Over two and a half thousand years ago, Epictetus, a Greek philosopher, said: “Man is not moved by events, but merely his view of them.” With this, Epictetus implied that perception leads to emotion, which in turn leads to movement in response to that emotion.
In the nineteenth century, psychologists agreed that emotion is the brain’s response to the perception (either conscious or subconscious) of physiological change, which is caused by an internal or external event (James, 1884; Lange, 1885). Thanks to modern innovations in neuroscience research, we are beginning to identify pathways in the brain that are strongly linked to emotion (Ledoux, 2000) as well as movement (Beck, 2008).
Amazingly enough, movement pathways actually intersect with the emotional centers of the brain, showing us that in addition to movement occurring in response to an emotion, emotions can also occur in response to movement. These emotions can just as easily be happiness and pleasure, but could also be fear and anxiety, depending on the person’s perceptions and thoughts.
Knowing more about the involvement of this intersection of movement and emotion — known as the limbic system — helps fitness professionals understand that movement training can evoke strong emotional responses from our clients, which can have both positive and negative consequences. In this article, we'll learn more about the connection between movement and emotion, and how you can use this knowledge to improve your clients' outcomes in training.
How the Brain Processes Emotions
Figure 1. The limbic system embedded deep inside the brain (Daane, 2010).
Stimuli from various sources enter the human brain through different routes, such as sight from the eyes to the occipital lobe, audition from the ears to the auditory complex, and proprioception from various types of receptors in the body via the peripheral nervous system through the spinal cord (Beck, 2008). Wherever the stimulus originates from, all information must be processed in one central area for the brain to be able to make sense of what is occurring. This “central processing” occurs in a system of neuronal structures located deep within the brain, often referred to as the limbic system. The limbic system consists of structures such as the hippocampus, the amygdala, the basal ganglia, the hypothalamus, the thalamus, etc. (see Figure 1). Each of these structures has its own function to help produce a variety of behavioral responses including movement, temperature regulation, active procurement of food, sexual drive, emotional context, and curiosity (Swanson & Mogenson, 1981; Brooks, 1984; Kupfermann et al., 2000).
The limbic system is a motivational driver that processes sensory input, then activates various areas of the cerebral cortex through neural pathways to elicit an appropriate response (Beck, 2008) and prepare the body via hormones through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system (Carlson, 2004).
For the most part, these behavioral responses to stimuli are species-specific behaviors involving survival of the self and species, and often occur subconsciously, which means that we typically have no idea these responses are occurring until the conscious part of the cerebral cortex — which is known as the prefrontal cortex, located in the forehead — is activated. Before we even become consciously aware of a stimulus, a cascade of physiological responses has already occurred to rapidly prime the body to either move away (fight or flight) or move toward the stimulus (reward) (Gordon, 2008).
The “away / fight or flight” response, of course, is very different from the “toward /reward” pathways in the brain. During the “away” response, the amygdala, inside the limbic system, activates the hypothalamus, which in turn activates the pituitary gland, which then stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol and adrenaline, which is commonly referred to as stress. During the “toward” response, the brain uses the dopaminergic pathways to release dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, which creates the sensation of pleasure and reinforces the “OOOHHHH do that again” response (Taylor, 2010).
Research is showing that with every new experience, the brain will first initiate an “away” response as a protective mechanism before it becomes convinced there is no threat, after which it will be able to initiate the reward pathways in the brain and activate a “toward” response (Radecki, 2010). From a survival perspective, this makes total sense. Who would stand to gain from thinking about having sex or a nice meal while being chased by a lion?
The Relevance of Behavioral Responses To Movement Training
What is happening inside the brain of a new client who comes to the gym for the first time, surrounded by strange, intimidating-looking equipment and even stranger trainers? On top of that, what further stress are we potentially causing by asking that person to do all types of complex movements that are completely foreign? Another question to pose here is: “If we ignore the client’s emotional state and If the client remains in an “away” response, how is the workout being processed by the brain if most of its resources are being utilized on its fight or flight response (think of the sex analogy)? In an “away” response, is the brain truly capable of developing those new neurological pathways to the correct muscle groups to optimize movement ability and increase functionality?
Unfortunately, this area has not been researched yet, but when looking at the neuroscience of emotion, it should make us think critically about whether or not we are optimally effective in the way we are teach movement ability, especially if we are ignoring the client’s emotional state.
The Role of Memory & Learning in Movement Training
The client’s emotional state or attitude towards training may actually influence how movement patterns are learned and remembered by the brain, resulting in a foundation of either effective or ineffective movement ability. If a client’s brain cannot process complex movement patterns and exercises, we run the risk of developing incorrect neural pathways that result in inefficient movement ability. A movement-based training session with such a client — even with the best intentions from the trainer — may actually become ineffective, nonfunctional, and counterproductive.
