Saturday, December 29, 2007

Cart ruts: More about UN-doing something

In reference to Just UN-do it:

Some more thoughts have occurred to me since I wrote that post relating the activity of UN-doing to learning processes. (Perhaps this will turn into a start of the deconstruction of that interesting term either Feldenkrais or his student Hanna came up with, sensory-motor amnesia.)

First of all, we must remember that motor pathways or any other kind, once learned, are not really erased, but can be weakened or strengthened according to the tenets of neuroplasticity; if not entirely extinguished, they can at least be eclipsed by laying in new pathways over top. Receptors are constantly being torn down and new ones built, potentially sensitive to other substances (see extinction learning).

If you can introduce new behaviors or motor activities that counter others, this should in theory provide the brain with an opportunities to select options. "Not-doing" options can be reshuffled with/shuffled into "doing" options by executive function, and a movement created that is optimal in the moment. It may not be the fastest or most spectacularly athletic, but it should be at least sufficient to get the job done and not hurt - over a whole life span. I think yoga is a form of (non)exercise that (ideally, if done correctly) trains the brain for doing just that.

What does this mean? Think of a cart pulled by a horse. Think of the driver of the cart as the executive function of the brain, with access to information and ability to choose from a variety of options. Think of a cart rut on a grassy plain, a track that has been worn by repetition. Driving the cart deliberately in the rut every time might seem like the most sensible, efficient thing to do - after all the rut is smoother, in the straightest line from A to B, but the horse (brain) already knows it so well the driver ends up practicing monotony, being bored, daydreaming - which, on another level, are all ways of exercising self-reinforcing neuroplasticity (mental cart ruts) as well.

Remember, neuroplasticity can lead to bad habits just as fast as to good ones.
If the driver wants to exercise neuroplasticity s/he will do well to practice making new cart ruts deliberately.

A wise cart driver knows some things that horses may not; that boredom isn't good, that grass can re-grow and hide ruts (ruts can heal if left alone), that a new rut may be bumpy at first but will smooth with time, that taking a new route will not only assist nature by allowing regrowth of grass but will stimulate the horse to greater capacities as well, of observation and alertness.

Making new trails through the grass will require more deliberate attention and simultaneous quelling of ordinary anxiety, the kind the brain produces whenever you ask it to do a new thing. There will be some resistance, in other words, probably, from the brain/horse. In yoga, deliberate slow deep breathing easily overcomes this feeling. Practicing relaxing into each position three times (not in a row, but three times total in a single session) gives the executive function (cart driver) and the brain (horse) an opportunity to witness improvement necessary for positive feedback, which builds success, which in turn greatly enhances the learning.

Deliberately choosing new ways of moving/not-moving can build a better repertoire, a greater selection of cart ruts to choose from should external conditions change: for example, sticking with the metaphor a bit longer, if it rains hard, or the river floods and there is standing water on the grassy plain, some of the more well-worn (deeper) ruts may be too full of water and mud to be an efficient route anymore. If the driver has seen this possibility ahead of time, and has some other routes in mind to take instead, the load can still be delivered. Furthermore, if other ruts have been created and practiced, perhaps none of them will have become so deep as to be impassable in spite of bad weather or circumstances.

It is all about having taken some time to build in more options, just in case.
In terms of motor output (being able to do what you want to be able to do, on through a whole lifetime, without pain), building in options has to do with spending time with your body before any pain problem that might arise, and paying close attention to it, just out of curiosity.

If pain is already a feature in one's life, the good news is, one still can learn to "UN-do" un-useful movement patterns, or recover useful ones. Some special props or extra help might be needed, that's all.

Finally, I don't mean to make this post sound like some sort of long advert for yoga - there are many other movement therapy systems that can help achieve the same long term goals. You can make up a new one if you want! The key features are breathing, attending, enjoying, producing feedback for all systems, gaining information, and playing with the overall speed of an activity (especially slowing it way down), practicing something on the other side of the body for the novelty of it and to regulate pathway building.


Eric Matheson said...


I like the wagon rut metaphor to describe neuroplasticity. It is similar to one I use in which I describe a trail system through a forest. If everyone (read neural impulses) walks along the same trail, it stays well maintained. If someone veers off into the woods, and few people follow, then a few more, before long a new trail will emerge. Meanwhile, in time, foliage will grow over the old trail and it will become harder to find.


Strengthen Your Health said...

Brilliant metaphor, Diane - as usual. I especially liked your comment re: quelling anxiety.