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The Role of Balance in Movement and Learning

by Stephen Braybrook(more info)

listed in exercise and fitness, originally published in issue 223 - July 2015

 

The way we perceive our place in the world is through our belief system and our interaction between our physical body, thoughts and feelings with the environment around us. At every second our life is shaped by our perceptions and it is these perceptions that provide a space for creativity and leaning to take place. One such creative action is that of movement. The way that movement impacts on learning is of the upmost importance, as learning will always be connected in some way to the control of movement. Take for example the activities of reading, which will depend on the development of stable eye movements or writing, which involves the finite coordination between the hand and the eyes and the repeated adjustment of head position if copying is the task. So what is the connection that ties movement and learning as one? This is the vestibular ocular reflex (VOR) system, alternatively known as the balance system.

The VOR system or balance system is located in the inner ear and is the first sensory system to mature in humans. The VOR plays a vital role for sensory integration throughout the biological body.  The main responsibilities of the VOR are: for balance, as it is the primary organ of equilibrium and plays a major role in the personal sensations of motion and spatial orientation; for posture as the vestibular inputs directly into the nervous system to makes subconscious adjustments of tissue activity and body posture; and for all eye movements as the vestibular input to the nervous system directly helps stabilize the eyes during head movements. Within the VOR system the semi-circular canals and vestibular nuclei and the association and connection to the brainstem work together to gather and feedback information in an attempt to provide balanced movement. These messages are sent to part of the brain called the cerebellum that receives visual and auditory information from the eyes and ears. The information goes to and from the cerebellum and the thinking parts of the brain, in the attempt to make a decision based on survival and reduced stress to the body.

The cerebellum is also connected to a very important area for learning called the reticular activating system (RAS). The main roles of the RAS are to increase the excitability of incoming sensory information from the environment, which provides a response gathered from the information taken in through our sensory and in particular the VOR. This is a major importance to all learning process.  The interaction between all these areas helps us keep our balance, turn thinking in to actions, coordinate our movements and keep us alert and focused.

So what Exactly does Balance have to do with Learning?

An impaired or underperforming VOR can result in abnormal nystagmus, an excessive to-and-fro movement of the eyes. This is where the object of focus does not remain fixed when gaze is brought upon it but instead it appears to be moving as the object is not fixed on the same point on the retina. This results in a similar response as a flickering light, a moving object or a collection of lines on a page of text, as examples. This can become a problem for numerous activities, including reading and writing. For anyone suffering with an impaired or underperforming VOR this is one of the reasons why reading text on a printed page can present a particularly stressful challenge, as the changing positions of the words and letters require much more effort to process. As a result of stress, a person who shows signs and symptoms of an impaired or underperforming VOR may shy away from situations where words and numbers are being asked to be processed by the brain. People suffering with an underperforming or impaired VOR will have problems with their balance and a lesser ability to understand words, numbers, pictures spatial awareness and how the brain perceives the ‘bigger picture’ or structure of meaning behind these things. These symptoms are also seen in a whole range of learning difficulties including:

  • Dyslexia, which is difficulty reading and associated problems with writing, spelling and oration;
  • Dyscalculia, which is difficulty with maths and associated problems such as solving maths problems, understanding time and using money;
  • Dysgraphia, which is difficulty with writing and problems with handwriting, spelling and organizing ideas;
  • Dyspraxia, which is a sensory integration disorder resulting in difficulty with fine motor skills, problems with hand-eye coordination, balance and manual dexterity;
  • Dysphasia / Aphasia, which is difficulty with language and problems associated with understanding spoken language, poor reading skills and comprehension skills;
  • Auditory Processing Disorder, which is difficulty hearing the differences between sounds and is associated with problems such as reading, comprehension and language;
  • Visual Processing Disorder, which is difficulty interpreting visual information and is associated with problems such as reading, maths, maps, charts, symbols and pictures.

So what is the solution to an impaired or underperforming VOR?

The answer may just be as simple as playing like a child! The following are just a few movements that all children hopefully perform to activate the VOR:

  • Jumping;
  • Rolling;
  • Catching;
  • Crawling on all fours and the belly, face down and face up;
  • Hoping (hop scotch);
  • Skipping;
  • Walking and running backwards, sideways, forward and in circles;
  • Handstands;
  • Climbing;
  • Playing in a child’s soft play area;
  • Tag;
  • Sports that require whole body movements like football, rugby and hockey;
  • Playing an instrument such as the piano, drums or guitar as examples;
  • Juggling, spinning (object and yourself) and balancing;

However, because of the issues associated with an impaired and underperforming VOR and the similarity of the issues seen in varied learning disabilities, some specific and critical questions need to be asked, such as:

  1. Can an individual enhance VOR activity and see an improvement in all round learning?
  2. Would improving VOR activity impact positively on learning difficulties and the ability to learn in an educational environment?
  3. Does the sedentary nature of some modern education establishments fail to stimulate the VOR and fail to serve students suffering with underactive VOR?
  4. Does the current educational model, which is predominantly sedentary in nature (think about sitting in classrooms, learning from PowerPoint slides, sitting in examinations and being asked to do homework instead of being encouraged to move and play) set an environment that is more likely to see diagnosis of students with learning difficulties?
  5. Should learning environments incorporate movement more as a fundamental resource to assist in learning?

These questions are an example of the importance of further research and validation into the VOR in association with learning. The full extent of its potential use in learning, movement and balance is an area of movement science that needs much further investigating and may hold important keys of how to maximise and reach an individuals full learning potential.

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About Stephen Braybrook

Stephen Braybrook BSc MSc also know as The Movement Man is a highly qualified and experienced health, fitness and sports professional with a passion for the study of human movement, optimization of sporting performance and rehabilitation.  His area of special interest is human biomechanics and is currently writing a book and devising courses based on a modern look at biomechanics. Please see www.themovementman.com for more information.  Stephen may be contacted via Tel: 07890 263149; braybrookstephen@gmail.com

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