Brain, Toes, and Fingers: Clues About How They Connect

Baby holding feet, curling toes and fingers
Baby holding feet, curling fingers and toes

Brain, Toes, and Fingers: Clues About How They Connect

Highlights [bolding below is by editor here]

  • There are systematic but distinct patterns of confusion between fingers and toes.
  • Idiosyncrasies in patterns of tactile confusion are shared between fingers and toes.
  • Tactile confusions likely arise from high-level representations of the body.
  • Shared confusions may be a result of a common representation of fingers and toes.

Note by editor: important for us as Tai Chi Chuan practitioners is that there are innate connections between toes and fingers. The article is also studying pathology (“confusion”) between toes and fingers, but for us, the natural brain connection of toes and fingers is information that is more essential, and points to a fundamental of Tai Chi Chuan practice for most effective movement integrating brain and body.

Abstract

There are many similarities and differences between the human hands and feet. On a psychological level, there is some evidence from clinical disorders and studies of tactile localisation in healthy adults for deep functional connections between the hands and feet.

One form these connections may take is in common high-level mental representations of the hands and feet. Previous studies have shown that there are systematic, but distinct patterns of confusion found between both the fingers and toes. Further, there are clear individual differences between people in the exact patterns of mislocalisations.

Here, we investigated whether these idiosyncratic differences in tactile localisation are shared between the fingers and toes, which may indicate a shared high-level representation. We obtained confusion matrices showing the pattern of mislocalisation on the hairy skin surfaces of both the fingers and toes.

Using a decoding approach, we show that idiosyncratic differences in individuals’ pattern of confusions are shared across the fingers and toes, despite different overall patterns of confusions. These results suggest that there is a common representation of the fingers and toes.

Read more of the original article

Three Core Principles of Tai Chi Chuan, for an Endless Path of Growth

Practicing Tai Chi Chuan peacefully on the beach
Practicing Tai Chi Chuan peacefully on the beach

Three Core Principles of Tai Chi Chuan, for an Endless Path of Growth

When practicing Tai Chi Chuan, it can be important to step back at times and revisit: why am I practicing this? and what attitude or understanding will allow me to accomplish the purposes or goals for which I practice Tai Chi Chuan?

As an answer for these questions, I am going to outline three core principles of Tai Chi Chuan. I offer these after 45 years of Tai Chi Chuan practice and teaching, and other meditative and active practices followed for a similar length of time. These core principles, while based on my experience, gain the most value when you the reader can make them your reality (maybe you are already doing so!), rather than only reading the concepts.

The good news is that we arrive at the destination with each step on the path, meaning that even a beginner can create benefits for themselves as they start to concentrate on the essence of Tai Chi Chuan. In a sense, we are always at the beginning moment of our next journey.

So, here are fundamental principles that describe three essential aspects of Tai Chi Chuan practice:

  • Action originates in the brain, and expresses in the toes and fingers. Every other part of the body stays loose and free in order to fully support the brain’s determination as expressed in our toes’ connection to the Earth and our fingers’ extension through the air. The whole foot supports the action of the toes, and the whole hand supports the action of the fingers.

  • Fulfilling function of body / brain requires both a deep release, and an awake energizing. With only release, we cannot accomplish our goals and may experience depression. With only energizing, we cannot enjoy the goals we accomplish and may experience anxiety.

  • The language of the brain is fundamentally frictionless and spacious. When we drop the conflicting mind and its associated tensions, the language of the brain can be perceived by others and by oneself, and we can accomplish and enjoy more with less stress.

I will be writing more about each of these three principles, to clarify how they are part of everyday life for all of us.

With practice, we are on an endless path of growth. May we all share in and enjoy the benefits of this practice.

Research on Blood Pressure Benefits of Tai Chi Chuan

Twenty years ago, it was commonly understood that science had not seriously studied the benefits of Tai Chi Chuan, so reports of  its benefits were mostly anecdotal or personal opinions. Benefits for balance and prevention of falls were the earliest studies done, but that ignored other beneficial effects such as on mental state, cholesterol levels, sugar levels (related to diabetes), and blood pressure.

Research on Tai Chi Chuan however has expanded greatly. In this short article, I will describe some of the research on lowering of blood pressure and keeping it in a healthy range. There are numerous research articles concerning blood pressure in peer-reviewed journals and by prestigious organizations such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I will provide a few links at the end of this article for those who would like to read selected research.

