The Integral Learning™ Model (1)
The Integral Learning™ model is a model of basic human needs, senses, actions, abilities, and emotions. It draws upon the sensory systems, as understood in HANDLE®, and cognitive abilities, as distinguished in J. P. Guilford's Structure of Intellect model. It is most meaningful in conjunction with Judith Bluestone's rich exploration of inter-relationships among sensory systems in The Fabric of Autism: Weaving the Threads into a Coherent Theory, which we heartily recommend.
First, the two-inch thick, pie-shaped wedges at the base represent six general sensory systems. Each of these will be defined as we build the model, one tower at a time:
- Vagus Sense, Olfaction, and Gustation,
- Vestibular Function,
- Muscle Tone, and
Supported by each of these foundational sensory systems are dowels, which represent six of the basic human needs:
- To be okay (to be able to honestly say, "I'm good, and things are good with me right now"; to be safe)
- To have enough (to be secure)
- To act on what's urgent
- To choose what's relevant
- To do what one can, and
- To be trusted and liked.
When these wobbly dowels are supported by the thick wedges beneath them, they stay upright. They're thus easier to touch, move, and see. What doe this mean?
- Simply that when our senses (represented by the thick wedges) are functioning well, we can more easily identify our needs (the dowels).
- When our senses are function well, we can more easily think about how we might best get our needs met (when thinking is necessary).
- And when our senses are functioning well, we can more easily get our needs met.
It's important to the integrity of the model that those dowels stay upright. It's important to our own wellbeing that our senses secure us as accurate yet flexible perception of the world as possible.
The Integral Learning™ Model (2)
You might also notice that each wedge (and the dowels in it) can be moved further away from the central core of the model, or closer to that core—just like pizza slices can be removed from a pizza… or (if someone really wants to) put back. What does this mean?
- Simply that when we have to pause to "think about" how to get our needs met, it's rare that we can't simultaneously meet them. Thus, needing to "think about" how to get our needs met is destabilizing—an experience appropriately represented by moving a dowel (ideally supported by a wedge) further away from the "core" of ourselves.
- Getting our needs met, on the other hand, is often a unifying, stabilizing experience, appropriately represented by moving a dowel (ideally supported by a wedge) closer to our "core" selves.
Atop the dowels in each of these foundational sensory systems rests an aspect of our auditory system, represented by the dark, one-inch thick pie-shaped wedges, and an aspect of our visual system, represented by the light, one-inch thick pie-shaped wedges. It's important to understand that the ways we see and hear the world (and often take for granted) depend on foundational sensory systems—and also influence those foundational systems. This connection—and the dowels that connect each foundational sensory system to the visual and auditory functions above it—goes both ways, as we'll soon see.
In this old Integral Learning™ model, atop each pair of auditory and visual functions rests three pairs of marbles, which represent intellectual functions, and one wooden ball, which represented a virtue that's much easier to maintain when the processes beneath it—intellectual functions, auditory and visual functions, and foundational sensory systems—are functioning well. The new Integral Learning™ model no longer features these balls. Instead, the new Integral Learning™ model uses this space to emphasize the connection between each pair of intellectual functions, a corresponding negative emotion that good intellectual function help equip us to notice, and a healthful action we can take whenever we notice these different emotions.
Vagus Sense, Olfaction, & Gustation (1)
The Vagus Sense, Olfaction, & Gustation
The base of this tower represents the sense of smell (called "olfaction"), the sense of taste (called "gustation"), and our perception of the part of the nervous system that controls processes largely outside our conscious awareness, from our breathing to our heart's beating, from the enzymes we produce in response to a food's unique taste to the coordination of tiny circular muscles as we swallow. That part of our nervous system, called the "autonomic nervous system," or ANS, ensures our survival by taking care of what we can't effectively think about and by ensuring we think about anything it interprets as a threat. Since much of the activity in our autonomic nervous system occurs along the vagus nerve, awareness of our autonomic nervous system processes is called the "vagus sense."
When we're stressed, our ANS automatically shifts us into a "fight, flight, or fright" state, which keeps us and other animals alive in the wild. In a fight, flight, or fright state, our ANS slows non-essential processes like digestion and prepares our bodies to fight off an attacker (fight); run away (flight); or freeze while we try to think of an appropriate response (fright). "Fright," especially, skews our sense of time: we may be able to weigh many options in just a few seconds—or have our life flash before our eyes as we scan for similarities in what we've faced before, hoping to find a response.
In the wild, this "fight, flight, or fright" response serves us well. It can be triggered by smells of the unfamiliar, which we may not see (especially while asleep), and it can be calmed by smells of the familiar (especially when we were sure the threat had passed). In our chaotic world today, however, many people's ANS runs on overdrive, and with plentiful perfumes, air fresheners, scented body lotions, and fabric softeners, we miss the familiar, natural, soothing smells of hearth and home. (Those with asthma, allergies, or chronic sinus infections may miss comforting, familiar smells for physiological reasons—and may find it more difficult to relax as a result.) We rely on smell more when we're stressed, yet our stress-inducing world simultaneously robs us of helpful smells.
Vagus Sense, Olfaction, & Gustation (2)
In our chaotic world today, we're bombarded by telephone rings, doorbell buzzers, warning beeps, emergency sirens, humming fluorescent lights, and a cacophony of other noises. Our sense of sound (or "audition"), which naturally develops fine sensitivities to the basic sounds (or "phonemes") of our native tongue, is on overload. If we don't learn to discriminate between threatening and non-threatening sounds soon, we may begin to block out sound in general—just for protection and calm.
Light Sensitivity & Convergence
In our chaotic world today, we're also bombarded by flickering televisions, computer monitors, speeding traffic outdoors, fluorescent lights indoors, and bleached, stark white pages for reading (versus the friendly creams and grays of yesteryear). Our sense of sight (or "vision"), which helps us focus on one item while being aware of surrounding changes, is on overload. Our mind-bodies (our somas) naturally expect radical changes in our visual field at most once every seven seconds—and are still naturally geared to enter a "fight, flight, or fright" state if we experience radical visual shifts more often than that. But most television and video games provide a new camera angle every 1–2 seconds. The more we watch, the more we habituate to rapid change—and the more we expect our humdrum lives to duplicate it. They can't; we shift our gaze repeatedly.
