Most often, addressing a reflex has to do with specific coordination, postural, or cognitive issues that go along with it. For example, presence of a retained Palmar Reflex, the infant “grasping” reflex, is at the root of all kinds of fine motor coordination problems, especially handwriting, and all the awkward ways people come up with for holding a pencil.
Parents will likely recall how impossible it is to extricate glasses, necklaces, etc. from the grasp of a newborn. That’s Palmar Reflex at work: it’s the neurological command to “hold on for dear life.”
This reflex should be active at birth, and should disappear, or integrate, by about three months of age.
Checking for the Palmar Reflex
The presence of Palmar Reflex can be tested in various ways. When pressure is applied to the palm of the hand, primarily right at the base the fingers, they automatically flex and grasp very hard. You may also test with pressure along the crease that runs from above the thumb down toward the wrist, or against the web of the thumb. In early infancy, this reflex should be present.
Beyond those early months, the trigger for the reflex should produce no automatic grasping impulse. Any of these tests may prompt the fingers to slightly move—not as a reflexive, neurological impulse, just from the physical pressure on the nearby tissues. However, when the same pressure produces an automatic flexing and grasping action of the fingers, that’s a sign that the reflex is retained. The more automatically and strongly the fingers flex and grasp, the more fully the reflex is present.
A retained Palmar Reflex can result in a "fisted" grip on pencil or pen. The standard "pincer" grip is all but impossible to manage when the pencil comes in contact with the hand and stimulates it to grasp.
The system for addressing retained reflexes that I use most often in my work is the one developed by Claire Hocking, who lives in Australia.
When using her system, a key pre-check is to determine (through muscle checking) the level of integration of the reflex. Each reflex goes through three stages, and must…
• emerge (become evident in the nervous system as a neurological prompting)
• develop (actually do the work that it was designed to do for the development of the child) and then
• integrate (the “training” period for this neurological patterning is finished, so now the same stimulus that has always prompted the reflexive action no longer does so)
A fully mature reflex will have gone through all three stages, and will now be fully integrated. At this point, the nervous system has a full range of choices: grasp firmly, hold just a little, or let go, as the circumstance calls for.
However, if the infant’s developmental continuum is interrupted, it’s possible that any given reflex may not complete this integration process. This means that a reflex may be…
• emerged and developed, but not fully integrated
• emerged, but not fully developed or integrated
• not even fully emerged, so certainly not developed or integrated
When any of these are the case, the full range of abilities associated with that reflex may never appear, leaving the person with stress-based compensations that sap energy and limit possibilities.
The opening for transformation
Once the session facilitator notes the level of development of the learner’s reflex, as part of a balance for a goal that he has chosen and cares about, she takes the him through his choice of learning menu options—selecting from a list of various activities that are known to have an integrating effect for that particular reflex.
In my experience, this kind of balance session has an immediate effect on the reflex being addressed. While with someone with more significant developmental delay it may take two or three successive sessions for a reflex to fully emerge, develop, and then integrate, it’s a common in my office to see great changes in a reflex, in a single session.1
Balancing to let go
Here’s an example. I worked one day with a girl named Gina, whose passion was gymnastics. She loved the balance beam and floor exercises. What she couldn’t do was work on the bars. Her problem was totally mystifying: when she was holding onto the bar, she simply couldn’t let go. Her coach was frustrated, she was frustrated (often in tears at the gym), her mother (who would take her several times a week for very expensive training sessions) was frustrated. They found my office and came for a session.
When working on this “letting go of the bar” issue, I wasn’t at all surprised to have Palmar Reflex come up. A check of Gina’s reflex patterns showed that, in both hands, this reflex was not just emerged, it was very strongly ON—but not the least bit integrated. That meant that, every time the palm of her hand felt pressure, her fingers compulsively gripped.
We have no conscious control over retained reflexes. The stimulus-response of reflexes is not routed through any of our cognitive processing zones that would allow us to use reason or conscious choice in regard to them. We likely have no idea that it’s a reflex that’s pulling our body in a certain way, we just know that some things take extra effort, or even feel impossible. I call retained infant reflexes “the invisible puppeteer.” We’re simply at their mercy.
To get a sample of Gina’s goal I got out a wide dowel rod that I happened to have in a nearby closet, laid it across two chairs that were a couple of feet apart, and invited her to put her hands on it and lean down. Her hands immediately went into a very firm grasp around it. I asked her to keep her hands pressing on the rod, but open her fingers, and she simply couldn’t.