I have mentioned in my Tai Chi Chuan classes that typical exercises described as cardiovascular exercise in this country are focused on raising the heart rate. There is even an ideal, target heart rate recommended by age. Although such activity can be helpful due to impact on bones and muscles, including the heart, they may not have as much influence as hoped for on other processes such as blood pressure and cholesterol.

The problem with the fast-heart strategy used as a blanket or universal approach is that for all but the youngest or healthiest individuals, there is significant risk that the heart is being forced to pump hard while working against the tension of a non-optimal circulatory system. This can put the heart at risk of strain. The circulatory system is indeed exactly that, a system: the heart, arteries, and veins all need to work together for true circulatory health.

There are muscles lining the walls of our arteries and veins, and those muscles are an important part of our circulation. Wherever there are muscles, there are also nerves, hormones, and other internal factors that control how well the muscles work. Strangely, many articles on circulation omit the active role of arteries and veins in helping blood circulate. However, Lumen Learning spells it out: “Blood primarily moves through the body by the rhythmic movement of smooth muscle in the vessel wall and by the action of the skeletal muscle as the body moves.”

The deep release and energy shifts of Tai Chi Chuan help circulation in a holistic, systemic way. One study shows Tai Chi Chuan practice as significantly more effective in lowering blood pressure and lowering bad cholesterol levels than aerobic exercises. Other articles show a similar effect of aerobics and Tai Chi Chuan practice. The studies do not attempt to ensure that the Tai Chi Chuan practice is done optimally, so perhaps with an experienced teacher even better results would be observed. Tai Chi Chuan practice over a longer period of time than in the research studies would also likely be beneficial.

Over the years, I have gained increasing awareness of and respect for our amazing human mind / body system. For overall health, holistic practices that improve the well-being of brain and body in an integrated manner are vital; such practices can lead to enduring mental and physical health benefits. The evidence continues to accumulate that Tai Chi Chuan is perfectly placed to contribute to practitioners’ mental and physical well-being.

Related links:

The Effect of Tai Chi Exercise on Blood Pressure: A Systematic Review

The beneficial effects of Tai Chi Chuan on blood pressure and lipid profile and anxiety status in a randomized controlled trial (abstract, NIH)

The Efficacy of Tai Chi and Qigong Exercises on Blood Pressure and Blood Levels of Nitric Oxide and Endothelin-1 in Patients with Essential Hypertension: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials (NIH)

Brain, toes, and fingers

Homunculus brain map, showing the relative size of body parts in the brain map of each person's body
Homunculus brain map, showing the size of the parts of the body as mapped in the adult human brain

Brain, Toes, and Fingers

When we practice the movements of the Tai Chi Chuan Short Form, we are always moving as human beings move. We are expressing our human physiology moment by moment and day by day. What changes moment to moment is the quality of our awareness of that reality.

Our mind decides to accomplish a goal, large or small, and tells the brain to initiate movement, to continue the movement, and ultimately to stop the movement. So what is different about our practice of any of the Tai Chi Chuan Forms as compared to other, everyday movements?

The primary differences are that 1) with the Form, our focus is turned inwards, and 2) there is no fixed goal compelling the movements, so the mind is free to “explore”.

In the Form, we are making the effort to move using energy rather than moving using muscles with the accompanying tension. This focus is possible because the movements are slow and are carried out attentively; and they are not done with a distracting goal in mind.

We have the chance, therefore, to focus on clearing up unwanted muscle and brain activations that do not contribute to our movements. We can start to feel our own openness and spontaneity, leading to softness, speed, and ultimately even to generosity and sensitivity to others!

There is immense impact for our brain and body that results from action taken without tension. When our willpower is focused on the moment, and the brain is enabling exactly the desired movement (or cessation of movement), excess thought and tension starts to clear away, and we can better receive the healthy energy from our innermost mind/body.

Since Tai Chi Chuan practice is based on movement of energy with full awareness and without tension, the question arises, “How can we practice and achieve that full awareness without tension?”

Here is one answer that I can offer:

Our brain naturally controls our feet and fingers. Specifically, for action we need the arch as a weight-bearing foundation and the ball of the foot and big toe (along with supporting toes) to connect to and use the ground for traction and propulsion during movement. At the same time, the fingers carry out our desired action in the air, using the support of the earth and our feet.

If somehow, through an accident or stroke, we were to lose either connection to the toes or to the fingers, our brain will inevitably start to re-wire in order to create similar points of focus and action. That is, the human brain is wired as a physically dual engine: support on the solid earth, and movement through the air.

The expansion of energy we need for effective movement can only occur when there is solid support in place from both the earth/ground and the feet that are encountering the ground. When that support is present, the fingers can expressively lead the body to follow along, accomplishing what the mind wants with its passion and determination.

