Brain research in the last few decades has given us a whole lot to chew on when it comes to understanding how the brain works. Most of it is quite positive. Boiled down to the frankest quintessence, your brain is highly mouldable and can overcome many setbacks and challenges to triumph as a well-developed, ever-evolving being.
Since mind and body are intimately connected, the plasticity of the brain has critical implications for our physical health and well-being. In fact, your brain contains an interactive, 3-D map of your body. The image of a distorted human figure at the top of this post is the cortical homunculus (fairly literally “brain person”).
Each person’s brain map is unique in the space it allots to each body part and how the neurons that populate the map interconnect and function with other neurons. The size, sophistication and interconnectedness of the brain map for Miles Davis’s fingers, for example, would make the average person’s brain map blush with inadequacy. If we were to view Miles Davis’s homunculus, we would no doubt see a larger, much more detailed representation for his playing fingers since he used them so deftly.
Brain maps not only differ from person to person, they actually vary in the same person from moment to moment, based on how she uses (or doesn’t use) her body. If you were to take a dance class or practice yoga on a more regular basis, your brain map would devote more space, and stronger, more numerous, more interconnected neural pathways to your body map.
As you begin using your feet more, your brain adapts and your feet occupy a larger, more integrated and co-ordinated space in the brain. In contrast, as we age, our brain follows the “use it or lose it” principle and parts of the body that we don’t exercise atrophy in the brain’s body map. This is the downside of having a highly changeable brain. Disuse has the effect of shrinking the body map, or at least the parts that have gotten rusty.
You can see this effect in elderly people who trip and fall over small irregularities in their walking path. Without continually stimulating our body map, it shrinks and, in the case of our feet, we develop progressive balance problems. What were once fairly intelligent, sensitive appendages become dull, almost foreign-seeming objects. Wearing shoes contributes to this downward spiral by making the feet less perceptive to the subtle nuances of the ground beneath, its senses dulled by a relatively homogenous-feeling sole.
The good news is that nature’s use it or lose it principle cuts both ways. If you start stimulating your body, you can turn the lights back on. For your feet, this means an increase in sensitivity and agility, and an improvement in balance. Taking off your shoes and walking around barefoot will rebuild your brain’s body map for your feet.
Standing on a yoga mat and practicing asana will not only keep your brain map from deteriorating, it will actually rewire your brain, restore lost agility, and make your brain map years — even decades — younger. In doing so, yoga asana offers protection and insurance against the potential hazards of aging.
Building Your Brain From the Ground Up
Here’s a simple exercise to increase your brain map for your feet. Sit on your mat (or on the lawn, a chair, or wherever you’d like), and separate your toes by interlocking them with the fingers of your opposite hand. This will help build the mind-body intelligence and make your feet much freer and open feeling. Try to progress to the point where you can have the webs of your toes plugged right into the webs of your fingers. This may take weeks, months, or even years and it can feel very intense at first, but with practice, your toes will get used to the stretch and feeling of being spread apart. You may never want to wear a pair of shoes again! As long as you give your feet regular stimulation, you will be building your brain’s “foot-intelligence”, if you will.
So, in answer to the title question of today’s post, yes, there most certainly is a foot in your brain. The more important question for you is, how well-developed is it and what are you going to do about it?
Photo Credit: Better Movement