The Moro Reflex and Big Shoes

Overly stimulated grasping reflexes call for big shoes

I have noticed a tendency, in much of the recent writing about barefoot running, to attack the manufacturers of running shoes, laying blame on shoe design for causing running injuries, and in general accusing running shoe manufacturers of pushing over-built, unnecessary, expensive shoes on the public. I take issue with this point of view. In fact, I think that, for the most part, running shoes have given us exactly what we asked for, occasionally even attempting (unsuccessfully) to market minimalist shoes (Nike Rift or Running Sandals, for example). Why do runners want over-cushioned shoes with built up heels? Because most people need them to run, unless they are willing to address fundamental postural issues, issues which are very apparent in most modern humans, which are the result of how we have constructed our world; from our furniture to our pedagogy, we design our children to have poor posture.

There are a couple of important reflexes which can be tested soon after birth. One of these is an extensor reflex, which, as I will explain further on, constitutes the basis for locomotion, the other is a protective grasping response which works against the aforementioned extensor reflex, and which is consistently over-stimulated in our modern world, to the extent that we walk around in a constant state of semi-retraction. It is this retracted state which makes the running shoe seem necessary to most runners. We see it in a runner who demonstrates the retraction of his arms by keeping his hands closed and his shoulders rounded forward and lifted slightly; we see it as he lifts his toes to lift his foot, recovering his leg with a retraction, which will further lead to his landing on his heel. This runner needs to learn to un-install the retraction built into his posture or…he needs an over-built running shoe.

The inter-osseous reflex of the positive supportive response

One can push against the ball of a newborn’s foot and get a strong countermovement. One can take a young child and place it upon its feet, and it can not only support itself but will often even attempt to jump. This is the inter-osseous reflex of the positive supportive response in action, a reflex that, when weight is placed upon the foot such that the metatarsals are spread out, causes the body to extend off of the foot – light pressure keeps us standing, stronger pressure gets us moving.

The Moro reflex

If one takes a newborn and makes a slight movement as if to drop it, we see a stereotyped response in healthy humans and apes. First, there is an extension phase – a reaching out, followed closely by a grasping, retractile phase. In apes, this reflex stimulates an infant to cling to its mother, pulling its feet and knees up as well as grasping with its hands and arms. The strong retraction of the hands and feet involves muscles throughout the entire body, and is especially evident in the shoulder girdle, as the trapezius and pectoral muscles prepare to bear the body’s weight. This retraction pulls the head back and downwards, interfering with the smaller sub-occipital muscles that normally take the weight of the head and which are essential to balance and easy initiation of all movement. The Moro reflex does not normally persist beyond 4 or 5 months in newborns, but grasping reflexes, especially the startle reflex, follow much the same pattern of extension/retraction. Briefly, when grasping reflexes are active, easy movement, especially running, is impaired.

In a natural world, grasping reflexes will only occasionally and briefly be stimulated. In our modern world, they are constantly stimulated. Witness young children in school, hunched-over and grasping their pencils as though they were life rafts. Competition and fear of failure stimulate retraction. And if we learn while retracting, we will believe that we need to harden our muscles to control what we do, and the brain will adapt to add increased muscle tone to posture. We will hold this learned retraction constantly, adding on top of, and thus disturbing, normal postural tone. This retracted being is your big shoe runner.

Montreal Center for the Alexander Technique