Fear and regression

Moshé Feldenkrais lived through extremely hard times, at the epicentre of huge political crisis, ethnic and religious conflicts.  Pogroms, the organized massacre of a particular ethnic group, in particular that of Jews in Russia or eastern Europe, were such a frequent activity that the word “pogrom” was coined to refer to these riots. As a child and later a young boys Moshé directly experienced such events, in my opinion only the sense of insecurity and the desire of a better future could push him to leave his house aged 15 to a difficult journey toward the British mandate Palestine. Once he arrived in Palestine the complex relationship with the local Arabic population started, conflict and fights accompanied the birth of Israel. In a brief lapse of time dictatorship took power in most European countries.  Few years later the second World War saw such a period of regression in the core set of moral values that allow the human species to share our planet to cast doubt about the future of our specie.

There are thousands of page written about the origin of the second world war conflict analysing in detail the economical, social, cultural and political mood in the years leading to the conflict.

A less discussed approach, present in Moshé Feldenkrais books,  look at the emergence of the dictatorship and wars as due to the promptness of the automatic instinctual response under extreme stress and insecurity. Both individual and society to face an immediate danger revert back to simplified responses. An existing species survived adopting a certain tactic and it would be very challenging to modify such a tactic for a different one in hard time. The hedgehogs still curl up in front of a moving car, despite such strategy is clearly not the best one for that situation.  Such a strategy is however effective in many circumstances and the loss of individual hedgehogs along countryside roads does not seem to have an impact on the species.

If we consider possible causes of extinction for us the humans,  external causes, like meteorite induced climate changes, are beyond our control and relatively unlikely, internal causes are mostly related to our own behaviour, in particular to the instinctual component that has been fundamental for the evolution of our species  but that we need to recognise and  moderate to be able to survive.

Two tropical fish of the same species are in an aquarium with many others of different species, as soon as they spot each other they start to fight, in the confined space of the aquarium the fight will only end once the weakest will die. Once the concurrent is dead the fish remaining, in most cases,  will not show any aggressive behaviour against the fish belonging to the other species. Konrad Lorentz in his beautiful book “On aggression” discusses the aggression amongst member of the same species in the framework of the evolution and he suggests possible reasons behind aggressive behaviours. He also discusses the importance of rituals to reduce the aggressive behaviours within a given community.

It seems like we are again near the edge of a sharp transition where due to an oversimplified response we are not able to recognise members of others tribes as similar to us.  The current mood toward foreigners in Europe reflects mostly  a fearful attitude toward differences that are considered so substantial to consider as “others” people not belonging to our tribe. The dream of Europe was first of all a desire to enlarge  the European tribe so that catastrophic conflicts would not occur again. We should never ever forget this aspect when we think about Europe.

Brexit in my opinion is similar to the hedgehog response to the danger represented by a car,  integration presents many danger and unknown, however the reflex response does not seem adequate to address such issues.  Hopefully, the slowing down of the actual exit process will be beneficial to moderate the gut response.

I am still learning

My first memory of Francisco Goya paintings stems from a recently resurfaced memory of my father copying one of his autoportrait; that picture was constantly staring at me and as a child I didn’t like it at all.  Only later I startaun-aprendo-421x574ed to love Goya paintings, mostly the black paintings and the “caprichos”, but the one that I most cherish is a very small piece of work “Aun aprendo”, that received very little attention.

Compared to Goya production is almost nothing: An old man, with a white beard, leaning on his sticks to move forward. Except that Goya made this small drawing when he was very old, between 1828 and 1828. In 1828, the year he died, he was 82 years old.

By that time Francisco Goya was almost blind but still experimenting with lithography, a technique just developed, so he was not merely repeating himself. Goya was really still keen to learn as witnessed by the old man lively eyes.

It is a moving image to think about a man, toward the end of his days, still willing and capable to learn and experience new possibilities.

What are the limits of human learning? Is it still possible to learn regardless of our age?

This is a fascinating question, that received for many years a negative answer, based mostly on the idea that it is not possible to alter a hugely complex system, like our brain, without disrupting it. This view was also supported by two related findings: imprinting and critical periods.

Imprinting was first noticed in birds  and  fully explained by the Nobel prize winner Konrad Lorenz, who devised several clever experiments.   Lorenz split a large clutch of greylag goose eggs into 2 groups.