If our muscle tone (discussed later) was challenged in infancy, the muscles in our middle ear that help us discriminate between foreground and background sound may respond after a delay: we may not know what to focus on. If we were sensitive to touch (also discussed later), we may have shied away from being held or rubbed. If we were auditorily hyper-sensitive, we may have resisted making loud noises—including the loud noises from our own sucking, chewing, and swallowing. We may have been bottle-fed from an early age, and thus able to suck more gently and with open eyes when feeding. Our parents may have needed to work, they may not have recognized the neurodevelopmental importance of breast-feeding, or we may have been adopted. For whatever reason, we may not have spent much time held close, feeling safe, sucking with our eyes closed. Since sucking with the eyes closed integrates the reflex and builds the muscles that help our eyes converge, our eyes may not converge well.
Our visual systems naturally "telescope" under extreme stress, too, which can make relaxed attention in a classroom or workplace even more difficult. Naturally, our eyes focus better far and worse near when we're under stress, and we lose peripheral awareness. This intelligent design enabled our ancestors to scan the horizon for potential attackers, but it doesn't serve us very well today, when our artificial environments regularly induce a fight, flight, or fright response. Imagine trying to read a nearby textbook through a telescope, and it becomes easier to understand why many people with autism-spectrum conditions struggle with coordinating eye movements for line-by-line reading. When the ANS is compromised, it's tougher to relax, it's tougher to hear, and it's tougher to see.
Collapse Under Strain
When the Vagus Sense, Olfaction, & Gustation base is compromised, it's not just tougher to relax: it's tougher to learn. Of the seven Attention Factors™, which help us pay attention, the first is called "Relaxed Attention." Relaxed Attention is the ability to attend to what is without worrying about what comes next. Strain impairs Relaxed Attention. Our brains, working to protect us, move our bodies into a "fight, flight, or fright" state. Our primary concerns? Safety. Survival.
Notice on the model at right: our well-balanced "Auditory Sensitivity" and "Light Sensitivity & Convergence" aren't so well balanced. This could be directly caused by difficulties with auditory sensitivity, which stress the ANS and, often, cause a learner to rely more on olfaction for a sense of safety. It could be directly caused by difficulties with light sensitivity or ocular convergence, which stress the ANS and, often, cause a learner to rely more on olfaction for a sense of safety.
This imbalance could also be directly caused by toxic scents, environmental allergens, a hectic pace of life, or a stressful learning environment that knock the autonomic nervous system out of balance. When learners build their Integral Learning™ profile in the McNatt Learning Center, we use a narrower dowel to indicate a sensory weakness. A wider dowel fits tightly. A narrower dowel fits loosely and is easily jarred out of balance by a slight bump to the table—a slight "stress" to this aspect of a learner's sensory systems. The narrower dowel also conveys an important truth: a weakness in one area inevitably affects other areas, too.
This truth is conveyed by the pie-shape of of each wedge in the tower: every wedge helps stabilize other wedges. In the whole Integral Learning™ model, this vagus sense tower is affected by every other tower. If strong, it strengthens other towers. If weak, it weakens the others. And vice versa: other strong towers buttress this one, while weaknesses in other towers can indirectly cause disturbances in this one. Hence, our understanding of learning—indeed, the entire way we approach the learning endeavor—must be holistic.
Each person's foundational sensory-motor functions, intellectual abilities, and virtues shapes how he or she understands and interacts with the world—but they don't determine who he or she is, at the core. The more severe the sensory disorganization a person faces, the more likely that his or her public persona—the "self" (s)he presents to an often judgmental world—isn't who (s)he really is.
In the Integral Learning™ model, the central tower represents a person's identity. Identity isn't the same as public persona. We're not reducible to how we come across, nor to how we think of ourselves (our "self-concept" or private persona). Our private and public persona can change minute-by-minute—what a hope that we can grow and change! Even so, what a comfort to know there's still a basic "I": a unique identity in the midst of all this change!We live in a comparison-driven world. It can be tough to believe good about ourselves or loved ones, especially when victories are so hard-won. It can also be dangerous to raise expectations, too: a past success, however hard-won, can bolster expectations that we can do it again. Achievement, however punctuated with loss, can endanger our eligibility for special accommodations or assistance. But everyone fatigues: we can't always "do it again," and sometimes, we still need assistance, despite tremendous gains.
It can be tough to hear bad about ourselves, too. Especially if we don't distinguish between conduct and character, it becomes easy to generalize "I failed" into "I'm a failure." Yet "I failed" doesn't mean "I'm a failure"; more often than not, it means "I failed—and in doing so, I created another opportunity to learn."
It's true that conduct and character are often related. Our conduct in the midst of trials can even shape our character, yet often we just do whatever we must do to survive. Surmounting challenges isn't necessarily heroic: it may just be human.
However one views his or her own struggles, it's important to honor not only the triumph, but also the struggle. And it's important to distinguish between identity and everything else. Keeping that distinction in place can be a tremendous pillar of strength. (For more on identity, click here.)
The next tower in the Integral Learning™ model is the Tactition tower. "Tactition" refers to our sense of touch. Through touch, we learn what's hard and soft, hot and cold, even "here" and "there." We learn the difference between pain, normal touch, and pleasure. We learn boundaries. By sorting, we learn to group. By being held and caressed, we learn to feel safe, to trust, and to be loved. Our sense of touch even helps us speak, as we unconsciously feel our tongue and mouth positions—how each part touches the others, and how every part interrelates (a contribution our sense of touch makes to our unconscious sense of body-in-space, called "proprioception," which we'll discuss later).
Our sense of touch enables us to be fully present in our hearing and seeing, too. When our muscle tone appropriately adapts to our environment, our muscles help shield our delicate internal organs from intrusion. Our fascia (see 1 or 2), which can be as tight as steel cable or as viscous as egg white, also helps protect us: it supports or, when necessary, essentially "takes over" the support function of muscles or compromised joints or bones. Our final line of defense within the body is our skin. Though our deeper muscles and fascia are insensate, our sense of touch is informed by stimulation to tactile sensors throughout many of our muscles, joints, fascia, and skin.
