The sensory motor feedback loop provides us with a map with which to understand the learning process. As movement educators, we teach others how to move in new and different ways. We may focus on education for sport and recreation, or instruct technique to develop expression and creativity. Movement education also serves to promote health and fitness and postural vitality. Whatever the purpose, often times the first steps are about changing habits of movement rather than increasing the movement vocabulary.
Chances are, as a movement professional, you have asked a student or client “to fix” something. Perhaps you asked them to move their knee over their toes in a bend, or to shift their weight over their hips, or to breath naturally, or to begin the movement with their core. Whatever the cue, most likely the person heard what you said and tried to apply the correction, only to “lose form” or fall back into habit within a few moments. You try giving the correction a second time, and even a third but the fix remains temporary. Movement re-patterning requires not only external feedback, in the form of coaching or instruction, but also internal feedback, based on the body’s experience of itself.
Even if the cue is clear, and the client understands what you are talking about cognitively, that is not always enough to change the holding pattern, a compensatory and habitual motor program. Learning is ingrained over time and movement is a perfect example. Imagine if we had to think through the steps for “bending over” every time we needed to pick something up, or tie our shoes, or smell the flowers. To promote survival, our neurophysiology has become genius at organizing the symphony to play millions of sonatas without needing our conscious attention. Brilliant! . . . until we need to replace the violin section or tune the trumpets.
The Sensory Motor Feedback Loop
When our nervous system calls to action “climb the stairs”, most people have little awareness of the complex events that set the stage for the everyday task. Under the hood, there is a relay of information processing happening between the inner and outer landscapes of our experience. As we move, we are registering feedback from our environment through a variety of sensory channels. These sensations tell us about us the weather conditions, alert us to the wasp near our head, tell us our neighbor is mowing the lawn, and remind us we are late, registered vibrating phone alarm in our pocket. These sensory channels also tell us where we are in space, helping us to register position so we don’t accidentally slam the door on the cat trying to sneak out of the house.
Inside our body, we can feel our stomach grip because we missed on the water intake this morning in favor of coffee. Our toe is throbbing from ramming it into the corner of the door a few hours ago. At the same time, a panic is setting in because of the important meeting happening later today, which means spending time with unfavorable company.
The sensory motor feedback loop is an interactive cycle of sensations, perceptions, and actions that inform one another in constant and rapid succession. This cause and effect relationship is intrinsic to the continuous learning and adapting process. So how do we change movement habits that are causing limitation in the form of pain, excessive tension, and wear and tear? By slowing down. Way down. And checking in.
Neurological Yield and the Felt-sense
Behavior change requires personal awareness to kick in before the action or reaction takes place. If I want to improve my listening skills, for example, and learn to speak within conversational breaks rather that interrupting, I need to develop awareness before I blurt out my opinion. To access this awareness of when it is appropriate to speak, I might notice what is happening internally while the conversation is at play. Am I anxious? Do I feel tense? How is my breathing? What are my thoughts doing while the conversation around me is occurring? Am I actually seeing the moment in front of me or am I lost in myself while others are talking? By focusing attention on my body’s experiences, I create a bit of inner spaciousness before I speak. This information gap gives rise to increased perceptual awareness and provides the opportunity to choose my response rather than react unconsciously.
The felt-sense is bringing information from the different sensory channels to conscious awareness. Unless we direct our perspective inward to inspect the underpinnings of our sensory life, we miss out on our chance of engaging in the sensory motor feedback loop. When we slow down sufficiently enough to check-in and research what is moving inside of us, we find the key to changing behavior. This internal feedback is our guide for self-regulation and aids us in monitoring our health and wellness, like noticing how stress is showing up in the body.
Slowing down is an active process allowing for the nervous system to elicit the relaxation response. The relaxation response is controlled by the parasympathetic system, the modulating partner to the “fight, flight, or freeze” response governed by the sympathetic nervous system. The relaxation response helps to reduce the negative effects of stress on the body using methods like yielding. Neurological yield is the action of finding a supportive position where you can yield the body weight completely and let go of muscular work. This is not a nap. Active rest means you are in the practice of being aware of being at rest! Active rest is training for somatic awareness.
The Somatic Viewpoint
The somatic viewpoint is the first person perspective of the body. The somatic philosophy is about the lived experience of the body; the personal consciousness of the body itself. Somatic awareness turns up the volume on the sensory channels as a self-research tool. Perception is the combined information from our internal senses, the environment, and our position in space, along with our unique associations to the sensory information that come from our past experiences, beliefs, and emotions. Our action plan is organized based on how we perceive the incoming information that the central nervous system receives. We move, therefore we feel.
When it comes to teaching movement, if our student or client exhibits a holding pattern limiting progression, the external feedback in the from of our cue or verbal correction may not be enough. Instead, guidance on how to “intercept the ball” in the sensory motor feedback loop may provide the most efficient learning pathway. For example, if I have a client with an unstable pelvic position in lunge, where they cannot maintain stability in pelvic neutral, and instead express an anterior pelvic tilt that causes low back tension, most likely it will not help to cue core engagment.
Pelvic position is intimately related to the alignment of the spine and the transfer of forces between each limb. To alter the keystone of support while performing dynamic movement is difficult and unreasonable (unless the lunge is a final exercise in a corrective series that has prepared the body for integration- but that is an entirely different post). Intelligent movement re-patterning starts with . . . you got it, slowing down. First, establish yielding and deep diaphragmatic breathing. Check-in to the somatic viewpoint. Next, guide movement studies that allow the individual to track sensation while learning the motions of the pelvic girdle. Given a chance to understand the feeling of pelvic motion, and the feeling of active core stabilization, the client will more easily be able to transfer these skills to to other body positions.
As movement professionals, we thrive on educating our students and clients to achieve new successes in their movement training and practices. One common challenge we face are the inevitable roadblocks of holding patterns that cause limitations due to pain, tension, fatigue, imbalances, and general wear and tear. We are not keen as a culture to slow down, breathe, and check-in to promote change. Instead, there is an urban myth that the more we do, the better things are, no matter what the compromise. The sensory motor feedback loop offers a map, marked with a location where the practice of feeling from the inside out is a good thing, too.
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How about a full color infographic of the sensory motor feedback loop? The infographic illustrates details of the overall cycle and summarizes the relevance of external and internal feedback.