Articles and Reviews
Balance: In Search of the Lost Sense by Scott McCredie
Little, Brown and Company, 2007, 296 pages
Paul E. Dennison
In this fascinating book, Scott McCredie discusses our amazing sense of balance, which most people take for granted. Our ability to move and function in gravity is a special gift that can be developed and better appreciated when we understand the physiology behind it. McCredie has done his research, and he covers the whole subject—from pilots to tightrope walkers to the equilibrium-challenged.
McCredie hypothesizes that the sense of balance is so essential to human survival and functioning that we’ve evolved with three distinct balance systems: the visual system for locating ourselves in space; the vestibular system of the inner ear for monitoring our head movement as we turn left and right; and the muscle proprioception system for continuous awareness of our body movement in space. The sense of balance depends on the interrelationship of these important systems. In the event that one is ever compromised, the other two will still provide the needed balance.
Most of us were introduced in school to the five senses: vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, yet we rarely stop to think how important these senses are in providing us with information. Sensory information is one of the first areas to fully develop in an infant’s brain. Without the ability to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, we would be lost—unable to sense and, due to a lack of physical experience from which to develop ideas, also unable to think and learn.
The vestibular system supports the whole mind-body system, giving feedback about safety, stability, and the ability to actively function. This head-righting, labyrinthine system provides entry to the brain for all sensory experience. Physiologically, this system is connected to the digestive tract, the limbic system, the muscles of the eyes, and the language center of the brain,. A well-functioning vestibular system will thus contribute to such diverse elements as healthy digestion, emotional bonding, visual focus, and the emergence of receptive and expressive communication.
Located within the inner ear, the vestibular system is the first myelinated sensorimotor system of the human body, fully functional at birth. It’s made up of three semicircular canals and their related structures, which together comprise a navigation system for the three dimensions of movement: left-right, up-down, and forward-back.
The job of the vestibular system, then, is to sense changes in motion. It’s more of an accelerometer than a motion detector. The vestibular system senses both linear and rotational acceleration or deceleration of the head by the pull of gravity, it lets us know our position in space and whether we’re moving. Turning the head or spinning the body stimulates the release of serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone. Yet it stimulates the semicircular canals through such rotational movement also releasing a counterbalancing adrenaline for excitation and increased muscle tone. When there is sensory conflict and imbalance, the ability to read, write, communicate, and sustain attention is compromised. When these directions of rotational movements are integrated, in balance, and modulated, the individual can feel safe and can be open to new experiences.
Playing in the Unified Field: Raising and Becoming Conscious, Creative Human Beings
by Carla Hannaford, with a Foreword by William A. Tiller
Great River Books, 2010, 256 pages
Gail E. Dennison
As Paul Dennison said in his first-page endorsement of this book: “In this passionate call to live fully with joy, play, and authenticity, Carla Hannaford awakens us to a new and emerging paradigm of reality. She offers the science of quantum physics to support her conclusions that each of us, as part of the unified whole, affects each other. By living with an intention to create coherence in our lives, we create the possibility of fulfillment for all.”
Carla Hannaford, the bestselling author of Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head, calls on her experience as a parent, biologist, and educator to give us an interpretation of quantum physics and brain research within an inspiring new framework for living. Playing in the Unified Field offers inspiration and practical advice for raising families with love, trust, presence, and coherence.
Our human ideas about our identity and capabilities lag far behind what the science of the last century has shown us. The author would have us remember that, “We are vibrational fields in a sea of vibrational fields, open to all potential. We are dynamic, learning beings with unavoidable power to influence one another and the surrounding world. The time has come to integrate these discoveries into our lives and the ways we raise and educate our children.”
Hannaford is an award-winning science teacher and internationally recognized educational consultant who has presented more than seven hundred lectures and workshops in thirty countries through the past two decades. Her books have been translated into many languages.
