The Brain, Movement, and Training

By on July 27, 2020

Your mind and body are so inextricably linked as to be inseparable. This means that training the body is also training the mind, and vice versa. In this post, we’re going to explore the complex relationship between the mind and body, and see how improving movement can hone our cognition. We’ll see that learning new physical skills is also an extremely powerful form of brain training.

Movement training and the brain

How the Brain Controls the Body

Movement begins in the brain. Before you can move, you first need to enact that movement in the brain in order to refine it. The intention to move begins in the posterior parietal cortex, an area that has been linked with the concept of free will. The basal ganglia provides you with “action selection” to choose that movement.

We then refer to the cerebellum, the “little brain” named by Leonardo DaVinci, in order to incorporate information from our surroundings. This includes detailed proprioceptive feedback from the sensors in our muscles, tendons, and fascia that provide us with a detailed picture of the current position of our body and its balance.

Movement begins in the brain.

The premotor cortex combines this information with a detailed concept of physics (learned from countless interactions with the world) to help position us in space and refine the movement. The motor cortex then lights up with a pattern that directly corresponds to the movement in question, letting us curl that weight or throw that punch.

During all this, the brain essentially predicts what the movement will look like. If the finalized movement lines up with that prediction, the neural patterns we used are strengthened via reinforcing neurochemicals. If the movement is wrong and there is prediction error, then the movement is refined the next time. This “neural plasticity” allows us to learn new skills and movements and continuously adapt to our environments.

The mind-body connection

It could be argued that movement and learning to move is the primary function of the human brain.

While learning about ancient history is a mentally taxing process, it is nowhere near as multisensory or rich in information as learning to move the body. This requires not only knowledge of the intended movement, but also information from every single sense and as much of the body as possible.

And this is why learning entirely new skills–such as dance choreography or martial arts–is fantastic for increasing neural plasticity. The very process of learning presents a swathe of plasticity-promoting chemicals that can then be used to further support learning in other areas.

Keep the body learning and it remains adaptable.

I don’t know if there is any evidence to support this but, theoretically, you may find that learning a new martial art could help you to learn a new language… and even vice versa! Keep the body learning – by which I mean the body and brain as a single entity – and it remains adaptable.

Ido Portal, the “movement guru,” is someone I’ll talk about more on this channel in future. His philosophy is to train movements, rather than muscles, and he is one of the most prominent figures in the new movement training… err… movement.

How movement shapes the brain

Ido believes that the acquisition of a new skill goes through multiple stages, starting off very difficult, before going through a period of refinement, and eventual mastery. Ido believes that we should spend more time in the first and second stages. This is when the most learning is occurring, and as such, the biggest benefits to our plasticity and cognitive development.

So many of us focus on mastering movements, on adding a few kilos to a lift. Far more transformative is to learn something entirely new. Constantly.

And the very best way to keep the body learning is to force it to change by changing the environment. This meaning the surroundings and the routines and requirements that make up your environment.

The best movement is a movement that requires a large amount of proprioceptive feedback, while also taxing you cognitively. Research conducted by Tracy and Ross Alloway shows that activities such as climbing trees, crawling on beams, and running barefoot are powerful tools for enhancing working memory. These, coincidentally, are the kinds of activities we would naturally engage in as children. Alloway also suggests an activity such as surfing might be perfect for this kind of activity.

Embodied Semantics – How We Use the Body to Understand the World

But what if you don’t move? What if you only picture moving? In that scenario, we still see very similar activity in the brain. This means that we can actually rehearse movements in our mind’s eye and strengthen the very same neural pathways. If you visualize throwing a ball, you will actually use the precise same neural networks and you can strengthen those connections in just the same way: making the movement more efficient and precise without even moving!

Quadrupedal movement bodyweight training

An example of this given in the book The Brain That Changes Itself, is to imagine writing your name with your right hand, then imagine writing it with your left hand. What you find is that it takes longer even to visualize writing with the left hand!

What is strangest of all about all this though, is that this very process of being able to “move without moving” might underpin the very nature of cognition.

This is the hypothesis put forward by embodied cognition, and specifically the idea of “embodied semantics.” As you listen to this, you are translating everything I say into a kind of “pure meaning.” You have learned English, but what was your basis for reference when learning that?

What is the “machine code” of the brain?

If English is the programming language, then what is the “machine code” of the brain?

Embodied semantics is a school of thought (which is just a theory mind you) that suggests that the basis for thought is movement and first-hand experience.

