We are born with 22 reflexes that serve as the foundation for all our cognitive, emotional, and physical development for the rest of our lives.
What is a reflex?
A reflex is an automatic motor (or physical) response to a specific sensory stimulus. Most people are familiar with the hands grasp reflex. When you place your finger in the palm of an infant (sensory stimuli), they immediately close their hand around your finger (motor output).
Why does this happen?
Reflexes not only pave the way in our brains for higher level cognitive, emotional, and physical intelligence, but they also exist to protect us and ensure our survival. In the case of the hands grasp reflex, this reflex allows the baby to grab onto their caregiver. Now, if you put your finger in the hand of a child or an adult, you won’t get the same response because this reflex has integrated, usually by the age of one.
What is reflex integration?
Remember we said reflexes are automatic, meaning they happen without the person’s control? Functions that are automatic occur in the brainstem. The brainstem is the bottom, most primitive part of our brain and it is the source of all autonomic (or automatic) life-sustaining functions – breathing, sleeping, digestion to name a few. It is the first part of our brain to develop and serves as the foundation for development of higher parts of our brains --- the diencephalon and the cortex. Reflexes, which occur in the brainstem, eventually evolve into brain function that occurs in our diencephalon and cortex. This is what it means for that particular reflex to be integrated. Once the hands grasp reflex has integrated, it matures into the ability for one to ‘grasp’ ideas or concepts (cognitive), persevere or ‘hang on’ (emotional), and hold or manipulate various objects such as a pencil or spoon (physical).
Why might a reflex not be integrated?
There are many reasons for this. They can be from an incident during gestation or birth, or from a traumatic (physical or emotional) incident later in life. To understand this, we have to understand the basics of the autonomic nervous system. ‘Autonomic’, meaning automatic, tells you that this part of our nervous system lies in our brainstem. There are two parts of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The sympathetic system is our fight, flight, or freeze system. It is activated when we are in danger or threatened in some way. When this system is activated, our body shunts blood away from our brain and gut and towards our muscles to be able to fight or escape the threat, or freeze with fear.
The parasympathetic system is our rest and digest system. It is activated when we feel safe and secure. When this system is activated, our body shunts blood to our brain and gut to allow us to sleep and digest.
Remember we said our reflexes are there to protect us, to ensure our survival? When we experience a trauma of some sort, our sympathetic nervous system is activated and certain reflexes may re-appear to protect us. For example, have you ever witnessed someone become angered at an emotional threat and immediately make fists with their hands (hands grasp)? This is their body’s way of possibly getting ready to fight. But then they might calm down after a while and their hands will relax. This is a normal response. The reflex surfaced to possibly protect them, but then it goes away, or re-integrates.
In the case of significant trauma or chronic micro-trauma, the sympathetic nervous system is activated more often than not, or almost always. And certain reflexes can re-appear and not re-integrate. This is not normal. This is a nervous system that feels like it is in constant fight, flight, or freeze. I see this in many of my patients with concussion, people with a history of trauma or abuse, or clients with a significant amount of micro-stressors.
Can these reflexes be re-integrated?
Absolutely! It wasn’t until relatively recently that we learned the brain can change throughout our lifespan. This is called neuro-plasticity. We can re-educate the brain that when provided a specific stimulus, a specific motor response should occur, and the reflex will become integrated. However, our brain cannot learn when it is in a sympathetic state. Imagine running from a bear and trying to learn how to play chess. Your brain would obviously prioritize survival over learning a game. If our nervous system is in a sympathetic state, even if we’re not running from a bear or an obvious threat, our brain will always prioritize survival over learning. In other words, our brainstem doesn’t differentiate a bear from chronic micro-stressors like worrying about finances, a relationship, or waiting in the ferry line when you’re in a hurry. So, in order to teach the brain how to re-integrate a reflex, your body has to be out of fight and flight mode and in rest and digest mode. We can do this through neuromodulation.
What is neuromodulation?
Neuromodulation consists of various techniques to stimulate or calm a nerve. These techniques can be via electrical stimulation (deep brain stimulation or cochlear implants), pharmacological (anti-depressants or Botox), and manual therapy. In terms of the latter, I use various types of touch and manual techniques (light touch, pressure, traction, vibration) to stimulate or calm various parts of your nervous system. But how is touching the outside of my body, affecting change inside my body?
The central and peripheral nervous system
Our central nervous system is our brain and our spinal cord. From these we have millions of peripheral nerves that extend out to the various muscles, organs, and tissues (including skin) in our body. This system is a two-way street. The peripheral nervous system communicates to the central nervous system by sensing various types of stimuli from our environment and in our bodies (pressure, temperature, movement, hormonal changes, etc.). The central nervous system then receives this information and communicates back to the peripheral nervous system to enable to body to move or respond in some way. Going back to the grasp reflex, our peripheral nervous system receives the message of pressure in the palm of the hand (stimuli) and relays that to the central nervous system. The central nervous system then sends a message back to the peripheral nerves to move the hand to grasp (motor response). So though various types of touch and manual therapy, I can send messages through your peripheral nervous system to your brain and spinal cord in order to get your body to respond in a certain way.