Konrad Lorenz

The control group was allowed to hatch normally and the goslings followed their mother around.  The second group of eggs incubated and Lorentz was the first thing the goslings saw  when they hatched. These goslings followed him everywhere (imprinting).
When he marked the goslings as to which group of eggs they had hatched from and then let them out together from an upturned box, each gosling went straight to its “mother figure”.  Today the possibility of  imprinting in a bird a human parent figure is used to reintroduce birds into the wild, as dramatized in the movie “Fly away”. An important aspect of imprinting is the existence of an extremely narrow time window, the critical period where imprinting is possible. Many phenomena  occur only in very narrow time windows, in birds the formation of sexual preferences is also related to a critical period, as well known in falconry. In mammals usually the word attachment is used but a very similar pattern emerges with the formation of bonding and sexual preferences having to occur at specific time.

The notion of a critical period was proposed in relationship with absolute pitch recognition, language learning and binocular 3D stereo view.   3D stereo view has been studied for centuries, Charles Wheatstone  was the first to suggest that “… the mind perceives an object of three dimensions by means of the two dissimilar pictures projected by it on the two retinae …”, however this can only happen if the eyes are correctly aligned. In babies the eyes are almost completely independent, they can sleep with one eye open or look in two different directions, until, between 3 and 8 months, the eyes become correctly aligned and at that point it will become extremely challenging for him to misalign them. The degree of alignment is not the same in all humans, Oliver Sacks for instance had a spectacular 3D vision, and it is possible that 3D vision can be the discriminating factor between a good and an amazing basketball or football player.

However if something went wrong, for instance the length or the attachment points of the muscles controlling  each eye are too different the brain can’t merge the images; amblyopia can develop with the formation of double images in the brain and in some cases the removal of the disturbing ghost image. Obviously with only one eye at work 3D vision is impossible.

For this reason, once such vision troubles are spotted, the advice is too intervene as early as possible. A late intervention would leave vision impaired forever, except that, as living beings we should know that nothing is forever.

In “Fixing my gaze” Susan R. Barry narrates her moving experience of discovering 3D stereo vision at 46 using vision therapy, what was considered completely impossible till recently. Her description of the feelings she experienced during the recovery is beautiful and  vividly report the sensations experienced during an intense reshaping of the visual and motor cortex.

At the very beginning the new function is unstable and, especially in stressful situation it vanishes again, moving toward consolidated habits, progressively the function becomes stable and unconscious.

Most important: It is not enough to use the eyes to see, we need to integrate vision with the other senses, in particular touch, to understand the world.

Susan R. Barry describes her perceptual shift whilst she was trying to locate the projection of a rope circle on a wall, in her words[1]:

“I’m not sure,”  I said hesitantly. “I think its on the wall”

Dr. Lessmann handed me a long pole and instructed me to place the tip of the pole in the center of the rope circle so that it touched the wall. I put the tip of pole in the center of the rope circle but I couldn’t feel the wall. It was disorienting,[…] much like the sensation you have when you descend a staircase and underestimate the height of a step. […] Eventually I hit the wall.

“Give the wall a hard tap,” Dr. Lessmann commanded.

I did, and, in a single moment, everything changed. The rope circle shrank in diameter and appeared to float in front of the wall

This is one of the best description of Functional integration, a change of the perception of reality is achieved through the convergence of the senses. A similar convergence of senses is described by M. Feldenkrais in the “Case of Nora”[2]. He realised that her eyes were no longer coordinated after a stroke and he conceived a device to allow her to achieve the eye convergence, similar to the one described by Susan R. Barry. The fact that such perceptual shifts can happen at 46 opens new perspective to possible recovery.

[1] Susan R. Barry, Fixing my gaze

[2] M. Feldenkrais, Body Awareness as Healing Therapy: The Case of Nora

Spine Mobility

horse-430441_1920In her book, Mindful Spontaneity [1], Ruthy Alon describes the organization of the spine in detail, here I will limit myself to briefly discuss  some ideas about the spine.

As we know, the spine is composed by 24 vertebrae usually divided in 3 areas, 7 cervical, 12 dorsal and 5 lumbar.  The head is directly supported by the small and  very mobile cervical, whereas the pelvis are hanging from the lumbar also very mobile. Most people suffering from back pain usually refer to the lumbar area.  The dorsal vertebrae in the middle provide the attachment points for the ribs forming the thoracic cage.   Beside its structural function the spine also includes a variety of muscles, joints and nerves, what can make back pain excruciating.

When a good intentioned physical instructors or parents tell us to straighten our backs, what is the image of the spine formed in our mind? If we look at pictures of the spine from the side, it is far from straight, it has two pronounced curves.

In reality,  an healthy spine is constantly adjusting when we move around; if the flux of information is free to travel along the spine  a position change in the pelvis is transmitted up to the neck and modify the head position;  changes in the ankles and feet are reflected in the pelvis. The whole body is connected. If the spine is intentionally or unconsciously held in a given position the flow is interrupted and the vertebrae community does not work together.

