Watching positive, healthy movement engages ‘mirror neurons’, producing more healthful states for body and mind.
Maybe you have seen our Moving Meditations app, or watched one of our videos? Here is how they work.
There are two things to understand: first, why movement is so important; and second, why just watching is so effective.
Neuroscientists know that the brain evolved to deal with movement. Animals, which have the capacity to move, have brains. Plants, which don’t move, don’t have brains.
When we are little children the main way we deal with the world is through movement. We communicate through gesture long before we communicate through words. We express our feelings through movement; one might even say that our feelings ARE inner movements. We get what we need through reaching and grasping; we keep ourselves safe by pulling in or pushing away; we give and receive love through embracing and holding.
We push away our emotions by blocking movement, keeping ourselves stiff. This damages us, and can lead to physical and mental problems. Trying to change our bad moods just by thinking doesn’t work very well; much better to loosen our body, to bring movement and fluidity where there was stiffness and rigidity. And that feels good!
This is why movement is so important.
But then, why is simply watching movement so powerful?
Neuroscientists now know that we understand the world, and each other, through imitating movement. Several years ago, they discovered “mirror neurons” (di Pellegrino): brain cells which activate when we perform a certain movement, but also when we see someone else doing that same movement. Mirror neurons!
Later, in a theory called “Embodied Cognition” (Barsalou), scientists realized that we do not understand things abstractly; we understand by imagining how we would move and use that thing. I understand a hammer by feeling how I would hold it and hit things; I understand a chair by imagining how I would sit on it; and so forth.
In the same way, I understand what someone else is doing by imagining how it would feel if I did the same thing. I understand by imitating! If someone waves at me excitedly, or shakes their fist in anger, I imitate them in my imagination, I feel what it would be like to do that, and only then I can realize, “Oh! She is glad to see me,” or, “He is angry.”
When we are infants, this imitation is actually physical and obvious. Think of a mother and her baby making funny faces at each other. As we get older, we do it internally, but it is still imitation. It is automatic and unconscious, and it is how we understand each other.
Another recent theory in neuroscience, called “Predictive Processing” (Friston), explains that these inner images of movement are actually how we move ourselves! We imagine ourselves on the other side of the room, and automatically the movements we need begin to happen. This has actually been known about for many decades, and is called “ideokinesis”; you actually cannot imagine, for instance, a golf swing, without your “golf swing” muscles engaging—just a little bit. What scientists realize now is that all movement is controlled like that, through the inner movement images.
So, when we watch a Magic Mirror video, we begin to move, automatically, inside ourselves, in the same way as the person (or the birds, or the water) in the video. We can feel this easily if we pay attention. Watch one of our videos, or any video of living beings moving, or just watch people. You will notice that you can feel inside yourself that same movement. This is why we like to watch beautiful or powerful movement, such as dance, martial arts, wild animals, and natural phenomena like waves or clouds. It makes us feel good inside, and helps open up places where we have stiffened or blocked our own movements.
The movements shown in the Magic Mirror videos are carefully chosen to help you open up the inner movements and feelings of calm, of strength, of love, of ease. This can help to shift you away from negative mood states of anger, anxiety, or agitation. Doing the movements physically is important, but just watching can support the same goals. Give it a try, and let the Magic Mirror do the work!
If you would like to see our Moving Meditations app, here are the links.
Our new App, Moving Meditations for Autism (available for Android and Apple devices), offers 18 short videos to help kids (and their families) find peace and balance. The videos are fun and engaging, and effortless to use—all you have to do is watch them!
But you might wonder, what does watching someone doing gentle movements have to do with meditation? Doesn’t meditation mean sitting still? And, what IS meditation, anyway?
Here are some answers.
First, “meditation” is simply a way of coming to a balanced, comfortable state. It means we are present and at ease, not stressed out and distracted. We are able to be with each other easily, to do what we need to do effectively, and generally to enjoy life.
It’s what we all want, right? Amazing how hard it can be to get there!
When we are stressed or distracted, we often get into blame and judgement. We may criticize ourselves or others, tell ourselves we should feel differently, or plan how things will be different in the future.