Whenever this network of sensors or our interpretive sense of touch is compromised, our brains instinctively protect our delicate internal organs by expanding our "line of defense": we more vigilantly attend to what we smell, hear, and see so we can detect threats before they get too close. When tactition is compromised, our audition and vision can be strained much more easily. We're often on high alert. Even sleeping can become difficult, as our brain interprets unanticipated tactile input from a top sheet or even contact from another part of our body as a potential threat.
When any aspect of our nervous system is strained—whether from illness or physical abnormality affecting our heart, lungs, or other ANS function—or our senses of smell, audition, vision, or others we have yet to discuss—the state of our nervous system changes, often visibly. We call these changes and their perceptible cues "state changes." Our bodies change in particular ways—ways that we can use as cues (as "signs" or "red flags") of rising strain. The more we practice noting these cues of state changes, the more we can detect strain at its earliest stages, then change what we're doing to avoid being unnecessarily thrust into a fight, flight, or fright state. As if by magic, we can reduce how often we're knocked for a loop: we can engage with our modern, chaotic world without being constantly overwhelmed.
This process of enhancing our ability to live amid stress while minimizing strain requires that we
- Notice state changes, and
- Have a repertoire of "tricks" we can use, without thinking, during moments of stress, to ease our bodies away from the fight, flight, or fright state.
Eventually, we'll be able to deploy a calming "trick" in a just few seconds. But developing the internal awareness required to discern the moment we begin to get strained, which "tricks" will probably be most helpful, and which "tricks" we can modify for our current work, school, or social environment requires practice. Thus, we must also
- Practice noticing State Changes in a safe environment where we can easily stop whatever is eliciting them; i.e., not a chaotic environment where it's impossible to get away from stressors, and
- Practice our "tricks" regularly, so we'll remember them when we need them.
Finally, to enhance our ability to live in our chaotic world without being constantly overwhelmed, we need to strengthen whatever systems are weak. Reducing stressors and using "tricks" to cope in the moment are helpful, but they're not enough: we must also strengthen whatever sensory systems have been compromised. Hence, we must also
- Explore, in each "trick" that stimulates particular sensory systems, how far we can stretch our comfort levels before we experience strain.
This final aspect to practice is what makes each "trick" more than a trick. Each "trick" becomes an exploratory activity that gently enhances sensory function. HANDLE® calls this "Gentle Enhancement®." Through Gentle Enhancement®, we become comfortable handling wider varieties and greater concentrations of potentially stressful stimuli. As this occurs, we naturally, unconsciously classify (or "chunk") more and more stimuli as "safe," and our need to pay attention to them as potential threats diminishes. Soon after a "safe" stimuli enters our environment, we become productively dulled to its continued presence, so we can pay attention to other things. This ongoing balance of dulling and chunking makes up Attention Factor™#2: Selective Attention. Selective Attention is the ability to block out distractions, steeling one's focus on a chosen perception.
While some individuals seem to "break" in response to strain, others use a process called "cognitive override" to keep going despite the strain. When awareness of pain would hinder performance, these learners' perception productively dulls. However, as these learners continue to attend to the demands of hectic, modern life—demands which require attention to the external world—their spiritual discernment and bodily awareness often suffers. Without either a slower pace of life or regular practice of $1–5 above, their full perception doesn't return when dulling is no longer necessary. This is very common; it's what somatic philosopher Thomas Hanna called (in, admittedly, a reification) "Sensory-Motor Amnesia." We forget what particular tactile inputs and movement sequences feel like. Sometimes, math abilities that depend on grouping (e.g., skip counting and multiplication) suffer. Almost always, we become more prone to injuries. Restoring our tactile sense, however—and integrating it with our other senses—can greatly help.
Vestibular Function (1)
The next tower in the Integral Learning™ model is the Vestibular tower. "Vestibular function" refers to our sense of inertia, or changes in our body's state of motion (from "at rest" to moving or from moving to "at rest"). Our brain uses our vestibular sense, together with our tactile sense (discussed previously) and changes in our muscle tone (discussed later), to perceive momentum. Momentum is the amount our bodies or objects in our environment are moving. Our perception of inertia and momentum help us orient to gravity and achieve physical balance. Due to the crucial role of our vestibular system in achieving physical and personal balance, vestibular function is often called our "sense of balance," but it does more: if our vestibular sense is overwhelmed, we may feel light headed, dizzy, or "out of sorts." Metaphorically, our lives are likely to get "out of balance," too, and our modulation—how much time, energy, and resources we invest toward our various commitments—often suffers. We may move constantly, seemingly unable to slow down, or we may hardly move at all.
Since our vestibular system senses when we start moving, stop moving, or change directions, to develop it we obviously have to move. More accurately, we have to move in ways that our brains can make sense of. Being held safely close to mom in a rebozo or child sling while jostled about can help a child make sense of random movement. Slow movement, typical in exploratory play, from crawling and climbing to an adventuresome outing, can help a child make sense of forward-back, side-to-side, and rotational tips. Moving and stopping, typical in games with elements of surprise, from peekaboo to red-light/green-light, can help a child make sense of linear acceleration and deceleration. The organs of our vestibular system are designed to make sense of these kinds of movements. But today, opportunities for such movement are few.
In our world today, most parents watch over and protect their children with the best knowledge they have. With good motivation and to comply with the law, parents routinely place children in plastic "safety" equipment, which endangers natural sensory development. Children are transported here and there with little sense of safe connection to a parent or control over their motions. Riding a horse was once a common mode of transportation that taught skills of husbandry and the value of stewardship while integrating tactile, vestibular, kinesthetic, muscle tone, and proprioceptive input. Now, riding a horse is common therapy for children whose need for such input has become glaring enough that doctors write prescriptions for medically necessary hippotherapy (i.e., horesback riding).
