unclear, and especially if you think I’m mistaken about any of the neuroscience. I’m new to this blogging business and still just pulling random pictures of the internets as well so if I’ve used your picture and you’d prefer it if I didn’t, just let me know. Thanks.

  • Ramon
    Posted at 13:06h, 20 May

    I feel as though i have found a treasure trove of a website and have had very similar thoughts or at least lines of thought for years. I think you absolutely spot one. I have had a kundalini awakening and experienced many kriyas or sudden jolts of strong contractions down my spine and have always known it wasn’t “kundalini/prana” but nerve impulses shooting down or or up my spine. My whole experience has pointed me towards the intelligences within the body.

    Isn’t it interesting how the 3 dantians line up with the three “brains” in the body- The cranial brain, heart brain and gut brain? There is also the fascia system and its correspondence to the meridian system and chakras to consider. Also I have always thought that the tapping methods also impact fascia by sending pressure waves throughout the body.

    I cant wait to keep reading!

  • simon
    Posted at 14:17h, 20 May

    Thanks Ramon, I’m so glad there are some people around who like to think about such things – and also glad that some of my thoughts are reaching some people who’ve had similar experiences and are trying to work them out. It’s a long process, getting educated about the body and mind AND getting educated about any ancient traditions in depth takes a lot of work 😀

  • Ramon
    Posted at 02:24h, 21 May

    Your right simon it does take A LOT of work because essentially those doing this now are doing it for the first time (scientifically verifying g ancient practices). I am however at a little of a loss as to how you reccomend going about the process of inner alchemy in these newer terms. I had given up on these practices years ago but now with some of the info I am seeing, I am reconsidering it. What do you think was the purpose of “storing” energy in the lower dantian?

  • simon
    Posted at 12:17h, 10 June

    Hi Ramon sorry I didn’t notice your comment until now! Well, my current take on using the “lower dantian” as a focus of concentration is that the awareness is forced inside the body. The area generally advised in Daoist cultivation and in the Tibetan Tummo “inner fire” practices is just below the belly button and just in front of the spine. What happens when we focus on this area for long enough for the senses to withdraw from the external world is that we experience the body as a pulsating mass of liquid. The change can be quite sudden, the body goes from feeling “normal”, to a feeling of liquid pulsation and warmth spreading throughout the body. This could be what the Chinese sometimes describe as “qi overflowing from the dantian”. I am quite convinced that the word “Qi” effectively means “processes” rather than “energy” – “feeling qi in the dantian” can only possibly mean “feeling sensations in the dantian” which must mean “feeling sensations of biological processes in the dantian”. “Storing” then becomes more a matter of quieting the mind than “moving energy” – in order to be in the state where we can feel the insides of the body (ie inside the dantian) we have to have a very quiet mind, otherwise the senses will always habitually return to events taking place in the external world (sights, sounds, words) or in the muscles and joints and skin. So the practices of keeping the mind in the dantian, returning the mind to the dantian at the end of qigong sets, etc are all about returning the awareness to the deep internal world (training interoception) and calming that world and deliberately inducing deep relaxation (and healing response) while settling the mind into stillness….does any of that make sense?

  • Ramon
    Posted at 00:38h, 14 July

    No worries- LOL, I did not notice your comment until now! Yes Alot of that does make sense. I have been speculating lately that the lower dantien focus could be the conscious intent to tap into the “gut brain”- the complex nervous system/intelligence in the intestines. I thought it was possibly a way to “re-ground’ after the meditative practice. When you practice the microcosmic orbit does it differ in application from the way it is normally thought? Thanks for the great conversation!

  • Be Ward
    Posted at 08:51h, 05 October

    Thanks Simon,. Great stuff. So inspired by the way it seems so many are awakening to our bodies intelligences. Happy practicing! 🙂

  • simon
    Posted at 15:33h, 10 October

    Thanks Be – is that Be my friend in Alice? There can’t be that many of you out there.

  • brian sillasen
    Posted at 14:30h, 28 May

    Hi Simon, I am glad to have stumbled on your wonderful website just recently over at the rum soaked fist site. I’ve been involved with the martial arts for years and had to wade through a lot of baloney to arrive at some of the ideas you describe so well concerning chi. thanks and I look forward to more.

  • simon
    Posted at 13:53h, 12 June

    Thanks Brian! What’s your “handle” over at RSF? I too have waded through much baloney in my time, and continue to do so.

  • Andrea Grigsby
    Posted at 04:08h, 15 December

    Years of working with clients and massage/bodywork using anatomy trains myofaical bands and studying myoneural issues in the body. Your third paragraph is perfect!! Loved this information. First time on your website today.

  • simon
    Posted at 09:17h, 15 December

    Thanks Andrea! And welcome.

  • John Leonard
    Posted at 01:23h, 18 December

    Keep me in this loop!!

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