Earthing: The Most Important Health Discovery Ever? by Clinton Ober, Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., and Martin Zucker, with a foreword by James L. Oschman
Basic Health Publications, 2010, 260 pages
Gail E. Dennison
Sometimes the most obvious things go unnoticed. This book offers a case in point. Clinton Ober and his co-writers remind us that the Earth itself is in effect an enormous battery continually being replenished by solar radiation, and that humans and all other living beings are electromagnetic creatures.
According to the authors, the immune system functions optimally when the body has an adequate supply of electrons, which are easily and naturally obtained by barefoot contact with the Earth. As Earthing points out, “Exposure to the ground produces an electrical ‘nutrient’ in the form of electrons.” The book provides research showing that electrons from the Earth have antioxidant effects that can protect the body from inflammation and its many well-documented health consequences. It includes photos and studies describing how earthing (also called grounding) reduces stress and improves sleep, inflammation, blood viscosity, heart rate variability, and balance of the autonomic nervous system.
The book also includes stories of children diagnosed as autistic who took off their shoes and grounded themselves, with many positive results such as increased calm, improved sleep, and better speech and socialization.
The authors note that humans have, for most of their evolutionary history, had continuous direct contact with the Earth, and that only recently have substances such as plastics, rubber, asphalt, and petrochemical compounds denied us this contact. Ober, who has background knowledge of electrical insulators, tells how he realized that modern rubber- and plastic-soled shoes are inhibiting the beneficial flow of electrons. He found that electromagnetic fields also disrupt the electron flow. Walking barefoot on the Earth and sitting on the ground, he discovered, restores the electron flow and naturally heals many illnesses. He describes how to use a simple voltage meter for the body to determine how much electricity one is subject to when lying in bed or sitting in a chair, and then how to determine how much that electrical charge is reduced by grounding oneself.
For more information, visit grounded.com, which offers Earthing™ products that are said to decrease the potentially disruptive effect of electromagnetic fields.
A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass
Little, Brown and Company, 2005, 221 pages
In Wendy Mass’s novel A Mango-Shaped Space, which won the ALA Schneider Family Book Award for its artistic expression of the disability experience, school trouble leads Mia to discover that she has a rare neurological condition called synesthesia. For Mia, this means that she sees colors and shapes whenever she hears something and also that letters, words, and numbers have specific colors for her.
Mass describes synesthesia in an explanation offered to Mia by a doctor: “The word synesthesia means ‘senses coming together.’ Imagine that the wires in your brain are crossed, not literally of course. In your case, your visual and hearing senses are linked. The visual cortex in your brain is activated when your auditory cortex is stimulated.” Mass’s many descriptions of synesthesia throughout the book are all, according to reviews by actual synesthetes, very accurate.
Synesthesia is still a little-known disorder, as it is uncommon and not widely discussed. There has been, however, quite a lot of research done on it through the years. There are a variety of well-documented cases, and one can see that Mass is probably familiar with most of them. Through the character of a neurologist working with Mia, Mass mentions a couple such cases and also makes the reader aware that scientists “now believe that everyone is born with [synesthesia], but for most people the extra neural connections are pruned away.”
This is an intriguing theory; the neural connections Mass is referencing are those made between the different senses. With synesthesia, different parts of the brain that wouldn’t normally be connected are in regular communication. They are connected in a way that makes it impossible to experience, for example, a sound without simultaneously experiencing a visual interpretation of it created by one’s own brain.
Mass does a wonderful job of describing and showing what synesthesia is through the mind of young Mia, setting this neural condition as the backdrop of Mia’s personal and academic struggles. I think this is a really great book for young adults, especially those having a hard time fitting in. Mia is an unusual girl who has trouble making friends and constantly feels like a freak.
Aside from the synesthesia, this is ultimately a story of self-discovery and coming of age. When Mia finally opens up to a few trustworthy peers and finds a group of synesthetes with whom she fits in perfectly, she begins to feel like less of an outsider. Mia’s story in A Mango-Shaped Space is both unique (dealing with synesthesia) and universally relatable (the heroine’s feeling like she doesn’t fit in anywhere), and Mass does a fabulous job of telling it.