Vestibular Function (2)
Our world has changed. Toxic chemicals leach from carpets. Petroleum derivatives carry scents in perfumes and air "fresheners." Pesticides and herbicides blanket our lawns. Strong electromagnetic fields permeate everywhere. Sexually explicit advertising is difficult to avoid. Since it doesn't take many toxins to compromise a developing system—a single, moderate-volume exposure can harm—even children who receive ample opportunities for natural movement are at risk of sensory-motor difficulties. In many ways, our world isn't safe, so we stay inside, while the connection remains: less day-to-day, relaxed movement means less opportunity for healthy vestibular development, or even maintenance of a healthy vestibular system as adults. (Is it any wonder why things seem so out of balance?)
Moving up the dowel in the model at right, we can see that our sense of balance (or inertia) supports auditory discrimination, too. First, good vestibular function can help us pay attention to what we hear. Generally, we rely on tactile input (e.g., the pressure on different parts of our feet on the ground) and echolocation (i.e., the ability to use reflected sound to help us discern our position in space) to help inform our sense of balance. A strong vestibular system enhances our ability to incorporate tactile input and echolocation to isolate which sound we need to pay attention to. Second, sound waves can cause vibrations in our cranial bones, our skin, the tensegrity matrix of our fascia and, in our ears, the fluid in the semicircular canals, which are part of our vestibular systems. With every experience of different kinds of resonance, our ability to distinguish between the pitch, duration, and timbre of sound waves improves. We learn that sound waves are different from touch, from fascial impact and ripples, from waves in our vestibular systems, and even from other sound waves. Our auditory attention and auditory discrimination actually improve as our vestibular function improves.
Our sense of inertia also supports visual stability. When our head moves as we walk, ride on a bumpy road, or grow fatigued toward the end of a long day, our vestibular sense cues our neck and shoulder muscles—and other supporting muscles down to our toes—to help keep our head upright and stable. Without this stability, our head can bob, and we can lose track of what we were focusing on—skipping a line of text while reading or missing a catch while playing ball. Tilting our head can also shift which eye we "sight" with (our dominant eye for the moment), which can impair our ability to distinguish between foreground and background objects visually. Finally, our vestibular sense helps us discern when we're moving, versus when objects in our environment are moving: it provides a steady frame of reference despite movement.
Our visual stability and auditory discrimination both also affect vestibular function. We naturally feel unbalanced when what we see and hear isn't stable and distinct. Reestablishing stability becomes an urgent priority, and Attention Factor™#3, Sequential Processing, suffers. We scan for something (anything!) to make sense of what we're experiencing, instead of taking things as they come.
Of course, the model at right, with its thick dowel, is well balanced. A learner whose vestibular function, auditory discrimination, or visual stability is inefficient would use a thinner dowel to represent that fragility and convey an important truth: stress to a fragile system in one area inevitably affects other areas, too. A wobbly Tactition Tower can bump into a secure Vestibular Tower, causing a State Change, or vice versa. Thankfully, it also works the other way around: strong neighboring systems can buttress a strained system, enabling learning that wouldn't be possible if our sensory-motor functions were not so holistically interrelated.
The next tower in the Integral Learning™ model is the Kinesthesia tower. "Kinesthesia" refers to our unconscious sense of coordinated movement. Much of a person's initial movement results from reflexes; our early kinesthesia is literally hardwired into our brains. As we move through infancy, we incorporate these reflexes into natural, fluid, rhythmic movement patterns that we don't have to think about to employ: we think "move," and we move. Naturally, when we don't have to think about every movement, we're soon able to combine, and recombine our basic movement patterns into complex movement sequences. This is shown on the model at right with a thick dowel, which helps keep the tower well balanced.
Not everyone's kinesthesia is well balanced, however: since our vestibular system lets us know when we start moving, stop moving, or change directions, our sense of movement is affected by vestibular function. While our vestibular system doesn't move our muscles, it informs how we move them, in the process called "kinesthesia." Touch also informs how we move: we feel the relationships between our muscles, fascia, joints, and skin as we move. If we're hypersensitive to touch, however, we may block out this information, making kinesthesia more difficult. We may begin to consciously plan our movements, yielding an almost robotic flair to our sitting, standing, and walking… let alone our dancing or trying to play a sport. Finally, if our autonomic nervous system is out of balance, we may keep our limbs close to our bodies for protection, further restricting our movements.
Sometimes, difficulties with kinesthesia have more direct causes. Some children spend their early months barely moving in foreign orphanages. Others' movement is frequently restricted by plastic safety equipment (strollers, car seats, walkers, etc.) in the Western world. Since sucking, creeping, crawling, and the like actually establish a learner's rhythm, facilitate cooperation between the two halves (hemispheres) of a learner's brain, and pattern a basic sense of timing, repeatedly missing opportunities for movement can have serious effects. Limited movement also means less opportunity to develop muscle mass or muscle tone—a relationship also true in reverse, as we'll discuss in our next section, "Muscle Tone."
Difficulties with kinesthesia frequently show up in visual and auditory functions. Eye tracking—moving the eyes in tandem to follow a moving target or to read line after line of text—is essentially "kinesthesia of the eyes." The ears also discern movement. As the source of a sound nears, we perceive a higher pitch; as the source of a sound leaves, we perceive a lower pitch. (We frequently notice this with planes, trains, and cars.) It's called the doppler effect and is, essentially, "kinesthesia of the ears." When kinesthesia is difficult, we rely more on our other senses (often vision, especially) to help orient and direct our movement. This can strain our eyes and, as we focus intently on what we see (rather than what we feel), can delay the development of our other sensory-motor systems. When perceiving and naturally carrying out our own movements is difficult, it affects our entire lives.
Ultimately, learners who have difficulty with kinesthesia frequently have difficulties with Attention Factor™#4: Intentionality. Consciously planning movements takes more time and energy than just moving. When a learner's repertoire of memorized movement patterns is minimal, even common "everyday" movement sequences can feel unfamiliar. When things feel unfamiliar, our autonomic nervous system naturally heightens our attention to basic needs of safety and security: naturally, we react, rather than responding intentionally.
