Share this article on:

Everything Important In Life I Learned From Neuroscience

Field-Fote, Edelle C. PT, PhD

Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy: December 2011 - Volume 35 - Issue 4 - p 155–156
doi: 10.1097/NPT.0b013e318238e053
Editor's Note

The author declares no conflict of interest.

At our recent Neurology Section strategic planning meeting, we had lively discussions about cultivating our members' hidden talents and fostering partnerships with other APTA components to achieve common goals. In regard to the latter we kidded that, after all, even ortho physical therapists must acknowledge the neural influences in the lives of their patients. After the meeting, facing an 8-hour flight back to Barcelona where I am currently on sabbatical, I got to musing about how neural influences permeate every aspect of our lives, and if we think about it, many of the clichés that encapsulate the truisms of human life are grounded in neuroscience. With lots of time on my hands, I decided to make a list. Here's what I came up with, I'd enjoy hearing about others of these “neural correlates of life” that you may think of:

Cliché 1: Some people see a glass that's half empty, others see a glass that's half full. Neuro translation: perception is all in your head. The neural processes that underlie perceptions are only partly determined by the actual sensory input, the way we evaluate the meaning of sensory inputs depends to a large degree on stored memories of prior experiences.1 To some extent we have a choice in how we interpret sensory input, and this interpretation determines how we respond to it. The glass has water in it, and YOU decide whether it is half empty or half full.

Cliché 2: Smile and the world smiles with you. We know that emotion and expression are inextricably intertwined, the expression of an emotion can actually bring on the neurophysiologic state associated with that expression,2 because emotion and expression evolved together in the development of the limbic system. This close connection between emotion and expression can be used to our advantage. Want to feel happier? Smile, laugh even—your emotions will follow. Want to feel more confident? Act as if you do, and you will feel as if you do. Further still, we have the power to influence positive emotions and feelings in our patients and colleagues, as emotions are contagious,3 and attuning ourselves to the emotions of others can increases their responsiveness to us.4

Cliché 3: Practice makes perfect. In light of the burgeoning research related to neuroplasticity, this could be the defining cliché of our content area. Practice has always been one of the tenets of neurorehabilitation and now, with studies of experience-specific changes in neuronal structure and function5 and evidence of the influence of exercise on neurogenesis,6 the science is finally catching up to our clinical practice.

Cliché 4: Follow your heart. OK, so this one may have only an ancillary relationship to neuroscience, but relates to my own life and neuroscience career. When I was a young girl growing up in Maine, I was (in all modesty) the world's most phenomenal whistler. I could whistle anything and I loved to whistle—I'm sure I could have made it to Carnegie Hall on this musical talent. Well, at this time, in addition to whistling I was also taking gymnastics lessons. As it happened, in this class of 8 or so adolescent girls there was also one boy, Jimmy. One day we were waiting in the reception area for our class to begin and I started whistling. The receptionist (who was a stern older lady who could strike fear into our youthful hearts with just a glance) said “I can tell there's a boy in this class.” Well, I wasn't about to let some boy get credit for my musical talent, so I piped right up and said, “that wasn't Jimmy, that was me.” And her next words dashed my hopes of achieving world renown as a whistler. She said, “Young ladies don't whistle.” So I didn't. And I didn't again until I was in college, but by that time I had neglected my gift for too long. Now I can barely squeak out a tune. But had learned a valuable lesson. In the early 1990s (when few physical therapists had ever heard of a central pattern generator), I was captivated by the studies being done on turtle scratching and decided I would pursue this in my dissertation research. You can imagine the advice my friends and colleagues gave me: “what use is expertise in turtle scratching going to be for a physical therapist researcher?”—but I decided that the lesson I had learned from the whistling experience was not going to be wasted, and I would pursue the work that I loved. Since that time body weight supported locomotor training, which builds strongly on what we know about central pattern generators, has become commonplace...and I have learned that turtle scratching has more to contribute to our understanding of human walking than I could ever have imagined.

Cliché 4: Be yourself. Each individual is a unique collection of neurons and synapses, with stored memories and experiences collected over a lifetime. Never before and never again will this collection be assembled and connected in the way it is in you. And because of this, each of us will contribute to the history of the world in a way that is uniquely our own. Whatever these are, these unique talents of yours—celebrate them, share them—be the best you that you can be. Before he died, the 18th-century Hasidic Rabbi Zusya said: “In the world to come they will not ask me, “Why were you not Moses?” “They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?'”

So when you see the eBlast from the Neurology Section about how you might want to contribute your unique talents to grow our section—think about your unique skills...and don't ever let anyone tell you not to whistle....

Note: Please read the President's Perspective in this issue, wherein Dr. Deborah Larsen provides an excellent summary of the process and outcomes of the Neurology Section Strategic Planning Meeting and opportunities for members to get involved.

Back to Top | Article Outline


1. Cunningham WA, Zelazo PD. Attitudes and evaluations: a social cognitive neuroscience perspective. Trends Cogn Sci. 2007;11:97–104.
2. Levenson RW, Ekman P, Friesen WV. Voluntary facial action generates emotion-specific autonomic nervous system activity. Psychophysiology. 1990;27:363–384.
3. Wild B, Erb M, Eyb M, Bartels M, Grodd W. Why are smiles contagious? An fMRI study of the interaction between perception of facial affect and facial movements. Psychiatry Res. 2003;123:17–36.
4. Kuhn S, Muller BC, van der Leij A, Dijksterhuis A, Brass M, van Baaren RB. Neural correlates of emotional synchrony. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2011;6:368–374.
5. Adkins DL, Boychuk J, Remple MS, Kleim JA. Motor training induces experience-specific patterns of plasticity across motor cortex and spinal cord. J Appl Physiol. 2006;101:1776–1782.
6. van PH, Shubert T, Zhao C, Gage FH. Exercise enhances learning and hippocampal neurogenesis in aged mice. J Neurosci. 2005;25:8680–8685.
© 2011 Neurology Section, APTA