My daughter came home from school one day this semester excited about an experiment their teacher had them do in their third grade class. They were learning about an animal’s ability to adapt to its environment. The teacher had her students tape their thumbs to their palms in order to practice adapting to turning pages and writing without using the thumb. My daughter was so excited; she and her friend loved the experiment so much they decided to leave their thumbs taped down during lunch, just for fun!
Alexander Technique teaching encourages recovering the physical alignment and balance we had as children. What if we could also recover the willingness to adapt to new experiences with the same curiosity and joy we once had, just as my daughter and her friends did? What if we could make the process of adapting a game instead of work?
Retraining from focal dystonia asks that we continually adapt. In fact, the process of adapting to new sensory input like adding sandpaper to a key (see Feedback Loops) or switching from a gold flute to a wooden flute (see Examining Resistance) can wake us up from dystonic movement and habitual clenching on the instrument, even for just a moment.
One tool that allowed me to observe my own plastic brain adapt by balancing out the sensory perceptions of my right and left hands was a mirror box. Invented by neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, mirror boxes were designed to allow patients who had lost a limb recover feeling, eliminate learned paralysis, and in some cases, reduce or put an end to constant pain in that phantom limb. Mirror boxes have also been used for stroke rehabilitation.
I placed my left hand (the one with dystonic symptoms) into the box, while looking at a reflection of my right hand, the hand that demonstrated free movement.
My first experience using a mirror box was an emotional one. At that time, my left hand was very often clenched in a fist while the right was active, even away from my flute. The relief from the dystonic clenching and movement patterns while using the mirror box was immediate. I was suddenly awake to muscular clenching on my whole left side that I hadn’t been able to feel before; feeling it helped me to learn to release it.