100 Words for Snow: building your sensory maps

Better maps, better movement.

Did you know there’s a map housed inside your brain? Sensory motor maps create a layout of each movement pattern you know. Some of these maps are incredibly detailed and some are mere sketches. For example, take your pinky toe and wriggle it around. Try to trace out a few letters of the alphabet with it. Now perform the same task with your thumb. If you’re like most upright walkers, you have a far clearer idea of where your thumb is in space and how to move it subtly and delicately.

One of the coolest things about mental geography is that it can grow and change. Whether it’s your pinky toe or some challenging hip kinematics, your map can evolve. Neuroplasticity is what allows you to explore your sensory motor maps, refine them and further build them out.

We’re returning to our feet for the next example simply because of how important they are in movement and how often they’re cut off from diverse sensory experience.

If someone is not particularly aware of how their feet interact with the ground you could say they only have a rough mental map. Their feet may feel more like blocks of wood than finely-tuned sensors. Perhaps landmarks like the front, back, sides and big toe can be easily found. Yet there’s no clear way to note slight changes in pressure or to wiggle individual toes. We know that this doesn’t have to be the case because artists and performers have showcased incredible dexterity with their feet.

Artist Ng Ah Kwai from Penang, Malaysia (credit Edgar Su)

If there are parts of your body with only roughly drawn maps, don’t worry. There’s plenty of room to grow. Awareness can be built by experimenting with applying pressure through each square millimetre and throughout every possible joint configuration. And by experiencing different temperatures, textures and even changing the ideas behind why you’re moving in a certain way. Amazingly, even visualization targets the same structures in the brain normally unlocked through experience!

Finding novel movement experiences can add details to the map you never knew existed. Over time the mental map (really a sensory-motor map) grows. Instead of a rough sketch, you may instead find a densely populated city block. It’s one thing to know north from south. It’s another thing to know where the locals eat, where the best public bathrooms are located and which alleyways to steer clear of. This increased awareness leads to increased control and a much more nuanced approach to movement.

Have you ever heard the one about 100 different words for snow? Anthropologist Franz Boas claimed that the Eskimo languages have an unusually large number of words for the stuff. Whether this is accurate or not involves going down a very deep linguistic rabbit hole that we may never emerge from but the concept itself is useful! More exposure means more awareness of subtle differences. The same idea can be applied to movement. The more experienced you are in a type of movement, the greater the degree of descriptive detail available to you.

Pictured above is a homunculus. This fellow is drawn to represent the proportion of information coming through different parts of the body. To the left you’ll see a cross-section of specific areas and their neural counterparts. You can see that the kneecap is not wired for nearly as much detail as the face, hands or nether regions. However, any part of the map for each area can evolve.

When it comes to managing pain, understanding sensory maps has filled in some important blanks. For example, researchers now know that phantom limb pain exists because the sensory map remains fundamentally unchanged. These ideas also help us understand more common types of pain which are often associated with altered maps and a decreased awareness when tested. This is a bit of a chicken or egg question; did the pain come first, or the altered movement? Regardless, we know that increased awareness has a positive impact on pain and increases the number of movement options available.

Exploring movement is as human as it gets. And while lifestyle and culture will sometimes conspire to cut us off from evolving our sensory maps, the truth is that every movement performed with awareness can help add to them. This process doesn’t just make you a better mover; it may even make you more human.

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