Unwired & Soft-Wired
Thursday, April 10, 2014
by: Pat Buchanan, PhD, ATC, PT, GCFT, Chair, Esther Thelen Research Committee

Section: Art of Living

In the last issue, I wrote about the advantages of sleep, including its role in clearing waste products from the brain, learning, and memory consolidation. Anecdotally, lessons in the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education have helped many wired people unwire and settle down for more restful sleep.

Twelve of thirteen teachers reported having students fall asleep during both Functional Integration® and Awareness Through Movement lessons®. Fourteen teachers answered questions about student-reported effects of lessons on sleep. Excluding “don’t know,” teachers most frequently reported their students had these responses:
  • 57% often slept better
  • 4% often fell asleep more easily
  • 35% often slept longer
  • 46% sometimes took a nap when they normally would not
  • 43% sometimes fell asleep more easily
  • 36% sometimes slept longer
For students, 65% reported they had fallen asleep doing an Awareness Through Movement lesson and 42% had dozed off during a Functional Integration lesson. Excluding “don’t know,” students most commonly reported these effects:
  • 65% often slept better
  • 65% often fell asleep more easily
  • 48% often woke up fewer times
  • 31% sometimes took a nap when they normally would not
Several responders offered their favorite lessons or types of lessons for aiding sleep, including:
  • Breathing lessons
  • Rolling lessons
  • Bell hand
  • Pelvic rock and roll
  • Shoulder clock
    Alexander Yanai #23 Palate, mouth and teeth
Undesirable changes to sleep were not often reported by students (0%-12%)or teachers (0%-14%). So, here is more support, and perhaps inspiration to researchers out there, to consider more rigorous study of the effects of Feldenkrais lessons on the brain and its regulation of sleep. Meanwhile, many of us know from experience that certain Feldenkrais lessons can help us settle down for a good night’s sleep, cleansing of our brains, and cementing of new and refined learning.

But, wait! There’s so much more about our brains!

Back in 1994, Indiana University professors Esther Thelen and Linda Smith published an academic book entitled A Dynamic Systems Approach to Perception, Action and Cognition. It caught the attention of Feldenkrais® Trainers who brought that book and Esther Thelen to the attention of the Feldenkrais community. Many viewed their findings from years of research with infants and children grounded in the principles of self-organization, interrelationships, and processes of change to be highly descriptive of what happens in the Feldenkrais Method.

It wasn’t light reading, but Esther Thelen, who became a Feldenkrais practitioner, could tell the stories of the research she and her colleagues conducted in a way that brought new insights and inspiration to people needing guidance to improve their lives and to the professionals who assist them.

The Esther Thelen Research and Education Fund and the Esther Thelen Research Committee are named to honor her contributions to the Feldenkrais ® community.

One of Esther’s colleagues was Michael Merzenich, a pioneer in neuroscience and brain plasticity. Before I became a student and friend of Esther, I met Dr. Merzenich, who calls himself Mike, in San Francisco in a visit arranged by certified Feldenkrais Assistant Trainer Felicia Trujillo. Years later, with Esther as a connection, Mike was happy to give the keynote address at the 2012 Feldenkrais Method Annual Conference. He was among the first to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the scientific community that brain organization changes throughout life. His research began decades after Moshe Feldenkrais argued this point and demonstrated it repeatedly through the improved functioning of his students.

Like Esther, Mike has the ability to communicate in the language of the scientists and the language of the people who need to benefit from neuroscience research. His career has focused on the brain’s capacity to organize and reorganize, but always with the awareness that the brain is situated in a body that senses, feels, thinks, acts and engages with the environment. Recently, he published Soft-Wired for all of us who need the insights and inspirations from his life work and that of his brain research colleagues. It is a story-filled, what-to-do and why guide book for making the most of our brains. You can, of course, do the traditional and start reading at the beginning. You can also do the non-habitual approach and just pick a random chapter or one with an inviting title and jump in. Each chapter is informative, entertaining, and readily applicable. For those wanting more details and references, Mike placed all of that on the book’s website at www.soft-wired.com.

Here’s my personal favorite chapter title: “Can’t I Just Take a Pill?” Dr. Merzenich argues that we are capable of maintaining, healing and recovering our health to a greater extent than what pharmaceuticals alone can offer us. Yes, medications can be incredible tools, but they are not comparable replacements for eating well, engaging your brain, and getting regular physical activity. Here is my summary of several points Mike makes about the form of activity we should participate in to benefit our brains as well as the rest of our bodies.
  • Get at least 30 minutes of mindful activity a day; as adults, we need to move, move, move as our current abilities permit.
  • Tune in, not out during your activity; skip the mindless distractors as you exercise and play.
  • Notice the feelings and sensations and quality of movement, not just the outcome of the activity.
  • Pay attention to your internal and external worlds, what’s happening within you and around you.
  • Move your attention around; notice the carriage of your head, the placement of your feet, the shape of your hands, etc
  • Include variation in your activity: postures and positions, weights and resistance, speeds, surfaces, patterns of movement, etc.
  • Do whole body movements when possible, instead of relying on weight machines that control much of everything for you and allow only isolated movements.
Hmm, this sounds a lot like what we advocate in the Feldenkrais Method! Similar to what Moshe Feldenkrais proposed, Mike writes, “If we are serious and systematic enough about it, all of us can find many ways within our own achievable performance repertoires that can contribute to more effectively exercising our brains to sustain and grow its fitness.” (p. 236)

Mike shares more common ground with Moshe regarding the value of mental imagery when he states further on p. 236 that “...mental exercises have substantial neurological value.” Throughout the book, he discusses mental imagery and stresses the importance of mental exercises in various forms: from being able to mentally reconstruct a scene, to regularly taking on new and varied activities, and to continually using and refining existing skills. A prominent way he and his team are applying these learning principles is through computer-based training. He originated this approach over twenty years ago as a way to help children with learning disabilities improve their language skills. The movements while using a computer may not be large, as is true with some Awareness Through Movement lessons, but they involve actions of the eyes and hands, positioning of the head, etc. Mike firmly recognizes that learning is embodied and that the skillful use of attention is essential to learning. These are essential elements, as Moshe put it, of “learning how to learn.”

Mike goes on to summarize Soft-Wired: “Brain plasticity is the stuff of life. As long as you’re alive, it’s with you as a precious, exploitable asset. Don’t neglect to take full advantage of it.” (p. 251)
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