Smart Moves:Why Learning is Not All in Your Head

    Carla Hannaford

After hearing Carla Hannaford quoted many times, I decided that it was time to read this book and I was not disappointed. I started summarizing and excerpting books years ago to share with staff, but one of the primary benefits was to slow down my reading and to allow me the time to think more deeply about the implications of the author’s words. If you follow our blog, you have come across the understanding that thinking is not all in your head. We would have little difficulty with that if we didn’t already “know” that that all learning takes place in our brains. Changing our thinking, our beliefs, and our actions is much more difficult than learning when it does not require unlearning. I hope that the following excerpts cause you to pause as they have me.

Dr Williams for COVD

We have missed a most fundamental and mysterious aspect of the mind: learning, thought, creativity and intelligence are not processes of the brain alone, but of the whole body. Thinking and learning are not all in our head. On the contrary, the body plays an integral part in all our intellectual processes from our earliest movements in utero right through old age. It is our body’s senses that feed the brain environmental information with which to form an understanding of the world and from which to draw when creating new possibilities.


Neural connections can be altered and grown only if there is full attention, focused interest in what we do. In three weeks we can get ten times more proficient at anything if we are emotionally engaged with focused interest. Self-initiated movement, exploration, interaction and physical experience for the joy and challenge of it, facilitates neurogenesis (nerve growth) for a lifetime. (This has been proven over the last decade when it comes to treating amblyopia. Intensive visual tasks for 20 minutes are more effective than hours of patching without a challenging, engaging activity.)

What we know, feel, learn, and think is shaped by how we know, feel, learn, and think. How we do these things is in turn dependent on the sensory-motor systems though which all our experience of the world and of ourselves is mediated. These sensory-motor systems shape our experience, and are shaped by it. So the story of how these systems unfold is a vital key to understanding learning.

Our proprioceptive sense constantly sends feedback to the brain that readjusts the balance of our shoulder and neck muscles in order for the eyes to remain level while reading.

Touch, hearing and proprioception are important organizers of the visual aspects of learning. Vision is a very complex phenomenon, with only a small percentage (less than five percent) of the process occurring in the eyes. The other over ninety-five percent of vision takes place in the brain from the association with touch, hearing, and proprioception.


It’s easy to forget, or ignore, how much of vision is learned. We have to train ourselves, through books, movies, and art to see three dimensions in a two-dimensional space. We could call this visual literacy.

The eyes must be actively moving for learning to occur.

Words can only be understood when they provoke some kind of image in the mind of the learner. If students cannot access the underlying images, the words are not comprehensible; there is no context or visual understanding.





Computer scientist David Gelernter makes this point emphatically: “Emotions are not a form of thought, not an additional way to think, not a special cognitive bonus, but are fundamental to thought.” Gelernter goes on to assert that emotions are also “inextricably tied up with bodily states. The bodily state is part of the emotion, feeds it and helps define it. This means that ultimately you don’t think just with your brain; you think with your brain and body both.”


One of the most important things a teacher can do, especially with students with disabilities, is to bond with them. CAT scans show that children process information through their emotions first, and information that is the most emotional and emotionally relevant to them, is what students will learn. On the other hand, insecurity and fear can bring learning to a screeching halt by shutting down higher brain connections.

Another unnatural challenge has to do with learning to print block letters as the first step in writing. Printing is a highly linear process that takes us away from the more continuous rhythmic flow of language, both as it is experienced in the mind and as it is expressed through the hand – as in cursive…. Part of the problem is hand development, and asking children to perform the complex process of printing, way too early. In order to print the child must first crawl for a good long time with hands forward, to develop the bones in both the hand and to gain upper arm strength…. If you look at an X-ray of hand development, you will notice that the very intricate bones of the area near the wrist – the carpals, are not fully developed until about age twenty. The more developed these bones, the easier to hold a pen or pencil to print. If the child has had a lot of sensory-motor activation of the hand, printing can be more easily taught at about ages eight to ten.


Children who have looked at books in the home may have already acquired some foveal focus if the process was their choice and free of stress and pressure to perform, however, most children are not physically ready to read at age five as is now mandated in our schools.

