Close your eyes and imagine standing in the grass with your bare feet.  Now go and actually take off your shoes and stand in the grass. Thanks to our recently-developed prefrontal cortex, the human mind has powerful capabilities both to imagine and to gain pleasure from imagining desired events.  However, imagination can only take us so far. Chances are, the sensations realized are different and more vivid when you actually experience wiggling your toes in the grass than they are when you just think about doing it. The same is true for therapy and learning.

This is partly because our brain is heavily adapted to receive information about our sense of touch. After vision, touch is the sense with the most space in the brain devoted to processing its signals. Biologically, it was one of the oldest communicative systems primates had. It is also the first system babies use to process information, and its influence remains throughout human adulthood.  Because of these reasons, it’s long been surmised that people learn more effectively through hands on experience, and many learning institutions strive to provide tactile learning into their curriculum.  In fact, there’s an entirely new area of teaching that incorporates haptics, a way for students to feel what three dimensional objects through robotics and computer tools.  For instance, a dental student can feel what a soft spot in a tooth feels like by holding an instrument that is programmed to relay the same resistance and pressure points that an actual tooth with a cavity would.

Though many aspects of how touch aids learning are just beginning to be explored, many classic therapeutic practices takes advantage of the kinesthetic learning system.  One comes in the form of closure and requires a helium balloon with a string tied to it and a permanent marker.  You write on the balloon whatever it is that you can’t let go, whatever you need closure for. It may be more than one thing. Then you stand outside, hold on to the string, let it go, and then watch the balloon (your trouble) disappear.

Years ago, I struggled with the transition from one very big stage of my life to a new one, and the counselor I saw suggested this practice.  I got four balloons, drove out a dirt  road to the tallest hill I could find, and wrote down one thing I felt was holding me back on each of them. A broken dream, a person I couldn’t forgive, a guy acting like a jerk, and the judgement I felt from others.  All at once I let them go, relishing the feeling of them leaving my hand.  Now I probably wouldn’t do the same because I know what balloon litter can do to unsuspecting birds, but I came up with an alternative of floating a wooden plank or something down a river if I ever needed the same release.  Another tested theory is to practice squeezing and releasing a rope while thinking of holding and letting go of whatever grief you’re holding on to. The point is the same. I can feel the absence, the leaving.  It’s concrete because I was there and can connect to that tactile sensation of release.  While of course some of these things were still around me when I got in my car and drove home, I felt that through this one practice, I could distance myself from them. I felt like it was possible to let them go. This is how I described the feeling at the time.

banksy balloon girl (the original one)

Banksy’s girl letting go of balloon


I fasten my troubles
To a small wooden raft
Place it in a river
My fingers hold it back
Standing on the shore
Watching the river flow
It takes all my strength
To let the raft go
With one last deep breath
And a lump in my throat
I say goodbye to the raft
And away it flows
I pour all my fears
In a helium balloon
Tie a string to the end
That I hold on to
Standing on a hill
Seeing the world I can have
If I release the balloon
Nothings holding me back
So I compose myself
Focus my eyes
Feel the string slip through my hand
And away it flies

This is just one example. Some people wanting to break down the metaphorical walls in their mind will actually take a sledge hammer to drywall. Some people who need to lose control will hold on to an object that can’t be controlled. Some looking to develop trust will walk blindfolded led only by another’s voice or touch.

If you can find a way to connect mind and body to work towards the same goal, you will have a greater chance of retaining the progress you make toward it.