But, we can all recognize that this mental struggle does not really help. Our thoughts and judgements are really very superficial, and have little power to change our mood.
In the same way, if your child is stressed and anxious, just telling them to try to calm down doesn’t help much. Thoughts and words are just on the surface. It’s kind of like trying to stop the waves of the ocean by pressing down on them!
So, how can we change mood? In a word, MOVEMENT.
When we are babies, our parents relate to us first through movement. We are held, caressed, guided. Gradually we become able to do things for ourselves; we gain the skills to stand, walk, and do things, we develop a sense of self, confidence, pride. We learn about the world and ourselves through movement. We express ourselves through movement. We relate to each other through movement. Movement is fundamental!
Movement is not just physical motion. It is feeling! We speak of “being moved” by a beautiful story, or feeling moved to help a loved one. Movement is inseparable from impulse, from wanting, reaching, holding. It is how we relate to the world!
Have I conveyed how powerful movement is? Movement is what has the power to calm the agitation of the mind, to smooth the ripples and ease the deep tides of emotion.
The videos show you and your child images of movement; both images of a child doing the motions, but also images of natural movements, of birds, animals, water, trees. What happens inside you as you watch? Can you feel how these images trigger feelings of movement inside you? Can you feel a sense of settling, opening, softening? Our nervous system is designed so that just watching a movement triggers that same movement inside us! That is how we learn about the world as an infant—and that is how we can learn to find balance and ease when we are stressed or anxious. Best of all, no words are needed. So even someone who does not relate well to words—like a young child, someone with autism, or a person with dementia—can still learn to find peace and balance.
Of course you can also actually follow along and do the physical motions. But it’s not so much that you try to learn the movements as a skill, it’s more like you move with a certain feeling. It’s not about “getting it right”, but riding the wave of the feeling.
Then without the videos, during daily life at any time, you can remember the feeling, you can remember the images, you might even let your body move just a little bit, but mainly you feel inside the quality of the movement—the settling down, the floating up, the spreading out, whatever brings you back into balance and comfort. And, if your child has watched the videos, you can remind him or her, “remember the birds flying slowly in the sky? Remember the kangaroo? Remember the stars floating gently down?” And your child will feel again that same moving quality inside.
It may be interesting for you to know that scientific studies of the brain and nervous system fully support what have been saying. “Mirror neurons” enable us to feel within ourselves the movements we see. Centers in the midbrain link emotion with movement. Developmental neuroscience affirms the fundamental role of movement. Elsewhere on our web site you can find more about scientific documentation. Although you do not at all need to understand the science in order to fully benefit from the videos, we think it is important to know that these are not just pretty ideas, but thoroughly based in solid, verified scientific understanding.
Check out the links below for more about the App and the principles behind it, and feel free to email us with any questions at: BodymindScience4Research (at)Gmail.com.
On Saturday September 8th, I attended the yearly conference (yearly since last year!) of the New England Somatic Experiencing(TM) group. (Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a form of body-oriented psychotherapy focused specifically on trauma. It works primarily by guiding the client’s attention to bodily sensation. I am a certified practitioner).
The conference was a truly amazing experience for me. I had been invited by Ted Plimpton, the organizer, to give a presentation, as I had at last year’s conference. I accepted with pleasure as last year’s had been very enjoyable. My expectations were vastly surpassed.
Yours Truly at the microphone
My presentation came first; I presented on “Practice and Somatic Experiencing”, by which I mean the role of some form of daily practice in the field of SE and in body oriented psychotherapies generally. Although Dr. Levine describes various practices in his books, and although different teachers have their own particular expertise in certain practices, there is no standard set of practices taught as part of SE. I think this is a lack, and it is a topic of importance to me. There are two kinds of practice: “daily practice”, which is done at a specific time and place for a future result; and what I call “daylong practice,” which is done all the time and in which there is no difference between the practice and the desired result. A major difference between the two is that daylong practice requires no time taken out of one’s daily schedule! There are five main ways in which practice could reinforce aspects of Somatic Experiencing: cultivating interoception, strengthening the container, opening the expressive pathways, improving the witness stance, and facilitating autonomic discharge. If you’re interested in learning more, my Powerpoint file is available here.
