For the first time in my life (okay, maybe the second), I encountered a subject I knew literally nothing about. So instead of spending hours googling and doing my best to provide an explanation that made sense, I decided instead to go straight to the experts.
As it turns out, better mental health can be achieved by crawling around on the floor. It reorganizes the brain and undoes retained reflexes. I’d even compare it to physical therapy. But like I said, for this article, I’m going to let the professionals do the talking, so let’s dive in.
This Is Your Brain & This Is Your Brain on Crawling
I had the amazing opportunity to speak to the lovely Dani Perrecone and Paloma García Cruz, founders of In The Cortex, about a very interesting video I came across from one of my favorite Instagram influencers, ReallyVeryCrunchy.
In her videos, Emily (a crunchy mom herself) regularly provides satirical commentary on all things crunchy, but one video in particular caught my eye. In it, she creeps and crawls everywhere nobody should ever, ever creep or crawl, such as a parking lot and the grocery store floor. In defense of her outlandish behavior, her character claims it’s to help rewire her brain and reduce her anxiety.
As her videos always have pumpkin seeds of truth sprinkled throughout her hilariously over the top, crunchy antics, my interest was piqued. Could crawling really reduce my feelings of stress and anxiety? Could crawling help make me a calmer, more centered, mother? After diving down a few rabbit holes, I finally found the original inspiration for Emily’s video, In The Cortex, and so here we are.
“I was a hot mess growing up, but didn’t really understand why,” says Dani, founder of In The Cortex. “Life was hard, and I just kept pushing myself harder and harder, but the internal turmoil was just literally unbearable at times.”
That changed one day, when she came across a brain organization program. Intrigued, she completed the protocol, and her life “completely changed.” She went from being “anxious, to literally not feeling any anxiety.” In her own words, it all happened pretty quickly too, and without the use of prescription meds.
In fact, she was so blown away by her own experience and by those who attended the center where she worked, that she decided to strike out on her own and make brain organization accessible to everyone. In that spirit, she now runs her entire business online where In The Cortex content is available in English and Spanish.
Paloma, also an In The Cortex founder, is passionate about her work because of her brother. “He had a lot of challenges his whole life. He had all the challenges you could imagine. He was always in some kind of therapy. By the time he was 16, we were all kind of worried about his future, but then we went to a center that had him creep and crawl. And at first, I was like, what is this? But once she started telling us about it, I thought, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard of in my entire life.” Paloma’s brother went on to complete the brain reorganization program, and it “changed his life in the most amazing way I’ve ever seen.” It wasn’t that he wasn’t trying hard enough or that he wasn’t smart enough or that something was inherently wrong with him. His brain was just disorganized.
“He’s one of the biggest success cases I’ve ever seen,” says Paloma proudly, “Now, he lives in Australia, has two jobs, and is starting his own company. He’s that guy that nobody would ever know had challenges when he was younger. He’s awesome.”
If the testimonies themselves aren’t impressive enough, Paloma also has a double masters in neuro-developmental disorders and neurological rehabilitation. Additionally, she and Dani have both received extensive training from experts in the field all over the world.
So what’s the science behind this? How does crawling actually reorganize your brain to reduce anxiety? How does it get disorganized in the first place? And what in the world is a “retained reflex”?
The Neuroscience You’ve Never Heard of Before
So I asked them, and we talked, and they took me back to the beginning. The beginning of life for you as an individual, as well as the beginning of humans as a species. To understand our brain and how it works more fully, we have to get in touch with our most primal selves. The parts that kept (and still keep) us alive without conscious thought or action.
“What we do at In The Cortex is we focus on primitive reflexes, the automatic instinctual movements that every baby is wired to do. That’s one part of our program. We help you integrate those because we don’t want those to be 'on' when you’re upright and walking and living in today's world. But as a baby, they need to be on – you rely on those movements,” says Dani, referring to reflexes such as the Moro, or the startle reflex, where a young baby will suddenly throw its arms out wide if you lay it down too quickly or if it hears a loud noise.
“Then we focus on the lower centers of the brain, the pons and the midbrain. That part of the brain is when you see a baby crawl, so the importance of crawling is developing that part of the brain. If a baby doesn't get enough crawling, or do it in the most efficient way, it'll show up later in life, which is where understanding Why was I such a hot mess? comes into play. Well, it's because my brain didn't get enough of the movement that I needed in the first part of my development, and then I didn't know how to regulate my emotions. It was just 0 to 60 explosions because my brain couldn't differentiate between a real threat and a perceived one.”
