Kinaesthetic learning – the key to learning how to function in the world at any age

In my last blog I talked about what is required for getting down to the ground and rising up from the floor to standing with minimum effort – actions that seem to become difficult as we age. I introduced the idea of spiralling as an essential element of good human action and how this is part of getting down to and up from the floor or ground. Here I am connecting what is involved in the spiralling movement to our somatic (whole person) learning applicable from infancy to old age.

Human Somatic Learning
Everything a human does as a matter of habit is learnt and not purely instinctively as a matter of survival. We have a tremendous capacity for learning. Infants are “hard wired” with the desire to learn. However, this human learning takes time and is highly social and cultural.

It’s social because for a child to learn to walk, for example, requires interaction with other humans, normally the parents. Though the child does much of its learning on its own through exploring what interests him or her, yet the conditions for effective and healthy learning is dependent on other humans.

Learning to Function in the World – Kinaesthetic Learning
The Feldenkrais Method® uses the early childhood way of learning – kinaesthetic learning. Feldenkrais practitioners say we do not directly teach people how to do this or that. Rather, through our verbal instructions in classes and by hands-on movement of individuals in our one to one lessons (functional integration®), we set up the conditions for each person to learn for themselves what is good and effective somatic (whole person) functioning.

A developing child from the outset is learning for itself not by obeying someone else’s instructions or by rote learning. Kinaesthetic learning means learning by attending to one’s sensory experiencing in movement, directly engaging the sensorimotor cortex of the brain and nervous system which connects to muscles that do the moving work for us.

But human learning is also cultural. For an individual child this means how the child learns – the manner and style of learning that embeds itself as acquired habits – is a reflection of her context, the total environment including the social environment of its immediate family. If a child’s parents themselves never learnt to embody well the elements of spiralling movement neither may the child – influenced as it is by the example of its parents’ own habits of moving.

Losing childhood kinaesthetic learning
But even when we did learn to move and function well in our youth, as we age, under social and cultural influences, we lose those abilities to function in that easy flexible way. The most serious loss however is our ability to learn kinaesthetically as a child does – even while our conceptual and analytical skills have developed. We have lost the somatic awareness that enables us to retain or regain these abilities.

To a great extent in our society loss of this effective functioning is due to our own neglect, a failure to avail ourselves of the somatic awareness that we had as a child.

Spiralling movements that are found in young people then are lost for many as they age. But this is not an inevitable process. My Feldenkrais® teachers in their 70s and 80s demonstrate this truth. Through embodying this way of learning I walk more easily and powerfully at 64 than I did in my 30s and probably than I ever did!

Recovering the ability to learn kinaesthetically
So what is the key to adult learning that enables us to recapture the ability for easy effective spiralling movement?

Firstly it is not by relying on our developed analytical and theoretical thinking disconnected from kinaesthetic experience.

Instead, like a child, we must once again recover the kinaesthetic way of learning. But unlike a child, for us adults it has to be with conscious awareness that we are doing this. Studying anatomy or the discipline of kinetics and then directly attempting to imitate what they seem to show is needed is not effective somatic learning (though such somatic learning is enhanced by such knowledge).

This is because our systems cannot embody directly such analytical conceptual learning. The amazing complexity of our bodies and human functioning in movement far exceeds our capacities to analytically comprehend that complexity in a functionally self-applied way.

Spiralling is complex
Spiralling like all completed human actions involves three essential elements of timing, orientation, and coordination. But when it comes to normal functioning in our own environment, unlike animals, we are not “wired” to carry out actions embodying these three elements in an effective or efficient way.

So how can we learn to embody the principles of timing, orientation, and coordination for spiralling movements – an amazingly complex achievement for a human being – following the childlike way of kinaesthetic learning?

In my previous blog I explained how good action involves spiralling movement and how this this is required for easy getting down and up. This is very complex movement, firstly, because spiralling requires constant shifting of weight over the two feet and also over the bottom of the pelvis when in the sitting position on the ground or floor. This in turn involves constant changing of one’s anatomical orientation. If you just consider your head movements in spiralling up and down. Your head is constantly changing its orientation as you move your body through different planes of action. So moving the whole body and its parts required for spiralling movement up and down must be coordinated – there is a connected sequence of bodily movements. But effective coordination depends upon a precise timing throughout the action in order to effortlessly go down to and reverse back up from the floor without a break or jerkiness in movement. This is only learnt by paying attention to what one is experiencing through the internal kinaesthetic sense – through proprioception.

Spiralling is embodied through kinaesthetic learning
One must embody this way of learning to identify your current less-than-effective patterns of movement and to re-form them into new more functional habits. Embodying is the key concept here.

The young child does not analytically comprehend, or may not even have heard of, the three principles or of spiralling or any of the concepts I have discussed. Yet she has learnt to practise kinaesthetic learning at a very early age and embodies these somatic principles without that kind of conscious analytical knowledge.

In the end the same kind of kinaesthetic embodying must be practised by us as adults if we wish to recover, or even discover for the first time, really effective functioning in movement. But for us, unlike the young child, acknowledging the theoretical and scientific basis of such learning may be required to lead us back to that way of learning.

The process of learning to spiral in getting down and up has many more benefits than just getting up and down. It can be life changing for all of your movement based activities and more besides!!

– © Alan Cameron, 2017