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Massage Today
December, 2010, Vol. 10, Issue 12

What About My Brain?

Staying Mentally Fit

By Sharon Puszko, PhD, LMT

Being a massage therapist, I am aware of how my body sometimes feels, in terms of muscle soreness, fatigue, illness or general aches and pains, since all of these symptoms can affect my ability to work.

Recently, after an extended period of traveling in which I became quite sleep deprived, I began to focus on the other aspects of our health: the mental component of it. After all, without our brain functioning properly, none of our muscles would function properly, either. Information on keeping our brain healthy has increased dramatically over the past 10 years, as advances in medical equipment have helped scientists learn more about how this mysterious organ works. Recent research has demonstrated that one's exercise, diet, sleep, and career can impact the health of one's brain. There is also growing consensus in the medical community that certain choices about exercise and diet can impact the likelihood of being challenged with memory problems and Alzheimer's disease.

brain - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Sleep On It

A study headed up by Matthew Walker, PhD, director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, examined how sleep, specifically, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, impacts our ability to read emotions in other people's faces. In the study, recently reported in Time magazine, 36 adult volunteers were asked to interpret the facial expressions of people in photographs, following either a 60-minute nap, 90-minute nap or no nap at all. Participants who had reached REM sleep (when vivid dreaming mostly occur) during their nap were better able to identify expressions of positive emotions like happiness in other people than participants who did not achieve REM sleep or did not nap at all. In fact, those volunteers who did not experience REM sleep, were more sensitive to negative expressions such as anger and fear.

According to Walker, dreaming (REM sleep) allows the brain to sift through that day's events, process any negative emotion attached to them, then strip it away from the memories: "(REM sleep) tries to ameliorate the sharp emotional chips and dents that life gives you along the way." Walker continues, "Sleep not only rights the wrong of prolonged wakefulness but, at a neurocognitive level, it moves you beyond where you were before you took a nap."1

So, what does all this mean to you? Our success as massage therapists largely depends on our ability to perceive and connect with our client's emotional state during a massage. If a client does not feel a "connection" with his therapist, he is less likely to benefit from the massage, and less likely to return to that therapist. Likewise, the more connection a client feels with his therapist, the more likely he is to become a repeat client, and the more likely he is to recommend massage to someone else. Therefore, going to bed one hour earlier, or taking a quick nap during the day really can have an impact on the success of your business.

Move It

We all know the importance of exercise for maintaining a healthy weight and healthy heart, increasing the longevity of life and improving the quality of sleep. It now appears that exercise also effects the brain, in particular the regions that relate to Alzheimer's. In August 2010, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published findings from research led by Dr. Art Kramer at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. The research team was interested in examining the effect of exercise on neural connectivity between regions of the brain that function together in a kind of "network". For example, the default mode network (DMN) is responsible for people passively engaging with their environment, such as day-dreaming. The DMN and other similar networks seem to lose activity with age, and Kramer's research has shown that the brains of people with Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, and older adults struggle to control the DMN. This study demonstrated that just moderate exercise (40 minutes a day, three times per week), can increase connectivity in the DMN, which aids with planning, strategizing and multitasking.2

It is beginning to seem like the benefits of exercise are endless! While some are vigilant about exercising regularly, others are easily bored by it. For those of you who aren't fans of working out in the traditional manner, there are plenty alternative activities that will not only exercise your body, but ALSO your brain! The following are some great activities (found in a recent article "Everyday Ways to Stay Sharp"):

  1. Ballroom dancing. Dancing is a brain-power activity. It calms the brain's response to stress, and learning new moves activates centers that form new neural connections.
  2. Play video games? That's right, video games. Video games, such as the Wii offer brain teasers that make you learn the computer's interface as well as play sports. It offers games that help form new neural connections and help to improve response time and memory.
  3. Switch up your environment. Plant new flowers in front of your house; rearrange furniture; re-organize your kitchen cabinets. Alterations such as these can change motor pathways in the brain and encourage new cell growth, as well as provide physical activity.
  4. Tour the neighborhood. If your neighborhood is growing, check it out. The exploration will change your mental map of the neighborhood. Along with learning new routes to the grocery store, your favorite restaurant or your children's school, you'll forge new neural pathways in your brain.

To Read or Not to Read?

That is the question. There seems to be good reason our educators thrust British Literature upon us in high school. We have known for a long time that reading keeps the brain active and encourages good writing skills. However, we now know that reading Shakespeare has a particular effect on the brain that goes beyond the normal benefits. New studies link Shakespeare's linguistic technique known as "functional shift" (e.g. using a noun to serve as a verb) with positive brain stimulation. This process causes a sudden peak in brain activity and forces the brain to work differently in order to fully understand what Shakespeare is trying to say.

According to Philip Davis, an English professor at the University of Liverpool, "The brain reacts to reading a phrase such as 'he godded me' from the tragedy of Coriolanus, in a similar way to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. If it is easy to see which pieces slot together you become bored of the game, but if the pieces don't appear to fit, when we know they should, the brain becomes excited."4

With that information in mind, I would recommend inquiring at your public library about any Shakespeare book clubs. If you have the financial means, and a community college nearby, you could consider taking a literature class on Shakespeare. OMG, there is so much I can do to work on my brain! There are many more things one can do to keep the brain healthy and active: switch hands when writing or play sports, do crossword puzzles, eat well, journal, and just play.

We have just recently begun to understand the relationship between our external environment and its effect on the brain. It is an exciting area of study, especially when thinking about the connection between wellness and brain function. I look forward to learning more about the link between massage and brain function, and the possibilities it will lead to in our profession.


  1. Sharples T. "Wish Fulfillment? No. But Dreams Do Have Meaning." Time Magazine, June 15, 2009.
  2. Yates D. "Attention, Couch Potatoes! Walking Boosts Brain Connectivity, Function." University of Illinois. Press Release 8/26/10.
  3. Boerner H. "Everyday Ways To Stay Sharp." Aug. 18, 2008.
  4. Reading Shakespeare Has Dramatic Effect On Human Brain" University of Liverpool. Press Release: Dec. 18, 2006.

Click here for more information about Sharon Puszko, PhD, LMT.


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