Monday, July 24, 2017

Resolving Moro - the "Startle" Reflex

This is a refreshed version of an article I wrote previously for my newsletter, with a new Addendum. 

Christine had always been awkward at sports, and was particularly afraid of catching balls, even ones tossed gently to her. As a child, this was a tremendous hindrance in school PE classes. She said she felt awkward and was often ridiculed by her peers. Now an adult, she had a group of friends who loved to spend time at the park playing Frisbee, but she always created excuses not to participate.

As Christine and I moved toward balancing for her goal of “easily and comfortably catching things” it became clear that the “Moro reflex” was still strongly “on” in her system.

The Moro reflex develops in infants at 9 weeks in utero, and usually falls away somewhere between two and four months after birth. The Moro reflex is a series of rapid movements made in response to sudden stimuli. When young infants are surprised, both arms swing out and upwards, opening the hands, and there is a sudden intake of breath, followed by momentary freeze and gradual return of the arms across the body into a clasping posture.

If the Moro reflex does not fall away when it should, one may remain poised on the edge of “fight or flight” throughout the rest of their life. Here are a few of the possible behaviors that may result:
• low tolerance to stress
continuous anxiety, often unrelated to reality 
difficult to settle at bedtime; sleeping difficulties; nightmares 
may tire easily or misbehave under fluorescent lighting 
difficulty making decisions 
tend to over or under react to fears 
problems conforming to rules 
reacts badly to changes in routine 
either insecure or controlling (both a reaction to sense of fear) 
difficulties with reading because eyes become fixed in the periphery - unable to come together at visual midline for near-point tasks such as reading and writing
• difficulties with physical skills such as catching balls
may habitually “tune out” the more high pitched sound frequencies, leading to auditory confusion about the phonemes in some wordspoor pupillary reaction to light, photosensitivity, may want to wear sunglasses even on cloudy days. 
difficulty with black print on white paper or black marker on whiteboards  
visual disorientation - words “move around on the page” or the reader is distracted by white spaces

(See note below on “Irlen Syndrome” in regard to these last visual processing points [1])

I did a “cover check” of Christine’s eyes. I covered her right eye, had her look at a small object I was holding about two feet directly in front of her nose, then slowly brought the object in to a few inches from her nose. At that point I uncovered her right eye, and found that, rather than directly at the object, her right eye was pointing out to the side, quite away from the object. The left eye behaved just the same when it was checked, pointing out to the left side.

When we are in fight or flight, as those with a retained Moro reflex invariably are, the body’s eye muscles pull both eyes outward to the periphery of one’s vision, essentially looking for danger. 

Keep in mind that “danger” doesn’t have to mean a threat of physical harm in that moment. We react in the same way to threats that are psychological or emotional, often lodged in the past. For example, the child in school, or even the adult in his workplace, could be (subconsciously) fearful of who might come through the door of the room, reacting with fear-based patterns developed long ago.

The result is a hyper-vigilant state, always on guard against what might be approaching, watching out for danger everywhere. And “danger” is seldom in the space right in front of us, as in that paper with words on it that we’re supposed to be reading.

People with Moro still “on” may tend to focus first on the blank border of a page of print, for example, rather than on the print itself. (Needless to say, continually requiring the eyes to focus together on a single point makes reading very difficult, and tiring on the body.)

When I described this condition to Christine, she said, “That’s me! I have the hardest time remembering people I’ve met because I don’t really see their faces, I see just the outlines of their heads.” Of course she’d panic at an object coming right to the center of her field of vision, where her eyes had the hardest time working together.

To do a quick pre-check of her ability to catch an object, I gently tossed a small,

soft pillow to her. Even though she told me she was ready for me to do this, she almost panicked, moving backward when it came her way, caught it with only one hand, and nearly dropped it.

We moved on with the “learning menu” for her balance, which included Dennison Laterality Repatterning, and some additional movements that specifically support the resolution of Moro reflex.

At the conclusion of her balance we repeated the “cover check” of her eyes, which showed considerable improvement. We also rechecked her ability to catch an object. When I gently tossed the pillow this time, Christine playfully moved toward it and easily brought both hands together to catch it, with a big smile on her face. She said, "That was actually fun!"

That night I got a call from Christine. She said, “I’ve been having the most amazing time seeing people’s faces all day. And I can’t wait to play Frisbee with my friends!”

A Moro Addendum:

Claire Hocking, Brain Gym® instructor/consultant in Australia, developed the system I use most often for resolving retained infant reflexes. She tells this story of how she became inspired to create it.

