WHY MOVEMENT MATTERS

I move therefore I am

The Brain Innovation Project

One Brain. Infinite Possibilities.

Although the human brain is a thing of awe inspiring complexity and extraordinary beauty, it did not evolve in order for us to be able to do crosswords, observe distant exploding Supernova, develop complex offshore tax avoidance schemes or dream of a White Christmas.

Rather, brains evolved because they provided an adaptive evolutionary advantage to survive in a big, bad, dangerous world.

And, as this article explores, this means movement. Thus, movement goes way beyond “getting exercise”, but is fundamental to how we think, feel, act, imagine, create, communicate, etc.

From moving our fingers to moving mountains, movement is literally what we do.

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To appreciate just how recent our human brain is, let’s take a brief journey back in evolutionary time. Imagine the 4.5 billion year history of the earth in 24 hours. The first single-celled organisms — from which all life, including you, is evolved — emerged about six o’clock in the morning. It is not until about nine thirty or quarter to ten at night that the first brains emerged, two and a half minutes to twelve that the first hominid brains evolved and just three seconds before the strike of midnight that the present human brain appeared on the scene.

Thus, while sophisticated human cognition (the ability to plan, reason, think, etc.) is arguably what separates us from other animals, from an evolutionary perspective it is nevertheless a 3 second cherry on top of the billions of years old cake — albeit an extraordinarily consequential cherry. So while we might be wrapped up and in awe of our thoughts and intellectual brilliance, they are undoubtedly the new kid on the block in the great story of life; the Johnny-Come-Lately of evolutionary history.

So how did we — or our evolutionary ancestors — survive in the world for billions of years before the 3 second countdown to midnight? They essentially had to act on the environment to be able to take advantage of opportunities (e.g., access energy) and avoid threats (e.g., predators).

And how did they do that? Through movement.

Whether you are a single-celled bacteria using your flagella to roll and tumble towards food sources, a flower opening your petals to absorb sunlight or a CEO using your tongue muscles to deliver the keynote speech at the World Congress of Very Important Things, you cannot act on the outside world without movement.

This is not a pedantic point. It is fundamental: Action = Movement and Movement = Action.

Life is built to move. It is what living organisms do! And our brains have evolved to support this process.

In fact, it’s not just living things which depend upon movement — think of robots on an assembly line or atoms bonding to form new molecules — but let’s keep it simple.

The eyes of an antelope did not evolve so that they can enjoy the sunset on the Savannah, but because better eyes means more data about how to move towards where opportunities lie and away from where the threats lurk. Similarly, our ability to form and recall memories did not evolve to regale our grandchildren with the exploits of our youth, but to learn from experience and be able to make assumptions about how we can and should act (move) in the future.

Thus, our brains and their functions are part of our bodies; the living organism. They are not simply ‘connected to’ our bodies (as in the famed ‘mind/ brain and body connection’), as for two things to be connected they have to be separate. Our brains/ minds/ cognition are embodied within the living organism — us — and cannot be properly understood otherwise.

Nietsche

Perhaps nature’s most dramatic unfolding of the deep relationship between the brain and movement is found in the sea squirt (ascidian tunicates). This little creature develops into a tadpole like shape with a simple nervous system/ primitive brain, where it swims along until it finds a place which seems to have adequate passing food it can gobble up. It then attaches itself to a rock, or other surface, where it remains for the rest of its life. Job done in terms of facilitating movement, the sea squirt then proceeds to eat its own brain!

Clearly, in the case of humans, some of the survival imperative of movement has been lessened, as the advantage has shifted ever more towards cognition. To take an extreme example, Stephen Hawking obviously had a much narrower range of movements available to him, yet has managed to expand our view of the universe. And the development of Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs), where we can interact with machines – and thus the world – just through our thoughts is already upon us. But this shift towards cognition does not in any way detract from the underlying mechanisms of the way we work; our deep biological architecture developed over billions of years of the evolution of life has not simply been replaced. That’s not how evolution works. Rather, new traits get grafted on to what has gone before. It gets messy!

Looked at from this perspective, it is not surprising that we often talk of being “stuck in our heads” or “trapped in our thoughts”, as our thoughts literally find no way of expression through our sensorimotor system. It also starts to explain why exercise has been repeatedly shown to be the most effective intervention for depression. From the fine motor movements of an artist to the knockout punch of a boxer, we are engaging more of ourselves, more of our brains; doing what we were designed to do – move.

But the connection between movement and cognition goes even deeper.

