Finding neutral

„I was amazed to discover how many of my patients told me they could not feel whole areas of their bodies. Sometimes I’d ask them to close their eyes and tell me what I had put into their outstretched hands. Whether it was a car key, a quarter, or a can opener, they often could not even guess what they were holding—their sensory perceptions simply weren’t working.” – excerpt from: Bessel van der Kolk MD, „The Body Keeps the Score”

I was trying to verify this quote. How many people are like this? How many people ask others to close their eyes and put objects into their outstretched hands? And how many people can’t tell a bottle opener from a car key with closed eyes? How big is this problem?

As I see it, using all my senses, in many instances I wouldn’t be able to tell a bottle opener from a fridge magnet, considering in how many shapes, sizes, and colours these things come. Some time ago my mom brought home a pocket sized cat that on closer examination was a nail brush, and another time a pocket sized frog that was secretly a bottle opener. A friend of mine ordered a watch from China that from afar looked like an ordinary, rather clunky looking wrist watch; but its main feature wasn’t to show the time, it was a cigarette lighter.

Interesting question, nonetheless.

I didn’t find relevant studies yet, but I found a study called „Human perception of shape from touch”, Helmholtz Institut, Netherlands, Astrid M. L. Kappers, 2011, which yielded two interesting quotes:

„In actively dealing with objects, both the cuteanous sense (input from receptors in the skin) and the kinesthetic sense (input from receptors located in muscles, tendons, and joints) convey information.”

Technically speaking, I like the accurate description of what Feldenkrais people simply call skin-to-skin and skin-to-tissue and skin-to-bone contact (and any variation thereof). When we touch someone else we can do that to various degrees. For example when I use my hand to touch someone’s arm I can imagine touching their skin, to check the tension of their skin, if it’s soft or hard, dry or moist, hot or cold. Or I could feel deeper into their arm, to get a sense of their muscles and tissues, or I could feel even deeper into their arm, to feel their ulna and radial bone. All this with very little changes to where I put my hand and the amount of pressure I apply – just by changing what I think about and what I’m looking for.

Socially speaking, just by touching someone’s arm, there’s probably just as many, if not more, ways to touch another human. To say something and to receive something by doing so.

I found the second quote, which is concerned with touch or haptic perception as well, even more interesting:

„What the research on after-effects has shown convincingly is that the haptic perception of shape or curvature is not veridical. A flat surface will not always be perceived as flat and conversely, a curved surface might feel as flat. Moreover, this percept changes continuously during the day, as the perception of human subjects will be strongly influenced by everything they touch. A few seconds in contact with an object is already sufficient to cause a change in the perception of the next object. It is even the case that what a hand or finger feels is partially influenced by what the other hand or another finger has touched before.”

This states in clear terms what I knew from my own movement practice, as well as of my practice with working with people: touch is not infallible, not absolute truth, but is influenced by experience, calibration and by the things we touched before. The left hand might find an object to be flat, while the right hand might find the same object to be curved.

The study states that haptic perception research had just started, and a lot has  yet still to be discovered.

Thinking about it.

I have a sweet tooth. I like good pastry. I was born in Vienna, in the middle of Europe, and was always exposed to an abundance of good pastry, cakes, and delicate sweets.

The thing with sweet desserts is that some are almost too sweet to eat. And maybe you can relate to this: you take a bite of a sweet dessert, and find it quite sweet. But then you take a bite from an even sweeter dessert, or you take a sip from a cup of hot chocolate where you dumped way too much sugar into, and suddenly the first dessert, that was quite sweet, doesn’t taste that sweet anymore. Did you ever have such an experience?

Sensory after-effects are common to all senses. Not just touch. Not just vision.

In fact, I reckon that after-effects are common to probably everything we do. If we slouch a lot, the slouched shape will slowly creep into our bones and bend our skeleton. The same goes for excessive exercise: the constant, higher muscle tone will eventually bend the bones, re-shape the skeleton, and obstruct the work of the nervous system, lymphatic system, and whatever else is floating inside the bio-tensegrity network of muscles and tendons. I once met a healthcare practitioner who took this idea even further and said that in her experience constant, long-term high muscle tone can cause organs to swell up and eventually cause them to fail.

Take home point: knowing neutral, being able to feel neutral, and being able to find back to neutral are important concepts to work on and work with in lesson of Somatic Education. Fitness has stretching, we have „finding neutral”. Not only for muscles, but also for the state of the nervous system. And maybe it could be extended to more philosophical viewpoints too.