Human brain is the most complex structure in the universe that we know of. As Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert quotes: “We have a brain for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to produce adaptable and complex movements.” So how did it happen that in modern society movement is seen as luxury rather than necessity?
The first important shift happened with agricultural revolution when human societies moved from hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming. It was the most important turn in history that led to changes so fast that they were unseen before in the course of evolution. From about 10.000 years ago up to current moment, humanity made a huge leap from being a monkey-like animal to sending things in space. There still was a certain amount of physical work required in agricultural societies, but the surplus of food allowed us to overpopulate the planet and concentrate on advancing technology in giant steps. That in its turn lead us to industrial revolution about 200 years ago and eventually to digital revolution that we are living right now. These changes were so quick that evolution was not able to do even minor changes in order to adapt our genes to something our bodies did not expect, the price for it is unseen before physical and mental diseases that are covering the planet in prodigious rates. (Frank W. Booth, Christian K. Roberts, Matthew J. Laye, 2014)
We became so concentrated on cultivating intellectual advances that lost connection to what made it possible for us to achieve such a high level of cognitive abilities – our capacity to move. It is very fashionable now to talk about mind body connection, but in reality it is a very misleading term – you can connect something only if it can be disconnected. Your brain is the part of your body and your body is the extension of your brain. If you suffer some sort of lesion that disconnects it, you either stay paralyzed or you die. It is very important to understand if you want to live happily, it is even more important if you strive for development as a human being. Movement is the most powerful tool that we have available in order to affect our brain and reshape its structures. (Gerry Leisman, Ahmed A. Moustafa, Tal Shafir, 2016) No medication, no interventions, nothing comes close to how we can affect our cognition through movement.
We are the only animal born with basically blank nervous system. Of course there are certain genetically predetermined circuits that distinguish us humans from other animals, but gene expression and construction of the circuitry, especially in first years of postnatal life, depends very much on the experiences we are exposed to. Think about that – you know what language a dog will speak, it is genetically determined at birth, there is no deviation. In turn, there are over 7000 languages and dialects on the planet and depending on where you born in, you could learn to speak any of them. Our nervous system is shaped through our interaction with external stimuli. It was believed for many years that plasticity of the nervous system was only available until certain age and past this age the neural pathways became rigid, but it was proven more than once that this belief was erroneous. (Denise C. Park et al, 2013) Our system is a subject to change from the day we are born till the day we die. Of course it is much greater in younger years when the majority of the basic circuits is just being constructed, but even despite certain predetermined changes in CNS plasticity due to aging, you can choose and live your life in a way that your brain is always willing and expecting to learn, regardless of age.
Neural circuits that govern your motor function are passing through the same structures that circuits that govern movement of your thought and movement of your emotion. It is not hard to make a conclusion out of it that the more control you have over your bodily movement, the more complexity you strive for in it, the more control and complexity you achieve in your cognitive and emotional processes. (Zhuo Wang, Kalissa D. Meyers, et al, 2013) And I will emphasize again that movement is the most valuable and powerful tool we have available that can reshape our brain structures. It is not something that is openly communicated among wide populations, so as a result, physical practice for most people is reduced to a couple of times a week that are basically trips to the gym into the hamster-like running experience and/or linear repetitive actions at most. This is not how you meant to move. There is a big mismatch of our intellectual activity and our physical activity. If your profession requires a lot of cognition – why doesn’t your physical practice? We forgot what lead us to where we are now, and further on we keep forgetting, worse downside we will keep on experiencing. We have reached the unseen before huge amount of population, but together with it, the unseen amount of all kinds of disease in developed societies. We move away from our essence and it makes us miserable.
There are great varieties of movement practices that can be taken on to support the complexity of our system, practices that can develop and nourish it. There are few things to have in mind though that will give you the greatest outcome. Paying attention is one of the most important ones. Tons of studies were conducted to prove that paying attention while producing physical activity creates the greatest change in the cortical structures. (Rachel Jones, 2007) There are systems like Feldenkrais that are based on that principle which are proven on thousands of cases to make incredible changes in the brain and even fix people with severe impairments of CNS through movement. In times when everything around is fighting to catch our attention in order to sell us something, it became a very important currency. Paying attention is a skill on its own and the further we go down to the rabbit whole of technology, the less ability to pay attention we possess. This is the price we pay for commodity. It is a scary tendency but it is not too late to change it.
Another important thing that produces the most changes and keeps your brain sharp is constant exposure to new skills. For some reason we always expect younger people to learn new things, but past certain age, we sort of giving up necessity to study anything new. This is a huge mistake and i believe we rob ourselves from colours of life making it. The more you learn, the more ability to learn your brain acquires, and like that you create a vibrant brain that can’t wait to process more and more information. And if you train your system to master new physical skills over and over again, the cortical structures that are in charge of gaining other cognitive abilities will be subject to this positive change as well. (C.S. Green, D. Bavelier, 2008) This is called meta learning – a skill to learn in itself. Also constant exposure to new learning is proven to be the best prevention of dementia.
We are living in a world that our genes do not expect and it makes us unhappy. Why aren’t we educated about these things? Movement is a huge part of our nature; it is one of the most important factors in our well being. Our body strives for it and without movement it wilts. Movement is what makes us humans, it endows us the ability to interact with external environment and other people. This is what makes our existence worth it. I strongly believe that if each one of us was responsible of our own life the world would be a better place. If each of us sought education and strove to a better connection with reality, we would connect better with ourselves. This in its turn will make us connect better with others. Complex, variable movement practice is the most valuable tool we have to affect our cognition and reshape the relationship with our environment. And it is here, it is available to all. It is also our greatest freedom that we don’t value – being able to move however we feel like. Besides, it leaves us with something beautiful and fulfilling, because there is nothing more fascinating in the world than human movement.