Research has shown that two areas of the brain that were associated solely with control of muscle movement, the basal ganglia and the cerebellum, are also important in coordinating thought. All learning, including that requiring abstract thought, occurs through movement, since abstract thought involves the internal repositioning of ideas. “Movement is the primary way that we integrate our learning into expressive action,” (Dennison, 2006, p. 181).
Moving our muscles produces proteins, like IGF-1 and VEGF, which travel to the brain through the bloodstream and affects the pre-frontal cortex allowing children, for example, to have the ability to stop and consider a response before making a decision. Exercise also balances neurotransmitters, and research has shown that simply jogging thirty minutes two –three times a week improves executive function (Ratey, 2008). In addition, learning complex movement sequence stimulates the pre-frontal cortex and improves learning and problem solving.
Dr. Harold Blomberg, a Swedish psychiatrist, explains:
“The frontal lobes of the cortex receive important stimulation from the cerebellum with connections going to both the prefrontal cortex and the Broca speech area in the left hemisphere. In cases of dysfunctions of the cerebellum, these areas may not develop properly causing problems with speech development or difficulties with attention and the ability to make judgments, control impulses, motivation, and making sustained effort. The basal ganglia also have important nerve pathways to the prefrontal cortex. Therefore, when these two areas are not well linked we know that there are …motor problems that will then be part of the basis for problems with attention and impulse control” (108). “If the nerve nets between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic [emotional] system are not sufficiently developed, or if the prefrontal cortex is not sufficiently stimulated from the cerebellum or the basal ganglia, we run a greater risk of switching off the prefrontal cortex and becoming overwhelmed by our emotions, causing fits of anger or anxiety (p. 111).”
For a nerve cell to grow, it receives stimulation from the senses and begins to myelinate, or to create a fatty coating, to make transmissions quicker. Movement causes the continued myelinization, growth of dendrites and axon terminals. When we move, chemicals are produced in the muscle, which results in new dendrites being sprouted. Therefore, repeated movements help to strengthen the neural pathways that run between the brain and the body (Goddard Blythe, 2007).
Stephen Lisberger at UC Berkeley found that to get a cell to fire in the cerebellum, the head must move at the same time as the target. For example, when a baby is creeping on hands and knees, the head continues to move looking at the hand that is placed forward, which is the target. “It is during this creeping time that the cerebellum becomes myelinated,” (Gold, 2008, p. 142). In addition, when babies start to do repetitive rhythmic movements, there is rapid development due to the stimulation of the cerebellum. Children who are unable to rhythmically rock, like sliding up and down on his back with knees bent, may have a dysfunction of the cerebellum, (Blomberg & Dempsey, 2011).
Movement does not necessarily mean that children have to be doing cartwheels during class, it may simply take form of talking, writing, knitting, or chewing, since different muscles of our bodies are being activated. Every movement of the legs, arms, eyes, etc., result in some sensation going to the brain (Kokot, 2010). It “feeds information to the brain, helping to develop a sense of body map, of spatial awareness and body schema in relation to the self and to the environment.” (Goddard, 2005, p. 47).
From my book: Movement Makes Math Meaningful: Away from the Desk Math Lessons Aligned with the Common Core.
Lisa Ann de Garcia, MA, MEd.