by Mary Ann Voorhies
The back muscles and the action response
Thomas Hanna, Ph.D., recognized a phenomenon common in industrialized societies. He labeled it the Green Light Reflex — also known as the Landau Response — and here’s what he had to say about it.
“People are always amazed to discover that they are doing things they are unaware of. This is because adults proudly hold onto the illusion that they are always conscious of what they are doing. For not to be conscious of what one is doing strikes on as a sign of incompetence, even irresponsibility. Nevertheless, these acts that we are oblivious of have major consequences in our lives. One of them we now know is the withdrawal response, when our abdomen, shoulders, and neck cringe in apprehension — the Red Light Reflex. There is another response which also occurs consciously but this time when we feel called upon not to withdraw but to act: the Green Light Reflex.
“The Green Light Reflex could almost be thought of as necessary to industrial society; for to create an industrial economy, this reflex must be triggered constantly throughout the entire population. It is just as much a part of twentieth-century society as alarm clocks, calendars, quotas, sales commissions, and deadlines, each of which acts as a spur to this deeply imbedded reflex.
“In our society, 80 percent of the adult population suffer back pain. Apparently, the progress of technology is based on progressively deteriorating backs. This is ironic, because, in our contemporary technological society, the reward from escaping from back-breaking labor should be freedom from such physical pain. Compounding the irony, twentieth-century medicine has been spectacularly successful in extending our longevity to the limit our genes will allow. At the same time, however, it has been spectacularly unsuccessful in combating — even understanding — the epidemic we now see of chronic pain in the skull, neck, shoulders, back and buttocks of the entire adult population. As René Caillet, a well known specialists in medical rehabilitation, observes, ‘Low back pain remains an enigma of modern society and a great dilemma for the medical profession.’ It is the most common disorder for which people seek medical help. Moreover, it is the most common cause of worker absenteeism in industrial societies. It is the general disorder for which the largest amount of money is spent on insurance and pharmaceutical and medical services — in the billions ….
“We have not solved this problem, because we have not — until now — understood it. And we have not understood it because the answer has been hidden from us, as it were in the recesses of our consciousness; or, to be more precise, beneath the conscious control of the cerebral cortex, wherein voluntary movements originate. It lies hidden within the lower regions of the brain in a reflex that is so familiar, so unconscious, and so human that it is as invisible to us and yet ever present as the air we breathe. It is a reflex that is very specific in its function: It readies us for action. And, because we live in a world where programs of reliable and precisely scheduled actions are the necessary oil of the wheels of commerce, this reflex of ours is constantly being triggered until it has become habituated as part of our bodily functioning ….”
“The Green Light Reflex is the opposite of the Red Light Reflex, as both a muscular activity and an adaptational function. The Red Light Reflex contracts the anterior flexor muscles, curling the body forward. The Green Light Reflex contracts the posterior extensor muscles, lifting and arching the back in the opposite direction. The adaptational function of the Red Light Reflex is protective; it is a withdrawal from the world. The Green Light Reflex is assertive; its function is action, and it too is adaptational. One makes us stop, and the other makes us go. They are in balance, and both are necessary for our survival. They are equally necessary to our sense of well-being ….
“From infancy through childhood and on through adolescence, the action response is triggered over and again as youngsters propel themselves into the world around them. The Green Light Reflex centered in the lower back, unconsciously precedes and prepares her for every positive action. Their activity is spontaneous and usually joyful. But as they grow, they begin to learn another reason for action: responsibility. They have to do their homework. They have to do their chores. They have to take baths. They have to go to school. They have to perform more and more actions they are not spontaneously motivated to perform. They are learning what it means to become responsible adults. The Green Light Reflex is still being triggered but the thrill is fast disappearing. The muscles of the back are being activated increasingly toward the responsibilities of life. The more responsible one is, the more often the back muscles are triggered ….
“The role of the adult differs among different cultures; some are more stressful than others. Within the industrial societies of the twentieth century adulthood is very stressful. The specific effect is the habitual contraction of the muscles of the back.
“In our society, most people begin to “get old” early in life. Our technology lets us live a long life, but it also condemns us to live out those years in discomfort and fatigue. And industrial society is fueled by the energy of the Green Light Reflex, which is triggered incessantly. This relentless repetition guarantees that the muscular retractions of the reflex will be constant and habitual. The action response is so steady that eventually we cease to notice it. This is sensory-motor amnesia, and once it takes over we can no longer control the Green Light Reflex. All we feel is fatigue, soreness, and pain — in the back of our heads, in our necks, our shoulders, upper back, lower back, and buttocks.”
These words were taken directly from Hanna’s book Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health. Hanna’s answer to this predicament was the practice of clinical somatic education, a legacy continued by his followers today.