We moved on to the learning menu for this reflex, and Gina chose some
Balancing to hold on—for handwriting
Ricky, age ten, had handwriting that was pretty much unreadable. He was constantly losing recess time at his school, to laboriously re-write things his teacher couldn't decipher. So when he arrived for his most recent session, he asked, "Can we fix my handwriting?" I told him I would do my best to work with him on this.
His pre-check of handwriting was really quite something: hardly a single letter was sitting on the line, letters were random sizes, and spacing between letters and words was off. But what got my attention most was the way he was holding his pencil—his fingers were almost straight, and it seemed he had little control over how the pencil moved. I wondered how he could manage to write at all.
I wasn't surprised that his balance called for addressing Palmar Reflex, but Ricky's case was different than usual. Most handwriting issues that call for addressing Palmar Reflex are about the reflex being firmly on—compelling the hand into a fist, like in the story of Gina, above, and resulting in a "fisted grip" on the pencil.
The pressure-on-the-palm checks showed almost no finger curling in either of Ricky's hands. Under normal circumstances, this could indicate that Palmar was fully integrated. But I didn't think so, because reflexes don't come up as something to be addressed, if there's nothing wrong with them!
I went on to do the other checks, which showed that Palmar wasn't fully emerged in either hand, so it was no wonder that he was having difficulty holding his pencil.
Ricky told me he was taking tennis lessons, but his hand got really tired. I pulled out an old badminton racquet and had him grasp the handle. When I pulled away on the racquet, his hand slipped, despite tremendous effort. I could even see that he was "recruiting" muscles in his arm and shoulder to aid in the effort of holding on: his hand simply couldn't grasp.
Following completing his choices from the learning menu for Palmar Reflex, Ricky's muscle checks showed that the reflex was now fully emerged, and in the process of developing. His fingers were more curved as they held the pencil, and looked like they had more control. He created letters that were more accurately formed, and said, "That was easier!" We checked his grasp on the badminton racquet and he could hold onto it much more firmly when I tried to pull it away. His ability to grasp was finally developing.
It's likely that this reflex will need to be addressed again. I'll keep checking to see how much progress his own nervous system has made toward full integration of it, and do more work with him in future sessions, as needed.
As this "not emerged" situation for Palmar Reflex is not common, I was surprised when, just a few days later, another client had the very same issue—in both a physical and metaphorical way.
Balancing to hold on—as a metaphor
Sometimes the presence of a reflex causes more than physical coordination issues: it may perpetuate a particular mind-set about what’s possible in life.
I was working with one of my longtime adult clients named Mark, who wanted to resolve a persistent fear he experienced about his future financial security. He is probably a couple of decades from retirement. He is highly skilled in his work, for which he is esteemed by his peers and well paid; has developed a lucrative side business; and is taking all the right investment and planning steps. Everything should be in place for a financially secure future; yet, he experiences periods of anxiety, envisioning financial instability.
The wording he chose for his goal was, “I have faith in a financially secure future for myself.”
The next step in the balance process is a pre-check—getting a sample of the goal “issue” in action.
When a client’s goal is internal, I like to find a way to make it external, and concrete. For Mark, I picked up one of the patterned pillows in my office and held it about five feet away from him. I said, “Mark, this is your secure financial future. What do you notice about it?”
He said, “It’s way over there.” Muscle checking Mark, with the “financial security” pillow that far away, his muscle check held firmly (meaning, this feels familiar). When I brought the pillow close to him, the muscle check would no longer hold (meaning, having abundance this close feels unfamiliar). I was inspired to have Mark check out another statement: “I get to hold onto my abundance,” and he could barely say the words.
Of all the processes available through my work, Mark’s mind-body system chose to address Palmar Reflex.
Palmar. The "grasping" reflex. "I don't gt to hold onto my abundance." They go together—metaphorically.
I started out doing the pressure-on-the-palm pre-checks, and Mark wasn’t reactive at all. No matter where I pressed on his palm, there was no flexion of his fingers, no gripping with his hands.
Under certain circumstances, this could indicate that Palmar was totally integrated. But I didn't think so, because reflexes don't come up as something to be addressed if there's nothing wrong with them!
