The Influence Of Imagery On Neurobiology. This is Powerful!

Watch the full Pilates Hour Episode #108 “Does Ideal Alignment Really Matter” with With Brent Anderson PhD, PT, OCS, NCPT, and special guest Eric Franklin, Franklin Method.


Imagery Influencing Neurobiology

BA: What is your gut feeling about imagery influencing neurobiology?

EF:  It must be happening. We know the influence of imagery on a variety of psychological states and obviously, we know its influence on movement. For any of that to happen, you are changing things in your neurobiology, from neurotransmitters to hormone release. But we haven’t looked at it directly yet at the cellular level, which is where we want to go next!

BA: One of the interesting things about the idea of neuroplasticity is how our experiences modify our neural pathways. The synapses change and some of the neuromodulators change because of our experiences. Something I am reading about is the belief that neuroplasticity happens at night time when we are in our sleep. We have these experiences during the day and when we are in deep sleep the nervous system processes them. It actually moves through that neuroplastic part, the hard part of changing biology. 

It is interesting to use that knowledge to see if people in their sleep are in conjunction with their imagery and movement experiences. To see if those who have a good night’s sleep have better neuroplastic, bio cellular, and neuro-cellular change than those with poor sleep and the same interventions.

“the fastest way to change your movement is to change your mind”

Eric Franklin

EF:  I would be pretty sure about that because I always say “the fastest way to change your movement is to change your mind”. That’s because synaptic waiting and synaptic change happen so fast. You change your mind about the movement and the movement changes. That’s a very fast approach. Changing muscles takes longer, and changing the fascia takes even longer.

It doesn’t mean those are things you shouldn’t do. If you want something that works fast then images are a great way to create relatively rapid neuroplasticity. It is not just to brag about imagery and say it’s so cool because it’s also about motivation. 

People get stuck in end goals like “I have to work out and train until I get my six-pack or until this or that releases”. Or “I have to get some more collagen laid down in that area…”. Instead, give them some motivational things. Give them some imagery so they can immediately feel a change. Of course, that is not going to change the fascia immediately. It will need a lot more repetition, but it’s very motivational. 

BA: You are the pioneer on a lot of this, and especially for making it known. Back when I met you 25 years ago at IADMS our thinking was more about “hard-wired”, suggesting everything was structural.  People thought “my plie is limited structurally, I have tight heels”. Then we play the bone rhythm game and all of a sudden they can move into another 10 to 15 degrees of ankle dorsiflexion. Releasing the hips just with the image of the sitting bones widening.

We love your work and have supported it from the beginning, and that was a big breakthrough for us. That experience led to part of my dissertation looking at the idea of creating successful movement experiences for people in chronic pain.  Having that successful movement experience shifted their paradigm and we created that by using imagery they could process.  This is key as a lot of times doctors use imagery that the client can’t process and is thus unsuccessful.

EF: It’s very nice of you to say all these things. To this day, we first look at the kinds of functions that are built into you structurally. Then we add functional exercise on top of that. If you are told that your bone structure won’t allow certain movement, that’s already negative imagery. This alone could be part of why it is difficult. You hear “oh my bone structure doesn’t allow…”, and if you think this, why even bother?

If you are told that your bone structure won’t allow certain movement, that’s already negative imagery. This alone could be part of why it is difficult. You hear “oh my bone structure doesn’t allow…”, and if you think this, why even bother?

BA:  “I’m built this way…”

EF:  If you tell someone “you’re not built to do that very efficiently”, they may think “ok, I won’t even do it in the first place”. 

BA: Or, they might try to do it in a way that can potentially injure tissue. I love this idea of these two areas in particular that you’re focusing on right now. The idea of understanding biology in conjunction with imagery and the behavior, belief, or perception of how we mix the two. This connecting of behavioral science with the physiology and biology of things we’ve suspected for a long time because we see the change.  A lot of times the change is immediate, and when we think about the long-term acquisition of it it’s like you said, the tissue adapts with practice and repetition.

When someone can implement an image that helps them on a regular basis in their movement practice, you will start to see the shift in their motor control. We know the neuromuscular system shifts and is always seeking efficiency with the task, so we will often see that. 

