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-lorenz2
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?

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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.

 

Functional Integration: an exploration

A woman in her late sixties, acute pain in the left shoulder area, right handed.

Supine at the start with her legs bent.

I started trying to feel the level of freedom in the head rotation, the head is held in place strongly.  I reduce the movement to a tiny suggestion. the reaction is non uniform,  sometimes the movement is exaggerated, sometime is resisted.  I notice a variation in the breathing but intermittently intentional movements and change of position.

Mostly left arm and hand, but also right arms, legs with the feet resting only partially on the mat.  The head relaxes slightly and the breath changes, becoming more abdominal. Both shoulders are lift from the mat, I start to feel the right shoulder blade and to exaggerate the lift and to perform small simple movements of the shoulder blade away and nearer the column and toward the head and the feet, I start to feel the weight of the shoulder in my hand and a reduction of the muscular tension, but as soon as I reduce the lift, the muscles contract again.  Slight push travels to the feet with some dampening, all the muscular system  seems overexcited with excessive tension in the whole body. Keep working on the right side, exploring the arm movement and relation with shoulder blade, rib cage.  Again difficulty to quieten the system, I have troubles getting the weight of the arm, If I let it go it is kept, if I try to move I experience an oscillatory behaviour from continuing the movement or resisting it.  I reduce amplitude and speed and things slightly improve, try to have her to resist more and reduce the resistance progressively but again it does not help much.  I decide to try to feel the  lower body, staying on the right side, there is a good flexibility in the right ankle in terms of lateral movements,  the region near the Achilles tendon is contracted and there is little room for movement of the foot, now I understand the issue with the feet not touching the mat properly with the knees bent.  I work around the sole to elicit the gravity reflex.  There is not much change in the muscular tone, maybe I need to be more patient next time.  I move the foot using the lower leg muscles and feel the tonus, try the push pull, dampening still there but improved transmission. I check the hip joint flexibility and it seems quite good, better on the left that on the right, but much less jerky movements and holding on.

Turning on the side, moving like a rolling pin gives a good response, free of jerky responses and the same applies to exploratory movements to verify the ribs mobility.  I think that maybe it is enough as it seems to me that this newly found response is already beneficial, I decide  to stop the lesson at this stage, hopefully it is a better place.

Standing she is not aware of subtle changes that I can notice mostly in the position of the head now less forward.

 

Movement and attractors

Breathing is an extremely interesting process, it can be completely automatic, and we do not think about it, but some branches of the vagus are directly related to the lungs and
Yoga teaches to move by adopting a specific learned breathing pattern so they create an association between an activity and a breathing pattern, others like Feldenkrais seek in my opinion to dissociate the breathing pattern from physical activity.
A lion does not think about its breathing whilst is chasing a gazelle or mating. A way to think about what happens when we dissociate the breathing from the movement pattern or the distribution in spaces of our body is by analogy with a complex dynamical system, as suggested by E. Thelen. The exploration of all the possibilities does not reinforce equally all the possible neural paths but select amongst them a specific attractor.
To clarify this view, let’s think about alternated fingers tapping at a given frequency. This task is easily performed but at a certain frequency the alternated movement can not be sustainable. An even more striking example is provided by the gait that, depending on the frequency, changes considerably with walking and jogging no longer sustainable above certain frequencies. Doing things slowly is hence necessary as it allows a thorough exploration of the movement possibility that above given frequency is not possible.
Further discussion of this point demands a more detailed distinctions of rhythmic and reflex movements and voluntary movements and pauses a question about the possibility of changing the frequency where a voluntary movement is reverted to an alternate one.

Organization of voluntary movement -1

A voluntary movement is characterized by the intention of performing it and despite it is slower is much less limited and stereotyped than reflex movements; Voluntary movements can be performed to different level of proficiency by different individual and the ability of executing them is clearly influenced by learning.  What do we mean by learning and do we have a recipe to learn effectively?

Very often when we attend a gym course or a swimming class we are instructed to move in a certain way but we can obtain very similar results performing actions that to a trained eye are very different. Voluntary movements are largely dependent on the motor cortex, this is a region of our brain that we can imagine as a dynamic (plastic) map of our body with each part extending accordingly with the functional role of the limb represented (i.e. the thumb is huge compared to the torso) and adjacent region in our body close to each other; a notable exception are the genitalia (close to the feet) and my guess is that this is related to the foetal position where they are actually close together.

A closer look reveals that the border between these regions are not only
dynamic (e.g. remapping of phantom limbs on other parts of the body) but also not so well defined, a stimulation of the map corresponding to the region of the feelers in rats once the feelers were disconnected after few hours started to produce movements in the anterior limb; either the interpretation of this study is not easy it is possible that the face
map also has some connections with the anterior legs and the removal of the link with the feelers can facilitate such connection.

Another aspect that is extremely interesting in a Feldenkrais perspective is that if two similar actions are performed with different forces (e.g. grabbing a ball) some neurons in the motor cortex decrease their discharge with increasing the force, whereas they discharge when fine control is required.

We learn in Feldenkrais classes to do less during the learning process, i.e. reduce the amplitude and force of the movements, Feldenkrais discussed this in term of the Weber-Fechner law, that Stevens modified in 1953, the idea of the law is that reducing the amplitude of the stimulus we can appreciate more subtle differences and hence learn.

The more modern approach seems to implicate that besides the aspects related to the Weber-Fechner law a small movement is qualitatively different from a large movement not only with respect to the increasing our sensitivity and possibility of learning but also in term of the cortex areas activated.

Interestingly this also poses a problem as learning through small/slow movements might not be completely effective to correct the large/fast ones if the areas activated are different but probably the overlap areas are large enough to have an important influence.