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  • Writer's pictureJoAnna Shaw


I am writing a book about The Equus Projects. In it are essays about our work, much of which focuses on our human capacity for multi-sensory intelligence and how working with horses has made me realize that we only use a fraction of that capacity. This essay begins with my son Isaac uttering his first word, Flower.

HANDS: There are more nerve endings from the hands to the brain than from any other part of our body. Our multi-sensory intelligence learns through Our hands are the receptors of the connection between language acquisition and movement.

F-L-O-W-E-R. This was the perfectly formed first word that my young son uttered. It began with a gesture. His arm and hand reached towards the flower, his fingers seemed to be tracing the shape of the petals and sensing the round shape of the flower.

I sensed that Isaac’s reaching was a kind of spatial channeling of energy towards the flower. The articulation of the fingers, the rotation of the hand however had far more detail. The fingers seemed to be tracing the shape of the petals, perhaps even trying to grasp the color yellow.

I could of course have been imaging all of this as the activity of my brilliant child. Scientists however are constantly exploring just how language and movement develop in tandem. In the Netflix program on Babies, Rockefeller University Erich Jarvis (a former dancer) talks about his research with birds. He is studying the intersection of the development of language, which birds and only a small handful of species have, and the relationship of that language acquisition to movement, the building nests for instance. He thinks that we underestimate the learning capacity of animals. In acquiring spoken language, he postulates, we are in tandem learning how to coordinate our bodies.

In Isaac’s reaching for the yellow flower, I was witnessing a 2-year old feeling his way into a spoken word. For me this moment seemed like a first-hand witnessing of how directly language seemed to be tied to the moving body. Even the turn of phrase Firsthand holds embodied information.

Firsthand: The term was coined around 1690 and comes from the idea that the maker of something is its firsthand. Further definitions state that Firsthand is something of first rank or importance or value; direct and immediate rather than secondary. For me the direct experiencing includes is the information we receive through multiple senses: tactile, auditory, visual and even taste.

As I watched my child ‘s physical and mental capacity grow, I wanted to understand more about how many important aspects of learning are only acquired through embodied experience. For Isaac, acquiring language was directly connected to mobilizing and touching things. In kindergarten learning was about animals and play and fun. Lots of movement. Then starting in grade school, although there were plenty of wonderful tactile experiences, reading increasingly became about sitting at a desk and looking down at the flat page of a book. The development of Isaac’s reading skills was increasingly being flattened into the horizontal dimension. I wondered if that was the reason that he became a reluctant reader.

There was another factor that I suspected might explain the reading issues: Isaac was intensely curious and physically strong. He could easily pull himself up on pieces of furniture and cruise around the room like a baby parkour athlete. A chair could easily become a baby walker. Why scrounge on the floor crawling when you could see so much more standing? And free up your hands to grab things?

My Laban and Body Mind Centering colleagues told me that children who stop crawling too soon often might face reading challenges. Reading and crawling skills are connected: Crawling calls for consummate contralateral body integration and is a crucial building block for right-left brain integration. Perhaps missing that building block of neuro-muscular integration was related to the reading issues.

Slow readers are often ADHD, but Isaac had an amazing ability to focus attention, stick with a task, explore in depth. We had him tested and he evidenced no ADHD symptoms. Why would reading be so arduous? We had him tested. No dyslexia. He just read very slowly, which, as you get into middle and high school at a high achieving school, is a huge impediment.

We didn't fully understand how deeply this issue with reading had affected his cognitive confidence until he hit 9th grade and flunked a history final that he had studied very hard for. The middle school principle at his lovely Quaker school sat me down and said, “We love Isaac here and we really want him to stay. But you should move him to a school for right brain learners. This is a school for left brain learners. He will come out of his education here with his confidence in his own ability to learn severely compromised.” We moved Isaac to a school for “challenged learners.” I suspect that lots of right bright brain learners are called challenged learners.