Previously published in Touch for Health Education Newsletter
“Chairs, chairs, chairs!” a playful voice said. “Why don’t we include more movement in the learning process? Don’t we want our children to learn with movement and curiosity?”
Who was this woman with long, dark hair, standing in the back of the room and gracefully doing exercises that would someday become the Calf Pump and the Grounder from the Brain Gym® program?
The year was 1982, and two previously unacquainted people, educator and Touch for Health graduate Paul Dennison and Touch for Health instructor Gail Hargrove, were at a conference on Alpha Speed Learning at the Live and Learn Center in Sherman Oaks, California. The conference, offered to leading health educators in Southern California, gave participants an opportunity to network with peers and experience the speed-reading and learning process developed by Steve Snyder. As fate would have it, Paul and Gail were the only two Touch for Health people invited to participate.
A deep friendship—and, soon, a joyful partnership—ensued between Paul Dennison and the woman who had so boldly sprung from her chair at Live and Learn. The more Paul and Gail talked, the more they recognized the similarities of their life paths. Their unique backgrounds and research now prompted them to collaborate, in the shared hope of making a difference in the field of education. Together they dreamed of inviting play, art, music, storytelling, and process-based learning back into the classroom. Little did they know that they would someday write a book entitled Brain Gym®: Simple Activities for Whole-Brain Learning that would be translated into more than forty languages, or that they’d develop a program by the same name that would touch the lives of children and adults in more than eighty countries around the world.
Paul was a reading teacher who, in the 1960s, had established the Valley Remedial Group Learning Centers in the San Fernando Valley: eight successful reading centers, including one that happened to be right next door to the Live and Learn Center. Once a slow learner who had failed the fourth grade because he couldn’t read, Paul had made it his life’s work to help others with early problems like his own by teaching reading instruction. He had grown up myopic and unathletic in a family of artists, dancers, puppeteers, and musicians, and he strongly sensed that something important was missing from our schools.
Born into a family of educators, Gail had grown up as an artist, dancer, poet, and child actor. Always exploring new ideas in movement, in the mid-60s she had read the work of William Bates on natural vision improvement and begun using the activities. A current student of acupuncture and postural integration, she was exploring the relationship of movement and consciousness to natural vision improvement while enjoying a successful career in West Los Angeles as a Touch for Health and holistic health instructor. Through a study of Montessori education, Gail had become clear that sitting still for long periods of time in a windowless classroom was not the answer to healthful learning and visual habits.
Paul had studied the innovative movement and sensory integration work of educators Newell Kephart, Ray Barsch, and Jean Ayres, among others. In his learning centers, along with other sensory modalities he actively used the balance beam, balance board, tachistoscope, and rebounder with eye-motility exercises such as tracking. He also routinely checked the eye and hand dominance of his students, and offered extensive testing of brain-dominance profiles.
Paul’s Movement Mentors
In 1971, Paul had learned from Richard Tyler, a parent of two children enrolled at one of Paul’s reading centers, about how holding the frontal eminences eases stress. Tyler was a chiropractor who had attended a workshop with George Goodheart, the father of Applied Kinesiology. As Richard and Paul became good friends, they began to share work and ideas, eventually collaborating on research that Paul would include in his first book, Switching On: The Holistic Answer to Dyslexia.
In 1972, Paul began working with Dr. Louis Jacque, a leading pioneer in vision training who taught him the importance of pointing the eyes and of visual recovery. Paul was soon after asked to share the space at one of his reading clinics with Dr. Samuel Herr, O.D., and Herr’s wife, Margaret, both associated with the Optometric Extension Program. Sharing clients with the Herrs provided Paul and his staff with daily observation and in-service vision training from experts in the field of behavioral optometry. Inspired by the work of Dr. G. N. Getman (How to Develop Your Child’s Intelligence), Paul used bilateral drawing (the two-handed tracing of shapes) to help alleviate students’ visual stress; this activity would later evolve into the Double Doodle.
