Slaloming with flexion and extension

Once, as a child, I attempted to put on roller skates but the feeling of instability was overwhelming and I soon gave up and went back to my bicycle.

Two years ago, I started ice skating and I really enjoy the sensation. I adopted a Feldenkrais approach to ice-skating: do less, try to initiate a movement from different limbs, observe the tonus of the limbs, observe the point of pressure of the foot during various movements and mostly important… have fun!
skates-2001797_1920I spent last week in London exploring flexion and extension in various settings during the London 3 Feldenkrais training, it was a fantastic experience that would be quite long to summarise in few lines.

Last Sunday, back to the ice rink with my daughter, I was thinking about how to apply this new way of moving to a specific aspect of ice-skating and, as I always found slalom on skates quite challenging, I decided to approach it thinking about flexion and extension.

If you ever attempted to slalom in a packed ice rink,  and you are not very gifted, you will be familiar with sneakily pushing the external foot to regain some speed after you almost collided with someone, or, as an alternative, to arrive at a sudden stop after losing rhythm in a too abrupt curve.  Usually, when I practice slalom, I end up my session with quite a lot of tension in my upper legs and knees. Another important point is how you build up the speed to start slaloming; the easiest is just start with a push and make a transition into the slalom.

This time I made the choice to start slaloming using a vertical elliptical movement of flexion and extension going up through the body from the toes of one foot through the hips and the spine up to the head and down to the opposite one. I started with really a tiny movement but very quickly I gained speed without having to change much in the amplitude of the movement. I had  like 10 fast laps, where I seemed always be able to adapt the rhythm to the changing speed dictated by the mutable traffic conditions. I paused, started to do other things, and after a while went back to slaloming trying to keep this wave going whilst focusing on the sternum and the upper ribs and it all just seemed so fluid and effortless, even some transfer of the weight to the back heels; Usually the point where I panic and I tell myself, I am so in trouble now!  I am so going to faaaaall!!  bacame only a point within the wave propagating through the legs, the hips and the spine  and as such I just managed it within the comfort of the transfer of weight.

Even better when I ended my session, I felt completely refreshed and no parts of my spine and body felt to have worked too much.

The inner smile

Sucking is amongst the first actions performed in our life. Already in the womb, the foetus starts to practice to suck her thumb. Some suggest that early signs of lateralization can be related to the preference toward the right or left thumb. Minutes after the birth the newborn seeks the mother nipples to suck, at this stage the sucking movement seems to me mostly a lip action with little participation from the jaws; even if the action as in most infant activity seems to travel through her whole body.

The sucking action can be stimulated by the touch of a finger on the cheek, what probably simulates the nipple presence, however as sucking in the womb starts without any external action I think of sucking in newborns as a  “voluntary” action.

The novelties present in the after birth action are the arrival of the milk in the mouth and stomach of the baby, what reinforces the comforting nature of sucking, and satisfy a primary need of the newborn and the contact with the mother. Without considering all the aspects of breastfeeding, let’s focus on the end of the feeding when the baby “let go” of his head and shows an expression of intense satisfaction.

Is this expression a smile? If so, is it different from the social smile, seen later on in child development?

This expression is in my opinion different, despite the similarities, from the social smile. Duchenne pioneered the investigation of the muscular pattern leading to express specific emotions in men and identified as an essential feature of an authentic enjoyment smile the simultaneous symmetric contraction of the zigomatic and orbicularis muscles. Darwin in his “Expression of Emotions in Men and Animals” recognized the orbicularis contraction as a key ingredient of a smile, what gives us crow’s feet, and proposed that the social smile initiated as a suppressed aggressive gesture, due mostly to the teeth exhibition, however this suggestion does not seem supported by adequate evidence, even if it is difficult to completely reject it.

As in most human activity several complex layers are present, cultural differences can explain the observed variation of the smile frequency amongst different populations and genders, concealed emotions ranging from contempt to flirtatious feelings are accompanied with different types of smiles as pointed out by P. Ekman. The distinction between artificial and felt smile is in a certain way artificial as all of the smiles types express different emotions and it is only our limited attention to the person smiling that limits our ability to discern the emotions behind. In this sense the expression of the newborn after feeding is a “Buddha” smile, it is aggression free and free from any social pressure, it is an inner smile, the baby is pure joy in that moment and she lets us know through a wonderful expression.

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

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.