Integrating Reflex Responses

When our automatic reflexes are working well, we rarely even notice. These extremely fast reactions happen much quicker than would be possible if we had to think through the best option for that circumstance, making reflexes incredibly useful for taking care of basic tasks. Examples include keeping us balanced on our feet while we walk, breathing, blinking, sneezing, jumping out of the way when we step on a pointy rock, putting our arms and hands out when we fall or jumping and perhaps screaming when we are startled. Although we are born with these pre-recorded responses, they are activated and strengthened through experimentation and play. As we develop, exploring our sensory sphere continually stimulates opportunities for the expression of reflex responses, and sensory feedback from the expression of the associated response reinforces and tunes the reflex. For most of these basic patterns, as they mature they become integrated as a component of more complex and generalized patterns and it can become difficult to tease out their individual response except under extreme stress, or with specific exercises.

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Body plan and reflex responses co-evolve. The structure of animal body plans defines the possibilites of how a reflex can respond, and the quality and sophistication of responses creates  new opportunities for further evolution of body plan design. The reflex triad of sensing, making choices based on what has been sensed and acting on those choices have reinforced each other with increasing complexity for hundreds of millions of years, evolving into the immense family of animal life of which we are members. Opportunistic adaptations in body plan are matched by increasingly complex ways to employ those adaptations, originally through purely automatic responses, then additionally with emotional and eventually with cognitive control. Breathing easily demonstrates how this layered processing works. We breathe without ever having to think about it at all, fully automatically. Awake or asleep, our bodies continually monitor our oxygen requirements and regulates our breathing accordingly. However, emotional responses may anticipate future energy needs by intensifying oxygen absobtion. Additionally, even when our emotions are firmly in control, we can still willfully take control of our breathing. Here we are focusing on the most ancient control mechanisms, automatic stimulus response patterns, which we call reflex patterns or responses, or simply reflexes. The emotional and cognitive mechanisms are far too complex to be so simply examined, and are the purview of psychology and philosophy. However, the primitive reflexes are the trunk from which branches of more sophisticated response mechanisms extend, and it is easily observed how dysfunction of the trunk influences its most distant offshoots. For example, the neck reflexes are linked to vision through their control of head position. When the neck muscles don’t act coherently, visual processing is compromised, leading to reading and comprehension challenges. It is common to see reading improve through exercising the head positioning mechanism relative to balance and vision.

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As with our emotional responses, a better reflex response cannot simply be adopted. These patterns are literally “hard wired” into our nervous systems. What we can do is guide them into doing what they were designed to do. In our not so distant past, simply living ensured that reflexes worked out any developmental kinks. Most of our great grandparents grew up in rural areas where they were in constant motion, climbing, running, working and deeply resting. Their fetal and childhood environments were relatively free of chemicals that influence neural and hormonal signaling. Additionally their minds were relatively free to wander, rather than being constantly locked into the vigilance of consuming media. They were able to respond to stimuli in nearly the same way that their ancestors had done for perhaps 100,000 years. In the last few generations much has changed as we have integrated mechanical and electronic solutions for responses that once were addressed through movement. An example of this is the bicycle. It certainly gets us around more quickly than walking, and the muscles we use for pedaling receive and send a lot information  to blend with what comes through our vision and balance. However, the reflexes that provide lateral stability through the feet are not used at all. They are replaced by a learned response that uses the arms and hands for steering and balance. We may have experienced disorganization in the lateral stability reflex when we get off of a bicycle after a long ride and feel a little shaky on our feet. If you examine this feeling closely you will find that front to back stability feels fine, but side to side not so much. There are thousands of examples like this in our lives, most much more subtle and pervasive.

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To look at reflexes in more detail we can walk through a pattern. Initially, the body senses something. If this stimulus is recognized by any one of thousands of genetically encoded programs in the most ancient parts of our brains, the brain stem and cerebellum, it will initiate a specific movement response. Information about the amount of tension in all of the muscles, tendons and ligaments activated in the response are then feed back to the brain stem. This feedback is combined with additional information arriving from the joints, vision and sense of balance regarding movement and body position. The aggregated information is compared to the expected signature of the response, which is retrieved from genetic and learned memory. If there is a difference, the reflex will attempt to bring the muscle response in line with the expected signature, continually comparing the two. This is the learning we do as we develop. It will continue to attempt to do this, until it either succeeds or the reflex stimulus stops. If it cannot bring the feedback and reflex signature in line, the result is stress.

