I think anyone who studies “alternative” health, healthy living and well-being has heard of and probably to some point practice self massage. Even I have spoken about self massage along the healing path energy of Element Mountain over the years. Throughout the years I myself have practiced self massage as a one method of my self-care. On a basic level I have found benefits to the practices, but I must say that I have always been rather disappointed with the extent to which self massage seems limited.
When we look at the benefits listed for massage therapy they appear to be almost endless. Health issues from chronic pain to Alzheimer’s, heart disease to anxiety , eating disorders, depression, fibromyalgia, sexual dysfunction, cancer and probably hundreds of other health complication titles are said to be touched, eased and even cured through proper massage therapies. Is it any wonder why there seem to be just about as many massage therapy modalities as health conditions around the world? Not in my mind.
While this is all good and well, is self massage as effective as all the claims? I used to self massage my hands, feet, legs, shoulders, neck, face, head, arms and all parts of my body on a regular basis. It was one of my well-being rituals you might say. However, I must state that I did not do it because I always felt huge benefits from the practice. No, rather I did it out of the trust, hope and sheer will to have the self massage practices actually do my body good and to bring about health benefits. Over years and years I began to lose hope that self massage was doing all that I had hoped it would as well as read and been told it would. Yes of course I even placed my heart and pure healing and self care/love intentions into the practices. After all, when I do something I do it to the fullest and best of my abilities or I do not do it at all.
This got me to questioning the act of self massage and all the claims about it. I began to get frustrated with the lack of solid results and soon started abandoning the fullness of the practices after a while. Today I do very little in that department as I once did. I hit the basics but that is about it. Since I did not find the results I sought I of course asked myself why. Through the pursuit of finding an answer to that question I both looked within as well as to more physical and technical reasons.
What I found was interesting and to me made perfect sense. It follows the same reasons we have a very difficult time tickling ourselves. I am not very ticklish myself and it has been a source of frustration and wonder to my wife. So for me to try tickling myself is seemingly impossible. But what of other people who are ticklish? Why is it they cannot tickle themselves?
It all comes down to the part of our brain known as the cerebellum. It is aware of movement and sensation associated with movement. However, this sensation register has to do with the awareness of our own movement as opposed to the movements around us and not of our own body. When we are touched by something other than self, the cerebellum kicks in to register that sensation. It triggers other areas of the brain to respond to the sensation. If, however, we touch our self the cerebellum does not trigger other areas of the brain to respond, but rather it neutralizes the response reaction in the rest of the brain. It can literally anticipate the movement and associated sensation and sends electrical impulses to the rest of the brain to stand down.
If we bring this further we find two unique regions of the brain and mainly responsible for registering the sensations of touch. The area called somatosensory cortex responds and sends processing signals to the rest of the brain in response to touch. The brain region that registers pleasant feelings is called the cingulate cortex. Each of these regions are far more active in their registrations and processing actions when feeling sensations created in the body from outside sources. When we create the touch and pleasure sensations of the self, those two regions are far less active and therefore have less physical sensation responses science tells us. This is because of the automatic brain to body anticipation processing that happens with self touch.
Yes it has also to do with the body’s natural survival instinct reactions of self protection. The brain responds far more intensely to external stimulation than self stimulation.
Touch is touch and the sensation registering in the brain follows the same pathways at the start. It is what kind of physical sensation the touch creates through the brain that determines which avenue the electrical sensations move along, pleasure from the cingulate cortex or perhaps fight or flight from the amygdale. Tickling is actually a state of stress and survival reaction as opposed to a sensation of pleasure. Massage runs along the pathway generated by the cingulate cortex.
Self massage takes physical exertion on our part and is very self anticipated. This automatically kick starts the somatosensory cortex. This in-turn deactivates the rest of the brain, to a point, in registering the self touch sensations. Obviously this then dulls down the self massage sensation and therefore benefits of it. When we get a massage from another person, one that we trust, the somatosensory cortex registers sensations as external and since they are pleasurable, activates the cingulate cortex. This region then stimulates all other areas of the brain and endocrine system that allow the vast benefits of massage to manifest.
So yes self massage is beneficial of course. It is, however, not as beneficial as external massage origins because our brains are wired to respond to external touch far more intensely and completely. This is why hugging the self is far less effective that getting a hug from someone else you care about. Our bodies have very little hair compared to most mammals for a reason. We have evolved as a species to rely upon and require touch from the world and from one another as part of our overall well-being. Our overall lack of body hair helps to primitively bring us closer together as humans. Massage is one of those special ways that can not only help bring us together, but enhance well-being and through that process make us feel accepted, needed and belonging. Massage assists to bring us out of our sense of isolation within the perceived self (limitations and isolation within flesh) and connected to life, to everything beyond time and space through the sensation of touch and pleasure.