She was working in a middle school, doing sessions all day with students who had specific learning challenges. One day, she was walking through the corridor looking for "Marty," who was said to constantly start fights, although he always denied it. 

She saw him standing with a group of students when a nearby window slammed shut with a loud bang. Marty's arms instantly flew open, bumping his nearby companions, a look of alarm on his face. Claire, who had raised children of her own, said to herself, "I know that movement — it's Moro! But Marty is a teenager — what is HE doing with it?" And then she realized, "This must be why the other kids think he's striking out at them - and why he says he's not intentionally starting fights!"

From this impetus, Claire wondered: Could infant reflexes stay retained in the mind-body system, and cause havoc? Could I adapt the Brain Gym balance process to address reflexes? If I could figure out how to pre-check the status of an infant reflex, and develop a learning menu of activities for resolving it, would it be possible to support learners in releasing these old reflexive impulses and moving on in a more coordinated, capable way?

She worked with Marty, specifically addressing Moro reflex. Once it was fully resolved, he never got in "fights" again. 

That was twenty years ago. And Claire has been refining and expanding this Reflexes work ever since.

I took one of the first Reflexes courses Claire ever taught, at the Brain Gym® International Conference in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, in 1999. I knew immediately that this was the "developmental ground floor" for many learners. I've used these tools ever since, whenever they come up as priority "learning menu" when working with clients of all ages.

I've now taken Claire's Level 1 class four times, and finally had a chance to take her Level 2 class. I've sponsored her here in Phoenix twice recently to teach this work. And - Claire has now authorized me to teach her Level 1 course, and I have it on my calendar about twice a year. I also travel to teach it in other locations.

Would taking this course interest you? Follow this link to my Reflexes Course page, and find out about the next opportunity to participate.

For other articles I've written on using the Brain Gym® system to resolve retained infant reflexes, you can refer to these links:
Fear Paralysis Reflex 
Fear Paralysis Reflex - 2
Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR)
Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR)

With warmest regards,

Kathy Brown, M.Ed.
Educational Kinesiologist
Licensed Brain Gym® Instructor/Consultant
Author of Educate Your Brain

[1] Note: Irlen Syndrome (also called “scotopic sensitivity”) is a visual processing disorder, which may be alleviated when looking through lenses of a specific color, or by placing a colored plastic sheet over what one is reading, to change the relative colors of the paper and print to ones that are more easily perceived and processed. Specialists in this system are trained in how to assess clients’ needs and supply the exact color of lenses or plastic overlay the individual requires to resolve the visual disorientation. Is it easier for you to read text when it’s on colored paper, or easier to read colored print on white? A mild version of condition may affect you, too! This kind of visual disorientation is a potential sign of a retained Moro reflex, and may be considerably relieved or actually resolved when the Moro reflex is integrated. 
©Copyright 2017 Kathy Brown. Sketches ©Copyright Kathy Brown. All rights reserved.
Brain Gym® is a registered trademark of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation  •  Ventura, CA  •
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  1. Very interested in taking a course on primitive reflexes

  2. Hello Inez - I'm happy to know that this interests you!

    The easiest way for you to know when I'm sponsoring this course again is to join my Courses email list (if you're not already subscribed to it). See the button at the top of every Blog page for the Subscribe link. Then watch your in-box so you can click on the email from MailChimp.

    You'll be the first to know when I have a new course posted. I hope to be able to do this soon!

    All the best -- Kathy

  3. Kathy-
    I have entered the world of SPD with my 10 yr old daughter. She has at least 5-7 retained primitive reflexes. We currently see an OT but in the interest of doing all that I can for my child, I was wondering if you could recommend where I can find additional activities that would promote integrating these reflexes. I also think that I may have some of these reflexes still present as I can strongly identify with many of the things I am reading and recognize in myself from my childhood.

  4. Hello Dawn -
    I would like very much to support your journey to resolve retained primitive reflexes!

    I wish I could simply suggest that you work with a Brain Gym instructor near you. However… not all Brain Gym instructors are trained in working with reflexes, as it’s actually not part of the core curriculum - it requires additional training. There are several different approaches to addressing reflexes, and different BG consultants are trained in different techniques. I have taken a number of courses about resolving reflexes, but I mostly use the techniques I learned from Claire Hocking.

    On my book website (, under Resources, I have a listing of programs and systems that may be helpful in addressing reflexes. It’s at this link:
    You may be able to find a provider for one or another of these programs near you, or you might find a program that you could use at home.

    You’re most welcome to contact me by email with more information about where you’re located, etc.
    I may know of someone in your area with whom you could work. Or I may be able to guide you regarding which system to explore for home application.

    All the best,