June 4, 2017


"One of the things I love about massage," said a client yesterday, as I was packing up "is what it does to my vision. I feel like I can see so much more clearly."

I have the same experience: I step out of a massage room and the world seems much brighter, sharper, clearer. I would love to know if this is an objective, measurable effect. I suspect that it is. One day I worked my sister-in-law's neck and shoulders, because she had a headache, and after a few minutes, lifting her head and looking at the opposite wall, she said, "wow, I can read the print on that poster now. I couldn't, when you started."

Some of this effect -- if objectively real -- may not be very mysterious. The eyes are focused by tiny muscles that attach to the eyeball, and they're likely to be involved, willy-nilly, in the "hold still and make no sudden moves!" general orders that the brains sends down in response to pain or fear. With pain relief and a sense of security, the general orders should be rescinded, and the muscles should recover their nimbleness and do a better job. That's perfectly understandable.

The mysterious part is that my vision doesn't just seem as good as normal. It seems better than normal, better than it's been for weeks. And that sense that my whole body just works better -- in some difficult-to-describe way -- is the main reason I get massage. It's partly the relaxation, of course -- lying down in a comfortable place for an hour accounts for some of it. But the effect seems larger than that, and it lasts for several days.

There are explanations for this effect that, while widely believed, don't hold water. The effect of massage on stress hormones (cortisol and so forth) appears to be so minimal that it's not really worth mentioning. The supposed flushing of toxins has been thoroughly debunked. The energetic explanation seems to be circular, if not nonsensical ("I feel better because my energy has been rectified, and I know my energy has been rectified because I feel better.") True or false, it doesn't take us very far.

So here's my guess, for what it's worth. We live in conditions of high stress, minimal movement, and (in some ways) extraordinary physical comfort. Soft beds, silky fabrics, and well-padded seats are normal, for us. Our nervous systems are not designed to deal with this little input, and a couple bad things happen because of it. One is that we get phantom pain. Just as our brains produce tinnitus -- in the absence of sound perception in a certain range, it gets alarmed and makes up noise in that range,  apparently considering that any signal is better than none -- we get those weird, variable, hard-to-place pains that massage therapists often end up fruitlessly chasing. The pain is real enough, just as the ringing in the ears is real enough, but you're wasting your time looking for the bells.

The other thing that happens -- and this is what I'm driving at now -- is that sensory perception and motor responses may get blurred and muddy. There may not be enough day to day feedback to maintain clear and distinct brain maps of the body. There's a famous experiment in which a brain researcher taped two fingers of a monkey together for several weeks. By the end of that time, the two separate brain maps for the two fingers -- brain maps are actual physical regions of the brain used for analyzing sensation and directing movement -- had merged. The two fingers always did the same thing and felt the same way, so the brain, being thrifty, discarded the extra map. At that point, the monkey could no longer move the fingers separately, even when they were untaped: it would have to remake the separate maps before it would be able to feel and move the fingers separately again.

I speculate that something like that is going on in our excessively padded, sedentary lives. The range of movement and sensation and motor-feedback that most of us experience is extremely limited, especially compared to our ancestors on the savannah. This level of comfort was not in our design specs. It may not be accidental that the sort of massage we favor seems to have arisen in Turkey a couple of centuries ago. The comfort of the Turkish upper class then was routinely commented upon (disapprovingly) by European travelers: their soft sofas and cushions, their pillows and carpets, struck Europeans as dreadfully decadent. Now we all live like Turkish pashas: a bare wooden chair or bench has become a rarity, and sinking into an easy chair or a couch to watch TV strikes us as ordinary relaxation, not as self-indulgence.

It might do us good to be less comfortable, some of the time. It would certainly do us good to move more (but we all already knew that). In the meantime, we can jump start ourselves with massage: remind ourselves how good it feels to be able to bring the senses to a sharp focus, and for the body to be well-tuned and responsive. There's a more vivid life available.


  1. This is fascinating, I know I've had a lot more health issues since trading my job waiting tables for sitting at a desk 40 hours a week, they aren't always that substantial when sought after, either. One thing to share is that sketching in the woods also improves my vision, when I pack up and leave I see so many details, so much light and color I feel altered. I definitely don't bring a sofa with me when I sketch, I had attributed it to paying attention more.

  2. Or maybe it's the limbering effect of focusing on near, middle, & far distance? Sitting at a desk usually means your eyes don't get to focus on anything more than a couple feet away.