Next, Alex Diaz gave a very thorough presentation on the treatment of concussion by SE, emphasizing the need for a multi-disciplinary team approach. One thing I had not realized was that you do not have to lose consciousness to be concussed!
Ted Plimpton, the conference organizer, had the brilliant idea of convoking a panel of SE practitioners using SE in the context of bodywork, somatic education and therapy, movement, dance, and other non-psychotherapeutic methods. He said, and I agree, that non-psychotherapists tend to be somewhat marginalized in SE.
SE Bodyworkers panel. Left to right: Cecily Sam Legg, Kristen Chamberlin, Catherine Hondorp, Jacqueline Katz, Maureen-Elise Quinn
I think this is a sign of the persistence of the Cartesian dualism between mind and body, with a greater valuation given to mind than to body. So I was delighted that Ted was encouraging this group to find their voice. In this limited space, I cannot do justice to everyone in this panel, but I want to highlight one presentation.
Kristen Chamberlin, who is also a practitioner and teacher of a form of Indian Tantra, showed us a portion of a movie she is working on, which absolutely blew my mind. Impossible to describe in words, it was an evocation of the fundamental life force in humans as in nature. I and many others in the room were very deeply moved. Several shared their feelings, and I felt a wonderful harmony and connection in the room. I felt the movie expressed the true unification of body and mind, the authentic resolution of the Cartesian split. In one of my comments during the ensuing discussion, I suggested that to ignore the unity of body and mind in the therapeutic context is a form of malpractice (laughter and applause!)
Photo credit: Marcy Andrew
Marcy Andrew, a midwife, presented “Courting the Reptilian Brain During Childbirth”. She showed that SE therapy and childbirth are very similar processes, and can deeply inform each other. Anecdotes from her personal experience interwove with poignant and powerful photos from her life experiences. I was deeply moved by the raw expressions on the faces of many of the people in the photos, and I felt the same unification was manifesting as evoked in Kristen’s movie. As I write this, I am suddenly struck by Marcy’s use of the word “courting” in her title. Courtship leads to marriage, and an inner “alchemical” marriage leads to the natural, unified state, where reptilian, mammalian and primate brains are in a blissful ménage à trois, birthing the authentic human being.
Left to right: Sage Hayes, Lisa Newell
Sage Hayes and Lisa Newell, co-founders of the SE Working Group for Racial Justice, presented on “Somatic Practice with Marginalized Communities. They have been active in bringing awareness of the issues of racism, sexism, and a host of other forms of social oppression, to the SE community. Their presentation was lucid and poignant, and made me think deeply. They clarified that these forms of oppression are traumatic, and that unlike most sources of trauma, they never stop; thus the usual tools of SE therapy do not suffice and new insights and approaches are necessary. As a white, well-educated male, it is very hard for me to grasp the experience of marginalized people. As I listened to Sage’s presentation, I felt such a sense of outrage, and a terrible frustration: “so, what can you do?” The process most commonly used in SE therapy is “biological completion”, the completing of the interrupted defensive response; but because social marginalization is an ongoing trauma, other approaches may be necessary. It seems clear to me that the SE community, and the psychotherapeutic community in general, need to pay serious attention to these issues, and to integrate awareness of social oppression into their practice as well as training, outreach, administration and financial areas.
Paula with Nelson (Pam White)
The final presentation was a very touching look at working with horses, by Paula Josa Jones, author of Our Horses, Our Selves. The photos of her work showed the way that horses, naturally in their midbrain and limbic system, can relate to humans on this level, and help humans to connect with that part of their own being.
At several points in the conference, various attendees commented on the extraordinary quality of the conference. The overall group spirit reminded me of my early training, when I was awed by the openness, integrity and authenticity of this wonderful approach to healing. Then, as now, SE seems to me more a spiritual cultural transformation than a therapeutic technique, a birthing of the True Self into the world.
“Martial arts” is a very broad category, with various aims—some incompatible with each other! Sport martial arts operate under specific rules, and offer excellent recreation and exercise for the reasonably fit. Self-defense is a claim often made, but there is a lot of hype around this; in my opinion, the only appropriate training in this arena involves training intuition and situational awareness, emotional resilience, verbal defusing, escape, and improvised weapons. Military martial arts have no rules and aim to kill or maim. My own interest is in what martial arts offer in terms of skills for feeling and functioning better in everyday life.
