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The Science

The Neuroscience Behind Movement is Medicine®

Movement is Medicine® (MIM) classes begin with a somatic meditation that gradually and safely increases body awareness and connects the attendee with their body sensations. Once fully grounded and connected with the body, Emma guides attendees to release the emotions that have been brought to the surface through embodied dancing. During this embodied dance movement Emma encourages attendees to get into flow, to stay out of their head (the thinking mind) by keeping their eyes close. This is so that the person is not concerned with how the movement looks, but rather keep their focus on how it feels. This allows the body to take over and move intuitively into a state of flow. This process is a type of neuromodulation which results in neuroplastic changes in the brain. What does this mean and how does that happen?


The human body interprets the internal and external world through complex, but marvellously efficient, electrical networks. The most basic building blocks of our nervous system are its cells, which are called neurons. There are billions of neurons in each human being. Neurons ‘talk’ to each other using electrical pulses that trigger chemicals, called neurotransmitters, to be released which help the ‘receiving’ neuron ‘know’ what to do. In essence, neurotransmitters tell neurons whether they should fire up, quieten down, or change their behaviour in some way. In a matter of milliseconds, information fires up and down through the body after first making sense of a stimulus and deciding whether or not anything needs to be done about it and also initiating any required action.  
 

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Neuromodulation

 

Neuromodulation is the term used to describe any process used to ‘hack’ the nervous system to change how the neurons are firing with the aim of achieving a different outcome. 

Think about when you bang your elbow -you rub it and you notice the painful sensation easing. That happens because you’ve given your nervous system something new to process, i.e. the sensation of the area being rubbed. So the neurons that are responsible for ‘normal’ or ’pleasant’ sensation take over and ‘drown’ out the noise of the neurons responsible for the pain. 

MIM® is working in a similar way. Emma guides attendees to focus on each body part, with a purpose. Not only is the attention brought there, but guided physical touch is an essential component to activate the neural pathways. Attendees intuitively tap, massage or gently rub each body part in tempo with a curated music playlist. Sensory circuits (in this case touch and hearing) bring information back to the brain, and motor circuits then send information to muscles and glands instructing the body to move.

 

These circuits pass up and down through the limbic system, which is the part of the brain involved in our behavioural and emotional responses. The relevance of this is that the limbic system drives the behaviours humans need for survival, e.g., feeding, reproduction, caring for our young, and ‘fight or flight’ responses. ‘Fight or flight’ responses, which also include freezing and fawning, are a result of the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Trauma is not stored in the conscious mind (the higher processing part of the brain called the cortex). Trauma is stored in the subconscious mind and in the body.

 

During the MIM® class the attendee is guided to calm the sympathetic nervous system to shift from ‘fight or flight’ and move to an empowered, self-regulated state. 

Those who practise these techniques consistently are taking advantage of one of the best features of the human nervous system - a feature called neuroplasticity. This is the technical term to describe the fact that the nervous system can learn, and be re-wired to behave differently with repetition.

 

Neuroplasticity is what is being exploited during physical rehabilitation practices following brain injuries, like stroke. There’s an old saying in neuroscience that says ‘neurons that fire together wire together’. New neuronal pathways are created by teaching the body, even specific parts of the body, that it is now safe in this moment, and older ‘trauma-response’ pathways lose their charge and no longer become the ‘default’ response.  

In this way you could consider MIM® as a type of biohacking. 
 

Role of Neurotransmitters

 

Each part of the human body has its own nerves (bundles of neurons) which receive sensory signals. This is why Emma guides attendees to work all the way through the body. As Emma guides her attendees a cascade of electrical and chemical reactions occur. The main neurotransmitters responsible for the results achieved from a MIM® class are acetylcholine and serotonin. 

Acetylcholine is the chief neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for ‘rest and digest’. It is released when the vagus nerve is activated. The vagus nerve is a very long and very complex nerve, which is also the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve runs from the brain through the face and chest to the abdomen. 

Serotonin impacts every part of your body, from your emotions to your motor skills. Serotonin is considered a natural mood stabiliser. It’s also the chemical that helps with sleeping, eating, and digesting. Serotonin is known to reduce depression, regulate anxiety, heal wounds, stimulate nausea, and maintain bone health. 95% of serotonin in the human body is made in the gut and the rest is made in the brainstem, the part of the commonly called the reptilian brain. Serotonin is released during exercise, massage, listening to music, during meditation and also during supportive touch. MIM® brings together all these practices to help release the so-called ‘happy hormone’.

Other relevant chemical messengers which will be involved to a lesser extent include, the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenaline (also known as norepinephrine), and the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.

Dopamine, known to be the pleasure / reward chemical, helps with motivation when our system recognises the ‘nice’ feelings from a particular behaviour, motivating us to do more of that behaviour. When the behaviour is healthy, like exercise, this chemical encourages us to do more of it, but unfortunately if a ‘reward’ is felt by a behaviour that may not be so healthy for us, e.g. gambling or substance abuse, then we may be motivated to do more of that too. That is why it is important to steer clear of chemicals which over-flood our system with dopamine, e.g. cocaine. The key is to find activities which raise it in a healthy way. Luckily MIM® classes do just that, by combining activities known to improve dopamine levels, such as exercise, meditation and music. 

Noradrenaline is made from dopamine and is part of your sympathetic nervous system (responsible for ‘fight or flight’). During acute stress it will cause your pupils to dilate, increase your blood pressure and tell your blood to be diverted to your muscles, preparing you to fight or run away. Noradrenaline will also tell your adrenal glands, on your kidneys, to release the hormone adrenaline. 

Adrenaline is the hormone which helps to regulate our organ function to prepare us for ‘fight or flight’. Along with the body’s main stress hormone,

 

Cortisol, which is also made in the adrenal glands it is very effective at keeping us safe during times of acute stress. The problems start when people have low levels of chronic stress, keeping these chemicals artificially elevated. They can wreak havoc if an individual doesn’t learn how to regulate the nervous system back to a state of calm and safety. 

The brain–gut axis is the common name for the link between the enteric nervous system (gut) and the central nervous system (brain & spinal cord). Over recent years it has become increasingly important as a therapeutic target for mood disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Think of butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous or having to use the bathroom when you’re anxious, even though you just went. By stimulating this complex pathway in a safe and guided process attendees are hacking their chemical systems naturally, to deliver positive outcomes to both physical and emotional health. The interplay of all these complex systems that occur during a MIM® class helps the individual to have much better control over their body, rather than being victim to cascades of chemical reactions. Hack your way to a peaceful day!

Credit: 

Dawn Harris MPH (Dist), BSc Neuroscience (Hons) 
Research Manager

Dawn Harris has an MPH (University of Sheffield) and a BSc (Hons) Neuroscience (University College Cork) with a special interest in behaviour change. Dawn has two decades of experience in academic and clinical research, and she also has extensive experience working within the neuromodulation field of the medical device industry. She has lived in Australia, Hawaii, Scotland and Ireland, but now calls Brighton home. Dawn loves yoga, paddle-boarding, walking her dog and travelling.

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For more information about Dawn visit: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-1410-4332