16. The Startle Response

This exploration is concerned with a feature of our behaviour which is very significant but often goes unnoticed.  It begins with our reaction to sudden, unexpected occurrences.  Consider your reaction in a relatively mild incident of this kind.  Typically, we tense our muscles, perhaps blink, turn the head, or head and body, to seek out the source of the shock and possible danger, and then make a conscious decision about how to respond.  Something similar can happen with, at one extreme, a sudden stab of pain, and at the other, a sudden recollection of something you have forgotten, or a piece of news which turns your view of the world, or a person, upside down.  The origin of the word startle has the contrasting elements in it which we see in our bodies – there is the sense of standing stiffly and of a movement of overturning, pouring out, emptying.  These are somehow brought together in the act of a sudden, involuntary movement.  We lose our balance, our orientation and try to get hold of ourselves, to stop ourselves from falling, from being poured out.  That is one crucial element in the startle response, the fear of falling, but to understand what is going on I want to go back to the early stages of embryonic development and to the fascinating but demanding study of the primitive, developmental reflexes which emerge in the womb and which protect the newborn infant in the first few weeks of life and which become transformed into the voluntary skills of the growing child and adult.  The mature startle response when the firework goes off behind us is the end point of a process which began after a few weeks of life.  To oversimplify, the most basic involuntary reaction of a living creature to the unexpected is withdrawal, shrinking, slowing down, paralysis.  In the human foetus this reaction develops so that the withdrawal element, moving the arms away from the body, intake of breath, is followed by drawing in, clasping, strong breathing out and a loud cry (some of these features can only be enacted after birth).  The physiological mood is of arousal, summoning help, not of shutting down as is the case with withdrawal.  Adrenaline is released, heart and breathing rates increase.  This primitive reflex is there to help the baby survive the first months of life and the normal processes of movement and sensory development mean it is transformed into the mature startle response in which conscious decision-making almost immediately is possible.
Progression to freely balanced standing and walking cannot happen if the peri-natal startle reaction persists – and walking and standing help bring about its transformation.  But if fear of falling remains, and becomes a more diffuse blanket fear and worry, in the child or adult, then the bodily expression of the infant reflex will become established in the individual – the tightening of the front, the contraction, the quality of being stuck on the out breath, the unvoiced alarm call.  It all begins with the disturbance of the head’s relationship to the rest of the body and shows in the persistent gesture of the head being pulled down with the very top of the neck being pulled back so that the eyes can keep contact with the world even as the body is contracted and frozen in fear.  With the Alexander Technique, the wish is to give us the conscious awareness to control our response to the unexpected and to be able to let go of self-induced tension.  And to prevent ourselves reacting in ways which are both rigid and hasty.

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