by Melodie de Jager
At the Mind Moves Institute, we approach all the different phases of life from a neuro-developmental perspective. We have found it helpful to tap into biomimicry when considering solutions to difficulties in learning throughout life’s phases.
A baby needs to adapt to conditions in utero, and later to conditions outside the womb. Toddlers need to adapt from dependency to independence, which includes learning language to express their feelings and their thinking. Children need to adapt from the world of play and concrete objects to a world of symbols – first picture symbols and then symbols that represent their thoughts and feeling in language (abc, 123). Adults need to adapt to the ever-changing world of work and senior adults need to adapt to retirement and aging.
Our ability to adapt is shaped during early infancy, but not limited to early infancy. Early infancy is the timeframe when the process of brain growth and development is most rapid and effortless and not equaled in scope or extend later in life. Biomimicry in this context refers to nature’s strategy for infant brain development and applying it to both brain development and brain repair in later years. Infant brain development is innately driven by the primitive reflex system (more about the primitive reflex system later).
Based on biomimicry the Mind Moves Institute developed a method that speaks to the ability to adapt from life in utero to the senior years. What we need to adapt to, may differ from moment to moment and context to context, but the mechanisms that enable us to adapt, stay more or less the same: we need to take what is out there and convert it to something that is in here.
Our senses are the mechanisms that convert stimulation in the form of vibration into electrical impulses so the brain can make sense in here of the world out there, and adapt to meet our needs and life’s phases. In here refers to the brain and its different levels used first to survive (brain stem) and then to thrive (limbic system and cortex).
The physicists tell us everything out there in the environment is in essence touch, smell, taste, sound, and light vibrations. A theory of everything alludes to gravity as the force that holds it all together.
In collaboration with a multi-disciplinary team of specialists headed by neurologist, Oleg Efimov, our combined research points to the vestibular system as the place in the body where gravity meets cognition. That means that all cognitive processes (thinking) scaffold on the sensory-motor systems that convert stimulation in the form of vibrations, into electrical impulses that drive physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development.
Neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Volpert says “We have a brain for one reason and one reason only and that is not to think, it is to move. Movement is the only way to impact the world”, but even movement starts with the development of the senses of touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight.
In GRAVITY a missing link in child development the authors showed that the vestibular system is involved in sensory integration and provides the brain with information about current location, spatial orientation, and motion. But for us to move appropriately, the brain first needs to be able to sense where the head is in relation to the feet.
The brain responds to gravity all the time. In essence: we are constantly falling towards the centre of the earth. Maybe that is why we call it Mother Earth, because our first relationship is with gravity that draws us towards Mother Earth. When we lie down we are at rest, but Volpert says that is not where we are useful. We are useful when we move.
To move we need to defy gravity, we need to oppose the downward pull of gravity, and for that, we need muscle tone. Muscle tone is an opposing force to gravity.
We need muscle tone to move away from the downward pull of gravity, but we are not born with muscle tone. Conditions in the womb buffer the infant from gravity and enable the fetus to float and reflexively move around in the amniotic fluid. Towards the end of pregnancy when the ratio of amniotic fluid: to the mass of the fetus tips in favor of the fetus, gravity exerts more influence on the fetus’ maturing vestibular system.
It seems to be the interplay between gravity and the infant’s maturing vestibular system that is responsible for the rotation of the infant in a head-down position in readiness for physiological birth. It might also be an instinctual response to gravity that urges a mother to want to be more upright and in a squat position to facilitate a safe birth.
The vestibular system is the most mature of all the sensory systems at the time of birth to assist with birth and to rapidly adapt to the full force of gravity. The complexity of this process may account for the natural duration of a physiological birth to enable the vestibular system, as well as the entire sensory-motor system, to adjust to the sensory onslaught at birth.
The need to feed and the weight of the infant’s head, which is approximately 25% of body weight, provide the perfect stimulus for the infant to move their head against gravity. Head movement initiates the sequence of motor development from top to toe (cephalo-caudal). Breastfeeding provides the optimal condition to drain fluid from the ears needed to exhilarate the development of the vestibular system within a safe and nurturing environment.
It is from this safe place, skin-on-skin with their mother that an infant continues to explore and adapt to a world held together by gravity.
The gradual and systematical unfolding of all their senses and muscles to overcome gravity is powered by the primitive reflex system. Each primitive reflex emerges and is controlled by the brain stem to develop a specific sensory system using specific, automatic, stereotype movements.
As can be seen from the Mind Moves Institute’s interpretation of primitive reflex expression neurological development unfolds in a systematic manner, as the functional organization of the brain is dependent on neuro- and glialgenesis and migration to appropriate positions within the brain. Myelination protects the organization of the brain and is dependent on the stereotype repetitiveness of the primitive reflexes to connect and integrate the senses, brain, and muscles.
Once a primitive reflex has fulfilled its developmental function and myelination has taken place, the primitive reflex goes to rest to allow the systematic development and maturation of the cortex.
Propelled by the primitive reflex system one can say: infant development is mankind’s systematic struggle to overcome gravity.
According to Jean Ayres an infant first needs to bond with gravity, called gravitational security, before they can defy gravity and move confidently on two legs. When a baby finds their feet and starts walking, it is a huge milestone in human development that marks exhilaration in emotional, social, and cognitive development.
According to Inesa Kozlovskaya, the queen of neuroscience in Russia, ‘In the field of gravity, human movement is always connected with posture.’ Kozlovskaya continues to say ‘gravitational receptors are found in the soles of the feet that act as reference points for building an internal coordination system’.
At the Mind Moves Institute, we have found that once a child has found their feet, their sensory-motor pathways have myelinated and their primitive reflexes have integrated, they no longer appear to be ‘sensory’. They are more attentive to the task at hand and their internal coordination system enables them to move with greater confidence inside and outside the classroom.
For more information about GRAVITY: Gravity – A missing link in child development
For more information about Primitive reflexes see: