An Education

12 12 2010

I am in the midst of a relatively unique learning experience. When we learn to walk as infants, we don’t have the capacity to understand how the process occurs.  Reflecting on it later in life is not helpful because we can’t remember the time when we started walking.  Even therapists and scholars who study neurology and anatomy and understand the physiology involved do not get to personally experience the learning.  Despite the bad fortune that landed me in this position, I now have the good fortune of experiencing the learning involved in making a body walk.

When my spinal cord was first injured, my brain sent signals to my muscles telling them to move but received no response because the signal was disrupted at my injury site.  Eventually, my brain decided sending signals was futile so it stopped doing so. This is called “learned non-use”. My spinal cord repaired itself to a certain degree, but, because my brain was no longer sending signals, my muscles still did not activate.

Now that I know these muscles are capable of receiving information from my brain, I’m trying hard to transmit messages.  This is where the learning process becomes interesting.  It seems that each movement requires a separate command from my brain.  To take a step with my left leg, I have to think about activating my hip flexor, then my quad to bend my hip. I have to think about pulling my leg through the stride and then raising my knee, but not too high. I have to concentrate on contracting my quad to extend my leg while moving my body forward and placing my foot on the ground with my heel first.

If I forget to specifically think about one of these movements, it doesn’t occur.  At least that used to be the case.  Some of these movements have started to become automatic.   I’m not sure at what point it occurred and do not understand quite how. In fact, I’m not terribly aware of which movements are automatic and which are not; somewhere along the way I just stopped thinking about some of them.  I discover what is not automatic when I try to talk at the same time as I walk.  With the distraction, certain movements become lazy or cease until I concentrate on them again.  The more I practice, the more automatic or natural the movements become.

I realize as I’m writing this that others can experience this type of learning when they try a new activity that requires undeveloped physical skill and capacity. New skiers, in particular, come to mind. Do you remember what it was like learning to turn, balance and control speed while traveling down a hill on two narrow skis?  How it took your entire concentration to lean the right amount, in the right direction, at the right time?  Even then, you needed to develop stronger muscles to become proficient.   If you can’t remember a similar experience, give it a try.  It’s quite exciting.

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One response

16 12 2010
Crystal Arnott

Love your posts and keep them coming. This one made me think of Nathan and his progress. You are correct that he does not comprehend the process; he doesn’t understand why he develops at all. He just does. He has the drive or I suppose, instinct, to learn. He learns through trial and error, and then repetition once he succeeds. Learning and motivation are things we share at any age – to see your goal and work hard towards it. You truly are an inspiration to me… to go back to school and instill in me that motivation to learn, to challenge and to believe in myself. Who knows now what the future holds for us?
Watch Nathan’s first walk on Youtube before you see him at Christmas and keep filming yourself. Memory just doesn’t compare to the progress you see on video.

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