In my experience the “internal” martial arts offer the most profound and sophisticated training relevant to this aim. The best known of these include the Chinese arts of Taijiquan, Baguazhang, Xingyiquan, Yiquan, and Liou He Ba Fa; Aikido from Japan; and Systema from Russia. The word “internal” in this context means these arts do not just rely on ordinary strength, fitness, and speed, but on subtler “internal” factors like sensitivity, breath awareness, and the use of intention and imagery.
What is special to me about these arts is not the specific movements and martial techniques, but the way they are done. Taijiquan, for instance, is NOT a long sequence of precise motions, but a WAY of moving or acting (and, in its martial aspect, a way of sensing and responding to an aggressor). Qigong teaches these same principles separately from martial application; although what tends to get lost there is the relational aspect, how to relate to someone else using these principles.
So what is this “way of moving”? In the Chinese internal arts it is formulated in terms of using intention(“I”) to direct the “energy” (“qi” (chi)) to move the body (“li”). This is of course problematic from the point of view of the biosciences, which have proven that there is no such thing as “life energy” (Qi), and therefore tend to regard traditional Chinese theory as fantasy. But with the recent increased interest in the neuroscience of interoception, it is easy to translate traditional Chinese theory. As one of my internal martial arts teachers, Peter Ralston, told me: “I don’t believe in Qi. I believe in feeling!” In other words, the traditional Chinese description is phenomenological, a description of one’s interoceptive experience rather than a description of biological mechanisms. The use of I, Qi and Li involve appropriate functioning of certain regions of the brain—roughly speaking, prefrontal, premotor, and motor cortex—and not mysterious quasi-physical energies.
This translation of traditional Chinese theory into neuroscience is not reductive. It simply says that traditional Chinese theory is coherent with modern neuroscience. It seems clear to me that Qigong and the internal martial arts have profound practical insights into effective use of body and mind, for skilled activity, harmonious relationships, and well-being. Unfortunately the previously mentioned difficulties in translation, as well as the traditional Chinese reticence in sharing these ‘secrets’ openly, mean that these profound insights are not widely understood or taught.
This difficulty was recognized by Wang, Xiang-Zhai, one of the greatest Chinese martial arts masters of the early 20th century. He created Yiquan (“Intention Fist”) in an attempt to simplify and make accessible these insights. This training is centered around “Standing like a Tree” (Zhan Zhuang), an apparently simple practice which many great martial artists have credited as the secret to their extraordinary accomplishments. It also makes much use of imagined movement (zhi li, or “testing strength”, also termed “moving without moving”). In the West, medical science and sport science have proven the effectiveness of this kind of practice, and many Western Somatic practices use variants (e.g. Ideokinesis, the Franklin Method, the Alexander Technique, Awareness Through Movement).
Wang Xiang-Zhai said:
“A small movement is better than a large movement; no movement is better than a small movement. Stillness is the mother of all movement.”
This apparently mysterious quotation is a compressed description of a specific form of practice.
In the Chinese tradition, the use of interoception and interoceptive imaging of this sort is inseparable from methods aiming at health and positive states of mind. Western psychology has only recently begun to touch on these areas, and in my opinion the traditional Chinese methods offer a vast and largely untapped resource of experience, practice and theory, the exploration of which could hugely accelerate the development of psychology and psychophysiology.
Current neuroscience acknowledges the importance of interoception, posture and movement for physical and psychological health, but has barely begun* to explore the structure of interoception. In other words, what kinds of inner experience are associated with optimized functioning, and what influence does voluntary interoceptive imaging have? Here are some examples of interoceptive experiences seen in the traditional Chinese arts as having critical roles in physical and psychological health:
Correct relation to gravity, through awareness of the line of gravity (or more accurately, the acceleration vector) as the center-line of the body;
Awareness of the center of gravity on the front of the lower lumbar vertebrae;
Awareness of the heart center at the level of the 6th thoracic vertebra;
Awareness of the center of the head at the meeting of the three axes of rotation of the skull;
Spatial kinesthetic awareness of the space below the ground, above the head, and outside the body;
Internal sensing of momentum transfer from ground contact through the bones and fascia (termed “sinews” in Chinese translations).
