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Issue 19,  August 24, 2009     —      Sandra & Matthew Blakeslee, The Body Mandala

In this issue:   FEATURE: Sandra & Matthew Blakeslee, The Body Mandala   Kate Forster, Astrology in the Workplace   Guy Finley, Love's Secret Hold on the Human Heart   Caroline Sutherland, The Body Knows   Sharon Elaine, Affirmations for Health Concerns   Nancy Daly, Finding Joy Amidst the Chaos   Beba Papakyriakou, Releasing Negativity    Wider Screenings, From Woodstock to Snuff    Events   Reviews   Earlier issues   Submit Article

or, Maps, Maps, Everywhere

If you were asked, “Does your hand belong to you?” you would naturally say, “Of course.”

But ask neuroscientists the same question and they will turn the question back on you: How do you know it’s your own hand? In fact, how do you know that you have a body? What makes you think you own it? How do you know where your body begins and ends? How do you keep track of its position in space?

Try this little exercise: Imagine there is a straight line running down the middle of your body, dividing it into a left half and a right half. Using your right hand, pat different parts of your body on the right side—cheek, shoulder, hip, thigh, knee, foot. With your finger, trace a line over your right eyebrow and over the right portions of your upper and lower lips.

You are able to tell these body parts from one another because each is faithfully mapped in a two-dimensional swath of neural tissue in your left brain that specializes in touch. The same thing goes for the left side of your body: All its parts are mapped in a similar region of your right brain. Your brain maintains a complete map of your body’s surface, with patches devoted to each finger, hand, cheek, lip, eyebrow, shoulder, hip, knee, and all the rest.

A map can be defined as any scheme that spells out one-to-one correspondences between two different things. In a road map, any given point on the map corresponds to some location in the larger world, and each adjacent point on the map represents an adjacent real-world location. The same holds broadly true for the body maps in your brain. Aspects of the outside world and the body’s anatomy are systematically mapped onto brain tissue. Thus the topology, or spatial relationships, of your body’s surface is preserved in your touch map to a high degree: The foot map is next to the shin map, which is next to the thigh map, which is next to the hip map. Whenever someone claps you on the shoulder, nerve cells in the shoulder region in this map are activated. When you kick a soccer ball, the corresponding part of your foot map is activated. When you scratch your elbow, both your elbow region and fingertip regions are activated. This map is your primary physical window on the world around you, the entry point for all the raw touch information streaming moment by moment into your brain.

This touch information is collected by special receptors throughout your body, funneled into your spinal cord, and sent up to your brain along two major pathways. The more ancient of these pathways carries pain, temperature, itch, tickle, sexual sensation, crude touch—sufficient, say,
to know that you bumped your knee and not your shin, but not acute enough to tell a penny from a dime—and sensual touch, which includes the gentle maternal caresses that were vital for your body map development as a baby.

The evolutionarily newer pathway carries fine touch information—the kind you need in order to thread a needle or leaf through a book—and position- and-location information from receptors embedded in your joints, bones, and muscles.

Once these many channels of sensory information reach your brain, they are combined to create complex, composite sensations such as wetness, hairiness, fleshiness, and rubberiness. The same goes for the many varieties of pain. Through a combination of pain- and touch-related signals, you have access to the rich diversity of unpleasant experience that includes the smarting pain of a sunburn, the shooting pain of carpal tunnel syndrome, the piercing pain of a stab wound, the dull throbbing pain of an abused knee, the itchy pain of healing, and so on.

You also have a primary motor map in your brain for making movements. Instead of receiving inputs from your skin, this map sends output signals to your muscles. Just like the touch map, this movement map is also found in both sides of the brain. It is vital to your ability to guide your body parts to make fine-tuned movements and assume complex positions in space—like doing the hokey-pokey, playing hockey, or assuming a poker face in a high stakes card game. When you wiggle all your toes, the toe and foot regions of your motor map are active. When you stick out your tongue, the map’s tongue and jaw regions are active. Thanks to this map, all the low-level, mostly unconscious tasks of coordinated movement unfold smoothly without a glitch.

Elsewhere in your brain you also have a very different but no less critical body map of all your body’s innards. This is your primary visceral map, a patchwork of small neural swatches that represent your heart, lungs, liver, colon, rectum, stomach, and all your various other giblets. This map is uniquely super-developed in the human species, and it gives you a level of access to the ebb and flow of your internal sensations unequaled anywhere else in the animal kingdom. You feel lust, disgust, sadness, joy, shame, and humiliation as a result of this body mapping. These visceral inputs to the psyche are the wellspring of the rich and vivid emotional awareness that few other creatures even come close to enjoying. The activity in this map is the voice of your conscience, the thrill of music, the foundation of the emotionally nuanced and morally sensitive self.    ###

Excerpted from The Body Has a Mind of Its Own by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee Copyright 2007 by Sandra Blakeslee. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Body Mapping Part 1

Host: Ian Punnett Guests: Sandra Blakeslee, Matthew Blakeslee Third and fourth generation science writers, Sandra Blakeslee and her son Matthew, discussed their new book The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, which explores the breakthrough technology of body mapping. "Your brain actually has literal maps of your body quilted into its surface," Mathew explained, pointing out the two fundamental maps are for touch and movement. Sandra revealed the brain also has maps of the envelope of space that surrounds our bodies, out to the tips of our fingers or to the end of a tool we may be holding in our hands. She said personal space maps can even extend to include the dimensions of a vehicle.

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The Body Has a Mind of Its Own

This is an excellent book. The authors have a gift for making a complex subject understandable. Another plus is that, like the best of nonfiction authors, they stick to the subject and rely on facts rather than opinion. This book provides a wonderful introduction into an area of science formerly limited to neurologists and other highly-trained specialists.

Central theme
The central theme of this book is that the brain maps the body. In fact, different areas of the brain contain different kinds of body maps with different functions. These body maps in the brain determine such things as how you perceive reality and how you respond to that perception. One of the most fascinating aspects is the plasticity of these maps.

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