When so many things seem to be changing around us, feeling cause and effect relationships (naturally, without thinking about them) is tough. Learners with difficulties with kinesthesia often under- or over-estimate how much time a project will consume, or how much time they have to do it. Almost always, they have (or have had) difficulty with timing: time itself seems fluid, amorphous. The good news is that HANDLE® and, when necessary, Interactive Metronome can help.
Muscle Tone (1)
The next tower in the Integral Learning™ model is the Muscle Tone tower. "Muscle Tone" refers to our muscle's readiness to respond, or the amount of tension in a muscle at rest. Ideally, our muscles maintain some background tension (like partly stretched rubber bands). This way, our muscles don't have to start from ground zero with each movement. (We can stretch a 4" rubber band to a full 8" more quickly, and with less energy, if it's already partly stretched to 6".) Muscle tone is different from muscle strength, which refers to how much weight one can move over a set distance. (Often, high school football players are stronger than high school wrestlers, but wrestlers often have better tone.)
Since muscle tone develops through movement in gravity, if we move less, we have fewer opportunities to develop muscle mass or muscle tone—a relationship also true in reverse. Obviously, it takes some muscle mass to move. But when muscle tone is low or asymmetric, it takes substantially more energy to move. Just "getting going" is difficult. It takes more effort, so we naturally do less of it. Often, difficulties in the other Sensory Towers make movement disconcerting, and we move less. (See discussion under "Kinesthesia," above.) Increasingly, we get our desire for movement met in other ways, which don't develop our muscle tone.
Today, we can also satiate our desire for movement without moving much at all: we can play thirty minutes, an hour, or more of video games per day—or watch a similar amount of fast-paced television. (Almost every modern television program is fast-paced: it quickly pans or cuts to a new camera angle, and thereby provides a radically new perspective, more often than the natural maximum of once every seven seconds. Most, in fact, provide a radically new perspective once every two seconds or less.) The movement-without-moving of television and high-tech video games sends potentially confusing information to our vestibular system. Extensive exposure (any before age 3, more than 30+ minutes per day for ages 4–5, more than 1 hour per day for ages 6–7, or more than two hours per day after age 8) may actually hamper vestibular system development and interfere with modulation. For children with autism-spectrum or attention issues, more than two hours of fast television or (hand-held, console, or computer) video games per month may be excessive, though many children can slower-paced computer games like those listed on our SOI Training page.
It's also natural to choose sedentary activities to avoid social difficulties created by low or asymmetric muscle tone. In person, if we slouch, or if our faces sag, we may appear uninterested in what another person is saying—or "slow," in which case others may assume we don't have much to contribute. Keeping in touch with friends via Internet chat rooms or MMORPG's (Massive Multiplayer Role-Playing Games) doesn't require the same muscle tone: in the short run, it's easier—and until undesirable consequences get too high, it's natural to gravitate toward what's easiest in the short run.
Muscle Tone (2)
Sometimes, we naturally gravitate toward activities that relieve sensory-motor confusion. If we're confused by vestibular input, a pogo stick may become our best friend: it provides input to our proprioceptive sense (discussed later), which compensates for vestibular confusion, while simultaneously stimulating our vestibular organs so much that our brains temporarily tune out vestibular input—and we get some much-needed relief. Similarly, if our muscle tone isn't responding quickly enough to cues from our vestibular system, we may lack adequate "testing ground" to pay attention to what our vestibular sense is telling us. So busy compensating for our inefficient muscle tone, we may not have enough opportunity to grow confident in our ability to unconsciously understand and respond to what our vestibular system is telling us. In this case, swimming, which requires less muscle tone yet provides ample vestibular input, may quickly become our favorite pastime. Pogo-stick jumping may not work much on our vestibular system, and swimming may not work much on our muscle tone, yet either—or any other natural sensory activity we gravitate toward—may be indispensable to our overall neurodevelopment.
As mentioned under "Vestibular Function," above, whenever our head moves as we walk, we ride on a bumpy road, or we grow fatigued toward the end of a long day, our vestibular sense cues our neck and shoulder muscles—and other supporting muscles down to our toes—to help keep our head upright and stable. Without this stability, our head can bob, and we can lose track of what we were focusing on—skipping a line of text while reading or missing a catch while playing ball. Tilting our head can also shift which eye we "sight" with (our functionally dominant eye for the moment). Our muscle tone actually enables our eyes to work together—to "team."
The stapedius, a tiny muscle in the middle ear, helps us "zoom in" to hear a parent, teacher, or friend speaking in the midst of background noise, and to "zoom out" from that background noise—assuming we're not in ANS-induced fight, flight, or fright, in which case we'll often scan background sounds to detect an impending threat before it gets too close. However, if our vestibular function is inefficient or we struggle with muscle tone in general, our stapedius is unlikely to respond quickly enough to support good discrimination between foreground and background sounds (called "auditory figure-ground"). If we squirm, wriggle, and twist, we might put enough tone in the stapedius to enable us to pay attention to what's being said, yet learners are often disciplined for such squirming, wriggling, or twisting. It's a delicate balance: too much squirming, of course, can distract a learner and others in his or her environment, but too little, and a learner's eye teaming or auditory figure-ground may suffer. The command "Sit still and listen!" often means just "Sit still!"
Many times, a learner with muscle tone abnormalities finds the prospect of just getting going daunting. (S)he may be able to see what needs to be done, but (s)he lacks the confidence to start or the working memory to recall what (s)he had been doing when interrupted. In this way, difficulties with muscle tone contribute to difficulties with Attention Factor™#5: Adaptive Processing. When we can't adapt quickly enough, change becomes unmanageable.
By now, you're probably getting the picture that each sensory-motor function relates to every other one. Each system is distinct, but not separate. A wobbly Kinesthesia Tower, for instance, can bump into a secure Muscle Tone Tower, causing a State Change. That's why progress made by working on each system separately can become slow and laborious, even futile. Thankfully, strong neighboring systems can also buttress strained systems, enabling learning that wouldn't be possible if the ways we learn weren't holistically interrelated. That's why strengthening every system as part of a single, holistic approach like HANDLE® is so important.
The next tower in the Integral Learning™ model is the Proprioception tower. "Proprioception" refers to our unconscious awareness of our body in three-dimensional space. As you might guess from the preceding discussions, and from the picture at right of the entire Integral Learning™ model, our unconscious awareness of our body in space depends on multiple sensory systems.