A football quarterback, even when forced to move backwards, will expand against the ground in order to support throwing the football to a receiver. This is similar to the Form’s “Step Back and Repulse Monkey” movement.

Our health, physical capacity, and well-being all improve when we can release excessive mind tension-activity and instead experience the flow of feeling-energy in motion.

If you have been practicing Tai Chi Chuan for a while, and are in a centered stated of mind, if something near you starts to fall your hand will automatically reach out and catch it accurately in mid-air. On the other hand, if you are tense and “lost in thought”, that tension-free movement will not happen and the falling object may not be caught successfully.

By practicing the form slowly, turning the awareness inwards, we can start to re-connect the mind, toes, and fingers. When our proprioceptive nerve feedbback and our movements are free and connected, then our movement comes from and is experienced with our whole being, with the whole body connecting the grounding of the feet and the expansion into the fingers.

ACTION:
When practicing the form, be sure to soften the mind and body before each action, and let the toes and fingers release or soften somewhat, as part of the preparation for action. Then, when taking action, feel the energy expand into your inner arch and especially your ball-and-toe, and correspondingly into your fingers.

The activation of ball-and-toe and correspondingly the fingers is a gradual expansion of energy guided by the brain. The brain directs increasing energy into the ball-and-toes of the supporting foot, and into the fingers, carrying out the desired action of the mind/brain working together.

For effective and frictionless action, we only need to activate the toes and fingers, while the arch of the foot provides support; the rest of the body, as directed by the brain,  is relaxed while automatically expanding support for the two endpoints of toes and fingers, thus providing energy flow to accomplish the desired action to completion.

In a few words: Our mind/brain sets an intention and determination, and activates the support of the feet and the action of the fingers; the rest of the body is automatically adjusted to support those two endpoints.

Tai Chi Increases Brain Size and Benefits Cognition in Randomized Controlled Trial of Chinese Elderly

Happy brain with "hands" up

Tampa, FL (June 19, 2012) — Scientists from the University of South Florida and Fudan University in Shanghai found increases in brain volume and improvements on tests of memory and thinking in Chinese seniors who practiced Tai Chi three times a week, reports an article published today in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Findings were based on an 8-month randomized controlled trial comparing those who practiced Tai Chi to a group who received no intervention. The same trial showed increases in brain volume and more limited cognitive improvements in a group that participated in lively discussions three times per week over the same time period.

Previous trials have shown increases in brain volume in people who participated in aerobic exercise, and in one of these trials, an improvement in memory was seen. However, this was the first trial to show that a less aerobic form of exercise, Tai Chi, as well as stimulating discussion led to similar increases in brain volume and improvements on psychological tests of memory and thinking.

The group that did not participate in the interventions showed brain shrinkage over the same time period, consistent with what generally has been observed for persons in their 60s and 70s.

Numerous studies have shown that dementia and the syndrome of gradual cognitive deterioration that precedes it is associated with increasing shrinkage of the brain as nerve cells and their connections are gradually lost.

“The ability to reverse this trend with physical exercise and increased mental activity implies that it may be possible to delay the onset of dementia in older persons through interventions that have many physical and mental health benefits,” said lead author Dr. James Mortimer, professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health.

Research suggests that aerobic exercise is associated with increased production of brain growth factors. It remains to be determined whether forms of exercise like Tai Chi that include an important mental exercise component could lead to similar changes in the production of these factors. “If this is shown, then it would provide strong support to the concept of “use it or lose it” and encourage seniors to stay actively involved both intellectually and physically,” Dr. Mortimer said.

One question raised by the research is whether sustained physical and mental exercise can contribute to the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common dementing illness.

“Epidemiologic studies have shown repeatedly that individuals who engage in more physical exercise or are more socially active have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Mortimer said. “The current findings suggest that this may be a result of growth and preservation of critical regions of the brain affected by this illness.”

Source: James A. Mortimer, Ding Ding, Amy R. Borenstein, Charles DeCarli, Qihao Guo, Yougui Wu, Qianhua Zhao, Shugang Chu. Changes in Brain Volume and Cognition in a Randomized Trial of Exercise and Social Interaction in a Community-Based Sample of Non-Demented Chinese EldersJournal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2012

Mind and Brain

Happy brain with "hands" up
Happy brain with "hands" up

Mind and Brain

For purposes of discussion, we will for now separate our mental function into two parts: the software or “mind,” and the hardware or “brain.”

