The Sole of the Matter

The Sole of the Matter

Ambling towards awareness of me in the cadence of a physical being

Hello Interactors,

Continuing on the theme of the brain being embedded in the world in which ‘we’ interact, I explore how the brain is also embodied in a biological system with which ‘it’ interacts. The brain conjures this sense of itself inside this thing called ‘me’. How do these illusions come to be inside a tangible body?

Let’s find out…

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I read a passage in a book a few years ago that fundamentally changed how I think about myself. We were fully into the pandemic, and I had started walking…a lot. I would pick a green patch on Google Maps, put my earplugs in, launch a book, and walk to my little green polygon. Some journeys stretched to 15 miles roundtrip.

As I was enamored with walking, my daughter became enamored with our local duck population. She’s since blended that love with another, Twin Peaks. This is Special Agent Dale Cooper as a duck. Source: Used with permission from Vesta Weed

So, when I was browsing one of my favorite little independent bookstores, you can imagine my attraction to a book positioned to get my attention called, “In Praise of Walking”. It’s a book on the neuroscience behind walking by the experimental brain researcher at Trinity College, Shane O’Mara. I also recommend his Brain Pizza Substack.

Walking, for me (and him), is a treat. For anyone able to walk, it should be considered a treat.

I learn a lot by walking. But walking is no longer something I need to learn. I already learned how to walk. We are not born knowing how to walk, we must be taught. We are not born knowing much at all. That includes who we are.

I was born Brad. Had I popped out with internal plumbing, I learned I would be named Becky. Here is something else I learned: I was born with a body that had already learned how to pee. That’s what I apparently did in the face of the doctor who pulled me out of the womb.

I am half constructed out of the same DNA that built that womb. Though every cell that constructed that baby Brad are long gone. The body I have today is made of different cells — a result of continuous cell division and renewal processes. Something cells have they already learned to do.

I was born a unique self only in that those cells remembered how to recombine genetically out of DNA passed down for generations. My uniqueness over my life arises out of mutations — random events in the sequencing of my own DNA. Other outside events, like what was in my Mom and Dad’s blood stream just prior to conception, can also randomly cause one gene to turn on and another to turn off.  

Those random mutations, some stemming from other random events, continued as I went from being enveloped in a warm viscous fluid shielded from light to my blinding, cold, stark reality. I was so happy or angry I peed on a human urinal. Every planned or random event that happened after that continued to shape my biological makeup — including the arranging, refining, and pruning of the 86 billion neurons in my little brain.

Location of eukaryote nuclear DNA within the chromosomes. Source: Wikipedia

I can’t remember any of this. I can’t even remember learning to walk. But I apparently did. Once out of the womb, the world around us continues to shape us. Like those early moments of DNA expression, some genetic expression is baked into our physical genes. But the constructions of those genes are influenced through biochemical reactions which are influenced by our environment. This can lead cells to communicate and conspire to create unique and differentiating genetic expressions. Even genetically identical twins evolve to have differentiated biology — including physical skills, health outcomes, and the development of ‘self.’

Early brain development is a particularly sensitive period to environmental influences. The brain undergoes development, with processes that move neurons from their place of origin to their final position in the brain, guided by molecular signals. The formation of synapses between neurons allows for the transmission of electrical and chemical signals across the brain, enabling learning and memory​.

Our neurons are then wrapped in long slender microscopic tubes made of a fatty substance that helps neurons communicate with other neurons, muscles, and glands. They can be an inch long or several feet with tiny junctions that branch off laying the groundwork for cognitive and socioemotional functions…and how to walk.

A neuron cell diagram, cropped to show a cell and the fatty myelin sheath instrumental in cellular communication. Source: Wikipedia

As we grow and engage with our environment, our brains evolve the ability to control our body's movements accurately and adaptively well into our adolescence. Learning to walk, we’re not just building muscle strength and balance, but creating and reinforcing the neural pathways that make walking a fluid, automatic process. These processes also underlie the brain's ability to adapt and learn from experience. Each successful step taken strengthens the neural pathways associated with walking.

As adults, the neural pathways we associate with walking become so well-trodden that they are almost automatic, requiring minimal conscious thought for each step we take. This allows the brain to shift its focus from the mechanics of walking to the navigation of the path ahead. What concerns us most these days isn’t the act of walking itself but where our feet are taking us.


The brain uses sensory information—sights, sounds, and the feel of the ground beneath us—to map out our environment, guide us around obstacles, and towards our intended destination in life and in the world.

