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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix

Movement & Touch

Updated: May 11

What I appreciate most about mindfulness practice is that awareness can be applied anywhere, anytime. Whether ironing or cooking, eating or walking, we bring our full attention to our activities. In doing so, mundane chores can become opportunities to maintain mindfulness. So, we have the formal practice of sitting and the informal practices of folding laundry, washing dishes, sweeping, scrubbing toilets, peeling potatoes, and so on. In monasteries, monks and nuns are trained to apply their full attention and continue with their mindfulness practice even as they are engaged in practical, daily activities. 

The simplest movements are complex. I type. The press of a key sends ripples of activity across neurons spanning the entire brain (Swann, et al, 2023). Even neurons and regions previously not thought to be movement related are active. The wrist pitches and yaws. The delicate muscles of the hand contract and extend. My fingers press the keys that will print out the letters that will make the words that I’ll string into paragraphs to express the wonder that is in my heart.

The cortex is divided into regions that handle different functions: sensory areas process information from our environment; motor areas manage our actions. Surprisingly, movement-related signals can be detected in regions dedicated to sensory processing.

In the real world, it works like this: you hear footsteps in the night. You recognize the familiar pitter patter of your child's footsteps, not those of an intruder. Sound recognition determines what action you take next.

The cerebellum coordinates movement and packs 75% of the brain's neurons into a 4 inch lobe that sits like a bun in the back of the brain. The cerebellum’s unique neural circuitry not only controls motor function but regulates psychological and emotional functions. Douglas Fields writes:

The principal type of neuron in the cerebellum, called the Purkinje cell, is widely branching like a fan coral, yet flattened and nearly two-dimensional. The fan’s blades are the neuron’s dendrites, which receive incoming signals. These flat neurons are arranged in parallel, as if millions of fan corals were stacked atop each other in a tight bundle. Thousands of tiny neurons run axons—the brain’s transmission cables for electrical impulses—perpendicularly through the stack of dendrites, like threads in a loom. Each axon connects with the dendrites of tens of thousands of Purkinje cells.

This level of interconnectivity gives the cerebellum’s 50 billion neurons an astonishing capacity for integration. This circuitry, unique to the cerebellum, can crunch enormous amounts of incoming data from the senses to regulate body movement. The fluid movement of a ballerina leaping across the stage requires the cerebellum to rapidly process information from all senses while tracking the changing positions of limbs, maintaining balance, and mapping the space through which the body is moving. The cerebellum uses that dynamic information to control muscles with precise timing, and to do so in the right social context, driven by emotion and motivation.

Coordinating these various functions engages almost all aspects of brain activity- from controlling basic bodily functions like heart rate and blood pressure in deeper brain regions to handling sensory and emotional information in the limbic system. It also integrates advanced cognitive functions like understanding, self-control, and decision-making in the prefrontal cerebral cortex (Verpeut, 2023; Rudolph, 2023).

The brain orchestrates my movements even as I type. It initiates a plan before initiating and executing a movement, tracking it through completion. Interestingly, brain signals predictive of movement are also active. The brain perceives and selects a course of action and anticipates where a future body-orientation once the arc of a movement is complete (Shioiri, 2023). The intention to type and the typing itself run along two different pathways. My brain has woven strings of thoughts together to form words that make paragraphs, and, step-wise, the thoughts precede the movements of the fingers. My fingers cannot type at the speed of thought, and thought, itself, is slower than the speed of intention. The speed of thought ranges from 500 milliseconds to 3.3 seconds. Less than 200 milliseconds is the domain of intention. I type about 1.1 words per second. Intention drives thoughts; thoughts drive action.

In meditation, we are often instructed to set an intention prior to sitting- this sets our heading. The more specific and clear the better. If I am a beginner, the intention might be simply to sit for 5 to 10 minutes a day. This intention waters the seeds of commitment, volition, and resolve. If I am an intermediate student, the intention might be to notice the first whispers of thought prior to thoughts arising. If I am an advanced student, the intention might be to maintain single-pointed focus and clarity of mind for an hour or more, correcting for the subtlest dullness.

