Sunday, August 6, 2017

Integrated Low Gear: The Missing Piece in Learning

This is a piece I initially wrote for my newsletter; this version appeared in my book Educate Your Brain, as part of Chapter 9, "Theory In Action." [1]

The concept of "integrated low gear" is one of the most significant aspects of the learning process. I truly wish I'd understood more about it during my years as a classroom teacher.   

Do you remember your first attempts at something that required a lot of focus or coordination? Perhaps it was riding a bike: your first wobbly trials at simultaneous pedaling, steering, and balancing. Then, one day you found yourself simply riding down the road, thinking about something else entirely. You had mastered the skill of bike-riding and it didn’t require your focused attention anymore. 

Anything we do easily, we do automatically, without having to think about it. The Brain Gym program identifies this state as “integrated high gear,” which means that we can move and think about something else at the same time. Into this category fall all kinds of effortless actions, like signing our name, brushing our teeth, or driving the route home from work. We could think of this as “cruising on autopilot.”

When we learn something new, however, we must slow down, so we can take time to explore the details of it at our own pace. The Brain Gym program calls this state “integrated low gear,” where we can stop and think when we need to. Into this category fall all kinds of learning, from figuring out how to multiply fractions, to operating a complex computer program, to making your first soufflĂ©. We could think of this as “safely slowing down to explore.”
A gear for slowing down
I like to illustrate the ability to shift between integrated high gear and integrated low gear by thinking about traveling on holiday. Imagine you are driving through a part of the world you’ve always wanted to explore. You’re on the freeway (cruising) and you spot a little village in the distance, which you decide to visit. You certainly can’t cruise through it at freeway speed, so you exit on the appropriate off-ramp and find your way into town. You drive slowly, exploring all the charming buildings and shops. Perhaps you even park the car so you can get out and walk about on foot, to find that lovely cafĂ© for lunch or afternoon tea, and purchase a remembrance or two. When you’re all finished with your exploration, you get back into your car and return to cruising on the freeway again, taking with you all that you learned about that picturesque place.

This is the way true learning works: the learner moves seamlessly between integrated high gear and integrated low gear as needed. When reading, he can pause to figure out the meaning of a word and then return fluidly to the story. When learning a new mathematical algorithm, she can instantly call on the math facts she knows while taking time to figure out which numbers go where. This kind of processing calls on many different parts of the brain, which need to be ready to communicate with each other. 

What happens when a child (or an adult) is not operating in an integrated state? He may end up moving compulsively: “Help! I can’t slow down!” This learner may miss details and produce poor or incomplete work, acting thoughtlessly and creating havoc in her surroundings. 

Or the learner may end up sitting listlessly: “Help! I can’t get moving!” He may start late and need prodding to finish; he may blend into the background or stare off into space.
When these behaviors occur to a mild degree, they simply get in our way a bit, and we learn to manage them with compensations. But in the extreme, these are the very behaviors that could end up being labeled as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) or ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). 

It’s very important to be able to move effortlessly between integrated high gear and integrated low gear. Yes, it’s lovely to do things quickly—but integrated low gear is the only state where we can learn something new. 

Hitting the pause button in order to learn
How often do we give children time to thoroughly play with a newly acquired skill before we ask them to use it in a more complex way? Okay, you’ve learned your numbers; quick—time for addition! Ah, you can write words! Oops—you’ve spelled them wrong. Too much of this prevents children from experiencing the satisfaction of accomplishment, since they’re forced to hurry to the next skill level before they’ve rested in this one. As adults who have taken on this pattern, we may pressure ourselves for instant achievement. (Oh, I’m learning guitar chords—Why can’t I play a real song yet?)

Without integrated low gear, we may careen anxiously through life “trying” to do things. In this state, we can’t slow down enough to do them thoroughly or accurately; we never have the satisfaction derived from small moments of accomplishment. 

An emerging state of balance
Integrated low gear is a state that ideally emerges in childhood through the joy of discovery at our own pace. This kind of exploration occurs only in the absence of stress. It feels playful, emerges from curiosity, and is internally directed. Through it, we develop the qualities required for focus and sustained concentration. 

However, I believe that, when our initial exposure to a concept is stressful, we develop a fear-based reaction to it, leaving us unable to access our most integrated brain organization patterns. The Edu-K balance process offers us myriad possibilities for taking on new patterns of thought and movement. You may be relieved to know (as I was) that we can develop this internal pattern for integrated low gear (and its companion, integrated high gear) at any age, through Brain Gym balancing.

Elsewhere in this book are stories of clients who were able to take on an entirely new pattern of thought or behavior as the result of a balance session. For example, there’s the story of Alexa, who couldn’t focus on the details of English grammar enough to study for a crucial exam. Once she had balanced to “easily understand and study English grammar,” she could focus on those details—and even found them interesting!   
Of all the elements of the Brain Gym program, I find that Dennison Laterality Repatterning (DLR) and Three Dimension Repatterning (3DR) are the most effective at supporting learners in developing both an integrated low gear and integrated high gear. These balance processes, developed by Paul Dennison, are what I call “the crown jewels of Brain Gym.” They can open the door to new possibilities in a most profound way. 

A hurricane in tennis shoes
Meet Parker, a young client who was simply a small hurricane in tennis shoes. He was five years old and developmentally delayed, having missed a number of important neurological milestones. His mother, a physical therapist, had described to me some of his behavior and processing challenges, but nothing had quite prepared me for the way Parker hurtled into my office and set about seeing and touching everything. I began working very quickly and intuitively, and said, “Hey, Parker! Come lie down here on the carpet!” Parker’s mother, Cristy, had just taken the Brain Gym® 101 course, and I found myself saying, “Cristy, I think it’s time for a DLR with Parker!” She sat down with me to help with this process.