And this is where Shane O’Mara formed an image in my brain that changed how I think about my brain and myself. I, like most in the West, was raised being exposed to Christian traditions and philosophies that teach the ‘self’ is an immutable soul that is unique. Christians believe the soul is God-given, inherently present from birth or even conception and this belief guides much of our social norms and laws. Many people thus grow up believing we possess some essence that makes up our identity. Lady Gaga’s 2011 hit might sum it up best in that people tend to have an oversized belief that they were ‘Born This Way.’

File:Lady Gaga performing 2011.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Lady Gaga convincing her fans in 2011 that she, and they, were born this way. “Born This Way” Is anthem celebrating self-empowerment and embracing the notion one is born with an identity regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or any other factor. Social constructivists and constructionists may take issue with how many of these traits we’re born with. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another view is that the ‘self’ is continually constructed to form an overlapping Venn diagram of many ‘selves’.1 For me, oneself is a son, oneself is a brother, a friend, a husband, a father, a former employee, a member of a community, a nation, a society, and any other ‘oneselves’ that any given situation demands. Together, they make ‘oneself’. These have all been developed, like my genes, through socialization, communication, and cultural and environmental context — through inter-place, if you will, the interaction of people and place.

More broadly, think of a human as a system of assembled biological parts, each with its distinct function yet systematically interdependent. We have a bony skeleton that supports and protects a complex array of organs. These organs include a powerful cardiac muscle—the heart—that pumps blood infused with oxygen and nutrients through a vast fractal-like network of vessels, reaching to the very edge of existence.

This circulatory system not only delivers life-sustaining substances but also carries away the metabolic byproducts with clever ways for them to be expelled. It’s coordinated with specialized systems for intake and digestion of nutrients, transforming food into fuel. The gastrointestinal tract is a winding pathway designed for the efficient processing of food, extracting vital nutrients, and compacting waste for disposal.

Containing all these gooey bits is a bag of skin. It’s the largest organ and much more than a bag. It is a reactive, dynamic interface that interacts with the world through touch, temperature sensation, and protection against environmental threats. It also plays a role in thermoregulation, maintaining internal climate through sweat and the subtleties of blood flow.

The muscular system is a Rube Goldberg web of fibers capable of delicate manipulation of tweezers to the powerful thrusts for jumping. It all remains suspended with tissue connecting muscles to bones and to each other enabling both movement and stability.

At the core is another set of muscles that operate the respiratory system, expanding and contracting to draw in air rich in oxygen and expel air laden with carbon dioxide. Lungs, nestled within the ribcage, serve as the sites of this gaseous exchange that literally breathe life into us.

Skin allows for the injection of sensory organs without springing a leak. Eyes capture light and render vision, ears detect vibrations and translate them into sound, and olfactory receptors decode molecular messages into scents and tastes.

The nervous system is an internal communication network, a lightning-fast array of signals that governs everything from the reflexive yank or a staggering reel to a cognitive think or emotional feel. It is the electrical wiring that animates our being, rooted in the brain, an organ of such complexity that it conjures consciousness itself.

When I look at these systems together, they make ‘me’. They sustain the biological necessities that enable what we call the human experience. I am a being of both strength and vulnerability, an assemblage of interdependent systems I call 'self'.

This image of myself came into focus with a simple passage from Shane O’Mara:

"As far as your brain is concerned, your body hangs down from your head, until it makes contact with the ground through your feet. You're not built from the soles of your feet up - it's more like your head is a 'castle in the air', with scaffolding reaching down to the ground."2

I imagine my brain being the one going on a walk by coordinating with my body to make sure it survives the journey. This ‘castle in the air’ takes input from the world and prunes its own neural network. In the walk of life, the brain conjures an image and belief that ‘I’ exist by enacting and interacting in ways that serve changing social contexts unfolding in front of me. Part of this image of myself leads me to imagine I exist so the brain itself can survive.

‘I’ am more like an evolutionary experiment conjured in a brain working on behalf of, and in coordination with, a biological system within which it is embodied. And ‘I’ exist in a world in which my brain is embedded, attached to scaffolding that touches the ground on which it walks. Sometimes, in search of little green patches on a map waiting to be visited.



Lowery, Brian. Selfless: The Social Creation of “You”. Harper Collins. 2023


O'Mara, Shane. In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration. W.W. Norton & Company, 2020.

Interplace explores the interaction of people and place. It looks at how we move within and between the places we live and what led us here in the first place.