As we move our eyes, we take in new and different information (our eyes move naturally – saccade – about 3 times every second, even though we are generally not aware of it). We gesture with our hands as we speak (sign language and spoken language are processed in many similar parts of the brain). Indeed, even congenitally blind people have been shown to gesture when they talk with other congenitally blind people despite the fact that neither party can ever have seen themselves or others doing so; it seems to be natural in some way. When we dream we normally ‘see or imagine ourselves’ doing something, even though our bodies are effectively paralysed while we are in REM sleep. We have mirror neurons which literally simulate in our own brains (mirror) the movements of others as we engage with them.

And if you are after a slightly weird and more dramatic demonstration of the link between just thinking about something and the micro-movements it induces in our bodies, then look up Chevreul’s pendulum and try it. It works for most people; no supernatural powers required! Just be sure to ignore the more fanciful explanations you might find on the internet.

Nietsche

But this profound link between brains, cognition, bodies and movement is not just interesting; it has real world, present-day consequences.

For example, experiments show that when people were handed a CV to review which was attached to a heavy clipboard, the candidates were judged as being more “weighty” and “serious” than those where just the paper version was handed over (there are numerous similar experiments which show how our judgement gets unconsciously skewed in such ways all the time). Taking notes the old-fashioned pen and paper way has been shown to improve memory of the subject matter. Kids have been shown to solve maths problems more quickly when they deliberately use their hands to “act out” the steps involved, as cognitive loads gets shifted. Doctors have been shown to identify medical anomalies on x-rays more accurately while walking on a slow treadmill. And, of course, if you go from (in)tense staring at your computer screen to gazing at the sky (and holding it there), you shift your eyes into a broader focus and your whole body will start to relax.

The list really is endless.

Being aware of, paying attention to and feeling or sensing the importance of movement is the key thing. But in terms of practical things you can do to help you innovate and recruit more parts of your brain to whatever you’re working on, here are 10 quick suggestions above and beyond the obvious one of getting more exercise.

1. If you are looking to generate genuinely new ideas – to enter a more divergent thinking space – consider having a good-old fashioned telephone conference call where you can pace around the room, look out of the window, etc., as you speak and listen, rather than sit motionless on a Zoom call. Even better, a face-to-face setting where you can move around and interact.
2. Rather than have a meeting staring across a desk with a difficult employee, go for a walk. In doing so, you (and them) recruit more resources to the situation, your brain works harder as your visual focus naturally changes, the pumping of blood delivers more oxygen to different parts of the body, etc. This is particularly useful if the discussion is often difficult or stuck, i.e., same place, same time, same behaviour, same conversation, same body language, same outcome.
3. Learn a new motor skill (anything from using your non-dominant hand for everyday tasks to playing the piano), as more of your brain becomes active and new connections get formed (no, muscle memory does not occur in the muscles, but in the brain).
4. Pay attention to your hand gestures as you talk, or move your hand around in circles as you try to remember things (and if you watch how other people use their hand gestures, you will see that the gestures are often actually completed just BEFORE the words come out – the gestures often seem to be ahead of the words. Is using our hands an expression of our thoughts or part of the thinking process itself?).
5. Practice visualising a new skill you are working on, as this mental rehearsal complements the actual learning of new movements in the world. This has been demonstrated over and over again to improve performance in all sorts of situations, although getting the techniques right is important.
If you are designing a new building, for example, imagine yourself walking around in it, not just ‘seeing’ it.
6. Take a mime class to become more aware as to how your movements and your thoughts and intentions interact.
7. As you think about goals, get a sense of potential micro-movements in your body, as you bring your sensorimotor system into the equation (ultimately, to do anything intentionally, you are going to have to join up your higher cognitive functions – goals – with your physical action. I actually do a course around this technique, and it can be very powerful to link up intention, motivation and action, but the technique is a bit complex to describe here).
8. As you practice a speech or a sales-pitch, stand up (if that is how you will deliver it) and move your hands, just as you will see an actor pacing around as he or she learns their lines.
9. If you are trying to do some kind of team building, try to come up with an action where people are moving together. The military know the importance of this; hence the hours spent marching up and down the square. So do clubbers, who pulsate in rhythm until the sun comes up. While organising a march or a rave might not be a good team building option for you, drumming might be.
10. Often, the effects of these kind of approaches can be subtle, but it is by being aware of and noticing how movement can change your perception that it is most effective.

Which leads me to my favourite bonus suggestion: when standing, bored, in a long checkout queue at the supermarket, observe and copy how the person in front of you stands or moves. Or someone’s walking style as you go down the street. Notice how copying someone else’s movements feels unnatural, but can give you quite a different perspective and feeling. And when we get new perspectives, all sorts of new options start to open up.

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