In 1974, after teaching at all grade levels, Paul received his school administrator credential from the State of California. Yet his career now took a different turn, as he resigned from public school education to devote his time fully to his doctoral research and the reading centers.
In 1975, majoring in Curriculum Development at the University of Southern California and with a minor in Experimental Psychology, Paul developed a research study for his doctoral dissertation on the relationship of covert speech to the acquisition of beginning reading skills. Drawing on the latest brain research, including that of Sperry and Ornstein with split-brain patients, Paul realized the impact upon academic achievement of the neurological development of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic abilities. He was awarded his doctorate and also received the Phi Delta Kappa award for outstanding research.
In 1976, Paul completed a course for optometric-vision-training assistants sponsored by Richard Sowby, O.D., with whom he shared an office. Paul now began to explore the use of contralateral movements to help students align eye, hand, and body midline while hitting a ball. He also began a personal self-improvement program, including body therapies, movement training, and long-distance running. He studied with sports kinesiologist Bud Gibbs, whose work would inspire the movement-reeducation process used in the Educational Kinesiology In-Depth and Movement Reeducation courses.
In 1979, Paul completed the Touch for Health courses with Gordon Stokes at the TFH Foundation in Pasadena, and was also inspired by meeting John Thie. Upon receiving his certification, he wrote a letter to himself stating the goal that he would write a book and start a new method known as Educational Kinesiology. While working with students, he made the intuitive leap to use noticing as a teaching and anchoring tool.
As a doctoral student and public school teacher in the early 1970s, Paul read about recent innovative research using sensorimotor integration with brain-injured children. To determine the possible effects of contralateral movement on the beginning-reading readiness of regular-ed first-graders, he introduced movement within his classroom. Later, in view of the work John Thie was doing with cross-crawling, Paul searched for a way to maximize the effectiveness of the Cross Crawl by making it a more active, intentional movement. By 1981, shortly after he completed his first book, Switching On, Paul had discovered the Laterality Repatterning that now bears his name.
A New Collaboration
Gail had completed her Touch for Health certification during Easter week of 1977 with teachers Gordon Stokes and Shanti Moore. Having volunteered for the Positive Point demonstration with Dr. John Thie, she was so impressed with the Touch for Health work that she felt inspired to take it out into her community. Gail began teaching TFH at Creating Our Life, an adjunct to Antioch University, and later taught through Santa Monica Community College and the Santa Monica Health Integration Center, as well as at conferences for women and in private session work.
In 1983 Gail was a student in Paul’s second Edu-K in Depth course, and the two began a collaborative correspondence to create language and literature that would make the work even more accessible and multidimensional.
In March of 1984 the two began traveling, writing, and teaching together. With Gail’s contributions, the In-Depth work emerged as a beautifully woven system for honoring the learner and drawing out new learning. Combining their knowledge areas of dance, education, and kinesiology, Gail and Paul developed the Integrated Movements for balancing the meridians. In September, they taught together in Germany, Holland, and Norway. In November, they published the first edition of Edu-K for Kids, and Paul concluded his work at the reading centers.
In 1985, Paul and Gail joined the Touch for Health faculty as Instructors of Educational Kinesiology, and shortly after they published Personalized Whole-Brain Integration. Paul coined the term “Brain Gym,” and they separated the new, self-help Brain Gym work from the facilitated In-Depth course. That fall, Paul and Gail presented their newly developed Creative Vision course in Holland and Germany. They introduced their innovative vision work, including Paul’s Optic Chiasm Balance (the cover test) and Gail’s Homolateral Reflex Balance, with tremendous success. In December, Paul and Gail were married in Los Angeles on his birthday.
In 1986, Gail developed the Visioncircles course in perceptual development, which includes 34 Vision Gym® movements and the Friendly Chair Balance (which was how she came to like chairs again!). Her contributions to Edu-K coursework also include Movement Dynamics and, more recently, Double Doodle Play: A Window to Whole-Brain Vision. Gail also developed and edited the Brain Gym Journal.
