Depending on our past experiences we have different levels of sensory sensitivity. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk recounts stories of patients who have experienced severe trauma. In many cases “they could not feel whole areas of their bodies. Sometimes I’d ask them to close their eyes and tell me what I had put into their outstretched hands. Whether it was a car key, a quarter, or a can opener, they often could not even guess what they were holding – their sensory perceptions simply weren’t working” (from The Body Keeps the Score). My observations post-focal dystonia diagnosis were similar (see Mind Rich, Body Poor).
During retraining I’ve increased my sensory awareness gradually and deliberately. I raid my daughter’s craft baskets for stickers with varied textures and stick them to my flute keys. I attach bumpy, thick stickers to the G# key (for the left hand pinky) and then work fingerings that don’t involve that key, all the while paying close attention to the sensation of the pinky resting on the G#. This attention on a non-working finger seems to have increased my ability to release the whole hand as well as any dystonic movement. It’s a “sensory trick” that provides a feedback loop for my habits of tension. The release then becomes part of the muscle training, and just another habit (but a positive habit!) built into the process.
Dr. Joaquín Farias explains this further in his “Limitless: How Your Movements Can Heal Your Brain” when relating the experiences of his patient, Diego, who was diagnosed with cervical dystonia. Diego’s spasms could be interrupted when “pressure was applied to the left cheek or temple”.
“Areas of the body that are not properly perceived cannot properly be controlled (due to the neuromodulatory deficit) leading to spasms and tremors. When Diego could recognize this area of his body (the muscle in the silent zone) he could control it better. Neurostimulation improves neuromodulation. Those so-called sensory tricks are not tricks. They are pure stimulation…which when masterfully and persistently performed, wake up silent pathways, leading to movements which have been disallowed for decades…The second the muscles awakens, it is ready to be used. Its continual use reestablishes its function.”