Imagine we are not in 2020 and you are new to a city, wouldn’t you get a map? Not only can the map help you find out where you are, but also where places are in relation to each other. A map can even help you figure out where you’re headed, and steps you could take to go there.
In the same way, inside our brains and our mind’s eye, each of us has a map of parts of themselves, as known and sensed. Each person’s map is based in their own perception of their body and what parts of their body can do: a map of where things are, their relationship to each other and how to get from A to B . For neurologists studying the brain, they call this phenomenon the body-map, it exists in the homunculus.
The Self Image, The Body Map
For somatic learners and practitioners, we call this phenomenon the self-image. The self image is built over time, it’s based on the person’s habits and movement in daily life as well as their felt-sensed knowledge of where parts of them are in relation to each other. So the self-image is a personal map, drafted in our minds through the actions we perform. Naturally, each person’s self-image is different from the other. In order to perform an efficient and coordinated movement with a ball, a footballer has a much more elaborate and clear representation of their legs and feet in their self-image. His legs and feet have incorporated in their skill-set many movements to run with a ball, kick a long kick, a short kick, etc… Differently, a musician probably uses a ring finger more than other people, thus the finger has a bigger representation and conception in their self-image.
In the early 1940s was the first time we had an actual representation of the body in the brain by the Canadian Neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. Penfield’s work helped us visualize a vibrant figure of the body in the brain, or the body-map. It highlights the relationship between the movement of some part of the body and how they’re represented in the map, neurologically. His research defined the exact steps our nervous systems take when movement happens. The first step takes place on the left side of the brain, the sensory side where the order is transported from body to brain. The following step is brain to motor; when your brain gives a neurological order to start moving towards a certain direction. The more a movement is performed, the smoother that pathway is. The smoother the pathway for a movement, the more habitual such movement becomes.
A body scan is a chance for the somatic learner to sense how different parts are represented in their self-image. It is a practice in which a person scans parts of themselves for sensations such as length, weight, direction. Even though this practice was widely popularized by western somatic learning tradition, it originated in South East Asian, East Asian movement, medicine traditions namely yoga, Chinese Medicine, Hindu and Buddhist Meditation techniques. For those of us not from these cultures, before having ever done a body-scan, one might not realize that they have access to their self-image, and that their self-image is dynamic. It changes according to sense-felt experiences. Otherwise, how is a person to know how parts of them are represented in their self-image? Once one begins their somatic learning journey, they start realizing gaps in their knowledge of themselves. Through somatic learning, they are able to fill in those gaps, unlearning deeply integrated yet unhelpful habits, and learning useful ones.
As you scan for sensations, you become more aware of the position of different parts in relation to each other, but also in space. In an Awareness Through Movement lesson, a scan emphasizes traces of movements that you had just performed, and sense where it makes a difference in your self-image. So in a way a scan acts as a moment of checking in. One could also use a scan to check in during moments of anxiety, or distress. It can help quiet down overwhelming sensations.