The Brain-Movement Connection?


The Brain and Learning


The process of nerve cells connecting and networking is learning and thought. As associations are made and information is synthesized, the brain's pathways become more complex networks.


When a person first begins to learn something new it sometimes takes a while for the learning to happen. As the neurons are activated, more pathways are created and more myelin is laid down. The more myelin created, the faster the transmission. We know from recent brain research that the brain is basically a plastic organ this is constantly being moulded throughout life.


There is evidence that early motor stimulation impacts reading, writing and attention skills. When children first start school at age five or six they should learn through emotion, image and spontaneous movement.


Movement anchors thinking and learning. Real knowledge happens when we take our sensory environment and piece it together to make a picture of our world. The whole system must be active in order to take in information, decide what is important, integrate with existing patterns and anchor it with movement. Without movement of some kind, you don't get conscious thought. Real learning is not complete until there is some kind of output. The active muscular expression of learning is an important part of learning. Art, music, dance, drama are ways to express learning.


The development of a skill starts with understanding the world through the senses, emotions and movement. New learning is added to these base patterns, eventually forming a framework of information. New nerve networks are built to increase our understanding and abilities.

Studies report that movement and stimulation of balance helps attention disorders and improves reading.




Our brains have natural attention highs and lows throughout the day. These cycles last about 90-110 minutes.


        Movements such as stretching or marching can help focus attention.

        The brain shifts its cognitive abilities on the high and low cycles. Blood flow and breathing changes which affects learning.

        Several researchers say that mental breaks of up to 20 minutes several times a day increase productivity (Rossi and Nimmons, 1991)

        Pearce Howard says that in general, workers need 5-10 minute breaks every hour and a half.


Genuine "external" attention can be sustained at a high and constant level for 10 minutes or less.  Constant attention on the teacher is counterproductive:


        Much of what we learn cannot be processed consciously because it happens too fast. We need time to process it.

        Internal time is needed to create new meaning. Meaning comes from within.

        After a new learning experience we need time for learning to imprint.


The brain is not designed for continuous learning. The brain needs processing time and time away from direct focused time. The brain can either be focusing on the teacher or it can be creating meaning, but you can't have both at the same time.




Researchers have discovered that where you move your eyes affects how you think. Looking up activates the visual part of your brain. Looking to the upper left helps recall and looking to the upper right helps construct. Looking to the left side activates auditory-internal, for recalling sounds. Looking to the right side allows the construction of sound. Looking down and to the right allows the experience of feeling and to the left to create internal dialogue.


Reflexive and Reflective Response Systems


Recent brain research has proven that there are two separate response systems in the brain-reflexive and reflective. (Robert Sylwester, 1998) Paul McLean's triune brain theory, which explained how the brain downshifts, has been replaced by the reflexive and reflective response systems of the brain.


        As information comes into our brains from the senses, it does an instantaneous evaluation of the input. The brain will react reflexively if a threat or danger is perceived; heartbeat and blood pressure increases and stress hormones are released into the blood stream. Often, at the same time, the sensory information travels to the brain's cortex for a more rational evaluation. If upon reflection the brain says there is no threat, it can send out messages to counteract the reflexive message.


        Sylwester notes that there are problems if students stay in the reflexive mode without developing reflective skills.


        Chronic stress can result in a depressed immune system 


        Mihaly Csikszentmihlyi notes that there are eight major components of Flow. Flow occurs when stress has been minimized and the student is processing reflectively.

        It occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.

        We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.

        The task had clear goals.

        The task provides immediate feedback.

        Deep but effortless involvement removes from our awareness worries and frustrations of everyday life.

        The experience is an enjoyable one that allows us to exercise a sense of control over our actions.

        The concern for self disappears.

        The sense of time is altered; hours pass by in what seems like minutes.


The Vestibular System


The vestibular system controls our sense of movement and balance. It is the first sensory system to fully develop by five months after conception.


The organs involved in the vestibular system are found in the mastoid bone, which is the lump behind the ear lobe, and part of the inner ear. The RAS (Reticular Activating System) is found in the brain stem. It carries impulses to the neocortex. The RAS "wakes up" the neocortex, increasing excitability and responsiveness to incoming environmental stimuli. This "wake up" gets us ready to take in and respond to our environment and to learn.


