Why Massage is Like Chicken Sexing

A day-old chick

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve written before on this blog about how manual therapists can develop some very questionable ideas about exactly how they are helping their clients. Like thinking they can manipulate energy fields, chakras, chi or cerebral spinal fluid patterns. Interestingly, my own observation is that many therapists who believe the craziest things actually get some pretty good results! How could this happen? How could they get good results without knowing how they do it?

There are probably very many good explanations. I thought of a new one while reading an excellent book called Incognito, by neuroscientist David Eagleman.

The theme of the book is that most of the activity of the brain is completely inaccessible to our consciousness. The brain is thinking and solving problems all the time, and our conscious selves basically have no control over these processes or even knowledge of them. We become aware of answers to problems long after our subconscious brain has been working them out.

The conscious brain is like a CEO who is handed a final product that has been slaved over by thousands of workers for years. The CEO might have provided some general guidance for the basic process (and might even take all the credit afterwards) but he or she knew nothing about 99% of the actual work that went into making the product.

So when problems are being solved and things are being figured out, the conscious brain is often the last to know. Which brings me to the topic of chicken sexing.

Chicken Sexing

When chicks are born, farmers often want to figure out which ones will be someday be laying eggs and which should be fattened for meat. Deciding whether a chick is male or female is much harder to do than you might imagine, because chicks are more androgenous than a 1980s pop star. So farmers hire special employees called chicken sexers to determine who’s a boy and who’s a girl.

The interesting thing is that many of the world’s best chicken sexers seem to have no real idea at all how they make the call. They just pick up a chick, look at its butt, then decide that it’s either male or female. When its time to train a new chicken sexer, they don’t give the trainee a procedure to follow or a set of criteria. They just tell the trainee to look at the chick’s butt, ask them to make the call, and then tell them if they are right or wrong. Sooner or later the trainee learns to make reliable decisions, but never develops any conscious understanding of how they do it.

Card Picking

Similar principles can be seen in a more controlled and scientific environment. In one interesting study, volunteers were asked to pick a card from one of two decks. Some cards were “good” and provided monetary rewards while others were “bad” and caused losses. Further, one deck contained more bad cards then the other. The question for researchers was: when would the players learn which deck to pick from?

It took players about twenty five draws before they stated a preference for one deck over the other. But their unconscious brains figured things out much quicker. How do we know? Because the researchers monitored physiological data from the players’ skin to determine the state of their autonomic nervous systems (the “fight or flight” system.) After as few as thirteen picks, players were showing some anticipatory fear prior to choosing a card from the bad deck. In other words, they were already getting an accurate idea about which deck was bad, before they had any conscious awareness of having that knowledge.

Back Rubbing

I think that many massage therapists are kind of like chicken sexers. Their unconscious brains figure out what makes clients feel better without ever gaining any conscious awareness of how they do it.

A massage therapist needs to make many decisions every minute. Where do you push, how hard, at what angle, at what frequency, for how long, and with what part of your body? Many therapists will deny that they have any specific criteria for answering these questions, or even that they consciously consider them at all. They just start working and their hands seem to have a mind of their own.

And if you ask them what they are doing, they might not be able to give any kind of specific explanation. Whenever I asked my Rolfing teachers what they were doing when they were giving a demonstration, they usually said something like: “I’m having a conversation with the shoulder”; or “I’m listening to the hip” or something similarly ambiguous. They really didn’t know exactly what they were doing or why. But they were definitely doing something right, because when they put their hands on you, you knew right away they were experts.

Conscious Incompetence

The lack of conscious awareness over the actual methods used in a massage session might have some advantages. When you are learning a new skill, you need some level of conscious attention to perform the skill. But once you get good at it, the unconscious takes control, and at this point, too much conscious involvement can hurt performance. This is why you can sabotage your skills with too much self conscious analysis. Imagine trying to hit a pressure putt in golf while thinking about whether you breathe out at the point of contact.