In any case, I went on to muscle check for degree of integration for this reflex. In Mark's left hand, Palmar was emerged, but not developed or integrated. In his right hand, it wasn’t even fully emerged. No wonder I was seeing no flexion in his fingers—there was no impulse to grasp, at all.
Personal belief (metaphor) linked back to the physical
I asked, “When you were a kid, did you have trouble learning to write?” He replied that it was torture for him. Holding a pencil was all but impossible. Then I asked if he had trouble with any kind of sports. At first he said No, but then corrected himself, saying, “When I started playing baseball in about third grade, I’d go to hit the ball and the bat would go flying right out of my hands. Again and again. The coach kept yelling at me, “Don't do that!” and somehow I found a way to hold onto the bat. Playing baseball was exhausting.”
We carried on with the balance, and after doing a few activities he chose from the Palmar Reflex learning menu, Mark said he felt finished. The muscle checks now indicated that Palmar was integrated in both hands. He picked up and held some nearby objects in my office, including a plastic bat I just happened to have handy (which he swung a few times), and said it was “a whole new sensation of holding things.”
And on to the metaphorical again
We went back to the original “abundance pillow” pre-check. This time, when the pillow was even a short distance away, it felt wrong to him, and his muscle check didn’t hold; when I brought the pillow right up to him, he happily took it in his hands, and said, “It belongs right here.” That muscle check held firmly.
Now, when he repeated his goal, “I have faith in a financially secure future for myself,” he smiled and nodded, with a totally “on” muscle check. We celebrated with a happy high-five.
He was about to leave, and paused to mention a memory that had just popped up: “When I was a kid I was always in trouble for breaking things. My dad would get really mad, because I twisted knobs or faucet handles too hard, to turn them off or on, to the point where they'd break. I realize now that I was always working extra hard to make them turn, because I really couldn’t hold them at all.”
And I thought—what kind of extraordinary effort had he had to exert throughout a lifetime of holding onto things? How much constant physical tension had he lived with? What had been the cost to his nervous system, and the rest of his ability to easily learn, grow, and enjoy life?
Improving life on every level
This balance session with Mark was just this afternoon. As I was typing this previous paragraph, an email came in from him:
I have to tell you I am feeling like I’m still processing
what we did today and stress is flying off my body. I
still feel a bit of stress but things are unwinding. I feel
a new confidence that things will flow for me.
Thank you for your help!
Whatever retained reflex may be draining our energy reserves, it’s also possible that it’s affecting what we believe we can do in life.
When I’m facilitating a balance with a client, and the session ends up calling for work on a specific reflex, I now have a new, reinforced awareness that we’re working not just on how this reflex manifests physically, but how that movement-metaphor unfolds in life, as well.
And that’s the ultimate purpose of all Brain Gym balancing: to live a more effective, comfortable life, on every level.
And a side note: If you're interested in learning Claire Hocking's reflexes system, I'm delighted to share that she has authorized me to teach her Level I course. You're welcome to join a course that I offer here in Phoenix, or arrange to have me teach it for your group or agency.
With warm regards,
Kathy Brown, M.Ed.
Licensed Brain Gym® Instructor/Consultant
Author of Educate Your Brain
1. Occupational and Physical Therapists who learn this work are often astounded at how quickly they see reflexes resolve. Many tell me that they were trained in reflex-resolution techniques that call for repeated actions over many weeks or even months, and would most often see minimal gains. I explain that the difference here is that the Brain Gym balance system begins with the client himself setting a goal for change, and then selects his own pathway to get there, from the therapeutic choices available to him. It’s that kind of focused intention, and then calling on the innate intelligence of the learner, himself, that invites into the body the transformational effect of the activities he chooses to do.
At one Reflexes course, an OT watched the first demonstration balance, addressing Spinal Galant Reflex, and observed as the volunteer balance participant shifted from being highly reactive to touch in her low back area, to no reactivity, in the space of perhaps 20 minutes. She said, “But that’s impossible! That would take months!” and then she said, “But I saw it happen.” I turned to her and with a smile I said, “Welcome to Brain Gym!” She later was amazed to experience this level of reflex resolution, herself, as she continued to learn and practice the techniques in class.
All that said, the clients I most often use these techniques with are "typically-abled, with a developmental glitch." Children with more profound neurological issues would likely progress more slowly.
©Copyright 2019 Kathy Brown. All rights reserved.
Photographs copyright© Laird Brown Photography. All rights reserved.
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