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Stress and learning are incompatible. When reflexes are not able to fully develop they can create barriers for learning more complex, volitional behaviors. This can been seen in challenges focusing on tasks, social isolation, ability to write or a myriad of other obstacles. Usually the challenge has some association to the function of the reflex. For example, if we have challenges with personal boundaries, or feel unsure of our personal space the reflex that we call Parachute, which enables us to push back against something, may not have fully matured. When this happens we adapt by using our emotional or cognitive capacities to manage the response. Having to consciously manage what should be a fully automatic response can create challenges with social relationships and with our relationship with our environment in general.  Kids who get picked on in school often benefit from work with the Parachute reflex, they develop a stronger sense of their personal boundaries, and feel more able to push back when those boundaries are transgressed. The more that reflexes need managing, the less we can trust that we are safe, making us less comfortable in our bodies and surroundings, experiencing heightened stress responses and focusing on protection rather than learning.

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By looking at the qualities of muscle tone relative to a specific stimulus we can learn a lot about how well a reflex is functioning. This is different from looking at how strong a muscle is, in fact a muscle might respond to poor reflex integration by acting exceeding strong. What we are looking at here is the quality of the response to a specific stimuli. This often is expressed in a shaky muscle response, the muscle becomes weak for that specific stimuli, or becomes locked on. More generally, if we feel awkward in our bodies or suffer from chronic muscle pains, chances are good that there is one or even several reflex circuits that are not functioning well. Many of the challenges we face growing up which we solve with adaptations are related to poorly functioning reflexes. It is often surprising to see how a muscle response is influenced by a specific stimulus, and also how muscle response changes after it has been guided into a more optimal response. It can be even more surprising to discover that our attitudes and outlook perk up as the pattern improves, sometimes in a matter of minutes. Or that we can suddenly do something that had seemed impossible to us a sort time previously. Another way to identify reflexes that may not be functioning optimally is to assess specific challenges we may face.

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Even though reflexes are hard wired, we can use our understanding of what the correct reponse for a specific stimulus should be to organize its response more appropriately. The signature that our brains receives from a reflex response has both a genetic and learned component, and we can train the learned component. This is a process which we call Modeling. For example, in the Parachute Reflex we are discussing, the appropriate response when falling forward is to put the hands out in front of us with the fingers facing forwards and slightly inwards, and the elbows bent. A common poorly integrated responses is for the fingers to be positioned pointing slightly outwards, with the elbows locked. This points the elbows into the ribs and eliminates the capacity of the arms to absorb the shock of landing. In this position it is not possible to land softly, and there is even a much higher likelyhood of breaking a bone. Once a person has experienced that their automatic, instantaneous response behaves like this, they will know that any buffering the get from their surroundings could quickly lead to serious injury and they will become more cautious and careful, perhaps leading to feeling unsafe in ther personal space. We can help organize the pattern through providing stimuli for the reflex and then guiding the limbs through the correct motion for that stimulus. For Parachute Reflex, Modeling involves pressure on the palms vectored through the wrists for stimulus, and then repeatedly guiding the arms through the range of motion of the pushing response.

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Modeling consists of multiple parts: activating the stimulus for the pattern, testing the responses, guiding the body through the correct response and then activating the specific muscle(s) for the pattern against resistance. To understand what is happening in the body while we model reflexes it is helpful to think of the channels information flows in as pathways. If a path is not well traveled, it can be narrow and rocky. As the pathway gets used, it gets wider, smoother and becomes quicker and easier to use. We are doing this with the nerve channels that take sensory information to our core, process it and then send commands to the reflex associated muscles. When modeling, we have to allow enough time for the information to complete this loop, to travel the whole path from the stimulus to the muscle response, and in the beginning this can sometimes take as much as half a minute or more. Even when neurological or physical genetic abnormalities have been diagnosed, getting foundational reflex structures to mimic the correct response creates the best possible base for further development. The key is repeatedly traveling the path, giving the response the opportunity to get strong enough to function efficiently, and create a stable foundation for more complex automatic and volitional behaviors.

 

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