This reminds me that Ida Rolf (the creator of Rolfing) and Moshe Feldenkrais, (the creator of the Feldenkrais method) each recommended that their students avoid an analytical mindset during sessions. Rolf sometimes admonished students that they were too “in their head.” Feldenkrais stated that in order to be optimally effective during a session, he had to think as much as possible in terms of creative imagery as opposed to formal logic. Even though both Rolf and Feldenkrais were trained scientists, and each proposed scientific explanations for why their methods worked, each wanted to get as far as possible from their scientific and analytical minds during a session.

I think part of what they were doing was making sure that their unconscious brains were in charge of the session, because most of the knowledge of “what works” was stored there, inaccessible to the conscious brain. They didn’t want their conscious minds to interfere with the process.

I think this goes along way towards explaining why many therapists seem to have no idea why their therapy works, why they are attracted to explanations which are magical as opposed to scientific, and why some are even hostile to very idea of applying science to massage at all.

To put it another way, I think that it is in the large gap between knowledge and awareness that magical thinking creeps in.

What do you think? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

16 Responses to “Why Massage is Like Chicken Sexing”

  1. I have been working as a Clinical Myofascial Therapist for 15 years, full time. I can’t tell you how many times a client has gotten on my table with a new complaint, not told me, but I start working on that area right from the get go. They always say, “How did you know that is what was bugging me?” I just reply, ” I can see it.” That is not to far from the truth. I have always been convinced that I see what is going on by the way the light falls on the body and the subtle shadows on the skin. I also think that I subconsciously watch how the patient moves before getting on the table. When you add the information that the patient gives you, things fall into place. Lastly, I don’t ‘rub’ anything without awareness. I would like to say I am in a zone, much like a good athlete or artist. The unconscious and conscious become one putting me in a state, a zone. My eyes are closed. I really am not listening. I am sensing the world through my fingers, through touch. That is why I tell my students, it is not about how long you have been a therapist, it is all about contact hours. Is it possible to have a wonderful healing touch without any training or conscious awareness? Watch a new mother with her new born baby. You tell me.

  2. Ross,

    Great comments, very interesting. There is certainly a lot to be said about the mindset that allows you to be in the zone. Part of it seems to involve the proper division of labor between the conscious and unconscious minds. Thanks for sharing your version of it.

  3. Excellent writing Todd. You know of my fascination with the unconscious and my careful reading of Eagleman’s book. I know you’re right about what we see and don’t consciously realize that helps our patients as well.

    The question remains; How can we amplify our patient’s unconscious expression?

  4. Thanks Barrett,

    I think I first heard about the book from you, and then it got a good review from Sam Harris so I was sold. I haven’t finished it yet but have already got my money’ worth in interesting insights.

    My answer to your question: provide the social and physical context that gives permission for expression. And your answer?

  5. Absolutely. A critical part of my routine is five or ten minutes vanilla mindfulness meditation, right before I start, to try to clear away some of the cognitive cruft that I know will just clog up my perceptions and interfere with my responsiveness to the real body that’s right here right now. There’s nothing even slightly woo about that: I just know that the part of my brain that does massage works better with minimal interference from the part of my brain that makes up blog posts about it 🙂

  6. Todd, you’ve got a great way with words.

    I’ve often wondered why I’ve “known” to do some of the things I do. It is a commonplace occurrence for MTs to have this happen and it’s easy to see why they’d succumb to magical thinking. Long ago, I decided that my hands responded to subtle changes in tissue texture that seemed to slip right under the radar of my conscious mind.

    I once analyzed, from hindsight, why it was I’d nailed it when I felt something in a dancer’s hamstrings that I thought felt like an old injury. He told me that he’d pulled it two years before and it still bothered him. I thought carefully about exactly what I’d felt that made me think “old injury.” After palpating thousands of bodies thousands of times, I realized that there are differences in the feel of the tissue when an injury is fresh, or sub-acute, or old, and my hands had learned to distinguish without my conscious knowledge of it.

    Most MTs don’t take the time to think about why the “know” something, they just accept it as part of the experience. I think I’m a bit unusual in that respect.

    I hope I am not undermining myself by not believing in crazy things! I think not. Although I “know” a lot and continue to study, when I am working, I am not necessarily so analytical but feeling a lot with my hands. I also don’t worry about “daydreaming” any more, either, since sometimes I’ve gotten the best comments from clients after sessions when my mind has been somewhere else! My hands often seem to “know” what to do on their own and if they need for me to pay attention, they pull me back in.

