The sound of a child running barefoot down the long wood-floored hallway begins early most mornings, and reappears throughout all but daycare days. It has recently been joined by that of a second younger child. When it first appeared, I notified my upstairs tenants, hopeful they could discourage their daughter from running in the house, but the running continued, and, especially during these pandemic days, I didn’t have the heart to restrain the apparent joy their child, now children, seemed to get from running.
Most experts do not consider walking an innate behavior. Although there are many innate reflexes involved in walking, it is thought that there is learned behavior involved – there are very rare examples of children who have not regularly observed adults walking failing to learn to walk. Certainly, this is extremely rare – most infants can experience adults walking through observation or through the stimulation of mirror neurons in direct contact. I am convinced that running is innate behavior that children exhibit at a certain stage of development when they are motivated to stand and move themselves. What children do bears little resemblance to the walking most parents exhibit: transferring their weight to one leg to lift the other. Children “running” extend their spines upward and incline forwards to let the spinal engine extend them from one foot or the other with no lateral preparatory weight shift, and they don’t lift a leg to take a step. The leg extension generated by a tilting pelvis recovers the other leg. Children walking show none of the bad posture their parents demonstrate to them in walking. It takes children years to learn to walk badly.
What is innate, what is acquired, and what is learned? Certainly, humans are born incompetent and must develop to have the strength to move themselves. We need strength for innate reflexes and innate behaviors to fully manifest. But here they are in evidence shortly after birth:
There are actions we can accomplish after birth without learning. These innate behaviors include such necessary actions as breathing, sucking, swallowing, tracking with the eyes, grasping, and later, when muscles and the will to move are developed, actions like turning over, pushing up, crawling, sitting, and standing. Reflexes that allow us to respond to the forces around us, such as gravity and air pressure, must function for these innate behaviors to proceed. Walking/running in humans is considered learned behavior that is reliant on many innate reflexes. However, some four-legged mammals, like deer, can stand and run within hours after birth. Humans need to continue developing to acquire the strength to move, and they may need to follow human models to be motivated to walk.
The innate behavior of walking/running follows that for crawling, in that it is led by the head, and involves spinal extension and rotation that is amplified by the limbs. The child wishes to go somewhere, leads with its eyes and head, the trunk inclines to follow the head, and bodyweight moves over the balls of the feet, triggering extensor reflexes, allowing him to lengthen from one foot without any lateral preparatory weight transfer. The spinal action tips and rotates the pelvis, bringing the leg that is not extending forwards.
The innate behavior for walking is really running, as we can see in small children – when “walking” next to an adult a small child must run to keep up with him. In elementary school, how often do you hear a teacher admonish the children not to run in the halls and on stairways? As we develop contractive reflex habits of posture “what Alexander called “unduly stimulated fear reflexes,” we learn to walk by swinging our legs forwards and back, pulling ourselves along the ground with our hamstrings rather than extending, making use of the glutes and letting leg muscles behave like tendons.
It is interesting to note that the things we work on in teaching The Alexander Technique –sitting and standing — are innate behaviors that we are trying to uncover by inhibiting “unduly stimulated fear responses.” It explains why these things are more amenable to change than are learned behaviors, and why it is important to deal with them before dealing with the learned patterns constructed on them.