Feedforward in Learning, Neuroplasticity in Body-Mind Healing

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Body-Mind Concepts to Train the Brain: Feedforward Principles

Feedforward[1] in psychology or cognitive science is a way of learning new behaviors by projecting. It means that when we anticipate a goal–see it, visualize it, plan it–it facilitates movement or behavior towards that goal. It makes it easier to get where we want to go. It has been used in sports, for an autistic child to learn to prevent tantrums, as well as to retrain movement after stroke or spinal cord injury.[2]

This learning involves several brain structures, including occipital lobes, frontal lobes and basal ganglia. These are as necessary for goal-directed movements in a fruit fly or praying mantis as they are for a human.[3]

Feedforward, Feedback: Athletes and Body-Mind Empowerment

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Feedforward concepts have been adapted for cybernetics and organizational management. How can they apply to healing the body-mind and nervous system? We can take lessons from athletic performance training, and use the body’s natural sensory feedback mechanisms to create change.

When we just think about doing something, when we anticipate a goal-directed movement, it elicits a cascade of neural events. They stimulate various brain centers that signal to start the movement, receive sensory input (feedback) from skin, muscles, joints, nerves and other sense receptors about the accuracy of movement in comparison to where we intended to move, and fine-tune or correct the movement. Very similar processes occur when we mentally rehearse a movement. This was used to great advantage by Olympic athletes, and visualization with focus and concentration has been adapted by sports science to perfect athletic performance. [4]

Feeling Emotions with the Body-Mind

We use similar principles when we practice mindfulnessyay-9909906 and proprioception for awareness of our body’s connection to our emotions. We can use yoga, Tai Chi, breath work or mindfulness-based practices[5] such as meditation to develop calmness, reduce anxiety, relieve depression. These help create flexibility, the freedom to make different choices. Mentally rehearsing new behaviors creates new neural pathways and allows us to change habits. We can create new responses to events we previously responded to with overwhelm, stress or illness.

yay-13250254Healing from Pain Signals, Rewiring Our Nervous System

Excessive pain can be coming from overstimulation of nerves, an inability to dampen perceptions of pain in brain centers that are designed to do so, or neural pathways that have become habituated to being sensitive to pain.[6] If you want to minimize pain using the body’s own wiring processes, it is essential to create new neural pathways or desensitize the hypervigilant pathways. Even when there is a physiological basis for pain, relief can sometimes be accomplished by feedforward practices. This is neuroplasticity, our rewiring of change in our brain and nervous system.

Gray832tibial nerve lower legyay-5879004Body-Mind Healing with Massage

In my massage practice, I encourage visualization of health in areas as diverse as the tonsils, chronic muscle pain, nerve pathways down the leg or vertebral discs. Massage relaxes you, encourages deep breathing, and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” mode. Although I don’t do much Swedish massage, I do Ortho-Bionomy® which works with your body to regain emotional and physical balance. It is also deeply relaxing. From that relaxed state, you can project alternatives to the “fight or flight” mode that feeds forward into your life. It may take a lot of practice, however! Repetition is the key to building neuroplastic responses. Lorimer Moseley, an Australian pain neuroscientist is a major contributor to research on using our minds to overcome pain.7

Have you had experiences with mind-body practices that helped with healing? Please feel free to leave comments here, or email me privately.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feedforward,_Behavioral_and_Cognitive_Science
[2] The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Norman Doidge, M.D. 2007. A New York Times Bestseller, with examples of neuroplasticity, and research.

[3] “Decision-making centers in the brains of insects and mammals share too many similarities to have evolved independently, according to comparative studies led by UA neuroscientist Nick Strausfeld. The findings may help better understand the mechanisms underlying diseases such as Parkinson’s.” http://uanews.org/story/the-strikingly-similar-brains-of-flies-and-men
[4] If you are an athlete, you have many options for books and guidance on mental imagery training. Here are some: practical tips to perfect your sports performance– The Art of Mental Training: A Guide to Performance;  inspirational quotes and anecdotes, applied equally to sports and business life, written by a sports psychologist–Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence; easy to read —Visualization, Focus and Concentration to Improve Sports Performance.
[5] Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness Love and Wisdom, by Rick Hansen, M.D. or Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You go, There You Are, or Joan Borysenko’s Minding the Body, Mending the Mind
[6]
Fibromyalgia and the brain: New clues reveal how pain and therapies are processed
7  Prof. Lorimer Moseley’s blog, Body in Mind is one of my favorites. He does research on the role of the brain and mind in chronic pain. He teaches physiotherapists and massage therapists how understanding pain neuroscience can help us make a significant difference for our clients.

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