Even prior to, say, adjusting our posture, we set the intention to move before moving.

I set the intention to write and now I type. The fingers are nimble and press lightly. I can sense the smoothness of the keys through my fingertips. Lots of nerve endings there. In one square inch of hand, we have nine feet of blood vessels, 600 pain sensors, 9000 nerve endings, 36 heat sensors and 75 pressure sensors.

The hands are wondrous.  A disproportionate share of the brain’s motor cortex is dedicated to the muscles of the hand. With our hands, we draw, build, push, paint, pull, wipe, cook, carry, catch, throw, tear, fold, grab, brush… scroll down. 

Every hug, every handshake, every dexterous act engages and requires touch perception. Two proteins, or ion channels called Piezo 2 and Elkin1 are required for touch perception. These proteins convert a mechanical stimulus, such as light touch, into an electrical signal. When Elkin1 is present, the receptors in the skin can transmit the touch signals via nerve fibers, to the central nervous system and brain (Chakrabarti et al. 2024)

Human skin contains 45 miles of nerves. The body contains about 500,000 touch detectors. Sensors in the skin called mechanoreceptors detect touch, pressure, vibration, and stretching of the skin. Mechanoreceptors relay information to the brain, where they are interpreted as touch. Most mechanoreceptors are clustered along the palmside skin of the fingertips and hand.

Researchers have identified four types of mechanoreceptors:

1. Meissner's corpuscle are found mostly in the fingertips. They are sensitive to light touch, vibration, and texture.

2. Merkel's disk senses pressure, shape, edges, and rough textures.

3. Pacinian corpuscle is sensitive to vibration and deep pressure

4. Ruffini's corpuscle senses pressure, vibration, and skin stretching.

The data from these sensors is processed in different regions of the brain. The primary somatosensory cortex (S1) and the secondary somatosensory cortex (S2) are two important nodes. The S1 region identifies aspects of touch, such as shape, size, and texture. The S2 region is associated with spatial and tactile memories associated with sensory experiences. This information is routed to the insula which helps interpret and assess the sensory information. The S2 region also links to the hippocampus and amygdala. The brain processes information from the environment and makes decisions on how to respond by referencing prior stored experience. It's as if it formed a recommendation that would then be sent to the executive seat of the brain for higher-order processing and problem-solving.

As you sit and read, you may notice the touch sensation of the atmosphere brushing against the skin of your arms or the touch sensation of clothing on your back. You can bring awareness to the body's contact points: the weight of the body in the chair, the feet on the floor, the touch sensation of clothing, the pull on the waistband as you breath in and out.

Astrocytes fine-tune circuits that process the sense of touch such that one can differentiate the smoothness of silk or the roughness of sandpaper. Astrocyte receptors called NMDA receptors to listen to circuits when the sense of touch is activated (Ahmadpour et al, 2024).

In quiet observation, I bring my attention to my hands throughout the day.

As I do, I reorient my attention. If I am ruminating, worrying, or feeding thoughts that disturb my peace in any way, I can let go and check in. If under stress, the hands may be cold or sweaty. If nervous, I may be fidgety. But now, I am aware that I am experiencing stress or nervousness and I can attend to myself. 

This morning, for example, I began to brood as I was getting ready for work. Lost in thought, I went about preparing mindlessly (default mode network). I could not hear the birds singing. I could not see the sun rising. I could not experience the cold touch of the wood on the soles of my feet. Aware that I was unaware, aware that I was ruminating and that the thoughts were agitating my mind and disturbing my peace (salience network), I returned my attention to what I was about to do (executive network). Ironing was my meditation practice. I brought my full attention to the task- could feel the handle in my hands, the heat rising from the iron to tickle my arms, the back and forth motion of my shoulders.   

