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The Importance of Novelty

The key part of my training to be a Feldenkrais Practitioner centred around learning. The Feldenkrais Method, we were told, is a method of learning. Feldenkrais famously said at the beginning of one of his trainings, "I will be the last teacher that you have", because from that time forward, he expected his students to learn in a different way, namely from their own experiences and not from that which that were being instructed to digest; that true learning comes through the engagement of the nervous system in the moment. And that to maintain cognitive function throughout our lives, we need to keep learning. But not just any sort of learning; one that fires up new neurons so that our cognitive function does not simply diminish over time.

A neuroscientist from NYU, Elkanon Goldberg, in his research regarding how the brain changes over the lifespan, stressed the need for learning in order to avoid atrophy in the brain, by looking at the hippocampus (which has an integrative function in learning) and the cortex (the part of the brain unique to us as humans). And significantly he showed that it’s not any type of learning that stops this atrophying. It’s motor learning. For example, it was shown (through MRI scans), that people who spent a few hours learning to juggle were able to affect the brain. The scientists were able to measure the changes in exactly that part of the brain that was atrophying. Were the subjects already able to juggle, then they would only have deepened the learning in areas the brain already knew. In other words, the connections there would have been reinforced, but those parts of the brain that are involved in learning would not have been activated. It's not even learning more complex things about what you already know; it’s not doing crossword puzzles, for example. Nor ist it learning a new musical composition, if you are already are a musician. It’s doing something you’ve never done before, such as taking up piano when you don't know how to play it or taking up dancing when you have little or no experience as a dancer.

What is important for the nervous system is novelty, because it fires up our interest. It was shown with MRI scans that - when we learn something new - the parts that light up in the brain are those areas which were atrophying. In other words, to avoid cognitive diminishment, we need to keep learning in this way that promotes novelty.

Now, it just so happens that each "Awareness through movement" lesson has built into it this aspect of novelty. Dr. Feldenkrais didn't just make up lessons to get people to move. No, his lessons are based on learning and indeed learning to excite the nervous system. And I spend half my time teaching as a Feldenkrais Practitioner trying to get my students to understand that the movements we do in ATM lessons are not important, rather they are just there to provide the environment to allow the brain to engage in a way that is different from how it engages on a normal basis. Dr. Feldenkrais understood intuitively - decades before MRI scans were able to prove his reasoning - that through novelty a different part of the brain is attracted and engaged.

It is easier as a Feldenkrais Practitioner to assist the student in a private lesson to undertake this type of learning, because I can control the size and speed of the movements and I can ask the questions (sensorially!) that seem to be pertinent for the student in that moment. When teaching a class, I am relying on the student to pay attention and conduct his or her own exploration based on my auditory guidance. This may take time for those students who have lost the somatic connection we all had as infants. But when it is reestablished, it is priceless.

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