The Role of Somatic Reflexes
The somatic nervous system works in conjunction with the central nervous system to engage the body’s external muscular-skeletal reflexes and learned motor responses. It is through the interaction of the somatic and central nervous systems that we are able to actively engage and interact with the world around us. The somatic nervous system manages four general types of reflexive motor responses:
1. Lifelong Motor Reflexes
2. Primary Motor Infant Reflexes
3. Lifelong Motor Reflex Schemes
Acquired or Learned
4. Motor Reflexes / Motor Reflexive Responses
1. Innate Lifelong Reflexes
Innate lifelong reflexes can be protective, restorative, or postural. Once a lifelong reflex emerges, it remains present throughout life to help protect, restore, and support the body. Protective reflexes protect and purge the body of noxious stimuli and include familiar reflexes such as blinking, sneezing, and coughing. Restorative reflexes help energize and nourish the body with food and oxygen, and include swallowing, yawning and stretching when just waking up or when tired. Finally, lifelong reflexes can also be postural, predictably emerging in utero and after birth and maturing through infancy and childhood to support upright posture, balance, and overall dexterity in countering the gravitational effects on the body. Innate lifelong somatic reflexes are often consciously perceived after the reflex has been initiated, especially if the reflex causes a dramatic movement of a body part, such as when the hand draws back reflexively after experiencing a painful stimulus or when a reflex is checked by a test, such as a tap on the patellar tendon.
A list of some of the more familiar innate lifelong reflexes is included in our “Reflex Examples” section.
2. Innate Primary Infant Motor Reflexes
Like lifelong reflexes, innate primary motor infant reflexes can be protective and restorative and also emerge and engage when neurosensorimotor and physiological maturation is sufficient to support their function. Additionally, primary infant motor reflexes are either postural – like lifelong reflexes – or dynamic. While postural reflexes orient, balance, and stabilize the body as it changes position relative to gravity, dynamic reflexes involve the natural sequence of active motor locomotion. The major characteristic that sets primary motor infant reflexes apart from other automatic reflexes is the fact that they are actively present only during infancy – assuming normal maturational and developmental conditions. If a primary motor infant reflex does not emerge, remains present beyond its typical maturational time period, or re-surfaces some time after it has integrated, normal functioning can be disrupted. Dr. Masgutova’s extensive clinical work has helped her reveal that the magnitude of the disruption varies based on when the disruption occurs (before, during, or after emergence, maturation or integration) and the number of primary motor reflexes impacted. The primary purpose of the MNRI Method is to:
- Identify maturationally inappropriate reflexes -- not actively present when they should be or actively present when they should not be.
- Use MNRI techniques to appropriately engage reflexes, foster optimal reflex maturation, and guide and support the integration (or re-integration) of each primary infant motor reflex.
Many primary motor infant reflexes engage during the birth process and work in conjunction with a mother’s birth mechanisms to ensure survival through a safe, successful birth. The Spinal Perez, Symmetrical Tonic Neck, Babinski, Spinal Galant, and Asymmetrical Tonic Neck reflexes all engage during birth to keep a newborn’s head pushing forward through the birth canal, while the Sequential Rolling and Spinning (float definition from glossary for each reflex listed above and below) reflexes engage to maintain the momentum in the birth canal for a newborn to safely enter the outside world. At birth, primary motor infant reflexes arm the newborn with:
- Protective mechanisms demonstrated by the Moro reflex when, among other things, it alerts caretakers of infant distress.
- Restorative mechanisms demonstrated by the Babkin Palmomental reflex when it automatically positions a newborn’s body, face, and mouth for nourishment from the mother’s breast.
- Postural reflexes such as the Hands Supporting reflex (also known as the parachute reflex) which when triggered causes an infant to automatically extend his arms, hands, and fingers on both sides of his body for protection.
- Dynamic reflexes like the Leg Cross Flexion reflex through which the reflex contraction of flexor muscles in one leg cause the extensor muscles of the other leg to automatic contract.
Once active, all primary infant motor reflexes advance first through basic patterns of development and than through more complex variant patterns of development. Once all levels of development have been mastered, a primary infant motor reflex is considered mature and is ready to integrate. Once integrated, a primary infant motor reflex does not disappear, but instead becomes a subordinate component of related, more complex innate reflexes, learned reflexes, and learned reflexive activity.
