I believe in mind control. I have a deep faith that the power of attention can achieve what was deemed impossible.
When my son was 4 months old my husband and I were lucky enough to to witness his realization of something truly amazing. He sat propped up in front of us, moving his fingers in front of his face with a look of utter astonishment. The look was easy to read “I can control these with my mind.” We felt we were witness to the beginning of him consciously inhabiting his body; it’s a journey that he, like all of us, can continue all of our lives. The sensitivity to the sensations that originate within our bodies is called interoception. This sensitivity can be honed, and when it is, it can result in dramatic changes in motor control and the experience of pain.
Brain Training for Interoception
Neuroscience has been offering more and more evidence for my faith in the power of mindful attention in the past decade — brain training in interoception really works. In 2016 a team of Brazilian researchers showed that it was possible for severely paralyzed patients to regain sensation and movement in their legs through brain training exercises. These patients practiced for more than 2000 hours using Virtual Reality. Their persistence paid off more than was imaginable at the beginning of the study. Most had returned sensation to parts of their body previously inaccessible, but even more remarkable was that most also had some motor control return as well.*
For my son, learning to control the movements of his body was sometimes pleasurable, and other times agonizing. For weeks before he learned to crawl he would wake in the middle of the night rocking on his knees. He cried with frustration at his inability to access the cross body movement patterns necessary to propel him forward, but despite frustration, he persistently willed it.
And yes, we all have memories of how challenging the process of learning new movement patterns can be. I remember the frustration of repeatedly stalling when I first learned to drive standard transmission, and hours of getting the steps wrong when learning to swing dance. But the magical moment of mind control that my son experienced at 4 months was not pride at having learned a new pattern, but the pure astonished joy of inhabiting his body. He was not moving in a new way – his fingers had wiggled like that for months. He was feeling more deeply his connection to his body — developing interoception. On the foundation of this experience skills can be built and rebuilt, motor control regained and regained, and pain overcome.
Brain Training for Pain Relief
For the most truly astonishing results relentless persistence and dedication are required — in his book The Brain’s Way of Healing” Norman Doidge chronicals the recovery of patients in chronic pain using specific brain training visualizations to rewire their brains and overcome decades of suffering.* These experiments used simplified pictures of the brain itself as the basis for the visualizations. And the brain training exercises were done for hours and hours a day, for many weeks at a time before results start to appear. But significant and joyful changes can be made in much less time.
In my regular morning yoga class at Movati I have students who have been attending regularly for almost four years. In that time I have occasionally lead them through an exercise called psychic alternate nostril breathing. As in nadi-shodana, in this exercise you alternately breath in through one nostril and out through the other, always changing on the exhale. However I have my students practice it without using their hands, instead using visualization to aid them. I tell them, “this is a focusing exercise; it does not matter how successful you are at directing the flow of air, only that your focus and intention are precise.” But, repeated attention and intention result in shortening the synaptic gap, and slowly, with this brain training, students learn to control the dilation of their nostrils individually. Recently, I had a student approach me after class with a look of happy surprise on her face — “I can do it.” I have seen this joy repeated again and again as my students are immersed in the vibrancy of being in their bodies in new and unfamiliar ways.
Encouraging movement from the outside can often help to more quickly restore the depth of internal sensation. I often use self massage with grippy pliable rubber balls, or inflated balls to help encourage my tissues to feel more deeply, and thus also move more efficiently or through a greater range. If time is taken to stop, pay attention and really feel after they are used, these self massage techniques become an aid in brain training for interoception – reconnecting or strengthening our ability to feel and move our bodies — and to feel the utter astonishment of mind control.
Radford, Tim. “‘Brain training’ technique restores feeling and movement to paraplegic patients.” The Guardian. August 11, 2016. Accessed October 01, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/aug/11/brain-training-technique-restores-feeling-and-movement-to-paraplegics-virtual-reality.
Howard, Jacqueline. “Paraplegics moving again years after injuries .”
CNN. August 11, 2016. Accessed October 01, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/11/health/paralysis-brain-machine-interface/index.html.
Doidge, Norman. The brains way of healing: remarkable discoveries and recoveries from the frontiers of neuroplasticity. Strawberry Hills, N.S.W.: ReadHowYouWant, 2017. 17-18