In such situations some of the vertebrae, usually the cervical or the lumbar have to overcompensate the loss of mobility of other parts of the spine.

Why some parts of the spine suspend their contribution to the community? It is probably not possible to enumerate all the reasons; some can be related to medical conditions , others to habits,  others to psychological conditions.

Thomas Hanna in his book, Body of Life [2], discusses the “red light” reflex as a possible cause of alteration. The general idea is that a body organization having a specific purpose is constantly maintained,  regardless of muting circumstances.  Moshé Feldenkrais discussed the specific organization associated with anxiety, Peter Levine more recently discusses trauma and its relationship with the body.

The vital organs need to be adequately protected in dangerous situation, the thoracic cage protective role is elicited in all these responses. Muscle contraction is useful to protect the vital organs, on the other hand flexibility is loss when muscles are permanently tense.   In the long run, any change in the body has its counterpart in the somatosensory and motor cortex.

The brain needs to experience  again alternatives to give back the freedom to the dorsal vertebrae and a correct range of movement to the other vertebrae. An headstand is a powerful way to change the usual arrangement of the spine, however it can be perceived as dangerous, so it can be difficult to relax unnecessary muscular contractions.

This consideration holds for all the situations perceived as dangerous,  a very important aspect of a successful Feldenkrais lesson is the creation of a safe environment where learning can take place, so each lesson is an unique exploration that needs to be adapted to the person receiving it, staying close to the present range of possibilities and offering alternatives.

[1] Mindful Spontaneity: Lessons in the Feldenkrais Method by Ruthy Alon
[2] Body of Life: Creating New Pathways for Sensory Awareness and Fluid 
Movement by Thomas Hanna


Wonders in the smallest of things — Thank Feldenkrais!

It is the first time I share a post from another blog, so I do hope it will work:

Only a careful and loving observer can see tiny daily changes, but soon new abilities, that the world will recognize, will emerge from their combination

Life becomes about micro achievements, With bounding impact, Beyond its humble act. The blowing of a single bubble, Through the mini wedding favour, Produced by a monumental feat, Of spoken combination of woof and the letter f. After many many lessons, He does it, For the very first time. Lifting the kaleidoscope to his eye independently, With an […]

via wonders in the smallest of things — Thank Feldenkrais!

On Learning

Library of Babel

“Cela, n’importe qui pourrait le faire, mais les combinaisons que l’on pourrait former ainsi seraient en nombre infini, et le plus grand nombre serait absolument dépourvu d’intérêt. Inventer, cela consiste précisément à ne pas construire les combinaisons inutiles et à construire celles qui sont utiles et qui ne sont qu’une infime minorité. Inventer, c’est discerner, c’est choisir.”

Science et méthode J.H. Poincaré

If we substitute “inventer” with “apprendre” this sentence of Poincaré could be easily applied to organic learning. The major difference being that initially, without previous knowledge, a baby has no way to discern the useful from the useless combinations. She has only few instincts, pain and rewards to guide her  exploration of the world. Her brain nervous system and body are constantly changing in a given environment. Her sensations and feelings will assist a development that is inevitable if no accidents occur. Myelination may not be complete before adolescence or even late adulthood, pruning, disappearance of certain reflexes will all happen independently  of her actions.

Despite this continuous change of the body and brain landscape the baby will learn, discriminating actions allowing to align correctly her eyes from the ones who leads to blurry visions, actions who allow to reach the plastic bees dancing on her cradle from the ones who will send her hand to crash on the side of the cradle, and sometime an unintentional action will produce a rotation of the neck or of the torso; The consistence of the repeated accident will help to adjust the movement and the intention wiring neurons together in her unique individual way till an organized pattern will emerge.

Once the development is complete there is a lot of redundancy in the system and we can see that many adults when hit by stroke maintain many functions intact and can use those as basis for their recovery. In cerebral palsy, such organization had not the time to develop, so what  happens if something went wrong at birth or during the gestation like in cerebral palsy?

Paul Doron Doroftei gives in his beautiful book several examples of living with such a condition.  J.L. Borges description of the books on the shelves in “The Library of Babel” applies perfectly

“This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences. “

The Library of Babel,  Jorge Luis Borges (1941) 

Even in cases of modest damages, if learning is: “throwing away useless combinations… to find out sensible lines” the thousands of senseless cacophonies and incoherences, determined by an alteration of muscular tonus, makes neurons wiring completely chaotic.  The normal development is completely altered and an external aid is necessary to extract order from such chaotic arrangement.

