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Massage Today
June, 2008, Vol. 08, Issue 06

Mapping Body Into Motion

By Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB

"I found that when I made certain expressions, I was flooded with strong emotional sensations. It wasn't just any expression, only the ones I had already identified as universal to all human beings. ... Over the next ten years, we did four experiments, including one in a non-Western culture, the Minangkabau of Western Sumatra.

When peopled followed our instructions about which muscles to move, their physiology changed and most reported feeling the emotion. Again, it wasn't just any facial movement that produced this change. They had to make the muscular movements that our earlier research had found were universal expressions of emotion."3

There is a deep and seemingly inherent connection between our bodies and our emotions. Based on more than 40 years of research into human emotions, Paul Ekman characterizes many of our emotional responses as unconscious reactions to triggers that affect (or may have once affected) our welfare.3 Some are inherent, but the differences in individual responses to similar situations indicate many are learned. Ekman and his colleagues discovered that the process of mentally revisiting events from memory retriggered the emotions and bodily responses (such as increased heartbeat, blood pressure, respiration and sweating) that occurred during the original event. The memory "movies" we run in our heads - the events we habitually revisit in our mind's eye - have profound effects on the state of our bodies.

Perhaps even more interesting, from the perspective of massage practice, Ekman found that making various facial expressions would bring forth strong emotional responses. The associations between the expressions and the emotions were observed to be universal across cultures, indicating they are an intrinsic part of how we are "wired" as human beings. There is thus strong support from research that the muscles we activate and the bodily sensations we experience are as much generators of our emotional state as our emotions are influencers of our bodily state.

The ability to positively affect emotions via massage appears to have an extensive foundation in the research literature. In a meta-analysis of previous massage literature, Moyer reported consistent emotional benefits.5 "Reductions of trait anxiety and depression following a course of treatment were MT's largest effects. The average MT participant experienced a reduction of trait anxiety that was greater than 77 percent of comparison group participants, and a reduction of depression that was greater than 73 percent of comparison group participants."

Similarly, in a previous column, "Searching for Medical Massage" (October 2005), I noted that a large number of applications of massage in a medical context were reporting psychological and emotional benefits leading to increased well-being.4

In their recent book, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee report on neurological research that touches on the mechanisms of such body-mind interactions. The research concerns both how the mind creates our inherent sense of our body and how we map the space immediately around our body into extensions of our body. For example, we use tools as if they were actual parts of our body, extending our sense of touch to include our tool's contact with the outside world. Such mapping may form the scientific basis for the "connection" of touch and for the healing powers of touch.2

"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."2

The Blakeslee's accounts of body maps are in congruence with my own observations from multiple forays into research. 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. Abbott, for example, reports recent research on mirror-touch synesthesia, in which a touch seen literally is felt by the observer.1

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. Abbott A. "Ouch, I Saw That." Nature, June 17, 2007.
  2. Blakeslee S, Blakeslee M. The Body Has a Mind of Its Own. New York: Random House, 2007.
  3. Ekman P. Emotions Revealed. New York: Henry Holt, 2003, p. 36.
  4. Grant K. "Searching for Medical Massage." Massage Today, October 2005.
  5. Moyer CA, Rounds J, Hannum JW. A meta-analysis of massage therapy research." Psychological Bulletin;130(1):3-18.

Click here for previous articles by Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB.


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