    Anyway, thanks for articulating this so well, Todd. I’m with you wholeheartedly.

  7. Hi Todd,

    Thank you for this. I have often compared the mark of a good massage therapist to a musician who can play Jazz. Most of the greatest Jazz players have extensive knowledge of music, an understanding of what lies beneath it so to speak and this allows them, for the most part, to be able to do what they can do : throw away all that they ”know”, out the window and improvise.

    I’ve spent a lot of time with musicians and believe this is what has made me capable of ”getting” ideomotion. ( It’s pretty fascinating to see two guys engaged in a conversation about where you can eat the best damn Crême brulée in Montéal, while playing ” On the street where you you live” and not missing the sax player’s half tone modulation. 😉

    So how does this transfer to the clinic? Well, I’m trying to understand and learn as much as I can about the ”music” ( neuro anatomy) in order to ”jam” (interact) as best I can with my client’s nervous system. But I keep in mind that I’ll probably never ”play” the same thing twice and keep, at all times, my ”ears” (hands, clinical reasoning ) wide open, for any possible modulation that my client will throw its way.

    I mean, we have to be in the ”same key” ( in constant communication) or else things will get dissonant…

    • Carol,

      Thanks for the great comment. I really like the analogy to jazz and improv. The hard thing in massage is that it’s harder to get feedback on your mistakes – in music, if you play a wrong note you know it. In massage, you might practice the wrong way for quite a while and not get enough feedback to know you are making mistakes. Also, in jazz, you can practice templates, scales, set pieces ans other forms that we KNOW make sense. The science of massage hasn’t come that far yet, so we don’t really know what we should be practicing. But I think you are right that best place to start is with the little that we do know from neuroscience, etc.

      Thanks again for the comment.

  8. One of the things I enjoy about working with others through bodywork & movement is this exact wonder you’ve brought to light. It seems by letting our hands “have a mind of their own” allows for greater creativity and discovery of possibilities that I may not be open to when being more analytical.

    I agree that when you do massage (or any activity) for a significant amount of time, you don’t have to think as much while doing it, and things can get habitual. So as much as I do enjoy letting my unconscious go, I think it’s important to revisit conscious awareness of my intentions, ie. increasing fascial glide, down-regulating unconscious reflexes, moving lymph/ blood, & frequently ask myself questions like “How can I work more effectively?” “How can I be more efficient?” “What can we improve upon?” etc.

    By doing so, do you think there’s a quality to the “unconscious” that we can affect & develop? For an extreme example, if one person did a “cookie cutter” type of massage and never thought too much about the anatomy & physiology happening within the body compared to someone who did, could the latter have developed a “higher quality unconscious”?

    The client’s history, the physical/ visual/ palpatory assessment, and whatever scientific understanding one may have does act as an important guide to our work and I think this coupled with a “refined unconscious” is a powerful combination.

    • Angelo,

      Thanks for the observations. I think the major limiting factor in developing skills in massage is getting feedback. When we play sports or musical instruments, we get immediate feedback as whether we hit the target or the right note. In massage it’s not so simple ….

  9. You can never know exactly what it is like to experience your own massage. The closest you can come to that is getting massages from someone else whose approach is similar to your own and getting feedback from people. I do a lot of self-massage, too, so I get a little experience that way, too.

    Todd, this is a great addition to the conversation about “energy work” that goes on in the MT community. While not exactly the same subject, it helps explain some of the experience we have that contributes to magical thinking. I should share it on my blog.

  10. Yes I really wish I could feel what my clients are feeling (within limits of course.) It would make things easier.

    And thanks for the support Alice, I appreciate it. I think that if we skeptical minded therapists acknowledge that energetically oriented therapists can be successful, it might make it easier for them to accept criticisms of the explanation for why their methods work. Or maybe not.

  11. Does this apply to more concrete techniques, such as Paris, who say that to improve osteokinematic motion here, we must improve arthrokinematic motion here?


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