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By Shannon Kolman, MBA, GCFP
Ideas about the human brain have shifted dramatically over the last few decades, in leaps equivalent to the shift from believing the earth was flat to the realization of a spherical world. Less than 30 years ago, most scientists assumed that the brain was fixed or “hard-wired.” The belief was that after childhood the brain ceased to grow new cells and thus the brains only significant change was its decline down the spiral of old age.
Cut to 2010, when scientists are able to use high tech scanning devices to observe how the brain functions in response to various stimuli. Scientists now know the brain can continue to grow throughout our lives and that it’s extremely changeable with the right stimulation. This new science has been labeled neuroplasticity; neuro as in neuron and plastic as in changeable, malleable or modifiable.
With new technology, scientists have been able to “map the brain”, or stimulate micro segments of a body part to see exactly which area of the brain lights up on the scan. It was during brain mapping research that the idea of neuroplasticity was first encountered. In his book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge, M.D., describes a process whereby the brain maps of several monkeys’ hands were produced. Scientists then surgically crossed the nerve (or physical wiring) for the index finger with the nerve for the thumb. After this alteration, scientists expected that when they stimulated the index finger (with the nerve for the thumb) they would see the thumb portion of the brain light up. Instead, the index finger portion of the brain still lit up. The brain had overridden the hardwiring and changed it’s processing of the information—the brain was not fixed, but adjustable and changeable.
Scientists also discovered that when one finger was completely restricted from use, the brain maps for the adjacent fingers began to grow and take over the portion of the map now unused by the finger. This proved that not only is the brain changeable, but there is competition in the brain for utilization. Suddenly the phrase “use it or lose it” has real meaning. If portions of brain maps, or neuro-pathways, are not used, they will be taken over by maps or pathways for other body parts, motions, and actions that we actually do utilize.
What does this mean to us “every day folks”? Think about your average day. You get out of bed, probably the same way each time, drive to work (often on auto-pilot), and work, which for many people means sitting at a desk, moving very little, and performing repetitive tasks (including repetitive thinking). The average day for many does not include much novelty and thus does not stimulate the brain to develop new neuro-pathways or strengthen areas of brain maps that are beginning to fade. Our brains are not growing; they are, in essence, dying. We then wonder why we can’t do all the things we used to be able to do. It’s simply because the pathways or maps for those actions were taken over by the maps for the actions that are repeated over and over and over.
So, how do we keep our brains growing and changing in order to “grow young”? The answer lies in our ability to continue learning. By learning, I am talking about the function of organic learning, such as solving a problem, coming to a realization, discovering something novel, or finding a way of doing something through your own exploration; not the function that is usually referred to as learning, which requires only the act of memorizing or copying something that another tells you.
The Feldenkrais Method® offers an avenue for the type of organic learning necessary for continued brain growth. Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais understood the necessity of learning in the continued development of the nervous system. He defined learning as the ability to change our response to the same stimulus. In his book Body & Mature Behavior, Feldenkrais presents his fundamental theories regarding human development and learning. Early in the book, he compares man and other animals, and notes “it is the nervous system of man that is different.” He points out that at birth the human brain weighs about 300 grams or approximately one-fifth of its ultimate weight as an adult. In contrast, the brain of a new born gorilla or chimpanzee is already about two-thirds of it ultimate adult weight. Humans, of all animals, are born with the smallest fraction of their ultimate adult brain.
Feldenkrais states “animals with a more fully grown brain come with ready-made reactions to external stimuli.” Animals thus have little capacity for learning. Humans must acquire or learn most of their responses to stimuli, even basic responses such as eating, walking and talking. Humans are capable of learning any possible combinations of functioning, which is clearly evident in the individual styles of walking, talking, posturing, behaving and thinking of each human.
Infants and children are natural learners; always playing and exploring with various ways to walk, talk, roll, make faces, laugh, sit, and stand on their heads. Children are constantly “testing the waters,” taking in new information, and thus stimulating new patterns or new combinations of neuro-responses. As adults we stop playing, our actions and thoughts become rote; we stop learning.
In his book Awareness Through Movement, Feldenkrais states that “for every person who feels the need for change and improvement, it is within the limits of practical possibility, bearing in mind… that the learning process is irregular and consists of steps, and that there will be downs as well as ups.” Perhaps one reason adults stray away from true learning is this process of ups and downs – we are no longer willing to fall off of our preverbal bikes. We stop finding it funny to fall flat on our faces as we did as kids. The outcome is that our self image, which is constructed at least in part by our brain mapping, is as Feldenkrais states “smaller than it might be, for it is built up of only the group of cells we have actually used.” He goes on to say that “the various combination of cells are perhaps more important that their actual number.”
So, how do we continue to engage in vital learning throughout our lives? In the words of Abraham Maslow, “one can choose to go back to safety or forward with growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.” In his foreword to Body & Mature Behavior, Feldenkrais® practitioner Carl Ginsburg, Ph.D. states “the simple message of Feldenkrais is that we do not have to know all the scientific details to live well … he (Feldenkrais) developed the notion of awareness as the key to opening a learning space to transcend conditioned behavior and action.”
This idea of awareness as the key to learning is also supported by neuroplasticity research. In one experiment, presented in Dr. Doige’s book, researchers mapped a monkey’s sensory cortex. They then trained the monkey to touch a spinning wheel with his fingertips using a specific amount of pressure for ten seconds in order to receive a banana-pellet reward. For this task, the monkey had to pay close attention, as only the correct amount of pressure for the correct amount of time would yield the reward. The researchers found that the brain map of the monkey changed significantly in response to learning this new activity as new neurons began synchronizing together and firing more powerful signals. Additionally, the change in the brain map was long lasting. In contrast with other experiments where the task at hand did not require much attention and could be performed automatically, the monkeys’ brain maps changed but the changes were not long lasting.
The Feldenkrais Method offers a way of learning, through movement, that allows for significant, overarching, and lasting changes in the brain and entire nervous system. The Method employs the use of the whole self. Thoughts, feelings, senses, and movements, with directed awareness, engage the entire nervous system in a way that causes new neurons to fire together, creating the development of new or strengthened neuro-pathways. In 1982, Feldenkrais stated, “I’m not interested in the movements themselves, but how you do them. Any movement that is different and is explored over and over again can actually reorganize molecules in the brain and alter the way we send impulses. Reorganizing the sensory motor part of the nervous system to a state where you can begin to function better makes you feel better; not because of the exercise, but because you’re reprogramming and reorganizing the nervous system to heal the muscular system.”
In Feldenkrais classes, we are offered a safe place, a sort of laboratory, where we can learn again to roll on the floor, grab our feet with our hands, re-sequence an action, reverse a behavior, think in a new way, and even stand on our heads if we like, without the worry about anyone seeing us acting childlike or looking silly. To feel younger, you must act younger. After practicing the Feldenkrais Method, most find they feel more vital, stimulated, and somehow younger. Our brain maps can once again be full of boundless pathways, highways, avenues, throughways, expressways, intersections and roundabouts. This allows us to respond to our environments more youthfully, in many various ways, and to start using it instead of losing it.
Shannon will be teaching a half-day Feldenkrais workshop, “Revitalize Yourself,” on Saturday, July 17th, at 1:00-5:00 pm. The workshop will be held at A Living Arts Centre in Denver and will include Awareness Through Movement®, a short film, movement explorations, and discussion.