The prefrontal cortex does not only receive input from the limbic system, but also sends input into the limbic system. This means that our thoughts, attitudes, and memories are equally capable of causing an “away” or a “toward” response (Radecki, 2010).
Therefore, if a client has a negative experience due to the trainer’s inability to remove the “away” stimuli, it may decrease the client’s threshold of tolerance toward the trainer as well as toward movement training. If the “away” response persists during the client’s first training session, any association with the negative experience will become magnified, potentially leading to future program dropout. This increased level of sensitivity, which is a form of classical conditioning, has been well-established in pain research.
The memory of an injury has been shown to decrease the pain threshold substantially and makes the brain more sensitive to feeling pain, even from a previously injured area that has long healed. Interestingly, associations with pain are so strong for the brain that pain patients actually feel more pain when in the presence of spouses who reinforce pain perception (Flor, 2000). For the trainer, this means that a negative experience may cause the client to feel an “away” response sooner and more aggressively with the same trainer in later sessions.
The good news is that it is possible for the brain to unlearn, or override, the memory of a bad experience. Just as the brain learns from negative experiences, it also processes positive experiences the same way. However, because the brain’s default state is the “away” state, it takes much more effort for the brain to perceive a positive experience than a negative one.
Dr. Roy Sugarman, one of the world’s leading neuropsychiatrists specializing in movement and cognition, recently stated that it takes anywhere from three to five positive thoughts to eradicate one negative thought. This means that even though it is possible for the brain to override a negative memory, it takes a great deal of effort and patience from the trainer and client to achieve this.
Needless to say, the best strategy would be to prevent negative experiences altogether and to be diligent in creating positive emotional responses during fitness training at all times.
Strategies for Improving Movement Training Outcomes
Fitness professionals have already come a long way in understanding how the human body moves by using our knowledge of functional anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics. We want to help clients and athletes improve movement ability, but training movement while ignoring human emotion may prove detrimental if the brain is not ready to process the information. On the flipside, if the brain is ready, a well-designed movement training program may evoke a strong positive emotional response, which may result in great psychological benefits that could even outweigh the physiological benefits (White & Castellano, 2008).
The following strategies can help you make your movement training sessions with clients more effective:
Create positive behavioral responses during sessions.
Even though the “away” response may be the brain’s first choice when dealing with a new experience, this does not mean it will stay that way.
By making sure the client is comfortable and excited about the prospect of doing something new it is possible to override the “away” response and initiate a “toward” response.
If the client seems to behave reluctantly or seems fearful, be sensitive to this and allow your client some time to become familiar with the new environment and with you before you try to introduce new movement patterns. With every new movement pattern, allow the client to perform the movement slowly and without load to provide the brain an opportunity to learn each new movement pattern. Once the client becomes familiar with the new movement and the brain convinces itself that the activity is fun and safe, the client will begin to relax, which will enable the brain to effectively configure the accurate neurological pathways required for optimal movement efficiency.
Don’t just use mirrors, use mirror neurons.
Ever since the existence of mirror neurons was discovered in monkeys back in the 1990s by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his graduate students in Italy (Lametti, 2009), researchers have established that mirror neurons exist in humans as well (Mukamel et al., 2010). In addition to helping someone feel empathy and imagine another person’s actions and feelings, mirror neurons also seem to be actively involved in human imitation and learning (Rizzolatti & Destro, 2008). In relation to movement, this means that simply observing another person move can activate areas in the brain specific to learning. As a trainer, you can trigger this response by displaying images of movement training that are inspirational to the client or by simply leading by example with your own movement.
Use the power of visualization.
Research has shown that strength increases almost the same by visualizing an exercise as opposed to physically completing the exercise (Shackell and Standing, 2007). Therefore, if a client is initially resistant to movement training, invite the client to talk about what they are prepared to do versus what they aren’t. By thinking about exercises they can do, they are already creating stronger neurological pathways without even performing the movement. By strengthening the neurological pathways, the client is teaching him or herself how to move before they even try to move, which may prove beneficial when actually trying to perform new movements.
Start with exercises that are familiar to the client.
The average client tends to be familiar with exercises such as push-ups, stationary lunges, cable rows, etc. Start there, then develop progressions stemming from those familiar, basic movements to gradually introduce more complexity and movement. A push-up followed by stepping into a lunge could be one example of creating complexity from basic movements. The level of familiarity of each basic movement will allow the client’s brain to feel comfortable and will increase the likelihood of a “toward” response rather than an “away” response when initiating a new level of complexity.
Be sensitive to the client’s past injuries and pain threshold.
If the client has a history of injuries or is super-sensitive to pain, help the client understand that this is normal and that he or she does not have to do anything they do not feel comfortable with. Be extra careful in introducing new movements. Give the client a sense of control by asking him frequently if he is OK with continuing. This will enable his brain to relax and feel safe, which in turn may switch off the “away” response sooner than trying to push new movement patterns too soon.
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