Moving Slowly is Key to Awareness & Learning

Extract adapted from
The brain’s way of healing: Stories of remarkable recoveries and discoveries
By Norman Doidge MD Scribe Books

As Feldenkrais put it,

The delay between thought and action is the basis for awareness.”

If you leap too quickly, you can’t look before you leap. He took this principle, of moving slowly in order to be more aware and learn better, directly from Eastern martial arts. People learning tai chi practice their movements at glacial speed, with virtually no physical effort. In his early books on Judo, such as Practical Unarmed Combat, Feldenkrais had emphasized the need to repeat actions very slowly and calmly and noted that hurried movements are bad for learning. Slower movement leads to more subtle observation and map differentiation, so that more change is possible. Remember, when two sensory or motor events occur repeatedly and simultaneously in the brain, they become linked, because neurons that fire together wire together, and the brain maps for those actions merge.

In The Brain That Changes Itself, Doidge described how Merzenich discovered how subjects can lose differentiation in the brain, and he explained that “brain traps” occur when two actions are repeated simultaneously too often: their two brain maps, meant to be separate or differentiated, merge. He showed that when a monkey’s fingers were sewn together and thus forced to move at – the same time, the maps in the brain for those two fingers became fused.

Maps also fuse in everyday life. When a musician moves two fingers simultaneously often enough while playing an instrument, the maps for the two fingers sometimes fuse, and when the musician tries to move one finger alone, the other moves too. The maps for the two different fingers are now “dedifferentiated.” The more intensely the musician tries to produce separate movements, the more he will move both fingers, strengthening the merged map. He’s caught in a brain trap, and the harder he tries to get out of it, the deeper he gets into it, developing a condition called focal dystonia.

We all are prone to less dramatic brain traps. Sitting at a computer, for example, we lift our shoulder unconsciously as we type. After a while we may find – as I did – that the shoulder is often up when it needn’t be. Neck pain soon follows. One way to begin to deactivate the process is to learn to re-differentiate the muscles that elevate the shoulder from those involved in typing. This first requires awareness that the two actions are being done simultaneously.