Thursday, June 09, 2005

How the Brain Is Wired

Counting, rhythm, language, and learning, are all dependent on spatial cognition. Without it, learning to count is impossible, rhythm is distorted and language becomes meaningless, because it uses sound to represent abstractions like location in space. The round beaker is above the red flask, for example. All normal children have this ability, but it must be encouraged for innate intelligence to flourish.

U.S. 15-year-olds performed below the international average of 29 industrialized countries in both mathematics, literacy, and problem solving according to the most recent findings published by the National Center for Education Statistics. What could possibly impact this disturbing trend? An understanding of how movement forges neurological connections may shed light on possible avenues to pursue.

Neurologists have found that many patients impaired by damage in a specific location of the brain have difficulty with basic subtraction. They cannot subtract three from seventeen. They also have difficulty finding their own fingers. They can't tell which finger the doctor is touching. In his ground-breaking book, Phantoms in the Brain, neurologist,V.S. Ramachandra, M.D., wonders if this is a complete coincidence, since the ability to do arithmetic, and to recognize which finger is which, are both operations generated by the same area of the brain. Could it perhaps have something to do with the fact that most of us learn to count as children using our fingers?

In the brain, the areas that control movement of the fingers are adjacent to the areas that are subject to excitation when one does arithmetic. Have you ever been counting silently to yourself and found your fingers were moving involuntarily? Moshe Feldenkrais, who developed the FELDENKRAIS METHOD, found a way to stimulate memory, cognition and problem solving skills using movement to stimulate overlapping areas of the brain. Also known as a form of 'somatic education,' the Method uses a blend of consciousness, intention and movement to improve learning. In fact, Dr. Feldenkrais often made reference to the idea of 'learning how to learn.'

Why would it be necessary to learn how to learn? Don't we all know how to do that already? As it turns out, human beings take longer to mature into adulthood than any other mammal. If you look at the lifespan of any other mammal, the amount of time their offspring are dependant on the parent for survival is proportionately smaller, usually much smaller. On one end, we have the horse, the new-born foal is up and walking by the end of the day. On the other end, we have the human being, who takes one to three years to learn how to walk, and more like eighteen to twenty-five to become self-sufficient.

Human survival is dependent on learning, more so than for any other species. Without recognizing why, we already intuitively use some of these principles in our schools. Both music and athletics have been shown to improve cognitive skill, spatial coordination and self esteem. How? One reason is precisely because they require movement that stimulates adjacent areas of the brain regulating these functions. Unfortunately, perhaps because the way the brain works is still so unfamiliar to the voting public, these programs are falling in popularity. There are rampant cuts to funding for the arts in education. There also seems to be a drop in participation in school athletic programs. Why move the whole body, when you can sit at a computer and conquer the world by playing a video game with your finger? It may be time for intervention before this trend gets worse.

The FELDENKRAIS METHOD uses a class format to teach movement with a level of attention that facilitates focus. It stimulates the creative juices by teaching people how to release tension. Tension inhibits spontaneity. In a FELDENKRAIS AWARENESS THROUGH MOVEMENT (ATM) class, the student learns how work with their own psyche to regulate inhibition and exitation. They not only improve the abilty to learn, but they learn to be autonomous. The student learns self-reliance as it gradually becomes clear that they can trust themselves. There is a slowly dawning realization that the nervous system will kick in to resolve seemingly impossible movement proposals. The format of the lesson is designed to bring this innate capacity forth.

Both the ability to subtract numbers and the ability to separate out one's own fingers are, in part, based on recognizing spatial relationships. Movement that is structured to improve general coordination by definition improves the ability to sense spatial relationships. Perhaps it is time to use this principle in our schools consciously. ATM is a systematic, precise method for improving sensory awareness. Living in a virtual world, such as the world of computer games, diminishes sensory awareness. It's not enough for today's youth to relate emotionally to the popularity of the Star Wars trilogy. They are attracted to that imagery precisely because they need to be able to experience struggle, defeat, and success themselves. They need to be able to feel it, as Yoda advocates when he speaks to a struggling Luke Skywalker, "Use the force. Feel it. Yes."

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