Overview of Reflex Contributions
Our overview begins with contributions dating back to 1854 and the early thoughts of Claude Bernard regarding constancy of the body’s interieur milieu (interior environment) and continues forward to the promising Polyvagal Theory proposed by Steven Porges in 1995, which explains the role the autonomic nervous system plays in engaging adaptive behavioral strategies for:
- Social engagement -- promoting restoration and growth in the body;
- Mobilization – the body’s first line of defense, more commonly known as fight and flight; and
- Immobilization – the body’s final line of defense, more commonly known as freeze.
In total we highlight the contributions of thirteen different scientists. While this may seem like an inordinate number of scientists to include, within the context of understanding the reflexive function, neurosensorimotor structures, and their impact on behavior, development, and restoration of function, the number is actually quite small.
The contributions are grouped into one of five sections according to general area of investigation. Each section begins with an overview of the overlapping importance of the collective contributions and then provides a summary of the events important to understanding each scientist’s contributions. Outlined below are the general areas of investigation, the major contributions, and the scientists included in each section.
Section 1: Basic Reflex Action, Conditional Learning & Dynamic Movement
Contributions included in the first section helped to define the current understanding of simple reflex action, conditional reflex learning, and complex movement dynamics. Contributions by the following group of scientists are included this section.
Sir Charles Sherrington, English Neurophysiologist, 1857-1952
Revealed the cellular dynamics of simple reflex action and published the essence of his findings in his 1906 book (still in publication), Integrative Action of the Nervous System.
Ivan Pavlov, Russian Physiologist, 1849-1936
Experimentally demonstrated the process through which conditional reflex learning occurs. In 1903 he began publishing his findings regarding conditional reflexes in animals.
Nikolai Bernstein, Russian Physiologist, 1896-1966
Beginning in the 1920s and continuing until his death in 1966, Nikolai Bernstein’s research and theoretical propositions helped to explain dynamic complex movement. Among his most important contributions to reflex understanding include engrams (the basis for the current day understanding of general motor programs), hierarchal organization of motor activity, and degrees of freedom. Bernstein’s work greatly informed the current understanding of reflex complexity progressing from reflex action, to movement, to pattern, to scheme.
Section 2: Autonomic Nervous System & Reflex Regulation
Reflexes do not function in isolation in the body. Instead, they work systematically, engaging the underlying neurosensorimotor structure to function. While Sherrington, Pavlov, Bernstein and many others worked to reveal the dynamics of simple reflex action to complex active movement, the group of scientists included in this section worked to reveal the:
- The Autonomic Nervous System, establishing it as the structure in the body responsible for managing internal vital reflex functions – John Newport Langley, English Physiologist, 1852-1925.
- Differentiating impact of an alarm state (fight and flight) versus a non-alarm state (rest and digest) on reflex function in the body – Walter Cannon, American Neurophysiologist, 1871-1945.
- Homeostatic nature of automatic reflexes in the body -- First proposed by Claude Bernard, French Experimental Physiologist, 1813-1878; Fully developed by Walter Cannon as an outgrowth of his alarm state work.
- Biological impact of a prolonged alarm state (stress) on the body and the General Adaptation Syndrome -- Hans Selye, Hungarian born, Canadian Endocrinologist, 1907-1962.
Section 3: Brain Organization -- Dissolution & Restoration
Motor reflex activity depends on the proper functioning of underlying neurosensorimotor pathways. When underlying pathways are inhibited or damaged, normal function can be blocked or handicapped leading to a variety of functional challenges. The work of the two scientists included in this section helped to reveal the functional organization of the brain and the:
- Theory of Dissolution and the impact on behavior; proposed in the mid 1800s by John Hughlings Jackson, English Neurologist, 1835 - 1911.
- Inter- and intra-dependant nature of functional brain organization and the resulting potential for functional restoration in light of motor program memory – Alexander Luria, Russian Psychologist and Neurologist, 1902 - 1977.
Section 4: Integrated Autonomic Nervous System & Behavioral Adaptation
Langley’s work demonstrated that the autonomic nervous system could function independently of central nervous system control. Because it could function independently, Langley and researchers who followed assumed that the central nervous system was not associated with the function of the autonomic nervous system. In 1949, the work of Walter Hess proved this assumption false. The two scientists included in this section:
- Revealed the integrative autonomic nervous system, broadening Langley’s autonomic model to include central nervous system involvement -- Walter Hess, Swiss Physiologist, 1881-1973,
- Proposed the Polyvagal Theory, an integrated behavioral adaptation system that engages one of three autonomic nervous system subsystems to support social engagement (restoration and growth), mobilization (fight or flight), or immobilization (freeze) behaviors in the body – Stephen Porges, American Psychologist, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1945 – still actively engaged.
Section 5: Reflexes & General Development
The two scientists included in section 5 provided the foundation for many of the scientists highlighted in previous sections. To this day, their work on general development perspectives is acknowledged to have been far ahead of its time.
- Ivan Sechenov, Russian Physiologist, 1829-1905 was among the first to suggest use of the reflex unit, as an objective measurable unit of study, to understand higher levels of consciousness. In 1863, when physiology and psychology remained separate and distinct disciplines of study, Sechenov was the first to controversially propose: “All acts of conscious and unconscious life are reflexes by their origin.”
- Lev Vygotsky, Russian Psychologist, 1896-1934 proposed the broad reaching natural~cultural theory of development, which until 1989, remained largely hidden to the Western world. The basic tenant of his theory suggests that all development advances from the natural neurophysiological capabilities present at birth. The Masgutova Method addresses the underlying neurosensorimotor system important to engaging ‘natural’ function and, in turn, achieving developmental cultural potential.