In 1987, Paul and Gail left the umbrella of the Touch for Health organization to found, with a group of other innovative educators, the Educational Kinesiology Foundation, now known as Brain Gym® International. The Dennisons maintained an enduring friendship with John and Carrie Thie, who mentored and encouraged them for many years.
Through the years, Paul and Gail have coauthored a series of books and manuals and traveled together to teach the Edu-K in Depth course countless times, in dozens of countries around the world. They have headed up many annual international conferences in the United States, Canada, and abroad, and trained more than forty Edu-K International Faculty Members. Their work has inspired other educators to develop Edu-K courses: the foundation they cofounded now offers more than 800 curriculum hours.
And, in many classrooms around the world, the chair is becoming less of a central focus. More and more children are now being encouraged to speak up when they’ve done enough sitting. They can then freely rise to their feet to do a Brain Gym movement, ease any visual or muscle tension, and reconnect with their best learning pace.
© 2012 Paul and Gail E. Dennison
All Rights Reserved
Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International, www.braingym.org.
. . . Teaching children is like training animals. For each task you want them to do, you must offer them a carrot. . . .You get the student to do the assignment because of some reward he’s going to get, not because he realizes that the assignment is valuable or interesting to him.
— From The Way It Spozed to Be by James Herndon,
one of the Innovations in Education series
When I was in school, the carrot on the end of the stick was ever-present as I was driven by an external pressure to succeed, instead of by the intrinsic pleasure of learning. Just as Herndon cautions in his quote, the midterm and graded report card, as well as the need for promotion, college acceptance, and lifetime opportunity, all lingered in the back of my mind as promised rewards for any current strain or discomfort. As I studied and learned, there was always the threat of the absence of these rewards as potential measures of failure.
As an adult, looking back on my education, I saw that I was cheated by the system. For those alluring carrots, I was denied the joy of learning that is my birthright. Long ago I made it my goal to overcome this way of thinking about life, and I was eventually able to free myself and return to a mental approach that is honest and immediate and that reflects my own self-knowledge in interaction with the world. That is, I have returned to the authentic nature I had as a child—full of curiosity to learn and explore without being sidetracked by a need for “carrots.”
I have not come easily to this place. I had to learn to be suspicious of carrots, to ask myself constantly to what end I was moving in my life, and whether the end justified the means; in other words, whether I was being honest and straightforward with myself.
The honesty to which I refer is an intellectual and emotional integrity typical of an individual committed to living life to its fullest. To me, life is a process, a highly individual agenda—a curriculum, if you will. We are here to experience, learn, and grow. Honest behavior is committed to this purpose; dishonest behavior denies it. To behave honestly, one must have self-knowledge and the ability to take responsibility for one’s own life. One must also be able to evaluate one’s own behavior and respect the right of others to do the same.
When I mentioned the topic of this article to a friend, he replied that my subject should be dishonesty rather than honesty, as he felt that he had always been too honest at school. The deceitfulness he did learn, he said, had not been enough for him to get good grades. This startling reaction to my subject is the very reason I have chosen it. If our system of education succeeds in convincing young people that dishonesty is necessary for survival, then the system has indeed failed!
Intrinsically Motivated Learning
Can children learn without dishonest measures to drive them? More than forty years ago, John Holt attempted to answer this question in How Children Learn, a book about preschool children who had not yet been exposed to learning institutions. In this book that has become a classic on child development, he described children in natural situations where their curiosity had free rein. They were not yet afraid to fail, and could learn from their mistakes as one must be free to do. Holt described them as assessing a total situation, deciding upon a course of action, teaching themselves methodically, and trusting insight as well as logic in figuring things out. They knew their own limitations. They grasped the structure of a learning task and, when sufficiently motivated, had long attention spans.
By the middle of the first grade, what happens to this enthusiasm for learning? What Holt described was learning anchored to dynamic self-initiated movement and interaction, as compared to the stress-anchored learning that now often predominates in our schools. Classroom teaching for informational responses—particularly at the elementary level, where the measure of success is the reaction of the teacher—is conditioning or training, not true teaching to develop young minds.
