Feeding your homuculus - principles (part 3)
We already talked about the importance of the homunculus for optimal movement and performance (see here and here). Now let us look at some strategies for feeding the homunculus. Call them recipes if you want. There’s a whole spectrum of movements, ranging from low to high quality food. Let’s look at some of the things to consider:
1. new and varied movements
Your homunculus will appreciate new movements. Look at it this way: if you want to map a territory, you would not only look at the environment from one position, you would like to walk around in it, and if possible, you would not just walk along one path, but you would choose different paths, to get different points of view and to get in depth knowledge of that territory. Same thing goes for mapping your body: new and varied movements give in depth knowledge. The movements you already do, don’t give more information, they only confirm what you already now. I like to use ‘movement explorations’ with my patients (see below).
2. no (or low) threat movements
You want these movements to be safe and relatively pain-free. If a movement is somehow threatening* to your CNS, it will switch to a ‘protect-mode’. Protection causes tense, fixed, restricted, reflexive, sometimes stereotype, sometimes unpredictable movements. While being protective, they do not increase the amount of information for your homunculus. These movements are at the opposite side of the spectrum of new, varied and explorative behaviour.
If you introduce new movement forms, it would be advisable to start gently and increase the threat (load, repetitions, fatigue, complexity, volume but also context, mental stressors …). They don’t have to be challenging, but they surely can! Working at the edge of your ability (hat tip Gray Cook) is fine.
If you’re already in pain, you don’t want to experience more pain. For people with musculoskeletal problems (who are already in a protection-mode), new movements and varied movement forms can be a bit threatening, just because they are new! This really is a topic that needs its own series of blogs, but meanwhile, I highly recommend the work of Lorimer Moseley. A good starting point could be these youtube videos. A bit (much) of further reading here
The amount of threat is relative to the state of the organism. Strong and pain-free people can add some threat, because their protection systems are in ‘code green’: high threshold of activation. If you’re operating in ‘code red’ (low threshold of activation of protective measures), stay away from threats, even small ones.
3. whole body engagement and full range of motion.
Very simple, if you use your whole body you will get enormous amounts of data being sent to your homunculus. And, leave no stone unturned: not only use all of your joints and muscles, but in their full ranges of motion.
4. slow movements
Slow movements allow more proprioceptive input and more awareness. They also decrease the possible threat. If you want to map that territory, you would not speed through it, would you?
5. biomechanically sound
It seems obvious, but biomechanically sound movements are preferable. It is just a corollary to the new and varied movement rule: not all that is new and varied is safe and sound. This does not mean that there is only one right way to move, but there sure are a lot of ways not to move (for a given person, in a given situation)! Again, movement exploration is the term I use a lot: let people move in varied ways, and let them feel, explore, experience. Trust our innate bodily intelligence. But start these explorations on safe territory, within the boundaries of safe biomechanics.
Natural is a dangerous word, but in the case of movements, I use the term for biomechanically sound, species specific, and biologically logic movements. Biologically logic means in accordance with our natural past, with what our genes expect, and recognisable by and meaningful for our ‘wild’ ancestors. A latissimus pull down with a machine versus you climbing on a tree branch. Also, abstract mobility exercises are not the same as practical and useful movements. Natural movement also enhances variety and all-round movement qualities.
7. playful and fun
Playful and fun movements cause non-threatening, varied, exploratory movement behaviour. And they enhance frequent repetition and higher volume of feeding, just because they are fun.
Loading of the body causes huge excitation of proprioceptors! Just make sure to use biomechanically sound and non-threatening loads. Only load your body (heavily) if you ‘own’ the movement.
9. engagement of skin
Ah, the skin! So much to say about our biggest organ and our largest sensory apparatus. Stimulating the skin is food for the homunculus. Movements that have more skin involvement could be interesting: rolling and other floor movements, bare-chested movement in the forest undergrowth, grappling with a partner, swimming and diving … (insert obligatory joke about that most natural, playful, fun, varied, non-threatening, whole body engaging and sensuous act of procreation).
This principle (of skin stimulation as homunculus food) could explain a lot, at least partially: positive effects of massage, manual mobilisations, taping, braces, trigger point treatment, foam rolling, swimming, applying a certain gel to a painful area, heat and cold therapy, … Food for another blog, I guess.
10. engagement of hands and feet
This is time to remember the reader that some of the above is speculative. And especially this point is really only a hypothesis. Look at the homunculus once again: huge mouth and tongue, very big hands and substantial feet. I hypothesise that the bigger the central representation, the more we need to feed these parts.
Let us look at the feet first: Most people do not stimulate their feet enough. Somebody calls shoes sensory deprivation boxes, which, of course, they are. Free your feet, feed your homunculus. Anecdotal evidence shows that people experience musculoskeletal benefits when being barefoot. Maybe the homunculus is one of the reasons why.
Look at it like this: the rest of your body may have very good central representations, but if you are doing an activity on your feet, it could be that the suboptimal state of the feet of your homunculus makes your motor output suboptimal too. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Your CNS will not go all out if it doesn’t know the situation of one of its body parts.
But, George Orwell already knew, some links in the chain are more equal than others. Having suboptimal representations of the feet is like navigating a ship with a map missing a huge part. Even if the rest of the map is good, you cannot use that one part. Upon entering those parts of the territory, you will be restrained, and not sail full speed. Same with your body, I hypothesize.
Although most people use their hands quite a bit during the day, maybe our hands could use some more varied movement? Hanging from a branch, gripping a stone axe, supporting oneself while crawling, carrying a butchered animal, hitting a drum. But also gently handling and caressing a baby, making clothes, crafting beautiful jewellery. The hands do it all. Probably one of the most important body parts, evolutionary speaking. Do you use them fully?
I do not know of any evidence, scientifically of anecdotally, but the reasoning of the weakest link in the chain could also be useful here. Maybe some of the CRPS (chronic regional pain syndrome) research could apply here?
11. lots of movement, frequently.
This is where the food metaphor goes askew. Our homunculus needs quite a lot of movement, and frequently. Our homunculus needs snacks, maybe even is a grazer. Our real, human organism does not need this frequent feeding.
I probably should not remind the reader that frequency and intensity have an inverse relationship: heavy, loaded, explosive, high impact, and intense movements should be done less frequent then light, unloaded, gentle, and smooth ones.
As with all complex, biological systems, you cannot look at these strategies as independent variables.
Movement is the major form of information. Static postures don’t give that much information, because the activity of a neuron depends upon the change of excitation and not the length of the excitation. A constant excitation will end up shutting down all sensory information. A variety of excitation is what we want. So moving from one position to another can certainly be useful, especially if those postures are different than the ones you do in your daily life or sport.
There are still a lot of things to write about the homunculus. In the next post about this subject, I will provide some of the homunculus feeding strategies I use in my clinical practice.
Thanks for reading,
*Threat does not imply a conscious, literally threatening stimulus. See link to Lorimer Moseley.
picture credits: Herman Damar