For Isaac, switching schools was a game changer. At his new school the teachers did not assume that Isaac was lazy or unmotivated. They understood that he needed to slow down, re-learn how to prioritize, read the important sentences thoroughly, skip over the unnecessary. He learned how to skim a page, quickly decipher the meaning a sentence.

His environmental science teacher connected the dots for him between reading and hands-on learning. Her classes were deeply invested in tactile learning experiences. Spatial engagement was three-dimensional. Hands once again factored directly into the learning process. Isaac flourished in these classes. He had found a place where his learning style was engaged directly, and his intellectual abilities were being stimulated by tactile and multi-dimensional activities. Isaac’s science teacher became his mentor. She recognized his unique ability to connect diverse systems of information. She gave him confidence in his own unique intellectual ability.

Isaac benefited from an environment where multiple learning styles were embraced. He went from flunking his 9th grade final, to be the first student at his school to ace the International Baccalaureate environmental science final. Isaac got into college early admission, entered grad school in his senior year and completed a Master of Science in environmental policy.

I look back at Isaac’s learning trajectory in tandem with returning to teaching in elementary schools and find myself wondering if our schools are failing the right-brain learners? So many right brain learners are floundering in an educational system that is focused on testing and STEM learning. Embodied learning becomes relegated to science experiments, gym classes and art programs.

More worrisome is that schools are teaching social emotional learning (SEL) but taught in the form of readings, lecture or discussion. The physical listening skills so deeply embedded in SEL are not taught in the schools. This includes touch. Of course, touch has become problematic in schools. I have been in schools where the teachers are not allowed to touch the students. Yet tactile awareness is directly connected to the ability to empathize. Touch is part of being able to read another body energetically. Touch is a primary entryway into creating empathy.

I think that awareness of touch can be taught without touching another person. A descriptive writing assignment: Touch three very different objects, a shall, a ball of clay, a metal strainer. Notice visually and tactilely all the details about those objects, how handling each object affects your senses differently? Then write a small story that must incorporate all three objects and use as many descriptors as possible. Or write a poem about one of those objects and what memories and emotions it evokes.

I would like to gather a group of smart dance educators to explore multiple ways that hands on learning- that specifically requires modulations of touch- might be brought into the classroom. Anne Green Gilbert did brilliant seminal work bringing dance into the classroom. Now I want to dig beneath those wonderful let’s make a dance about geography classes to excavate what kinds of intelligence we can access through our hands.

Alas, when I propose this idea to dance colleagues who work in the schools, they are hard put to imagine what this might look like. That is not surprising. Our education directs us to think that knowledge is knowing which is connected to thinking. As adults we do not continue to flex our embodied learning muscles. We use our hands to play sports, pick out clothing with pleasing textures, knit, cook, pat an animal, engage in acts of intimacy and of course shake hands.

Returning to the story of Isaac reaching towards that flower as he articulated his first spoken word, I see our hands as dominant receptors of embodied information. And I wonder what happens to all that embodied learning we experience as small children? In adulthood we relegate embodied learning to athletics, dance classes, yoga and of course our sexual interactions.

For many people, if the sensation cannot be named, it is relegated to a category of feeling, and feeling is not knowing. Yet I absolutely know that humans can learn through their hands with surprising accuracy. If two people engage in a duet, one with eyes closed and the other performing a repeating gesture phrase with their hands, the learner can absorb that movement phrase through touch without ever seeing the movement phrase. The learning happens without eyes, just through the hands. Whole, full bodied movement phrases can be learned through just the hands, no eyes. Our hands are amazing receptors of information. We underestimate how much we can learn through touch.

I think we underestimate how much we know and learn through our hands because what the hands know is a kind of knowledge that does not translate easily into words. The complex intersection of sensing thinking, feeling is much faster than our thinking brain. It is viscerally smarter.

We have far more embodied intelligence than we activate in our everyday lives.

Perhaps if we did, the world would be a gentler place.

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