Educator Barbara Clark, writing on this subject in Optimizing Learning: The Integrative Education Model in the Classroom, stated: “The use of external rewards is another practice resulting in different effects than those desired. Research has shown that external rewards (any reward that is not the natural consequence of an activity) often become goals in and of themselves.”
John Abbott, in his thought-provoking book Over Schooled but Under Educated: How the Crisis in Education is Jeopardizing Our Adolescents, says that “Inquisitiveness drives human learning. . . . The asking of questions is, for the brain, what strong, vigorous exercise is to the athlete—it strengthens the brain’s neural-networks, and makes cognitive processes far more effective.” Abbott cites research showing how children naturally progress from inquisitiveness to authentic knowledge, that is, “the broader and more diverse the experiences are when (children are) very young, the greater are the chances that, in later life, the individual will be able to handle open, ambiguous, uncertain and novel situations.” (pages 199-200)
Abbott describes an ideal learning process where children discover how to think for themselves by building new ideas on earlier ones, instead of memorizing answers to questions they have yet to ask. This engaged learning process allows them to experience life and its challenges first-hand, thereby developing personalized knowledge.
Educators can facilitate such learning, and, when children are stuck, give them active opportunities to gain the intrinsic rewards of learning and problem solving. Children learn most effectively through their senses—by touching and manipulating their environment as they move within it. Accomplishing mastery of his own body is far more important to a child’s identity and self-concept than is the approval of a teacher. As the psychiatrist William Glasser pointed out in his book Schools without Failure, a person, “regardless of his background, his culture, his color, or his economic level, will not succeed in general until he can some way first experience success in one important part of his life.”
Honesty is first instilled through a parent’s or teacher’s trust in the child’s ability to learn. A child senses that the teacher wants to treat subject matter in such a way that the pupil can incorporate it into herself and draw from it what will be important to her particular life. The teacher also wants the pupil to be able to develop her own thoughts, opinions, and beliefs based on genuine concern and research. A good teacher doesn’t want to simply hear his own words parroted back to him. He wants his students to realize that they are capable of making their own choices, free to make these choices, and responsible for the results of such choices.
Movement—An Honest Language
Such decision-making skills require the freedom to move. Walk into any classroom of high achievers and observe the level of movement there. The children who are the best learners are alive and active in their bodies. They physically reach for information and for opportunities to express themselves, barely containing themselves in their enthusiasm for knowledge as they write, turn pages, and interact with their peers. The children who are not moving as they learn appear stressed, passive, and uninterested. In both cases, children can’t hide their unspoken attitudes about learning, which are apparent in their movement and body posture.
Why is the honesty inherent in the movement of the capable child not nurtured and encouraged in all learners? Why discourage the very behaviors that are so obviously a part of the learning process?
The simple answer is fear of change. Most of us have come through the public school system, which has become an institution in and of itself. If we have survived (and some have not), we have been shaped by it and we believe the myth that we must perpetuate the system as it is. That is to say, we must teach children to conform, adapt, and play the school game, even though we know these qualities to be profoundly lacking and not representative of the real world in which we move as adults.
In childhood and adulthood, we learn best by practicing and doing, putting our new knowledge into action, and feeling the process of growth. Educators have nothing to fear from an honest acknowledgment that motivated, self-directed learners with high self-esteem will naturally move about and make sound as they learn.
We need the courage to trust today’s children to learn actively, in an honest way, with all of their senses, instead of being passive listeners who “learn” by rote memorization.
The children who have the benefit of short inclusions of movement—especially the Brain Gym® and Vision Gym® activities—love to go to school. They’re allowing their teachers to rediscover the joy of teaching for which they chose their profession. Following the natural dynamics of integration, these children know when to move, when to rest, when to practice their skills, when to ask questions, and when to create. There is no need for extrinsic reward for children who live in a world based on the naturally honest and intrinsic joy of learning.
© 2012 by Paul E. Dennison, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved
Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International, www.braingym.org.