Rather than being totally discrete from each other, they overlap and are closely connected, but we can speak of the mind as that aspect of ourselves which gives orders to the underlying brain, while the brain is that aspect which carries out the actions the mind requests, by controlling the movements of the body.

The mind is essential for living in this world. The mind tells us to eat when we are hungry but before we do so, to finish a meeting that we are in the middle of. The mind tells us to pay bills, and when to pay them; to send invoices to customers; and to prepare and file taxes, again on a certain schedule. The mind lets us choose and reserve hotels and transportation if we are preparing for travel. And so on.

The mind / brain connection also provides emotions to motivate and energize us in carrying out various activities.

Where the mind does NOT function well, and gets in the way, is when there are unseen messages playing over and over in an endless loop. These often intense and usually hidden messages may say, “I am no good so stay away”, or “I am great so give me respect”, or “No one will like me”, or “This pain will never change.” In body language, the message might be summarized as “Protect yourself, because you are weak” leading to muscle tension and various aches and pains.

All of these messages cause distress in the mind and body, even if we are not aware of the specific messages. Examples of the resulting sensations are anxiety or depression in the mind, and pain or excessive fatigue in the body.

Tai Chi Chuan helps the mind perceive, interrupt, and release these extra, unneeded and counter-productive mental processes so that the mind / brain connection works quickly and seamlessly, with more enjoyment and energy, and less stress and discomfort.

The process by which Tai Chi Chuan works to release unneeded mental activity is the introspective awareness that we practice, which is the reason that the Short Form is practiced slowly. The flowing movements and pulsing energy of the Short Form encourages introspection, like a moving meditation. As we gaze inside and observe ourselves, we start to heal internal divisions.

Turning the light of awareness onto the mists of our inner world helps evaporate the illusory thoughts that lead to tension and stress.

When the mind and brain work smoothly together, we can catch a falling object without even knowing how we do it. We can get through each day without painful tension and stress. And we can be more genuine with other people, and enjoy our connections with others more fully.

In a few words: turning awareness inwards to experience our own deeper processes helps the mind simplify its activity, and frees the brain and mind to collaborate and function more smoothly and energetically as one, in all aspects of life.

Nosey, Noisy Muscles and Training Your Brain

Tai Chi Chuan ward off right, showing hands

In our daily lives, most of us, even those who consider themselves relatively relaxed and stress-free, are holding a lot of muscle tension in our bodies, and corresponding tension in thoughts and feelings.

As psychologists and scientists have been exploring for well over 100 years, there is activity in the brain–feelings, worries, and so on–that cause us to create that muscle tension. And we are not even aware of the majority of that tension, since it is habitual.

Tai Chi Chuan practice is one way to gradually release that tension. By focusing on full brain / mind / body integration and action, we start to cut through our own seemingly endless loops of thought and feeling, loops that create stress and loss of simple enjoyment in our selves.

I like to call the Yang-style Short Form a framework for self-development. The reason we repeat the “same” thing over an over is that each time we do so, we are learning something new.

The Tai Chi Chuan form is never the same, even for the same person who carries it out twice in a row. Each time we practice the form, we are actively creating our experience as we move slowly and with awareness from moment to moment.

What does that mean in practical terms? How do we do this?

Ying - Yang symbolOne key is to understand and use the Yin-Yang polarity. As human beings we can never function in total release nor in total action. Life is a moment-by-moment flow between letting go and engagement, on a background that is neither one of those. That is our reality!

While practicing Tai Chi Chuan, we are connecting to and embodying that reality. And when that happens, our brain / mind / body starts to feel both more awake, and more free of stress. In pre-action moves we release into the ground and sink energy into the feet and below into the Earth. In the subsequent action move, the energy expands from toes to fingers, filling our whole brain / mind / body with warm feelings and energy. The flow between release/letting go and action/engagement helps our nervous system function better, circulation improve, and has other positive effects as well.

This scientific article points out positive, measurable brain effectiveness changes due to Tai Chi Chuan practice. It is dense reading, but the conclusions point to less “noise” when we activate functions, and more consistent integration of the parts of the brain that need to be integrated.

Grandmaster William C.C. Chen coined the term “nosey muscles”, referring to the unwanted activation of muscles that get in the way of simple, enjoyable movement. It turns out, we can also call them “noisy muscles”… that is, muscle and thought activations resulting from noise in the brain that interferes with clean, effective, enjoyable functioning in the moment.

Nosey, noisy: the key is to realize our brain can and should activate our body functions in a more integrated and less stressed manner.

