In the book “The Mind Has a Body of Its Own”1, authors Sarah and Matthew Blakeslee described marvelously how the brain maps the body. The brain contains maps of every point in our body, as well as the space around the body. An important theme of the book is that body maps in the brain can account for a range of experiences and perception. These recent findings offer scientific explanations for many phenomena, including phantom limbs, syndromes in which stroke patients neglect one side of the body, etc. More importantly for us, the authors suggest the possibility for neurobiological explanation of many alternative therapies, including aura, Reiki, and energy therapy.
Our brains and bodies use the maps to translate incoming sensory signals into meaningful information. To act efficiently, our brains need to locate objects in the space around our bodies and need to hold a constantly updated report on the body’s shape and posture. This requires an integrated neural representation of the body (the body schema) and of the space around the body (peripersonal space). Peripersonal space refers to the space immediately surrounding our bodies, which can be reached by our limbs. By integrating multisensory (visual-auditory-tactile) cues around the body, the peripersonal space system provides information about the position of objects in the surrounding environment with respect to the body. Research has found that brain cells become active as objects approach the space around the body. Peripersonal space can be seen and experienced in the way that we are able to use tools or instruments. When we are playing tennis, the racquet seems to be part of our hand. When Andre Rieu plays his violin, he became one with the instrument.
The space around us is real and can be sensed. Tai Chi and Qi Gong practitioners train their body with their relationship to their peripersonal space, with the goal of uniting the mind, body and intention. We can observe that when two people juggle or dance together, they plan and execute their actions together, sharing their peripersonal space mapped by each other’s brain2.
Scientists never believe the ideas that our bodies are surrounded by the energy fields giving rise to aura, and have never been able to detect this kind of energy. However, some people could really experience auras. The Blakeslees hypothesized that people who can visualize aura is a natural construct of the parietal lobe. People seeing aura is believed to be a natural product of the cross-wired brain. Auras can be due to a flexible body map and a blending of peripersonal space and colour and any other sense. The fact that our body and peripersonal space are very flexible provides a new scientific understanding of this phenomena.
Recent research also suggested that our peripersonal space can be extended into a space where an imagined posture would take us3. There are clear advantages of representing the ‘‘space’’ of an imagined posture. For example, before performing an action, an individual may imagine it to learn about its feasibility (‘‘Can I reach that box on the top shelf?’’). In many movement therapies employing imagery such as Ideokinesis and Alexander technique, guided imagery actually exploited our brain to think of a better posture.
Peripersonal space can be harnessed to treat and cure human illness, which is the basis of many alternative therapies. This idea has been accepted in many cultures around the world. The flexibility of our body maps and peripersonal space maybe the key to understanding how various “touch” therapies work.
The Blakeslees wrote1:
“In traditions of healing touch — shamanic healing, energy healing, universal life energy, Reiki, and scores of other healing practices around the world — practitioners use a combination of visual imagery, motor imagery, and gestures to merge their own peripersonal space sense with that of their patients. It might involve laying on hands, manipulating the vitalistic energy fields believed to suffuse and surround the body, or passing magnets or crystals over special body points called chakras. The experience, both for the healers and their patients is quite real: both can often literally feel the shifting of the energetic currents or fields they believe are there.”
“The scientific method has never been able to confirm that qi flows or other mystical vital energies are real and present in the mind and body. Yet the experiences of these things are so palpable for so many people that it would be a cop-out to dismiss them out of hand as ‘nothing more than’ wishful thinking. Perhaps science, having banished these energies from the account of reality, can nonetheless explain the sensory awareness that people have of them. The brain’s touch, movement, and peripersonal space maps go far in explaining many key elements of these beliefs and experiences.”
In various touch modalities, such as Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Polarity or Craniosacral therapy, we can feel and experience the “energy” from a therapist, the warm sensation, and sometimes can tell where the therapist’s hand (even when the therapists didn’t touch any parts of our skin). This energy can induce powerful sensations in the body, and the sensations we feel are a combination of the flexibility of our body map to reach out to the therapists. It is also due to what we believe is happening. Healing works because the body and mind is flexible and creative. The power of placebos, expectation and belief are potent form of medicine. Skeptics tend to think that this is all imaginary. However, since our body maps actually extend out into the space around us, we probably really can sense the person really close to us doing energetic touch.1,2
Peripersonal space is physically mapped in the brain’s parietal and frontal lobes. The motor intentions are within that space. Studies using functional MRI (fMRI) imaging technique showed that parietal and frontal areas are involved in the representation of peripersonal space4. (fMRI is an imaging scan that shows the blood flows response related to neural activity in the brain).
