Wednesday musings: The science of learning and healing

Wednesday musings, 5/4/16
If you follow learning science (I’m not entirely sure that’s a thing. If it’s not, it should be), it will come as no surprise that exploring an idea or concept several different ways improves recall and understanding. If we simply try and memorize the cranial nerves, for example, repetition will get us there eventually, but if we make up games around the nerves, or write a short paragraph on each one, it will be a little more meaningful to us, perhaps enabling us to actually remember the nerves 12 years in the future. (This can backfire. In college anatomy, the TAs taught us a naughty mnemonic for the cranial nerves. I can’t remember all of the nerves, but I remember the mnemonic). Repeated exposure is necessary to begin understanding something on a deeper level; varied repeated exposure has an even greater impact.

Todd Hargrove wrote in his recent blog on understanding whether an animal was playing, “One clue would be the same basic movement pattern with random variation. If you saw the animal repeating the same movement without any variety, you might think it was working, stressed or anxious.”* If play is exploring a movement pattern with random variation, it could be argued play is a way to better understand the complexities of movement and how we move. If we always exercise in exactly the same manner, with no variation in how we are accomplishing the task, what are we learning about how we could do that task in a more effective way? Perhaps play is an avenue for learning, in both the mental and physical realms.

*Link to blog here:

Wednesday musings, 5/11/16
A client of mine lives in California 5 months a year. The rest of the time, he lives in the midwest, where they have actual seasons, including ice and snow. When he arrived in January, he was in quite a bit of discomfort. He injured his back shoveling snow; instead of resting it, he continued to aggravate it, attempting aggressive spine stretches to make it feel better, lifting heavy suitcases, and taking out the garbage. Mornings were the worst, and he had bouts of nerve pain during the day. His MRI was unremarkable for his age (at almost 80, he had a little bit of degeneration and a disc bulge at L4-L5). I did my best to work around the injury and not contradict anyone. He asked about the aggressive stretches; I suggested those didn’t seem to be helping (“no, they’re making it worse,” he said), and instead gave him a gentle breathing exercise and supine adductor pulse exercise for the mornings. Gradually, he improved, and the duration of discomfort in the morning lessened. He decided to consult with one of the top neurosurgeons in the country. The neurosurgeon suggested surgery. He e-mailed me directly after, telling me he thought it was the right choice, but he was hesitant to commit to spine surgery when he was leaving for the midwest 4 weeks later.

The next morning, he was symptom free. For the first time in 3 months, he woke up without any nerve pain. He canceled his follow-up appointment with the neurosurgeon, and regained confidence in doing the things he enjoyed, like golf. About a month prior to the consultation, he asked me what he should be doing, and I suggested a 20 minute walk outside. He found he really enjoyed walking outside, near the ocean. What changed? Why did he suddenly improve? Nothing, except for the doctor visit. It’s possible it was a coincidence, that his symptoms would have dissipated that morning even if he hadn’t seen the doctor the day before. If you find yourself injured, respect the injury. Continue to exercise, finding things you enjoy that don’t aggravate the injured area. Understand that an acute injury isn’t forever, if you give it a chance to heal.