This is an excerpt from Brain-Compatible Dance Education 2nd Edition With Web Resource by Anne Green Gilbert.
Reflexes and Their Integration
When people dance, they move in a constant interplay of flexion and extension. They close and open, contract and expand, shrink and grow, gather and scatter, yield and reach, collapse and burst, plié and relevé, and fold and stretch. Dancers constantly replicate the baby's early movement patterns that initiate brain growth. Perhaps this is why modern research shows the study of dance to be beneficial in slowing dementia and regenerating brain cells (Burzynska et al. 2017; Hanna 2014; Rehfeld et al. 2017). These very early patterns of flexion and extension, first with the whole body and then with differentiated body parts, are called reflexes. They underpin the patterns of the BrainDance exercise described in chapter 5.
Reflexes are motor patterns that develop in utero and after birth to help with survival and developmental needs while initiating brain growth. These reflexes are activated by sensory triggers such as touch and proprioception. In typical development these involuntary, automatic patterns disappear as voluntary movement develops. “Without automated movement a child will not be able to think” (Connell & McCarthy 2014, p. 8). The reflex patterns do not go away; they become the scaffolding behind voluntary movement. This transition is called integration. The integration of the majority of these reflexes typically happens in the first year of life. The activation and subsequent integration of these reflexes build the lower brain and limbic system. A strong foundation makes possible higher-order thinking skills such as creating, memorizing, and performing complex dances, as well as reading.
Movement stimulates brain growth and promotes brain health.
However, a variety of environmental constraints may cause some reflexes to linger or be retained. Problems arise, as early as conception, if mothers are unable to get enough exercise or have extended bed rest because the vestibular (balance) system is activated in utero. Assisted deliveries prevent babies from initiating important reflexes necessary for brain growth. After birth, babies may spend too much time in containers such as car seats, swings, baby seats, and walkers. This restriction of movement prevents the development of the sensorimotor system that wires the brain. For optimal brain growth, babies need a lot of time on the floor to explore the developmental patterns in their own time. To move with ease, babies aged 0 to 2 months can be naked on a waterproof pad. Babies 2 to 12 months can be in a onesie, on a uncarpeted surface, so that they can move their limbs freely and belly crawl with ease. Floor time can be free time for the baby as well as interactive time with caregivers who are also on the floor relating to their own little scientist. When people try to rush development by propping up a baby to a sitting or standing position before they accomplish these milestones on their own, gaps may appear in brain processing.
Retained reflexes may affect physical, social, and emotional development as well as educational progress. “The longer a primitive reflex remains after its intended life cycle, the longer it may take for a child [or adult] to unravel its effects” (Connell & McCarthy 2014, p. 40). The knowledge that movement creates brain growth and neural pathways inspires us to exercise and dance to help fill in missing developmental gaps created by retained reflexes.
Most reflexes have two phases—flexion or contraction (folding joints in toward the navel) and extension or expansion (stretching joints or reaching away from the navel). Retained reflexes are the most noticeable because they are usually hyperactive; they remain in a high state of anxiety in extension. Hypoactive reflexes are harder to see, because they were never activated in the first place. These patterns must first be activated and then integrated. Children with hypoactive reflexes may appear to have a slumped posture and low muscle tone. Frozen reflex patterns (being stuck in a pattern) can cause physical and emotional problems for people of all ages. During lower- and midbrain development, primary reflexes are initiated and integrated through physical, sensory, and emotional experiences (Oliver 2009).