Using various bodywork modalities, we can actually direct and manipulate this peripersonal space, because the experience is represented also in the brain. Sarah and Matthew Blakeslee hypothesized that using fMRI imaging on the frontal lobes, we might be able to see the effect of Reiki or therapeutic touch.
A study by Jeanne Achterberg has investigated the effect of healing in 20055. She and her colleagues recruited 11 healers, each was asked to select a person they had worked with previously with distant intentionality, and with whom they felt an empathic, compassionate bond. Each recipient was placed in a fMRI scanner and was isolated from the healer. The healers sent forms of distant intentionality related to their own healing practices (including Reiki) at two-minute random intervals that could not be anticipated by the recipient. Significant differences between the experimental (send) and control (no send) conditions were found. There are areas of the brain that were activated during the send periods. This study suggests that remote, compassionate, healing intentions can exert measurable effects on the recipient and that an empathic connection between the healer and the recipient is a vital part of the process.5
While this study does not suggest the effect on peripersonal space, it opens up for a neurobiological explanation for many of the alternative therapies.
There are two implications of these findings for bodyworkers: first, that there is a possibility of a scientific explanation of the mechanism of touch therapies and other energetic work from a neurological point of view. The second is that when we are working on a body, we are also working on and affecting their peripersonal space and mind.
The author here does not pretend to fully understand about the brain and neurology, there’s probably an oversimplification of the matter. However the point is that we should not get stuck in pseudoscience explanation of many of the energetic therapy but we should try to advance the science figuring out the real mechanism.
Many mainstream scientists are also interested in trying to find out the mechanisms of alternative therapies. Paul Tofts, a professor in medical imaging, in the book “Quantitative MRI of the Brain” stated: “The Placebo effect is phenomenon considered very powerful in medicine, and yet the mechanism of action (for alternative treatments) is not fully understood. With quantitative MRI we may be in a position to objectively record responses to such treatments.”
Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran in his book “Phantoms in the Brain” wrote: The message preached by New Age gurus contains important insights into the human organism – ones that deserve scientific scrutiny…. We should not reject an idea as outlandish simply because you can’t think of a mechanism that explains it…. Finally we should not have blind faith in the “wisdom of the east” but there are sure to be many nuggets of insight in these ancient practices. Unless we conduct proper “western-style” experiments, we’ll never know which ones work and which one doesn’t.
More importantly the implication of peripersonal space for bodyworker is summarised by Keith Eric Grant6:
“There are features and reactions of the body that are not explicitly physical, but stem from the immense pattern-matching and mapping processes of our brain. In some cases, what we perceive might be both a mapping of the peripersonal space and a mapping from one sensory mode to another…. The bottom line is that, as humans, we are neurologically wired to respond to and be part of the sensory world immediately surrounding us. As massage practitioners, this opens the door to helping our fellow humans cope with transitions and traumas, and for sharing their joys. Our emotions map into our body, but just as surely, our bodily experiences map into our emotions.”
1 S. Blakeslee, M. Blaskeslee. The Mind Has a Body of Its Own. 2007. Random House.
2 G. Campbell, Brain Science Podcast, Episode #21 Discussion of the book, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee. Aired September 22, 2007.
3C.C. Davoli, R.A. Abrams. Reaching Out With the Imagination. Psychological Science, 20 (2009), 293-295.
4Makin, T.R., Holmes, N.P., & Zohary, E. Is that near my hand? Multisensory representation of peripersonal space in human intraparietal sulcus. Journal of Neuroscience, 27 (2007), 731–740.
5J. Achterberg, K. Cooke, T. Richards, L. Standish, L. Kozak and J. Lake. Evidence for correlations between distant intentionality and brain function in recipients: a functional magnetic resonance imaging analysis, J Altern Complement Med 11 (2005), pp. 965–971.
6K.E. Grant. Mapping Body into Motion. Massage Today June, 2008, Vol. 08, Issue 06.