The most exciting part of this is working with fascial gurus to understand the mass of science coming out about the communication system that exists inside of our fascia. In one study they removed fascial tissue from a living animal, put it in a dark room, and it continued emitting light photons for minutes after it was removed from the living organism. Just think about these tubulars that are talking to all the cells. The cells are very dynamic in their synapses, at least we know that –  really, really exciting!

EF: A lot of the research in motor imagery supports that if you rehearse the movement before you do it, afterward it’s better.  That is very interesting, but what about going further back even into the emotional aspect? What about working with the limbic system and how it affects all that movement and working directly at the endocrine and cellular level and doing imagery there.  So instead of just looking at the results and then trying to find explanations, go directly into the tissue with imagery and see if that’s measurable. No one has ever done that, why not?  

Maybe not measuring the amygdala and stress response on the cellular level. Maybe that’s a bit complicated, but there are other things that we’re going to look at -and to go further back, not looking so much at the result, but at the much earlier stage where these results are being created. Look at the imagery – what is it doing there?  That’s the next step.

BA: The neuromodulators can also be measured, like the serotonin type 2a and dopamine. Those things are tied to motivation and satisfaction.  I would find it really interesting to learn how a successful movement experience with imagery that they’ve embedded changes the whole neuro response. Specifically with the serotonin type 2a, which is thought to correspond to contentment or satisfaction, and dopamine, the motivation modulator.

EF:  Dopamine only gets released when you’re planning or thinking about what you want to achieve. As soon as you achieve it, the dopamine is gone. The serotonin for the contentment part, to give one answer – movement is good if it feels comfortable to you. If you enjoy doing the movement, then there must be efficiency on some level. There are several perspectives on efficiency and good movement. The inner perspective is:

“What is your experience of this movement?” and the external perspective is “What is the experience of the beholder?”. 

For example, you go to this incredible ballet performance or Cirque du Solei and they’re doing these incredible things. You say, “That was so amazing, so beautiful”, but meanwhile on the stage they are wrecking their bodies. 

There you have the conflict full on. A lot of things they were doing were dysfunctional, pushing their bodies way beyond what they should be doing. They were hurting badly on every level, but the audience thought it was beautiful and incredible movement.  They are basically ending their career right out there on stage.

Looks Good / Feels Good

BA: That’s a great topic, that “external versus internal”. Where is the feedback coming from? Who is giving the feedback that it was amazing? The observer or the mover? It’s the “looks good versus feels good”. When we teach, we provide external feedback “Move the pelvis in this direction”, “Allow this to happen”, or “Reach there”. The internal feedback is the question “How does that movement feel?”, “What do you observe with that?”, “What happens when you use this imagery versus that imagery?”.

EF: Starting way back, my experience in exercise classes and dance classes was all about positional alignment. You were told about the shoulders and ankles. Shoulder blades down, endless stuff like that, “Lift pelvis”, on and on until I felt immobilized, literally!  Is this correct now? Am I supposed to move from here? Well, I can’t really move because I’m going to wreck this great posture.

I was thinking that it feels very conflicted and it eventually donned on me that you can’t teach movement through a position. They contradict each other. Movement is movement, and a position is a position. We are not a statue on a wall.  That’s where it kind of started for me. If you want to align onto a wall, stacking the body like bricks, I think that works pretty well for a wall… but I’m not made for not moving.

In fact, we are very bad at not moving – that’s basically the crisis we have right now. We are more sedentary than our ancestors.  We are very adapted to a lot of moderate movement for hours daily. That’s what we’re adapted to and that’s why I was wondering about this postural teaching. If you try to move while you try to keep a position, you are going to create conflict and it expresses itself in tension. As we know, tension is the enemy of movement. If the movement from the beholder looks tense, and there are different ways it can be expressed, like discomfort, the suspicion should be high that this movement is not efficient. 


Watch the Full Replay of Pilates Hour Episode #108 “Does Ideal Alignment Really Matter” with Brent Anderson and Eric Franklin. For more on Neuroscience and Pilates check out the blog “Neuro-Concepts and Pilates”.

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