When I tell you about an experience I had walking through the cold woods, you understand this by activating brain regions that correspond with that experience.

In other words, you recall the sensation of walking through the woods. You feel your legs move slightly, you feel and hear the crunching of twigs underfoot, and you remember what emotions this activity conjured up for you in the past.

The brain and movement

Without a body and without direct experience, you would have no way to understand the concept of walking through the woods!

We see this when we try to translate something to a stranger. We do so by mimicking and aping the actions we’re trying to describe, or by desperately pointing at things that could provide a shared reference point.

And likewise, this helps explain–to some extent–why memories can trigger vivid emotional reactions just as though they were real. And why we gesticulate and mimic as we speak. It explains how thought can occur without language.

It’s not visualization as such. It is not just a kinaesthetic experience. Rather, it is a multisensory experience created in your mind’s eye: or your visuo-spatial scratchpad to use the correct terminology.

Wim Hof Meditation

We even see this in the way that language developed: see Daniel L. Everett’s “sign progression” theory of language, and the excellent video on the topic over at What I’ve Learned.

This is the seat of your working memory. Your ability to hold onto sensory information and concepts and thus your ability to imagine, to extrapolate, and to predict.

The prefrontal cortex, which evolved much later than the hindbrain that houses the cerebellum, is where our ability to engage in abstract thought occurs. But this is still apparently built on top of our grounded experience.

Could you understand and perform maths without an experience of quantities?

Could you understand and perform maths without an experience of quantities?

This might also explain our proclivity for metaphors!

Physical Training That Enhances Brain Function

It also points to a connection between the working memory, and the movement of the body. This might help us to understand how something like a lizard crawl up a tree could possibly result in greater skills in maths.

The cerebellum has around 69 billion neurons, as compared with the 16 billion found in the cerebral cortex.

AND it explains why the cerebellum features connections that reach deeply into the prefrontal cortex. It also explains why more and more studies are demonstrating a role for the cerebellum and premotor cortex in seemingly unrelated cognitive tasks.

In one study, it was even found that wrestlers would use their motor regions more than average people when performing cognitive tasks such as mentally rotating objects. This strategy actually resulted in a higher degree of accuracy!

Cerebellum movement and higher processing

The cerebellum has also been implicated as a learning engine. It plays a huge role in refining movement and predicting outcomes, which may also help us to conceive higher-order concepts and predictions. The cerebellum has around 69 billion neurons, as compared with the 16 billion found in the cerebral cortex. That’s surely worth thinking about!

This might also explain how practicing fine motor skills like cursive can improve skills such as verbal fluency. The Arrowsmith School uses cursive drills and tracing exercises to help children that struggle with language. Many of them develop skills equal or even superior to their peers using this method! There’s a well-documented link between the premotor cortex and speech production, and careful manipulation may develop the former.

This is another takeaway: engage in some activity that requires fine, precise control of your hands.

This is why I believe that any attempt to create a “disembodied” artificial intelligence: that is to say an artificial intelligence with no physical presence, will prove to be unsuccessful. That is to say that a true general AI would, at the very least, require an artificial environment. I further believe that intelligence arises from environmental co-evolution.

The Tip of the Iceberg…

This video only scratches the surface of the deeply complex relationship between the mind and body. For instance, consider the way that our physiology can impact on our mindset and vice versa. Learning to understand this reaction allows us to gain greater self-mastery, a topic that is referred to as “physical intelligence” by some (such as author Claire Dale) or interoception.

Then there’s the ability to increase strength and performance by enhancing the mind-muscle connection – developing greater control over the motor units that make activate the muscle fibre. The fascial system also offers us some interesting insight in this domain.

Vault movement parkour brain

I could also talk about how improving cardio has been shown to increase BDNF – one of those key substances promoting plasticity – in the hippocampus. This can lead to improved memory. Exercise also leads to a short-term increase in endorphins – feel good hormones. And of course, improving your cardiovascular system will improve the supply of oxygen to the brain, just as other adaptations that promote increase energy will support improved brain function.

Or what about the link between intention and performance? But a simple trick like punching through the bag rather than into it, can have a profound effect on the way you deliver a strike.

And be sure to check out my old video on how fine motor skills can develop seemingly unrelated skills like verbal fluency!

Stay tuned, as I’ll be discussing all of this in future videos! But to end, I’d just like to reinforce the importance of training the mind as well as the body.

Neuroplasticity shows us that the areas of the brain and the connections between them can be developed and strengthened just like any muscle. Even moreso. So why do we worry about legs day without considering brain day?

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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