On having no brain

If you were to ask someone for the mailing address of their thoughts, they would probably point at their own skull. That’s where the brain lives, right? “Yes, absolutely,” says your brain. Brains say a lot of things, though—many of them wildly inaccurate. Ask anyone who’s wide awake at 3 AM for a sampler platter.

Here, I’ll give you a concrete, exercise-related example of moving away from skull-centric thinking. Take a look at this picture of a squat. What do you see? And what do you think this guy sees?

The most common technical error in a barbell squat is to pitch forward. Ask most personal trainers why that happens and they’ll rattle off a bunch of anatomy. Tight hamstrings. Weak paraspinal muscles. Lack of glute engagement. I think the answer lies elsewhere. Maybe the real problem is that he is thinking with his brain.

Anatomically speaking, the most exposed part of the brain is the optic nerve. Shine an ophthalmoscope into someone’s eye if you want to get a glimpse of their optic nerve—hidden just behind the retina.

Image Credit: American College of Ophthalmology
Image Credit: someone’s brain

Technical errors like the one above occur when you want to attain a certain position but evaluate things from the wrong address. That guy wants to go lower, so he drops his head to create the illusion of depth. His thinking lives in his skull instead of his hips. As a result, his perception does not match his actions. The answer isn’t stronger glutes; it’s to remove his head.

Douglas Harding was an English philosopher who describes his first experience of having no head here:

“It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snowpeaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.”

Image credit: On Having No Head by Douglas Harding

Harding describes a more Zen view of presence. But it tracks. Your brain will do all kinds of miraculous things unrelated to the task at hand. These are noise. To quiet it, you can move your brain anywhere you need. In this case, your hips might be a better place to think from. The muscles and tendons surrounding them are filled with mechanoreceptors that will tell you about mechanical pressure, stretch, and your position in space. All without extra noise. By changing the geography of your thinking, you leave the Statler and Waldorf of your brain behind and simply experience movement where it lives.