For the conversation of Adrianna Mendrek
Like a thick velvety band, the somatosensory cortex arches across the top of the brain, just above ear to ear.
I fell in love with the brain as an undergrad and pursued a career in neuroscience, but for years I had largely ignored this structure because it seemed to be involved “only” in processing sensations. bodily. In my mind, that meant it wasn’t as fascinating as the areas involved in emotion or higher cognitive function.
However, over the past decade, during my training in mindfulness-based interventions and dance movement therapy, I have come to realize that a well-functioning and developed somatosensory cortex can help us do the experience the world and ourselves more deeply and completely. It can enrich our emotional experience and improve our mental health.
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For decades, the somatosensory cortex was thought to be solely responsible for processing sensory information from various parts of the body. However, recently it has become clear that this structure is also involved in various stages of emotion processing, including emotion recognition, generation and regulation.
Additionally, structural and functional changes in the somatosensory cortex have been observed in people diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and psychotic disorders. These studies suggest that the somatosensory cortex could be a target for treatment for certain mental health conditions, as well as for preventive measures. Some researchers have even proposed neuromodulation of the somatosensory cortex with transcranial magnetic stimulation or deep brain stimulation.
However, before deciding to use invasive technology, we may consider mindfulness-based interventions, dance movement therapy, or other body-centered psychotherapeutic approaches. These methods use the whole body to improve sensory, respiratory and motor awareness. These factors can improve overall self-awareness, which contributes to improved mental health through potential reorganization of the somatosensory cortex.
Functional significance of the somatosensory cortex
One of the amazing qualities of the somatosensory cortex is its pronounced plasticity – the ability to reorganize and enlarge with practice (or atrophy without practice). This plasticity is essential when we consider mindfulness-based interventions and dance movement therapy because, as mentioned above, by working directly with bodily sensations and movement, we can alter the somatosensory cortex.
Another important aspect is its many connections with other areas of the brain. In other words, the somatosensory cortex has the power to affect other regions of the brain, which in turn affect other regions, and so on. The brain is highly interconnected and none of its parts act in isolation.
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The somatosensory cortex receives information from the whole body, so the left part of the cortex processes information from the right side of the body and vice versa. However, the proportion of the cortex devoted to a particular part of the body depends on its functional importance rather than its physical size.
For example, a large part of the somatosensory cortex is devoted to our hands, and so simply moving and feeling our hands could be an attractive option for dance therapy for people with reduced mobility.
The somatosensory cortex mediates exteroception (touch, pressure, temperature, pain, etc.), proprioception (postural and movement information), and interoception (sensations inside the body, often related to physiological states of the body, such as hunger and thirst), although its role in interoceptive awareness is only partial.
The somatosensory cortex and emotion
A scent, a song or an image can suddenly bring to mind a deeply buried and forgotten event. Likewise, feeling a texture – like cashmere – against our skin, or moving our body in a certain way (like doing a backbend or rocking back and forth) can do the same thing and more. It can bring repressed memories to the surface, cause emotional reactions and create state changes. This is one of the superpowers of mindfulness-based interventions and dance movement therapy.
This response is mediated by the somatosensory cortex, just as emotional and cognitive responses to a song are mediated by the auditory cortex, and responses to smells are mediated by the olfactory cortex. However, if information stops flowing on a purely sensory level (what we feel, hear, see, taste and smell), then a significant part of the emotional and cognitive consequences would be lost.
Dance/movement therapists and body-centered practitioners have known about this connection between posture/movement and emotion/cognition since the inception of the field. Neuroscientists have now delineated – still roughly – the neural networks involved. For example, research shows a relationship between the development of our sensory sensitivity and the regulation of emotions.
Some evidence comes from studies of meditation and mindfulness-based interventions, which often involve the practice of body scans (paying attention to body parts and bodily sensations in a gradual sequence, for example from head to toe) and /or return to sensations as anchor points in meditation.
Overall, studies show that people who practice body scans and/or develop sensory awareness of the breath (feel the breath going through the nostrils, throat, etc.) are less responsive and more resilient. This effect is mediated, at least in part, by the somatosensory cortex.
Given the emerging role of the somatosensory cortex in emotional and cognitive processing, it is not surprising that alterations in the structure and function of this brain region have been found in several mental health conditions, including depression. , bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
For example, reductions in cortical thickness and gray matter volume of the somatosensory cortex have been observed in individuals with major depressive disorder (particularly those with early onset) and bipolar disorder. In schizophrenia, lower levels of activity in the somatosensory cortex have been observed, particularly in unmedicated patients.
Activating the somatosensory cortex can help us connect with our bodies, develop our sensitivity, sensuality, and ability to experience pleasure. This is how conscious movement, conscious dancing, and whole-body meditation can help people regulate their emotions and connect with themselves and the world more deeply and meaningfully.
(The author is a professor of psychology at Bishop’s University)