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What are Primitive Reflexes?

Primitive reflexes are crude automatic responses that a baby has at birth to help it survive. They are the building blocks of all human behaviour. 

Often these reflexes are retained in immature form into childhood and adult life, in which case they are the root cause of problems as diverse as:

  • - irrational anxiety & phobias
  • - mood swings and emotional gusts
  • - motion sickness
  • - inability to write and think at the same time
  • - inability to sit still
  • - difficulty with eye-tracking
  • - lack of left-right coordination
  • - distractability
  • - poor listening skills

Four Main Reflexes
  At the Middle Way we focus in particular on four reflexes. Each of these reflexes relates (synergistically or antagonistically) to the others, and all four work together to influence muscle tone and head/neck balance.

The baby panic reflex is seen when a new-born is dropped and its hands fly out. Called the Moro Reflex after the scientist who identified it, it is a response to a stimulus perceived as fearful or threatening.

1. The Moro Reflex

The baby balance reflex causes the baby's body either to tend to curl up in a fully flexed position, as in the womb before birth;   or to fully extend, as when the head is being pushed back and out of the birth canal during the birth process. The medical name for this reflex is the Tonic (because it  has to do with muscle tone) Labyrinthine (because it is centred on the labyrinths of the inner ear) Reflex.

2. Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex

When a baby's head turns to one side, the arm on that side will tend to extend, as if pointing. Contrary to the preceding two symmetrical reflexes, this is an asymmetrical pattern, hence the medical name...

3. Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex

At around 6 months after birth, the baby as it extends its neck will also extend its arms, and at the same time flex its hips and knees, bringing the body up into a cat-sit position. This is the Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex in extension. Conversely when the baby flexes its neck, its hips and knees will extend so that its bottom will go up into the air -- the STNR in flexion. 

4. Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex

  Medically, the importance of, say, the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex (ATNR) in preventing a baby's arms from crossing the mid-line, or in directing the unconscious movements of a cerebral palsy sufferer, is well understood. What is generally less well known is the extent to which immaturity of this reflex will cause difficulty in crossing the mid-line for a schoolchild with no medical problems. This difficulty in crossing the mid-line, whose cause is an immature reflex, may manifest in problems with left-right co-ordination of arms and legs (dyspraxia) or with the eye tracking from left to right which is necessary for reading (dyslexia).

The Institute of Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester, during 35 years of helping children who suffer from immature primitive reflexes, have developed a Child Screening Questionnaire to identify the children best indicated to benefit from its diagnostic and therapeutic work. Research (published in The British Journal of Occupational Therapy, October 1998) has shown that a score of 7 or more 'yes' answers on the INPP Child Screening Questionnaire indicates that further investigation for underlying neuro-developmental delay is advised for children over 7 years of age.

Click HERE to take the questionnaire.

Click HERE to read a testimonial.

  "The stupidity of letting children go wrong is that once they go wrong their right is wrong:
therefore, the more they try to be right, the more they go wrong."

Alexander Work In Light of Reflex Problems -- for Children
Primitive reflexes, whether they are properly inhibited as nature intended, or whether they are "aberrant" or immature, are the building blocks of how a child uses himself or herself.  A child suffering from aberrant reflexes invariably exhibits what FM Alexander called a poor manner of using himself. This might be manifested, for example, by:
  • awkward posture when sitting at a desk,
  • strange use of fingers, hand and arms in hand-writing, 
  • lack of cross-pattern coordination when walking or running,
  • a tendency to hold the breath during any challenging task.
A poor habitual manner of use, as FM Alexander recognized more than a hundred years ago, is a major but largely unrecognized cause of under-achievement in the classroom. And this poor manner of use, as Alexander also recognized, is very much tied up with aberrant primitive reflexes. When FM Alexander wrote, as he often did, of unduly excited fear reflexes and emotions, he was describing problems that were centred on an immature Moro Reflex -- problems from which Alexander himself must have suffered as a baby born two months premature. Equally there are several places in Alexander's writings where he was clearly describing the influence on children's behaviour of the TLR, ATNR, and STNR.

Developmental movements such as moving on the tummy (in imitation of caterpillars, crocodiles and the like), and crawling on hands and knees (not like a bunny rabbit but like a cat, dog, lion, tiger et cetera), when practised as fun games but also with an Alexander eye on good use, can help the child to a better manner of use, including better integration of the primitive reflexes.

-- for Alexander Teachers and Students

Alexander teacher-trainer Ray Evans would sometimes describe Alexander work as "vestibular re-education." Ray knew that aberrant vestibular reflexes -- i.e the Moro, TLR, ATNR, and STNR -- are at the centre of what FM Alexander called "faulty sensory appreciation." For many years following graduation from Ray's training school, Mike grappled to reconcile the evident importance of Ray's knowledge, and the indifference to such knowledge of veteran Alexander teachers like Marjory Barlow and Nelly Ben-Or, who kept returning to the simplicity of Alexander's four practical directions:

  • I wish to allow my neck to be free,
  • to allow the head forward and up,
  • to let the back lengthen and widen,
  • while sending the knees forwards and away.

Ray Evans himself used to say that the pattern of wrong doing FM Alexander had observed in himself (stiffening the neck and pulling the head back and down) was in its essence Moro/TLR.

It gradually dawned on Mike that not only was "neck free, head forward and up" a preventive direction for Moro/TLR, but also that the directions "back to lengthen and widen" and "knees forward and away" are designed to counter the influence of the two tonic neck reflexes, the ATNR and STNR.

Thus the penny finally dropped in 2007 (see the article About Four Reflexes) that

(1) "Let the neck be free" is a preventive direction for the baby panic reflex;

(2) "Let the head go forward and up" is a preventive direction for the two aspects of the baby balance reflex;

 (3) "Let the back lengthen and widen" is a preventive direction for the twisting (= shortening & narrowing) action of the baby fencer reflex;

 (4) "Sending the knees forwards and away" is a direction to facilitate release out of grip of the the cat-sit reflex, in the direction of fully upright alignment. 

A primitive reflex may be regarded as an unconscious tendency, the inhibition of which, in natural human development, is associated with growth of consciousness.

Alexander's four directions, then, may be understood as a means by which, in developmental movement (including the most developed and difficult motor task of being still in the upright without fixing), one may begin to learn to consciously oppose all such unconscious tendencies.




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