The connection between the vestibular system and the neocortex is very important to learning. When we don't move and activate the vestibular system, we are not taking in information from our environment.


Touch right after birth stimulates growth of the body's sensory nerve endings involved in motor movements, spatial orientation and visual perception. Touch is a strong anchor in behavior and learning. Whenever touch is combined with other senses, much more of the brain is activated and more complex nerve networks are built.


When the body and head move, the vestibular system is activated and eye muscles get stronger. The more the eyes move, the stronger the muscles of both eyes get so they can work together. When the two eyes can move together efficiently it will be easier for a student to focus and track words on a page.


Researchers have found that disturbance to the vestibular system cause major learning difficulties. If a child keeps their head still for long periods of time (such as watching TV) the vestibular system can degenerate. Moving, wiggling, turning and tilting their heads stimulates a child's damaged vestibular system. When children move, damaged tissue in the vestibular system can be overridden as new nerve nets develop.




Proprioception is the body's sense of itself in space. Every muscle in our body has proprioceptor receptors, which sense how much our muscles stretch. These receptors allow us to explore and learn about our environment and gain understanding through our muscle sense. The proprioceptor and the vestibular system are closely linked, as the movement from muscles depends on balance.


Through our proprioceptive sense we get constant feedback to our brain to adjust the shoulder and neck muscles in order for the eyes to remain level while reading, monitors the ability to sit on a chair, to listen to information and to take notes.


Touch and proprioception are important to the visual aspects of learning. More than 90% of vision takes place in the brain through the association of touch and proprioception. Much of vision is learned, as the brain assembles our visual world from information learned from touch and proprioception. The ability to see three-dimensional shapes in a two-dimensional shape is learned through art, books and movies.


The eyes must be actively moving for learning to occur. Many cranial nerves connect to the eye.  Rich sensory and hands-on learning continues throughout life. In a New York study of 133 subjects who were followed from infancy to adulthood, three major factors in early learning environments were discovered that indicated competency in adulthood:


1) Rich sensory indoor and outdoor environments

2) Freedom to explore the environment with few restrictions

3) Available parents that acted as consultants to answer questions.


Einstein said, "Learning is experience. Everything else is just information." Words cannot be understood unless they make some kind of image in the mind of the learner. Experiences are direct and real. They involve senses, emotions, and movement and engage the learner. Words are helpful is the process, but hands-on learning happens when we use our senses, experience what we observe, relate to past experiences and notice patterns.


Learning comes first through the senses. As we explore our environment, sensory patterns are laid down on nerve networks. The sensory patterns become reference points and give us context for all learning, thought and creativity. From the sensory base we add emotions and movement for lifelong learning.


Brain Gym Activities


Slow exercise requires fine motor involvement and balance, which consciously activates the vestibular system and the frontal lobes. Cross lateral exercises simultaneously activate large areas of both brain hemispheres. Cross lateral exercises make it possible for nerve networks to form and myelinate in the corpus collasum. This makes communication between the two hemispheres faster and more integrated for high-level reasoning.


Many Brain Gym exercises alert the vestibular system, which stimulates RAS (Reticular Activating System) activation to wake up the brain for incoming sensory input.


Brain Gym exercises activate the sensory and motor cortices of each hemisphere of the cerebrum.


Exercise establishes a rhythm and flow for good hand/eye coordination. Eye muscles are strengthened and assist network development and myelination for fine motor tracking.


The link between hearing in the temporal lobe and memory in the limbic system seems to be strong.


Some Brain Gym activities relax muscles and allows cerebrospinal fluid to flow more easily within the central nervous system. As a result, communication becomes freer.


Brain Gym movements activate balanced and equal muscles on both sides of the body. This is directly related to activation of the motor cortex of the frontal lobes of the cerebrum. The more the activation in the frontal lobes, the more nerve networks are formed.


In a study of 500 Canadian children, students who spent an extra hour each day in gym class performed better on exams than less active children. Coordinated muscular activities appear to stimulate the production of the natural substances that stimulate the growth of nerve cells and increase the number of neural connections in the brain.


Useful Books


The Out-Of-Sync Child: by Carol Stock Kranowitz, Larry B. Silver

Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head - Hannaford, Carla, Ph.D.,

Brain Gym (Teachers Edition) - by Paul E. Dennison, Gail E. Dennison