Deep tactile sensors called "proprioceptors" read out physical pressure and movement, particularly joint movement. Our vestibular system helps us discern when we start moving, stop moving, or change directions. In collaboration with our visual and auditory senses, our vestibular system also helps us discern when objects in our environment start moving, stop moving, or change directions. Kinesthesia helps, too: when we can readily use memorized movement patterns—and can incorporate old patterns to more quickly learn new ones—we're better able to pay attention to where we are. Muscle tone helps us use our unconscious awareness of where we are in space—our proprioception—to move, and to change directions of movement quickly enough that our orientation toward objects and people around us doesn't suddenly change.
With efficient proprioception, we can understand others' position in space and intuit when we need to step aside to let others pass by. With efficient muscle tone, we can step aside quickly enough that others don't run into us. When we're appropriately, unconsciously aware of where we are in space, we tend to bump into things less, we knock fewer objects off the table, we don't break things as readily, and we don't run into things as often. We're less of what the world calls a "klutz."
Proprioception also affects our hearing. We incorporate our unconscious awareness of ourselves in space—our proprioception—with what we hear to perceive ambience: we notice how our environment affects sound. If our muscle tone is efficient, we breathe more deeply and project our voices where sound is absorbed, or with help from our vestibular system and fine-motor kinesthesia, we make fine adjustments to muscle tone to speak softly where sound ricochets, as it does in most libraries. Proprioception helps us know when to use our "inside voices."
Proprioception affects our vision, too. We incorporate our unconscious awareness of ourselves in space—our proprioception—with what we see to perceive a coherent visual field: we notice that we perceive. We notice what we perceive in relationship to us and to objects and people in our environment, and importantly, we notice we're distinct from the sensations that bombard us.
When a girl is traumatized or abused, she doesn't always maintain the perception that she perceives, that she is distinct from her perceptions. She disassociates. When a boy is traumatized or abused, he doesn't always maintain the perception that he perceives, that he is distinct from his perceptions. He disassociates. Disassociation can also occur without abuse or obvious trauma; it can result from sensory overload, autonomic nervous system dysfunction, or endocrine dysfunction, among other causes. Regardless of its cause, disassociation hampers proprioception and impairs Attention Factor™#6: Simultaneous Processing. It's tougher to draw conclusions from what we remember without losing the memory. It's tougher to understand emotional cues. And it's tougher to think of or do more than one thing at once: to multi-task.
When a learner has a history of feeling disconnected or confused, (s)he becomes overwhelmed more easily. (S)he may never know when she's next going to feel broad-sided by confusing emotions or have difficulty discerning what something or someone means. He may hyper-focus on one thing at a time. That "thing," in some senses, becomes his universe. Or, she may "get lost" just sitting still.
Often, learners with proprioceptive difficulties experience the sensation of floating. Like sandbags on a hot air balloon, a weighted vest or lap pad may help "bring down" or calm a learner with proprioceptive difficulties, as long as it's used intermittently. Our brains naturally tune into novelty. If we use weighted vests or lap pads for more than 10–15 minutes at a time, our brains may tune them out. Instead of calming us, they (a) have no effect or (b) actually make us numb—we may be quiet, but we're not actively learning.
Interrelationships Among Systems (1)
Moderate challenges in a single area sensory area can create minor challenges in all the others. Let's examine how this can work with vestibular issues:
Imagine, if you will, not knowing—for sure—when you've begun moving, stopped moving, accelerated, or decelerated. Your ability to use information from your vestibular system to understand when parts of your body have begun moving, stopped moving, accelerated, or decelerated hasn't yet matured. You're having difficulties with "vestibular function." How you feel in this scenario?
A: You're likely more on edge, especially if, on occasion, you've suddenly fell off things, seemingly without warning. This "on edge-ness" may show up as an imbalance in your autonomic nervous system. To compensate, your sense of smell (the only sense the autonomic nervous system doesn't have to "process" before "using") may become more alert, so you can "smell danger" before it gets too near.
B: You may try to rely more on your sense of touch, too. If you can feel how your body parts make contact with the world around you, subtle changes may provide cues sufficient to compensate for input you haven't been able to "use" or "make sense of" from your inner ear. Thus, your sense of touch may become heightened to compensate for difficulties with vestibular function.
C: You've still got to "handle" information from your vestibular system, even if that information is confusing. How might you respond? Here are five options: (1) move when necessary—standard operating procedure for those without vestibular difficulties, (2) keep moving, (3) avoid moving, (4) shut down the confusing sensory information from this system, or (5) re-norm input from this system (an option we'll explain soon.)
Let's look at the first option—move when necessary. This is standard operating procedure for those whose vestibular systems are functioning normally. There is a problem with this one if your vestibular function is impaired, however: by the time you become sufficiently "aware" to consciously respond to new vestibular input—or by the time your cerebellum has processed a change in balance and initiated a stretch reflex to help you stay upright—you've already fallen off your chair, lost control of your handwriting, lost some of your ability to discriminate among sounds, or lost the stability of what you're seeing (like when you step off a merry go round and the world seems to spin, though not necessarily that severe). If this happens often enough, you're likely to try this option less and less, despite encouragement from parents or teachers to "sit still and listen to me."
Let's look at the second option—keep moving, so your vestibular system is constantly sending input to your brain. This is a common, natural choice of many children with vestibular issues. (It is also a common, natural choice for some children with cognitive processing delays, or for whom a mineral imbalance or vitamin deficiency has effectively lowered the speed with which their cerebellar nerves fire.) This option may help you: with a steady stream of information you can adjust to constantly, you increase your odds of compensating for changes in that information more so than if you stopped moving and waited for fresh information. There's a problem with this option, though: it's often distracting to others, and sometimes even to yourself. You're likely reprimanded for it, too, but at least it beats the awful confusion of the first option (move when necessary). The third option (avoid moving) is rarely practical: you've got to move sometime. And if you start trying to move after you haven't been moving… whoa! Even people with normal vestibular function sometimes get light-headed getting up from their Lazy Boy. They have no idea what it's like for you!
