Movement is an intrinsic attribute of animals. As we form from the building blocks of life, guided by our inherited blueprint, we lay out the arrangement of bones, muscles and nerves that defines our species. We also lay out the basic control circuits that enable us to make use of these tissues. These circuits are called Locomotor Primitives, or Reflexes, and are imprinted – as distinct from learned behaviors. These imprints are so intrinsic to movement it is likely that they derived from a common ancestor to birds and mammals, about 400 million years ago. This paper supports this statement:
Building the muscles and skeleton of locomotion is just half the story. Animals need to activate an “App” that translates this hardware into intentional movement. They do this in utero and as infants by running the reflexes until they respond efficiently to specific stimuli. Up to this point the response can easily be triggered by its stimulus, but once efficiently running, it should become dormant. This enables the stimulus/response mechanism to be integrated into more complex movement patterns. In most mammals this process is nearly completed in utero. However, in humans reflexes continue to mature through our first two years of life, as we integrate these primitives into ever more complex foundational movements. This is the system behind conscious movement – we don’t actually pick up a cup, but rather trigger a modified/conditionalized hand grasp reflex, a movement potential our animal ancestors were using in different ways to escape from dinosaurs.
Reflexes can reach the “dormant” phase in two distinct ways – they can fully mature, a process that easily happens naturally in a native environment, or their mode of action can be inhibited if they are integrated into more complex movements before full maturation. A common example is a child that learns to walk early. Children in a native environment may still be working with a modified version of crawling at two years of age. In industrialized societies it is not unusual to encounter children younger than 1 year who are already walking. Whatever level of maturation the crawling reflexes attained before the child got on their feet is “locked in” as the locomotor primitives are put to work – you shouldn’t change the way an airplane flies while it is in the air. The DVD “BABIES” graphically illustrates cultural influence on development.
The compensations and adaptations that replace incomplete reflex maturation can express in our movement and posture, sensory processing abilities, emotional regulation and cognitive capacity, usually concurrently in all of these areas. A simple example is that if you cannot easily turn your head, you will be more vigilant for threat to compensate for the deficiency in spatial awareness. The stress of this vigilance diminishes our capacity to handle change, can trigger “irrational” emotional responses, and color our thinking. As the motor function for head turning in the horizontal plane (Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex) becomes more engaged, our situational awareness improves, the vigilance diminishes, and we have access to the energy previously absorbed by this reaction available to positively respond to changes in our situation.
If the function of a reflex is understood, it can be taken “off line” and coached in it’s further maturation. Identifying reflexes that may benefit from additional training is the role of the survey in this website. The exercises linked to the survey results are known to guide further maturation of their associated reflex. Working with reflexes is something of an art as well as a science, and if you feel that more specific and focused worked would provide benefit, or you are working with a child with developmental challenges, working with a professionally trained therapist is recommended. I have not included specific reflex exercises in this site for this reason, but rather more global integration movements that address multiple reflexes. These more generalized patterns are described as Movement Archetypes. For most of us, understanding the context of the stimulus/response pattern, and general training in that context, are adequate to return a noticeable benefit.