While the order and general time period within which a primary infant motor reflex emerges remains consistent across populations, despite cultural, environmental, and socio-economic conditions, the advancement, refinement and maturation of an innate primary infant motor reflex can be qualitatively enriched by a number of factors. When an innate primary infant motor reflex emerges and functions as its genetic program dictates, caretakers in the environment remain nurturing and supportive without being overindulging, and an infant is provided encouragement and opportunity to actively engage, practice, and refine an innate reflex – an innate motor reflex is more likely to mature and integrate as it should. When any one of these factors is not in place, a primary infant motor reflex might not mature and integrate, as it should. Given the integrative nature of reflexes, when any one primary infant motor reflex does not mature and integrate as it should, more complex innate and acquired reflexes, and learned reflexive activities requiring the simpler reflex to play a subordinate role in their respective function will, in turn, also become compromised. If this chain of events is understood, restorative techniques like those created by Dr. Masgutova can be used to improve or return function by integrating the challenged reflex.
Once integrated, primary motor infant reflexes are no longer actively present as they were during infancy. There are at least three reasons primary motor reflexes can re-surface after integrating life-threatening trauma (physical or emotional), disease, or prolonged chronic or intermittent stress. When this occurs, emotional and behavioral instability can occur, making it difficult for an individual to function. The same MNRI techniques used to integrate reflexes that never integrated also work to re-integrate reflexes that have re-surfaced. Regardless of the reflex challenges that a person might face, the more you understand regarding the advancement, maturation, and integration of each primary infant motor reflex pattern, as a professional, parent, or caregiver, the more prepared you will be to identify and address reflex issues. Whether the challenges are relatively simple or complex, the earlier primary motor infant reflex issues are identified and addressed, the greater the likelihood challenges can be minimized or eliminated.
A complete list of primary infant motor reflexes (dan, link to list) is included in our “Reflex Examples” section.
3. Innate Lifelong Motor Reflex Schemes
Innate motor reflex schemes are the most complex form of innate motor reflexes. They include whole body activities that involve the coordination of a particular class of less complex reflexes. The class of motor responses included in a reflex scheme is connected by an innate set of rules called schema. The schema determines the parameters for producing different versions of the same reflex scheme. Innate somatic reflex schemes include rolling over, sitting up, crawling, walking, running, jumping and more – all maturational milestones as a child develops. Like lifelong reflexes, innate lifelong motor reflex schemes are genetically programmed. Assuming normal neurosensorimotor conditions, these schemes:
- Emerge and mature during a predictable time period during childhood, and
- Remain present throughout life regardless of cultural or socioeconomic conditions.
Primary infant motor reflexes, once mature and integrated, form the underlying subordinate structure necessary for innate motor reflex schemes to emerge and mature. If rolling over, sitting up, or any of the other motor reflex schemes do not emerge when expected, do not mature at the typical rate, or seem challenged in anyway (regardless of age), underlying primary infant motor reflexes should be assessed. If any one or combination of underlying reflexes has not integrated, MNRI techniques can be used to facilitate maturation and integration. Once integrated, the function of innate motor reflex schemes often improves.
4. Acquired Motor Reflexes vs. Reflexive Motor Responses
As already discussed, a learned motor response that has been mastered and occurs automatically without conscious thought or control when a particular stimulus is presented is considered an acquired reflex. While motor responses that have not been mastered and do not occur automatically are reflexive in nature, they are not reflexes. If the basic reflexive neurosensorimotor circuitry outlined for the reflex arc is not functioning, a motor activity cannot occur. In fact, when someone sustains brain damage, whether through congenital issues, trauma or disease, lost motor function is due to the damage sustained some place within the neurosensorimotor circuitry. Alexander Luria, among others, demonstrated that when function is lost due to brain damage, restorative techniques can improve and sometimes even restore function to damaged neural pathways by activating inhibited neural pathways or by establishing new pathways either within the damaged brain area or within alternative brain areas related to the function. Luria’s work with brain-damaged soldiers confirmed that without reflexive circuitry motor responses couldn’t function.