There are five main steps of DLR, which involve various combinations of arm and leg movement, eye direction, and other elements in a specific sequence. Parker was able to do the first step fairly easily: it included the Cross Crawl, which Cristy had been helping him learn to do. This part of the repatterning process develops the integrated high-gear state of automatic movement. However, when it was time for Parker to do the second step, which included raising and lowering his same-side arm and leg simultaneously, he simply could not do it. This part of the repatterning process helps develop the integrated low-gear state: the ability to stop, think, and safely explore.

Then it struck me—Parker was a whirlwind of activity, and he could not do this movement; it seemed he had no integrated low gear at all. He was incapable of slowing down! What would happen once this repatterning was complete? What would Parker be able to learn once he felt safe enough to explore at his own pace?

Cristy and I carried on by “motoring” Parker through this movement; she’d raise his left arm and left leg together and lower them, then I’d raise his right arm and right leg together and lower them, back and forth, back and forth. Finally, Parker began participating in the process and started moving his arms and legs in that pattern on his own, first awkwardly and out of sync, then more fluidly. We completed the rest of the repatterning process in this same very simplified way, taking about fifteen minutes in all.

When the process was complete, Parker rolled onto his side and curled up, very content. A feeling of serenity filled the air. My sense was that Parker’s body was absorbing this new experience of integration, and Cristy said that this was the longest she’d ever seen Parker be still when he wasn’t asleep.

In addition, some other remarkable things were occurring. I mentioned above that Parker had struggled to achieve many basic infant skills, and one of them was nursing properly. As he lay there, he spontaneously began sucking motions with his mouth (which continued off and on for the next several days). Also, his next bathroom visit, a few minutes later, produced the first authentic, complete bowel movement of his life; Cristy said he’d never used the core muscles of his lower torso in that way before. These very basic steps are huge milestones in the life of a developmentally delayed child, and indicate that Parker had made several very important shifts through that very quick and spontaneous repatterning process.

The next day, Parker went with his father to the shopping mall. Ordinarily, he would be “everywhere at once,” but on that day he stayed right by his father’s side, calmly looking at the things around him, despite the noise and distraction. This child, who had been stuck in the “Help! I can’t stop!” state, was now stopping, thinking, and choosing. After that one DLR, Parker was no longer living a life of such compulsive action, and he was finally able to process at his own pace.

Since that time, Parker has continued to grow and change, making improvements in language expression, chewing, acceptance of new foods, tolerance of noise and disruption, auditory discrimination, and the ability to dress himself. He has also returned to some earlier developmental behaviors (the “clingy” stage of two-year-olds, for example). Cristy and I agree that he is spontaneously "backing up to move forward," this time completing each step more fully. Parker
will certainly benefit from more sessions, but this beginning to his journey with Brain Gym balancing created a powerful foundation for future changes.

Honoring the time to explore
Not every child has Parker’s extreme challenge with integrated low gear, but many children (and many adults) have this challenge to different degrees. Teachers describe with dismay the increasing number of children with impulsive behaviors, for whom it takes tremendous effort to sit still or keep their hands to themselves; prescriptions for ADHD medication are at an all-time high. 

As teachers and parents, it’s our responsibility to support learners in taking time to playfully explore so they can make the elements of any new concept their own. We validate slowing down by providing time for it and resisting the need to press for mastery right away. We also validate it by allowing ourselves to slow down, to enjoy the exploration, and model this for others as well. 

Articles abound on the speed of life today, reporting that many adults feel they are “spinning out of control.” How many of us are struggling in life and wish we could feel safe enough to simply pause and think? Brain Gym balancing is a wonderful support for anyone who wants to make this kind of change. 

Once we experience integrated low gear, we begin to know the joy (and relief!) of working at our own pace. Then our world offers new richness, new possibilities, and, most of all, choice. We can actually pause when appropriate and reconsider. This allows us to freely create and recreate how we move through our day—and our life.

With warmest regards,

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

[1] Brown, Kathy. Educate Your Brain. Phoenix: Balance Point Publishing LLC. 2012. 83-88.
©Copyright 2017 Kathy Brown. All rights reserved.
Original article ©Copyright Kathy Brown, 2005. All rights reserved.
Brain Gym® is a registered trademark of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation  •  Ventura, CA  •

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  1. Excellent review and reminder as I have been observing myself expecting myself to learn new skills faster instead of giving myself the time and space to develop at my own speed! Thanks

    1. Dear Correspondent ~ I'm happy to hear that you are seeing a way to bring this information into your own life! I'm sure we could all do, now and then, with a reminder to give ourselves time to do things at our own pace, and with joy. Cheers to you!

  2. As an occupational therapist of 21 years, I find it difficult to believe that one session had such an immediate impact on the young boy.

    1. Dear Correspondent ~ I totally understand. I wouldn’t have believed this change if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. I've been at this work for 20 years, and still don't quite understand how and why it can sometimes (though certainly not always) have such surprisingly deep results. Paul Dennison, founder of the Brain Gym work, calls astonishing sessions like these “small miracles that represent true learning.”

      I believe it has something to do with the nature of the Brain Gym session process, and how it may support people in finally bringing together pieces that had been received and stored, but not quite integrated as a functional pattern.

      I tell the story of a similarly remarkable session in this posting:
      This is another shift I would never have believed if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Clearly, this session did not “teach Henry to read” — it supported him (I believe) in making an integrated whole out of the bits and pieces of sensory information he’d received through two years of therapy and coaching.

      I would be happy to discuss this with you in greater length. I warmly invite you to email me through my main website and let me know your available days and times, so we can set up a time to talk. I look forward to it.

      Warm regards,

      Kathy Brown