This article explores a common scenario with regard to safety and risk and how our brains operate. I am using a movement example, but there are others as well.
The example has to do with strategies some (many?) might begin to employ as a result of aging, or injury, or perhaps a chronic condition. Let's say this develops into a fear of falling. There are lots of stories about the consequences of falling and breaking a hip, so it represents a risk or a danger. As a result of this sense of danger a strategy of creating greater stability in standing and walking might begin. This strategy might not even be conscious, it might "just happen".
Greater stability could be gained by widening one's stance, looking at the ground in order to spot obstacles, with an overall sense of carefulness in one's gait. Given the circumstances these strategies are not necessarily wrong in the short term, but there is a hidden cost that is often missed, and that is the cost of decreased mobility. Don't take my word for it. Take a walk, then widen your feet even just a little, and put a little more bend in the knees, and look at the ground in front of you and walk again. Do you sense the difference? How is it possible that you could find yourself walking differently without even being consciously aware of these adjustments? Here are a couple of reasons.
First, we humans are much less stable than other animals because we stand on two legs, not four. We have a big heavy head that sits on top, giving us a high center of gravity. But we have a potential for mobility that is unparalleled. The mobility and coordination of ankles and knees and hips and ribs and spine and shoulders and head and arms allows us to instantly modulate our instability and retain our balance. And we love this, witnessed by the popularity of dance and sports and other forms of entertainment. But if we lose confidence in our ability to adjust we react by seeking more stability.
Second, protection from danger is one of the primary functions of the brain. This goes way back to when surviving the day was a big deal. And these protective functions can be automatic and unconscious. Daniel Kahneman covers all of this in Thinking Fast and Slow, which is one of my favorite books on how the human brain operates. Kahneman cites research that shows that aversion to risk is at least twice as strong as attraction to opportunities. So we have a strong urge to go for safety and security over risk, i.e. stability over mobility.
There are many examples where aversion to risk plays itself out. How people invest, which jobs they choose or stay with, relationships, and more. Ironically, one of the top things that people say at the end of their lives is "I wish I had taken more risks".
Kahneman points out that this system is fast and automatic because we can't possibly think everything through at every moment. But he also points out that the fast brain is not necessarily right every time. We also have a slow brain system that is valuable but underutilized. Kahneman says that the slow brain is lazy and will just go with the fast brain in most cases.
Going back to our stability/mobility question, we would need to employ our slow brains to solve this movement conundrum. "Danger" is not just an idea, it is a "felt sense", so thinking might have limited value. I was having this conversation with someone a while ago and he concluded that I was talking about "mind over matter", so I must not have explained it well. Commanding yourself to keep your feet closer and look at the horizon may only escalate the sense of danger and fear. So there is more to it than that.
I think the solution can occur at the sensory level, utilizing our slow brains. You might explore the movements of standing and walking while lying on the ground, which is safe, because "you can't fall off the floor". You could explore all of the functions of walking which include rotation, flexion, extension and the coordination of the different parts, and do this in novel and unusual ways to engage the brain. If you did this slowly, with attention, differences could be noticed and changes adopted, because you could actually sense and feel the improvement. It wouldn't just be an idea or a command. Then you could actually stand and walk and employ the newfound mobility with a sense of confidence and vitality. You would very likely have a smile on your face and also see that this new learning affects thinking and feeling and sensing as well.
In fact, you might discover that you can learn to move better in some ways than you ever did, regardless of your age. Or that age has much less to do with it than you thought and that increasing mobility is the path to stability. You might discover that greater mobility allows for greater spontaneity.
You probably figured out that I have just described some of the elements the Feldenkrais Method®, (Awareness Through Movement® or Functional Integration®). There are other methods that explore movement in these slow brain ways, and the scientific research is confirming that this type of process actually changes neural pathways. I admit that I am biased but I know of no other method that so thoroughly and creatively develops the possibilities of movement re-education.
So check it out.......meaning really try a lesson. Learning is doing. Here's a link to some short Awareness Through Movement lessons you could try at home, or go to feldenkrais.com to find classes or practitioners in your area.