Merzenich Interview on Neuroplasticity and the Feldenkrais Method

I recently watched a very interesting interview with Michael Merzenich, a well known neuroscientist at the University of California. Merzenich has made some very large contributions to his field, particularly in the area of neural plasticity as it relates to the organization of the body. He is considered one of the leaders in the “Neuroplasticity Revolution”, and his work has been extensively discussed in the popular media, such as Norman Doidge’s excellent book called The Brain that Changes Itself. Merzenich has recently developed a program called Posit Science, which uses his research to help aging adults retain or regain mental sharpness.

The topic of the interview is the parallels that Merzenich sees between his work and the Feldenkrais Method. Apparently Merzenich is a big Feldenkrais fan, and will be giving the keynote address at the annual Feldenkrais Method conference, which is titled “Embodying Neuroscience.”

It’s a short interview, but it’s amazing how many interesting topics emerge concerning how we can help the brain change, particularly in regard to its ability to create coordinated and effective movement.

I have embedded the video below and then excerpted many of the most interesting quotes and interspersed my own comments. Enjoy.

Here are some of the quotes from the video that I found most interesting, accompanied by my own comments.

Comparing his approach to rehabilitation with the Feldenkrais Method:

My evolution of my own thinking about this is very consistent with how you think about these things. I have almost no conflicts.

On the connection between movement and neural processes:

The feelings and the thoughts about movement are inseparable from the movement itself.

On the importance of variability in recovering lost mental abilities:

It’s the difference between thinking about recovering movement or recovering anything by pounding on it in a stereotypic way. To think: “I have to get a person to move from here to here.” The goal is far more interesting than that. It’s more about using a body and using variety to get there in all sorts of natural exploratory ways.

One of the lessons of this research is that stereotypy is the enemy. And that you really want to exercise the brain with a variety of movements, a variety of actions. A variety of challenges.

It is better to try to move to a point in space in 100 different speeds in 100 different ways  … than to move 200 times in the same way to get to that point in space.

We are trying increasingly to build this into all of our cognitive training exercises that we do. Because we know that that’s really what the brain wants – to be able to set up the conditions by which it can solve the task in almost any circumstance.

When you get older it’s common that an older person will stereotype their movement. Let’s say they’re walking. They are actually less safe. Safety and walking has to do with the surprise…. The only way to deal with a surprise that can come in any direction is to walk with substantial variability. The same with thought. The same with your operations in general…. The more richer, the more varied the possibilities of your movement landscapes, the more powerful you are. And the more imaginative you are and the more fun you are having.

I see this “variability” theme emerging in other areas as well. For example, it appears that a healthier heart rate is one with greater variability as opposed to greater regularity. The same is true for brain waves. Metabolic “flexibility”, or the ability to quickly shift back and forth between utilizing different energy substrates, is a marker for metabolic health. And play is a great way to learn.

Consider these ideas in the context of training your movement, for example your ability to lower your center of gravity to the ground. If you watch kids move from the floor to standing, you will see them select a different pathway almost very time. There is tremendous variety in how they go from A to B. But if you watch adults train in a gym, most will use one, or maybe two ways to lower their center of gravity – a squat and a lunge. This is the stereotyped movement that Merzenich says is indicative of reduced capacity. Squatting in the exact same way each time you go to the gym is probably not the best way to optimize your squatting, or anything else. (If you want to try a movement lesson that plays with variety in the squat pattern, click here.)

Merzenich also talks about the importance of attention and awareness in enabling changes to the brain:

We know from a rich variety of experiments… my phrase for it is the brain only changes when it matters to it. And “matters to it” means it has to be engaged in the task… what that reflects is that under the right conditions it is actually releasing the neural modulators the controls the brain’s change. And of course it would not be so foolish and wasteful so as to permit change when it hasn’t determined that it’s going to matter, it’s going to benefit.

This is why we should choose to do movements that are novel, interesting, curious, exploratory and functionally relevant (Moseley calls this functional salience.) And why we should pay attention while doing them. In other words, don’t just go through the movements, make sure they have some meaning, or the brain will properly ignore them.

So what did you think of the video? Are you moving in a way that will sharpen your movement mind? Or are you going through the motions in a stereotyped way? Let me know in the comments.

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13 Responses to Merzenich Interview on Neuroplasticity and the Feldenkrais Method

  1. Speaking of variability reminds me of a webinar Jeff Cubos did on on variability for stability. That true “stability” is the ability to go to and from “hard/outer core to soft/inner core” and all the combinations in between in a variety of situations within miliseconds.

  2. Hi, Anthony –

    Thanks for posting this. It has since showed up on the Musicians’ FTSD Forum. Although it’s common to hear about Merzenich, it’s certainly different to see him connecting his work to the concepts of Feldenkrais. The focus of attention comment (final quote) was particularly valuable.

    Cheers from Melbourne –


  3. Cool new perspective. I especially like the idea of variability as making for more robust and safe movement, though I never really thought about how the squat and the lunge are limited in lowering center of gravity. However, I think that modern exercise routines actually focus on limiting movements to the least possible number in order to achieve a deep mastery at the expense of adaptability and resilience. Having moved away from strictly programmed strength training, I am realizing the importance of activities like martial arts, dance, yoga, and other practices with high variability; you don’t get to a massive squat or work capacity, but they are more applicable and mentally stimulating.

    • Khaled,

      Thanks for the comment. If you really want to get strong, you will need to stereotype your movement a little bit – that is the only thing that will allow you to move heavy weights safely. But I think many trainers overlook the benefits of varying the squat or lunge positions and playing with them a little. In other words, if you want to hit a PR in the squat, you better know exactly what foot positions, hip positions, etc work best for you and practice that particular form over and over again. BUT, part of what will help you find that optimum position is to play around with all the other options. With lighter weights of course. Variability is necessary for optimum movement quality.

  4. West side barbell. Uses the big movements squats bench and deadlift. But they continually change the range or type of load. Bands,boxes,chains, off of a rack, from the floor, with gear, without gear etc. they claim this enables them to continually coax more strength, without aggravating tendons/joints.

    • Garrett,

      Excellent call. I similar idea occurred to me as I was writing this. “Assistance exercise” may work not just by developing weak muscles in the chain, but by adding the variability that the brain needs for optimal learning. Great example of variability within a constrained and narrow range of movements. Reminds me of Staley’s phrase “same but different.”

  5. My partrner Liz and I are just about to start brisbane 3 feldenkrais training, {only 5 more sleeps!!!} and both love this. Were setting up a business that uses play as the main tool for inducing variability. The summation and comments were great and loved that it was concise, cheers

  6. Great video and article. Merzenich is one of the most important figures in the domain of neuroplasticity research. His pioneering work with cochlear implants and research demonstrating neuroplasticity has been the driving force behind a lot of neuroscience research. If you haven’t read Merzenich’s new book- Soft Wired- yet, be sure to do so. The book provides compelling evidence for neuroplasticity and is written in an easy to follow format. When studying neuroscience in graduate school Merzenich was a key figure in discussions on neuroplasticity. He may be one the greatest scientists ever that many have not heard about.

  7. It is not the repetitive movement per se that has less value for cognitive flexibility than the fact that when we develop a motor routine we are no longer engaging our full awareness, connecting the motor to the higher cognitive. Repeating a movement with full awareness has a different cognitive and neural profile than perfecting and repeating a movement automatically (which becomes a low level motor loop). Even in a repeated movement there is always change in the initial state of the nervous system. In fact, I see perfect value in using repeated movements with full awareness as an exercise for developing our mind-brian connection.

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