July 14, 2024

Seeing Your Body through Your Brain’s Eyes: Neurology and Body Image

Author: Kate Findley
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By Richard Restak, M.D., George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley, The Great Courses Daily

You’re probably familiar with the phrase “body image,” but have you explored it from a neurological perspective? Join us as we speak with Richard Restak, Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, about the surprising connections between body image, technology, and road rage. He also provides practical tips for improving your body awareness.

Man looking at his body in mirror
Neurological, multi-sensory processes of the brain create a person’s sense of body awareness. Photo by Realstock / Shutterstock

Body Image and Neurology

In neurology, body image refers to the ways in which we mentally perceive and relate to our physical bodies.

Look at pictures of yourself taken at different ages. Your image of yourself and what your body was like at, for instance, age eight, is certainly different than it is now. 

Body image can be altered subtly through a new hairstyle or outfit. Additionally, many eating disorders stem from body dysmorphia, or skewed perceptions of one’s physical appearance. 

Body image can also expand to include things external to ourselves. Parking space lines, for instance, look smaller to Hummer drivers compared to Prius drivers. 

The extension of body boundaries includes attachment to electronic gadgets. You’ll often notice people wearing earbuds or tucking a cellphone into their clothing as if it were an extension of themselves.

Perhaps you’ve even experienced that feeling of leaving the house without your phone, patting your clothes, as if something very crucial were missing. That’s because when we get very attached to something, it can become part of our body image. 

Body image also extends to ways in which we relate to other people. Expressions like “you’re in my space” communicate the feeling that our body boundary is being violated. 

A great cultural difference exists concerning how close people should stand to one another lest they become offensive. On the road, when a driver is cut off, this can set off an episode of road rage because the driver’s body image and body space have been invaded. 

Exercises to Improve Body Awareness

Peripersonal space exercises can help to improve your body awareness, coordination, and spatial intelligence. This space is like a virtual envelope around the skin’s surface that extends our body boundaries. 

Try these exercises: 

  • Move your hands toward each other so that your fingers touch. It’s not very hard to do. But try it with your eyes closed, and you’ll find that it’s difficult because you don’t have much experience doing it. You’re not initially able to do well because of your brain’s over-reliance on vision. 
  • Take up a sport that demands an awareness of your body boundary and its extensions. Tennis is a good example: You have to know where your arm is, where you’re standing, and how to coordinate exactly where to place the ball so it’s just within the court. This type of exercise will help you achieve an enhanced kinesthetic sense.

“I think the very best is tai chi,” said Dr. Restak. “I’ve done this for years. It takes a while to learn it, but it’s worth doing, and after that you’re able to realize where parts of your body are when you’re making a certain movement. A good teacher will ask you to close your eyes and imagine where your arm is, and then you imagine it, and then you look.”

Kinesthetic sense exercises are performed all the time by musicians and athletes as they work toward making up embodied knowledge. As they take what they’ve learned and make it almost automatic, it becomes part of the body image.

Therefore, when it comes to maintaining and enhancing your brain’s circuitry, you should keep peripersonal space exercises in your toolkit!

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily.

Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his M.D. from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.

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