Interrelationships Among Systems (2)
So, let's look at the fourth option—shut down the confusing sensory information from this system. If you can jump enough, or spin wildly enough, it's going to buy you time of relative peace: a brain inundated with so much confusing information from a vestibular system may stop trying to "process" information from that system for a while—perhaps 5 minutes, perhaps 20 or 30. After all, why would it try to understand chaos? Far better to get information from other sensory systems, which are providing more helpful information. There are, however, two notable, unintended consequences of the fourth option: (a) you now need to rely more on your other sensory systems, so they're each a bit more stressed, and (b) you're not developing your ability to actually use the information from your vestibular system—instead, you're developing your ability to work around not using the information from your vestibular system.
Many naturally take this option, too, as standard operating procedure—and in some cases, it can help long-term. If you can strengthen each of your other systems enough, then maybe they can help you gradually ease into using information from your vestibular system again… though often, this happens later in life. You may "suddenly" have the ability to read or have numbers stay in the correct columns when you're 12, maybe 16, maybe 22… when you hopefully still have enough drive to develop the abilities you've struggled with for years, if you haven't given up on yourself as "stupid" or accepted a label of "dyslexic," AD/HD, autistic, etc., as part of your identity.
Finally, let's look at the fifth option: to re-norm input from this system. This option is less common in building vestibular function, but it is available. (It's probably in play at every skateboard park in the United States.) Since many have experienced re-norming of the tactile system (sense of touch), let's look at that use of this option first.
In the tactile system, if you frequently experience pain from sitting or standing, getting in an auto accident or getting beat up a bit in a martial art class can re-norm your perception of what pain really feels like. The same things that felt painful before may then be nuisances, but they don't seem as awful. More severe current pain can dull your awareness of less severe prior pain.
You can also do this scientifically, joint by joint, by pressing hard in one direction (isometric pressure) while moving an appendage to and fro, 90° opposite the direction of your pressure (dynamic exercise). Eventually, you'll feel pain that doesn't "make sense"—it's coming from a joint that's moving normally, and which you're continuing to move through a comfortable range of motion with little, if any, encumbrance from surrounding muscles or fascia. Since this pain seems meaningless, but you're under full control of it and at peace with the experience, the brain is likely to dismiss it as irrelevant. This scientific approach can be especially useful for individuals with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), who often feel random, senseless pain that their brain hasn't yet dismissed; it may finally help their brain dull to the random inputs of pain.
Anyway, this same process of resetting the norm can work for the vestibular system. It's my personal suspicion that many circus performers have used this process. Basically, if you can get your vestibular system to successfully adapt to increasing vestibular challenges—a rocker board, a wave board, surfing, juggling, walking a tightrope, riding a unicycle, walking a slack rope, etc.—then slight inputs may call less of your attention. The potential problem with this method is that we need slight vestibular inputs to relate normally with others in everyday life. If we dismiss these slight inputs, our ability to understand moderation, empathize with others, and respond appropriately to social stressors can suffer, since each of these benefit from a low vestibular "norm." This fifth option, nevertheless, is still preferable to most of the others—especially if it's balanced (pun intended) by a sixth option, which few know to use:
Interrelationships Among Systems (3)
Little-Known Option Six
(6) Slow down the rate of information entering the vestibular system, and isolate different axes of the vestibular system so the brain can process information primarily from one axis at a time. This involves dynamically, very slowly tipping in each direction the vestibular system reads from the semi-circular canals: forward/back, side/side, and clockwise/counter-clockwise. Simultaneously, have someone watch for signs that your body looks stressed, and be open to feeling stressed yourself, too. Then—this is crucial!—stop what you're doing when signs or feelings of stress appear!
Part of the vestibular system's job is, (1) when sensing input from these kind of dynamic movements, (2) to cue the brain (3) to increase muscle tone for support. Given this 1–2–3 chain, muscle tone may be insufficient to support gentle, axis-by-axis stimulation when vestibular function is under-developed. (The brain may respond to the dynamic stretch reflex latently, when the activity is halfway complete… or already over.) Hence, HANDLE® activities designed to gently enhance vestibular function generally include poses to increase tonus during the activity—making the chain 3–1–2–3 chain. This support is crucial for Gentle Enhancement™.
Statically, you may also try sitting still, then standing still, then standing still while interacting with a pendulum ball, bean bags, and racquet balls on a Belgau Balance Board, which isolates side/side and forward/back motion. You may also try the same movement sequence—sitting still, then standing still, then standing still while interacting with a pendulum ball, bean bags, and racquet balls—on a Belgau Rotation Board, which a trainer can turn slightly clockwise/counter-clockwise while you remain upright and still. In using these tools—this is again crucial—stop what you're doing when signs or feelings of stress appear!
By targeting specific axes and going slowly, you're reducing the sensory load to something your brain actually can "handle." By ceasing to give your brain targeted vestibular input to "handle," you're confirming that it's safe to try to "handle" this information in the first place. Provided you keep stopping at the first signs of stress, it's natural for you to to grow more comfortable, over time, prolonging your effort to use information from your vestibular system to make sense of what you're experiencing. As you use this information more and more, your vestibular function naturally improves. (This isn't rehabilitation or therapy; it's targeted learning, and you're the one in charge.)
Interrelationships Among Systems (4)
Now, returning to what you've been imagining: if your vestibular function is unreliable, you don't know—for sure—when you've begun moving, stopped moving, accelerated, or decelerated. We're exploring how moderate challenges in a single sensory area can create minor challenges in all the others.
D, E, and F: Can you imagine how difficulties understanding changes in inertia would affect your sense and memory of fluid motion (kinesthesia), your brain's ability activate stretch reflexes to maintain your orientation in gravity (to deploy muscle tone), and your overall sense of where you and the parts of your body are in space (proprioception)? If you've ever had your car hydroplane or begin to fishtail when you've tried braking on snow, you probably have a feel for this one. In the split second that a car begins to fishtail, a driver experiences a change in inertia. Not used to this experience, most drivers over-compensate: if the back of their car begins sliding to the right, they turn the wheel too far to the right. The car often corrects but then goes into a tailspin, and the driver ends up facing the opposite direction—headlong into oncoming traffic.