By bringing my attention to my hands, I celebrate the simple things. I brush my teeth, the toothbrush twirls between nimble fingers and thumb. I dress, the fingers clasp and position the buttons through the button holes. I slip on my shoes and marvel at the complexity of tying shoelaces. I play piano, each finger working the keys. My ability to accurate estimate the timing and termination of these actions is mediated by the striatum. The striatum is part of the brain’s circuitry that performs central clock processes, essential in controlling executive functions such as motor coordination, learning, planning and decision-making, as well as working memory and attention. Successful performance of working memory, attention, decision-making and executive function requires accurate and precise timing, usually within a millisecond to a minute. Cilia protrude from the brain cell surfaces like antennae, working as a signaling hub that senses and transmits signals to generate appropriate reactions and help time movements (Alachkar, 2022).

I cut open a loaf of bread. I clap along to a song. I gesture to catch someone’s attention. I signal directions. I speak with palms open. The supramarginal gyrus interprets tactile sensory data and is involved in perception of space and the location of the limbs and hands in space. It is also involved in identifying postures and gestures of other people and is a part of the mirror neuron system. I caress my daughter's cheek. And like this throughout the day, I remain mindful of all I can express and create with my hands.

When I sit to meditate, the hands may be cupped one on top of the other, in a mudra (e.g. index fingers touching thumbs), or resting on the lap. However the hands are positioned, we can notice a lot of different touch sensations finger to finger from the pulsing of the heartbeat to the texture of the clothing if we are resting them in the lap or on covered knees.

Nerve fibers called CT afferents clustered in the arms and back can make people feel pleasant sensations when those areas are brushed or stroked. In the Bon tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, there is a yogic technique called tsa lung. In one of the exercises, a practitioner rubs hands together, then rubs the face, arms, back, and legs. In traditional Chinese energy healing, there is a similar practice called the qigong massage. The practitioner massages their arms, back and body. Today, science helps us make sense of these ancient practices.

Touch dampens the brain's response to pain. Touch and pain signals are processed in the brain’s somatosensory cortex (Wang, et al., 2022). So simple practices, like rubbing the temples or massaging the arms, can help alleviate pain. Researchers say this is because pain-responsive neurons in the brain quiet down when these neurons also receive touch input.

There are movement based meditations like yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and walking meditation that not only improve mobility, strength, and flexibility- but exercise the brain. Sensations at the neuronal level can be modulated by body movements research suggests (Kawatani et al., 2024).

Getting Out of Your Head

Bringing attention to the feet is a technique many practitioners use when they are stuck in their heads. Our feet become the object of focus. 

Throughout the day, I'm on my feet, walking from one location to the next. Walking meditation is a practice onto itself. 

Control over the simple mechanics of walking or running is complex. The mesencephalic locomotor region (MLR) of the brain sends signals to neurons in the spinal cord, which send inhibitory or excitatory impulses to motor neurons governing muscles in the leg: Stop. Go. Stop. Go. Each signal is a spike of electrical activity generated by the sets of neurons firing.

The spinal cord has its own intelligence. There are two critical groups of spinal cord neurons, one necessary for new adaptive learning, and another for recalling adaptations once they have been learned. A group of neurons in the bottom, ventral, part of the spinal cord that express the En1 gene are critical to learning and recall. Learning and memory, therefore, are not solely confined to brain circuitry (Lavaud et al., 2024).

As if these processes weren't complex enough, the brain performs higher mathematics during movement. When goals are introduced, such as when a soccer player wants to run to an exact spot on the field or a running back wants to stop and pivot to intercept a catch, the brain translates a goal (stop running) into a precisely timed signal that tells the mesencephalic locomotor region to hit the brakes?

The brain performs a bit of calculus, allowing you to anticipate and predict. If I know the derivative, the rate of change of velocity, then I can predict what my velocity will be at the next step. If I know I have to stop, I can plan for it and make it happen.

The brain also performs other higher level calculations. If I am at a party and a waitress walks past carrying a tray of hors d'oeuvres and I reach for an appetizer, the brain will map my body in space relative to the tray, plan the movement to reach for the appetizer, its position is coded relative to our own body. The parietal and frontal lobe of the brain have a sort of object-related coordinate system and responds to the task (Taghizadeh et al, 2024).

Yet, it all seems so effortless- walking, running, learning a dance move, catching a ball.

Paying attention to these blessings is a gift we give ourselves.

Peace of mind is in your hands. 

Updated Aug 28, 2022

First published April 25, 2020

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