Having been flooded a number of times, flood analogies come to mind. Trying to rush development is like trying to pump the water out of your basement before the level of the ground water goes down. You waste a lot of time and effort if you start too soon because the water keeps coming back in. You are eventually successful when the water (or the child) is ready. It is easy to fool yourself about the influence that you had be starting early. If we try to push children too early, we can also create failures as some children become confused and frustrated who would have done fine when they were ready and interested. Combined with this is the opportunity cost of what these children could have been doing and learning to enrich their experiential background prior to the vicarious experience that we get through reading. There is so much that can be experienced and learned in an interesting, interactive classroom. They can even go outside the classroom where most real learning takes place.

You may think that it is a contradiction for me to disparage in any way the potential to learn through reading but we learn very little when we read about things we don’t already know quite a bit about. This book is a good example. It would have glossed off me forty years ago when I knew that all learning took place in the brain. Decades of experience has enabled me to take information from this book that I could not have understood earlier in my career.

Welcome to Your Child’s Brain

Thinking Goes to School:Piaget’s Theory in Practice

Tummy Time

Visual Factors in Reading

When will identifying vision problems that affect learning become a new standard of care?



Thinking Goes to School:Piaget’s Theory in Practice

Hans G. Furth and Harry Wachs

There has always been a temptation to ignore the influence of child development. Development takes time; not everyone develops at the same rate; and all areas may not develop on the same schedule within one individual. There is an increased temptation to ignore development when there is pressure to push students to meet short-term academic goals. Continue reading


It is not a coincidence that recognizing faces and remembering the related name correlates with the ability to learn letters, numerals, and words. They all require vision and language, they all require explicit memory, they all require attention to detail while simultaneously seeing the whole, and they all rely on the ability to automate these functions so they take place accurately, quickly, and subconsciously. Continue reading


Being able to write comfortably, quickly, and automatically is still an important skill in the digital age. Attending to the details of letters as we learn to form them also supports learning and remembering their names. Poor handwriting is a common, and logical, reason for children to be referred for an assessment of their vision. Continue reading

The Power of Handwriting


The Wall Street Journal; April 5, 2016


This article describes the differences in learning between college students who take notes using a computer and those who take notes by hand. Research studies from Princeton University, UCLA, the University of Nebraska, Harvard University, and Washington University in St. Louis all found that students could type lecture notes faster than they could write them. But they also found that the students who wrote their notes remembered more information about the lecture one week later than if they had typed their notes. (Note: this does not relate to copying notes verbatim as children are asked to do from the Smart Board. For many children, the components of this task are so difficult; looking back-and-forth, keeping their place, writing, and spelling, that they don’t have adequate working memory reserves to attend also to what they are writing.) Continue reading

The Slow Learner in the Classroom


Newell C. Kephart was an important figure in the perceptuo-motor school of education and remediation. While education now places less emphasis on perceptuo-motor development, other than in special populations, it is still part of how processing is viewed by psychology and optometry. Occupational therapy and physical therapy have also become involved. Continue reading

The Hand : Frank R. Wilson

The following statement by the author is interesting, but it has to be considered that he interviewed a select group of people who were successful and how they became successful. It is a criticism of education which is not totally undeserved but which ignores all of those individuals for whom the system provided skills that it was intended to provide and also those individuals similar to those the author interviewed who were not so successful.


Since the Industrial revolution, parents have expected that organized educational systems will tame and modernize their children and “prepare them for life”.  Such is the theory. But education – ritualized, formal education, at least – is not an all-purpose solution to the problem of inexperience and mental immaturity among the young. I was completely unprepared for the frequency with which I heard the people whom I interviewed either dismiss or actively denounce the time they had spent in school. Most of my interview subjects, although I never asked them directly, said quite forcefully that they had clarified their own thinking and their lives as a result of what they were doing with their hands. Not only were most of them essentially self-taught, but a few had engineered their personally unique repertoire of skills and experience in open retreat from painful experiences in a school system that had dictated the form and content of their education in order to prepare them for a life modeled on conventional norms of success.

Neocortex size is a reliable predictor of group size because intelligence is mainly social intelligence; the more people there are to keep track of, the greater the complexity of relationships to be kept in mind and orchestrated, and the more time which must be spent maintaining coalitions.