Many contemporary vehicles have integrated systems called "Dynamic Stability Control." Dynamic Stability Control uses a computer-operated, gyroscopic, artificial vestibular system to help a driver maintain control over an vehicle's fluid motion by applying brakes to particular wheels (kinesthesia); by increasing or decreasing tension in shock supports to each wheel (muscle tone); and by monitoring outcomes from the changes it and the driver initiate, comparing those outcomes to a safe "ideal," then initiating more changes to make up for any discrepancies (proprioception).
Through this process, Dynamic Stability Control somewhat compensates for drivers' delayed reaction time, too. Many times while driving, we're not expecting a sudden change in motion, and it takes our brains time to process what's happening, especially if we're tired or have vestibular difficulties. By that time, our lives, the lives of our passengers, and the lives of others on the road may already be at risk. So, what difference does Dynamic Stability Control makes? According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, sport utility vehicles with Dynamic Stability Control are involved in 67 percent fewer accidents than SUVs without such a system.
Did you catch that? Sixty-seven percent fewer accidents for SUVs. In humans, we need our vestibular systems to help us make similar, minor corrections in our fluid motion, stretch reflexes (muscle-tone deployment), and sense of body-in-space almost all the time. This is why vestibular difficulties can easily effect difficulties with kinesthesia, muscle tone, and proprioception. And if all of these systems are impacted, at least somewhat, the auditory and visual functions they each support are usually impacted, as well.
We've examined this interrelationship between sensory systems beginning with the vestibular system, but a similar train of connections can be traced beginning with any of the others, too. We are, indeed, "fearfully and wonderfully made." Praise be to God that He has imbued our brains with intelligent, self-corrective mechanisms that can often ensure our survival, even our health, when we give our bodies the kind of sensory and nutritional inputs we need!
HANDLE® & Perseverance
The Holistic Approach to Neuro-Development and Learning Efficiency (HANDLE®) is a non-judgmental approach. In order to come alongside those with perceptual issues and discern what particular behaviors are telling us, we have to stop judging long enough to foster trust, to interact, to observe, and to discover which sensory-motor systems—which towers in the Integral Learning™ model—are most likely compromised. Ideally, we don't put on a hat of judgment soon afterward.
Our society, however, is far from non-judgmental. Even nature is far from non-judgmental. If we jump off a building, we're judged by the laws of nature, and a consequence is meted out swiftly. As people, we value staying alive, so we don't jump off buildings. Moreover, many fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians struggle with neo-doceticism (with a tendency to elevate the mind and spirit above the physical here-and-now). We have a tendency to try to improve spiritual and psychological issues directly, while we take foundational human abilities for granted. When the Bible was written, assuming these abilities were in place was fairly safe. In our chaotic world today, these foundational abilities are easily splintered. As we recognize connections between foundational human abilities and the virtues we value, it can be easier to sustain attention and motivation to develop these abilities.
Sustained Attention is actually the seventh Attention Factor. Many individuals on the autism-spectrum deal with more anomie (feeling "not at home") and more confusion than their parents and teachers acknowledge. Some deal with more anomie and confusion than we can even fathom. We thus don't want to promote an ethic of unflagging perseverance, since those who adopt such an ethic risk failing to stop and strengthen weakened systems that must be attended to: sooner, accepting delays in meeting objectives… or later, coping with systemic breakdown. Nevertheless, we also want to acknowledge the importance of what we believe most individuals do naturally, until we're (1) overwhelmed, or (2) "entertained" to distraction: we persevere. And perseverance is important.
Perseverance (or, more narrowly, "Sustained Attention") involves (1) assessing the character of things—distinguishing between (a) what's truly worth continuing, (b) what can we cease doing, and (c) what we can re-negotiate our commitment to do—then (2) following through on our commitments. We can't leave out a step and expect our perseverance to last.
Environmentally, learning proceeds most smoothly in low-technology, movement-friendly environments that honor the autonomic nervous system. In stressful environments less friendly to learning, however, we can still back away from stressors at the earliest signs of strain, enabling our bodies and minds to recalibrate—provided we recognize those "earliest signs of strain."
Physically, learning proceeds most smoothly
1. When we engage in activities that
a. Remind our nervous systems of increasingly familiar, comfortable sensations, and
b. Help restore proper function to whatever sensory-motor systems are compromised within us;
2. And when we can recall and use those activities in moments of stress to
a. Remind us of the "big picture," as we become fully present to the moment, and
b. Help restore our awareness of the "felt sense" (the nous), so we can discern what's most important in the moment.
Spiritually, learning proceeds most smoothly when we trust God in simple faith and join ourselves to His Church, where we can receive sacramental support, learn forgiveness, grow in the Faith.
As we grow as learners, we often do well to keep an end in mind—so long as that "end" is to engage in a process that values the many ways humans "be." Not all learning has an immediately recognizable use! To learn means to increase in awareness, skills, habits, knowledge, relationships, and faith. Thus, it often helps when we purpose to
- Increase in knowledge we will want to remember,
- Incorporate reflexes and intentionality into efficient motor patterns,
- Form habits we would want to be known for, doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
- Foster trusting, loving relationships, and
- Trust and obey One whom we cannot see, despite our circumstances, as with every choice to trust, trusting becomes easier—as we develop a habit of trusting.
For the majority of people, through the majority of our lives, we program our brains with whatever we practice, yet our brains aren't computers. When we "program" our brains, we're not just writing software. We're fundamentally changing hardware. Hardware isn't infinitely malleable, but it's a lot more malleable than it's often given credit for. You, reader, are very adaptable: whether you're 7, 27, or 57, you can grow and change. Whether your child or loved one is 2, 42, or 82, there's still hope. Hope in the journey. Welcome aboard a journey of Integral Learning™.
For more information on HANDLE®, click here. To continue reading the Integral Learning™ educational series, click below:
When do learning difficulties require “expert” assistance, and what criteria can one use in choosing an “expert?”
In general, how can we ensure learning success—moment-by-moment, with or without an expert’s assistance?