Practicing the form day after day and year after year helps build a new set of circuits and a new set of resulting perceptions and experiences that allow us to accomplish more with less stress and more enjoyment. And that is a good thing, right?

Why Tai Chi Chuan is a Great Martial Art Practice

Tai Chi Chuan practice among trees and plants, solo

Many people come to practice Tai Chi Chuan for good reasons: the most common reasons are better balance, “relaxation”, and maintaining or improving health.

These are all valid reasons!

However, there can be a tendency to forget that Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art; it is actually an excellent fighting art.

I want to share WHY it is important to remember that Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art, even if you never intend to use it for that purpose.

When practicing the Short Form, it is not enough to go through the movements, and memorize them, without understanding the principles that are the basis of these movements.

Because of my experience, in my teaching of Tai Chi Chuan I focus on the dynamic energy and feeling that is the basis of high-quality Tai Chi Chuan. This means integrating the energy and feeling of brain, toes, and fingers while we are moving.

When brain, toes, and fingers can communicate, energy can expand freely, resulting in power without tension, and softness without weakness.

In summary, the results of practicing with the right understanding are:

  • increased speed and power
  • improved balance
  • better health, and
  • a sense of peace and well-being

It is worth noting that if you do want to try using Tai Chi Chuan for sparring or competition, it is also necessary to actually practice Sanshou (boxing) as well as Push Hands. In that way, the foundation of connection and energy flow can be channeled successfully into the mindset of confidence under pressure, and into the responsive movements that are required for the more rapid-fire engagement of martial art practice.

The Real Meaning of Relaxation for Health, Well-Being, and Martial Arts

Tai Chi Chuan hands

People pursue Tai Chi Chuan practice for a variety of reasons: health, fall prevention / balance, well-being, improvement in martial arts and other sports, and for relaxation / de-stressing.

I can make the case that to deeply relax and de-stress is the most central experience in Tai Chi Chuan practice that explains all the other benefits. However, the word “relax” can be misleading. We all want to be able to relax, but what does that really mean and what does it require?

When I feel stressed, if I lie down on the beach—or lie in bed for that matter—am I relaxing? Well, yes and no. We are indeed avoiding excessive stimulation and giving our awareness a chance to let go of a demanding daily life. That can have some benefits, but the benefits are limited!

Once we go back to a busy daily life and to the demands of relationships and society, the sensation of stress is likely to resume where we left off.

The benefit of Tai Chi Chuan practice is that we are actively training our brain / body how to  stay calm and happy more consistently despite any daily stressors. When practiced with the right approach, Tai Chi Chuan involves intentional letting go and then energizing, repeated over and over in a fluid, rhythmic pattern. As a result, our brain can stay connected with a deeply relaxed and open mindset, open to a wide variety of daily stimuli and activities, including those that many people feel are boring or stressful.

The benefits I have experienced, and have seen others experience, from Tai Chi Chuan practice include: a positive state of mind; the ability to let go of stress while being energetic and active; and excellent health into ages of 60s, 70s, and beyond.

There are many “right approaches” to Tai Chi Chuan study and practice, including variations on the form positions, but what they all have in common is learning how to release at a deep level, and how to engage our whole brain and body when we decide to energize.

It is the looking inside with brain and body during practice that allows us to train for a happier, more vibrant state of mind along with increased empathy for self and others. The brain functions with more energy, while the busy thinking mind lets go of excessive and repetitive worries. Muscle and mental tensions also release in this process, leading to a feeling of well-being as well as improvements in health. 

In short, when there is less worry and tension, there is more opportunity for all kinds of positive states of mind and body.

So, coming back to the word “relax”: in Tai Chi practice we can enter a state of deep, peaceful focus. The awareness expands and is alert, while the body is fluid and comfortable. We are no longer locked into the physical perimeter of our being, but feel more connected to other people as well as to the surrounding environment. This awareness and embodiment goes well beyond the usual meaning of the word “relax.”

The shifts that occur with Tai Chi practice happen gradually, for most people, but can usually be felt at least a bit, soon after starting to practice. Tai Chi Chuan practice is beneficial at each step of the way, because it is constantly teaching us more awareness of self and others.

How to start? The most effective way to learn this practice is to participate in classes with a skilled teacher, along with practicing on your own to reinforce the learning experience. If you are in or near a large or medium-sized city or town you can likely find a teacher and practice group near you. Feel free to contact me if you need some help finding a way to practice where you are.

I hope you will explore the ways you can stay healthy and feel more well-being. Tai Chi Chuan can be an important part of living that fulfilling life.