This faculty of searching for the object is slowly acquired in the child: and, in truth, the motions of the eye are made perfect, like those of the hand, in slow degrees. In both organs there is a compound operation: the impression on the nerve of sense is accompanied with an effort of the will, to accommodate the muscular action to it. This is a statement by Charles Bell who was a contemporary of Charles Darwin.

hide n seek


This mode of learning may be common to many forms of acquisition: there will be good days and bad days, with wild and largely unforeseen fluctuations in performance any time a new skill is being learned or an old one is being modified. This seems to be the natural mode of progression in a motor skill. (It may also account for a strong aversion among teachers and students to the analysis of both success and failure, not to mention a strong propensity toward superstitions about study. An actress once said this to me: “You do something very well, try to figure it out, and it goes away. That makes you believe that you shouldn’t think about what you’re doing. Analyzing success just leads to mistakes.)

You will never be able to throw accurately enough to hit a target unless your own internal clock, which controls the timing of the muscle activity, is perfectly calibrated. Based on what we have learned about the normal behavior of babies less than a year old, that clock is not set or calibrated until the head is under control. And when that time comes, the setting and calibration is organized through active movement, including the catching games the child plays. Simple repetition does improve some aspects of performance, but much more is required for expert performance. The development of any high-level skill requires intelligent rehearsal: repetition according to a well-designed plan. Developing a physical skill is primarily a mental activity.



jugglingFrom a professional juggler: The eyes have to stay in practice, too. When I stop for one or two days, there’s no problem with my body, my arms are okay, but my eyes have got to get used to seeing all of it again. The eye thing is very, very important.

We need to question the premise that intelligence is a purely mental phenomenon, that the mind can be educated without the participation of the body.

Parents today tend to be concerned, if not obsessed, with getting a child moving in a certain desired direction as soon as possible. If getting ahead is the new purpose of American life, getting your child ahead of the rest of the kids is its sacramental corollary: the right toys, the right preschool activities, so many hours of this, so many hours of that, somehow beating the timetable of the public school system. In David we see an earlier educational model, one rooted in life’s immediate circumstances, very rich in rewards for self-reliance and invention. David grew up where “farm work: was an open-ended , loosely structured plan providing real-life demands (and real hardships) that produced many branchings, many unexpected experiences, many opportunities for a young child to explore and pursue interests on the basis of native curiosity. Is the model outmoded?




Handedness is uniquely human, ranking with speech and tool use as a distinctive behavioral trait of Homo sapiens. We still know essentially nothing about the history of our special trait or its neurological foundations.

There is a logical division of labor between the two hands. The left hand knows that the right hand is planning and the right hand knows what the left hand just did.

Writing is a complex act because engaged along with forearm and hand muscles, whose job is a sustained contraction, are muscles that must contract and relax over and over again. The solution the brain adopts for overcoming the complexity of these muscular tasks is to automatize them – to create simple micrometric  movements, memorize them, and repeat them without variation. Once the movement is learned, very little sensory monitoring is necessary.

The same brain injuries which affect people who communicate through speech affect the communication of those who use sign.

The following is from Moshe Feldenkrais who was a physicist and antimissile defense scientist. Feldenkrais taught us to look for what isn’t there. A big problem is when the teaching is done independent of the child’s subjective reality. Somebody walks into the room to teach something without taking into account in a real way the students who are there. You’re not connecting with anything that matters to them. Our understanding is that in this way we connect to their brain. There needs to be a revolution in comprehending what works in learning. “Teaching and learning are two independent processes, and usually they do not correlate.” And what do they learn? They learn that it’s hard. You know, we learn everything, we don’t just learn what we’re supposed to learn, or what the teacher believes is being taught.

Perception is not something that goes on inside a processor running inside the brain. There is not, and cannot be, anything called perception – including any kind of visual or visuomotor perception – just as there is not and cannot be anything called intelligence, independent of the behavior of the entire organism, or of its entire and exclusive personal history of interactions with the world.

All students learn best and most quickly when self-interest orients and drives the search for information, understanding, and skill.


Teachers need to look at their own understanding of ordinary things which they teach to try to remember what it was like before, when they didn’t know these things. It is very difficult because the memory of not knowing has been wiped out.