In the scientific world, it is common practice to break things down into smaller chunks in order to study them. Biomechanist Katy Bowman says this practice is no different in regard to studying the human body.
“The body is parsed for study,” Bowman explains. “We’re taught to look at each part individually, the brain, the muscles, the skin. It’s necessary, but it’s also easy to forget that the information you gather is not about the whole—easy to forget that what you determine about a part might change once the part is put into some context. Imagine looking in a magnifying mirror to study your face. When we’re that close up, we see some pores, not the surface of the skin or the body that it’s on. We’re good at breaking things down but we could improve on connecting them back together again.”
One of the largest oversights when it comes to the human body, she says, has been considering the brain and body as mostly separate entities versus two parts in a larger whole that affect each other directly.
“We consider the brain as this thing that floats around and has thoughts, that the health of it is not really related to anything else, and certainly not related to our arms and legs or anything like that,” Bowman says. “But the brain is what moves the body. And the body is what nourishes the brain.”
She adds, “Before modern transportation and technology, movement was the backbone of society—it was how you got your food, found shelter, generated and supported your family. Movement was required for survival. Movement of your body is part of how your brain works well.”
But as we continually remove the need for movement from our survival by outsourcing our needs and become more and more sedentary as a culture, the brain suffers because of the lack of physical activity of the body. Furthermore, Bowman says, as we continue to elevate the non-movement functions of the brain over the movement ones, it’s easy to justify moving even less.
“Eventually, we’ll be left with the brain being a vessel simply for thought, but the Catch-22 is the brain requires movement to be well. So I don’t think we can really discuss brain health without talking about the sedentary context of most of our bodies,” she concludes.
Connecting the dots
Bowman shares an anecdote to stress the importance and relevance of the brain-body connection.
“One of the best letters I ever received was from a scholar whose parents were academics,” Bowman recalls. “She wrote, ‘I thought that my brain was for thinking and my body was for carrying my thinking part around. But at a young age, I started having physical crises.’”
Physical crises don’t just affect what you can do with your body, Bowman says, but also how your brain functions. She stresses the importance of movement for brain health—one cannot function properly without the other.
“She slowly had to introduce movement into her personal culture because it wasn’t passed down through her family,” Bowman continues. “It’s challenging to maintain mental well-being when other parts of your body are in physical crisis. By adding more movement, she watched her body flourish and then her mind followed suit. While we’ve labeled the moving parts of your body and the thinking parts of your body, I believe modern data is showing that the brain is ‘moved’ when your body is. It doesn’t have those parts we’ve labeled as movers (like muscle), but the brain’s mass or blood flow can be affected by other parts moving. So continuing to only think of the body and brain as totally separate doesn’t ultimately help you figure things out. The functions of all parts depend on the functions of other parts. Your parts all work together.”
But we can’t stop there: Ultimately, Bowman says, our bodies affect the other bodies around us—human bodies, bodies of water and land, and the planet we inhabit.
“It’s helpful to take an ecological perspective when you think about your body. Changes to our body parts make changes to other body parts, and these changes affect they way we move within our communities and relate to the larger body that is our planet, for better or worse. Yes, parts move individually but they’re also moving relative to all other things. So keeping both the close-up and the big picture in mind at the same time is key,” Bowman says.
Photo credit: Sid Verma, Unsplash