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Learning how to learn

Humans are born prematurely in comparison to all other animals. This means that while for other animals a lot of abilities are pre-programmed into the nervous system, for the human baby we have a long period of apprenticeship devoted to the learning of basic movements.

When a horse is born, it can walk within a few minutes, whereas a human baby may take between 10 and 14 months of learning before it can walk. Outside the functions of the autonomic nervous system, all human functions are learnt and because this learning takes place in a unique environment for all of us, we are all influenced uniquely by that environment – by our parents and by our culture and by all the psychological and emotional influences that are going on in that environment. The differences between us as human beings is therefore much greater than the differences between other animals of the same species.

We all end up with the same outcome in that we all end up walking - and this comes about because we are firstly observing that which is happening around us, but also because it is the least energy expending way of moving – but we all end up walking and moving in our own unique way, because we are influenced differently by our environment. Proof that there isn’t a programme for standing or walking can be seen with feral children who have never seen a human. They do not walk. They mimic the animals around them.

With this knowledge, Dr Feldenkrais concluded that maybe we can improve the way we move not by fixing a certain problem – in his case he had knee issues – but by re-learning how to move more efficiently. He concluded that there was a problem with the way he learnt to walk and set about focusing on how his whole body organized itself for walking, rather then fixating on the symptoms (“bad” knees). Maybe there was something faulty – not in his knees – but in his learning. In fact, Dr Feldenkrais’ ligaments around one of his knee was completely torn. You could move his knee cap up his thigh! And yet he avoided the fate that all the doctors he saw said was inevitable – namely that he would end up in a wheel chair - because he learned to move better so that his knees did not inhibit him from walking.

Nearly all my new clients come to me believing that thay need to strengthen their muscles or stretch more, because this is what we are constantly told by well-meaniing doctors, physios or so-called movement experts. But Feldenkrais’ research and experience showed him this was a false conclusion, whether the issue was improved performance, pain reduction, better flexibility or the many other functional difficulties which people face. Instead the answer lies in the quality of our movement, in how we organize ourselves to move.

So, if learning was the answer, the next thing Dr Feldenkrais had to work out was the optimal conditions for learning. He came to an understanding that the brain is always learning and - contrary to popular opinion at the time and indeed for decades after – that we learn throughout our life time. Even into the 1990s it was believed that tens of thousands of neurons were dying off daily as we age and this therefore explained why we have difficulties as we get older. Feldenkrais believed - correctly as it turned out (when MRI imaging proved his theories) – that it was not that neurons would die out automatically, but rather that our habits became stronger and we were no longer learning at the same rate as we did when we were younger, simply because we accepted that the way we did things (our habits) was good enough. With the coining of the term “plasticity” it was proven that our brain has the capacity to be learning at all ages. And this is something Dr Feldenkrais believed for decades prior to this proof – that the brain has the capacity to learn, to change, to make new connections and to form new patterns … for our entire life! It’s just that we accept ourselves as we are and we live with this self image of who we are because we believe we cannot change. What Feldenkrais explained was that this self image was an accident based on how we learned as a child. It was completely random based on the environment in which we grew up. And the good news is our brains are completely malleable. We can always change the feelings in ourselves

and our self image and therefore what we are capable of.

And from moment to moment in a Feldenkrais lesson, we can feel in ourselves that a change is occurring simply by using our awareness in a quiet, focused way that allows the nervous system to learn.

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