One of the most important aspect that Feldenkrais discovered is the ability to quieten the system, being able to redistribute and rebalance the muscular tonus. Only once this has been achieved movements can start to make sense again and correct wiring can take place.




Is muscular strength important in headstand?


This is the picture that probably gave M. Feldenkrais his fame: Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion performing an headstand in 1957. Mistakenly this picture is often associated with Ben-Gurion doing Yoga. In reality, Ben Gurion suffered from extremely painful back pain and Feldenkrais became his teacher. Feldenkrais realized during conversations with  the Prime minister  that he had never been able as a child to do an headstand and he thought him to boost his confidence and also to relieve the weight on his lumbar vertebrae.  According to the date of the picture Ben Gurion was about 70 years old when he learnt his headstand.  Apart from  leaving me with hope about my own ability to learn to perform an elegant and effortless  headstand, such as the one in this video,

the image raises a question about what is really necessary in order to perform and headstand.

Ben Gurion does not give the impression of a very strong man in this picture, but he can stay there in this awkward position; once he learnt it, apparently he used to practice this posture every morning as it gave him relief from his back pain.

My yoga teacher always points to “core strength” as a key feature to achieve this position.I think that the same concept applies to many motor ability where we use strength as a poor substitute for lack of coordination.

Strength is needed if you want to really push toward the sky the legs, whereas the key mechanical requirement is the correct alignment of the vertebrae and the rotation of the pelvis to lift the legs, once you learn this aspect you reach the position effortlessly. Part of the weight is transmitted through the hands but the alignment of the vertebrae is fundamental as the cervical are much smaller than the lumbar vertebrae and a transverse component of the force can result in an injury. Psychologically the difficulty is related to the instinctive fear of falling that can cause unnecessary contraction and unwillingness to rotate the sacrum.

In fact the headstand in Feldenkrais view seems to me achieved through a controlled fall as can be seen in some lessons preparing for the position, where the final part of the fall is also practised in a reversed way. The idea is to perform a “carp” jump from standing with the knees bent where the whole of the spine moves up and if enough momentum is given we can find ourselves almost on the head.

Reflecting on headstand is another way to explore conceptual differences between Yoga and Feldenkrais, I discuss the different approach to breathing here. Whilst Feldenkrais always looks for paths of effort and pain minimization, extreme postures in yoga are achieved in some instances despite pain and muscular effort and, in the specific case of headstand, extension of the muscles is searched in the position. This is a consequence of a desire to achieve an “ideal” posture. The very definition of ideal posture is, in my opinion, wrong in Feldenkrais, as the status of the neural system determines the distribution of tonus and the posture. Creating options in the motor cortex via neuroplasticity can improve the posture only if the posture is compatible with the absence of pain and strain in the individual.

In the initial learning phase strength can help to achieve the desired result and it can be useful, however to achieve improvement the unnecessary effort needs to be reduced over time and when strength is not readily available the movement needs to be learned in the most efficient way.  This feature is common to elderly people and children, a baby learning to sit has reduced contractile strength in his muscles compared to an adult and the head weight is massive compared to the rest of the body, so he has to organize the whole of his body to reach the sitting position and he will fall hundreds of times before he learns to recognize the vertical alignment that provides support for his heavy head.

The vagus nerve and the middle ear

In this fantastic interview Stephen Porges talks about his theory. There are many striking points. One in particular regards the role of the modern vagus, the ventral mielinated branch, on the tonus of the middle ear muscles (minute 23).  Lack of tonus can occur as consequence of a stroke, and one of the consequences can be tinnitus and the hypersensitivity to certain sound frequencies. Such hypersensitivity is also common in autistic children and it can be a response to reduced tonus in the middle ear muscles, due to a bad regulation of the vagus. This dysregulation could result from the lack of normal response to other humans, whose origin is still unknown and maybe due to an anomaly in the mirror neurons,   that can generate a continuous feeling of insecurity.

I think that this could be one of the first experimental evidence providing support to the work of Alfred Tomatis and Guy Berard.  Tomatis and Berard theory  are looked as unproven in the best case by the medical establishment, even if there are reported miracles by parents of autistic children, and as scam in other cases. Surprisingly placebo effects in surgical knee operation at reducing pain and other symptoms in  patients suffering from torn knee cartilage do not prevent to continue to intervene in these cases. Not to mention other operations as tendon lengthening, still performed in palsy children to “improve mobility”, without considering addressing the impulse to shorten the muscles coming from the brain that can make the initial relieve provided by the surgery useless after a short time.

Using Feldenkrais  affects the tonus of the muscular systems in many ways, it would be nice to directly measure the tonus of the stapedius after and before a session, certainly we can see changes in the visible tone of the facial muscles.