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.

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.


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.