Again, I want to emphasize that these are seen as essential to optimal emotional and cognitive function, as well as physical; and also, that these apply to the very simplest of activities, including ordinary standing, sitting, and walking, as well as pushing, pulling and lifting. It is not necessary (although it is very enjoyable!) to master feats of acrobatics, balance, and skilled performance, in order to develop optimal everyday functioning; and, these internal principles facilitate the acquisition of these advanced skills, as well as the “everyday superpowers” of standing, sitting, moving, and interacting!
In my system of Bodymind Training, I have made learning these profound principles as easy as I can, with a minimum of extraneous things to learn—just the meat, no padding! You can access a current version of this training in our App, “Resilient Family: Happy Child!”, which is available for download at the App Store and Google Play. This App has a selection of Bodymind Training practices for kids as well as for adults.
*But see the ground-breaking research by Amit Abraham into the use of the Franklin Method of interoceptive imaging with Parkinson’s patients; Abraham, A., et al. (2018). “Dynamic Neuro-Cognitive Imagery Improves Mental Imagery Ability, Disease Severity, and Motor and Cognitive Functions in People with Parkinson’s Disease.” Neural plasticity 2018.
I would like to explain as clearly as I can the core ideas of the system I call Bodymind Training (BmT). These concepts also apply to many other forms of Somatic education and therapy.
Bodymind Training shows you simple and easy ways to feel better and be more effective in daily life.
The most central idea is what we call the Natural State. Similar to concepts like the “flow state”, Zen concepts of present awareness, Taoist ideas of effortlessness and naturalness, the Natural State is when we are at our best – open, present, strong, capable, loving, balanced. Our physiology reflects this, with our lungs, heart, and gut all functioning optimally. This is the state that arises naturally in the nervous system in the absence of threat or deprivation. Everything is in the Goldilocks place—not too tight, not too loose: just right! This is a state of effortless well-being, with no inner conflict. Our relationship to the world around us is balanced, able to open and close; we are able to respond spontaneously effectively to what happens around us.
If the Natural State is such a nice place to be, then what keeps us away from that state? To understand this, we bring in the idea of the “Preparatory Set”.
In evolutionary terms, living beings have always had to deal with various challenges from the environment: we might get eaten, or we might not get enough to eat; we might need to kill a rival, or care for our young. We have evolved basic patterns to help us respond to these circumstances. Affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp classifies these patterns as RAGE, SEEKING, LUST, JOY, CARE, GRIEF, FEAR (this list is not written in stone, one could add DISGUST and likely others).
They are integrated states of our whole organism, organized deep in the midbrain, readying ourselves to deal with challenge. It is easy to feel and imagine each of these states; if we imagine angrily confronting a rival, lovingly holding an infant, or joyfully playing with a friend, we can feel the changes in our tension patterns, posture, movement impulses, breathing, our gut, our feelings, our attitude towards the world, even our thoughts
Of course, each of these patterns is vital for dealing with the changing challenges of life. But problems arise when we are preparing for a situation which is not actually happening. Do you ever get the feeling that you are always getting ready for an attack that never comes? Continually anticipating loss? Itching for a fight all the time? Then you are Stuck in a Prep Set.
This, of course, prevents one from being in the Natural State.
So, the aim of BmT is to re-establish and reinforce the Natural State, by showing how to let go of the stuck Prep Sets that are getting in the way.
Since the Natural State and the Prep Sets are States of the whole being, we need to work with our whole being to change them; this means body and feelings as well as mind.
So BmT teaches specific postures, movements, breathing, internal awareness, orientation, and images, which foster the Natural State and encourage release of stuck Prep Sets. The training uses a step-by-step-step approach which enables you to move as slowly or as fast as you wish.
In keeping with the idea of the Natural State, the postures and movements are the casual motions of everyday life—standing, sitting, walking, or just being. Through these daily activities you learn and put into practice the principles of the Natural State, which apply equally to movement, bodily sensations and feelings, relationships with others, and attitude towards life.