Paloma expands on this, adding, “The way it's been studied is by looking at the way typically developing babies move, versus ones who had some sort of birth trauma or something else going on in their brain that first year of life. So what these men (Glen Doman and Carl Delacato) noticed is that the ones who got to creep and crawl, whether or not they had trauma when they were babies, ended up having a much more successful and easier social life and learning career and were hitting all the markers of traditional development throughout childhood and into adulthood. What they noticed was that the kids who didn't get to do this, whether it was because of birth trauma or maybe a broken leg, and they weren't able to hit those movements, those children were seeing a lot of different challenges and not hitting those developmental markers later on, and really struggling socially, academically, and behaviorally. So they asked, ‘Okay, what is the thing?’ Because it's not just the birth trauma, it's not just the stroke that they might have had, it's not that, because these kids were neurologically okay, they just happened to not move that much when they were babies. So that’s how they were able to really put that all together to realize that the way you're moving, from the time you're in the uterus, is what’s setting up the neurological foundation.”
“Our central nervous system is actually the foundation for everything else,” Paloma continues. “Everything else. Every single other thing that we do. Because the primitive brain's job, its only, number one job, is to keep us alive. So if it feels unsafe, like something’s going on, you’re under attack, whatever, it's going to dysregulate and it’s going to throw off all the other things that you do. So how can you focus on academic learning, behavior, daily living activities, all these intellectual and cognitive functions, when this isn't automatic? This is the absolute foundation for the rest of the brain.”
“We’re only as good as our compensations,” Paloma says. “All of those expectations only get more and more and more complex as we get older. So the gap between what's going on in our brain and what's expected of us in the world is only getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and that's where the challenges are seen. So let's say, your cortex, where you're supposed to be learning and language and all your higher function, has to compensate for that one function that you need to do in order to stay alive. So your bandwidth is now that much smaller for everything else you're supposed to do.'' She adds that hitting this wall can happen at any stage of life, either due to sheer exhaustion or simply not being able to compensate well enough.
Physical Therapy for Your Brain
“So is it kind of like lifting weights?” I ask. “You know, maybe your brain atrophied due to the fact that you didn’t get to crawl, so going back as an adult and crawling fixes that?”
“That’s a good way of looking at it. That’s pretty much exactly it,” says Dani. She goes on to explain, “The primitive brain pretty much stops developing once you stand up and start walking. The primitive brain halts wherever it left off. That’s why we say, you can get on the floor and crawl right now, and we have a pretty good idea of what your day to day living looks like. It shows us what automatic functions you have in place.”
“For example,” Dani holds up her palms to the screen and splays them out sideways, fingers pointing towards her shoulders. “If someone crawls with their hands out like this, we already know their eyes are not working with the brain how they need to because the hands should be pointing forward, and this shows the direct connection with how the brain and eyes are working together as a team.” She also notes that someone who crawls with their hands cupped is most likely sensory sensitive. Bright lights, scratchy tags, and the thought of germs bother them. If someone crawls with their feet up in the air, they probably don’t like sitting still and may find it difficult to focus. A child or adult who regularly walks on their toes may find themselves frequently in reaction mode and chronically stressed as they are constantly in fight or flight. Essentially, the way you move speaks to what’s going on in your brain. When you move in a coordinated and correct way, your brain then becomes more coordinated and correctly ordered as well.
This idea was fascinating to me because I could see how it had unfolded with my own children. I relayed the story to Paloma and Dani: “So, my daughter never crept, she just started crawling out of the blue. My son, he actually crept for a long time. Then, he crawled for a long time, and then he finally walked. And it’s interesting comparing them to what y’all are saying, because my daughter is on it, she’s very developmentally quick, but she’s also very reactive. My son has gotten less reactive the older he’s gotten. And that’s interesting because I think that as Americans we value quickness. We value the go, go, go. Where if you’re not meeting milestones, something is wrong with you. But it seems that based on what y’all are saying, my son's motor development is more favorable, and that’s just very interesting.”
Paloma is nodding along enthusiastically and adds, “The cool thing is, that’s our whole message, that the brain is plastic and can change at any time in your life. And when your daughter gets older, you can do some fun creeping and crawling games with her to finish that development!”
Retained Reflexes & Where To Find Them
Next, I ask Dani and Paloma how we retain reflexes. You don’t see adults flinging their arms out in an exaggerated manner when they get startled, so how can we retain a reflex like the Moro if we’re not actually doing the involuntary physical movement of the reflex anymore?
“That’s a really good point,” Paloma says, “and I think that a lot of pediatricians and the common knowledge out there is that, after a certain age, they just go away. But the missing piece here is they’ll go away if the baby is doing certain movements. That’s the key in all of this. Babies need to be able to move freely and live in the way that they already know how to, in order to integrate those reflexes. That’s the point of these reflexes, to keep us alive before we’re able to get help ourselves.”
I think back to my college biology class where the Moro reflex was described as if we were little monkeys and we were falling, we would need to reach out and grab something without thinking about it to keep us safe.
“Exactly,” says Paloma, “Integrating these reflexes is traditionally supposed to happen at a certain age, but this is assuming babies are getting that ideal development. That’s why we say that sometimes all these milestones can be a little bit harmful because you think that they’re automatically supposed to happen, but if you don’t know what the components are to help guide the baby to make it happen, then you might miss it.”
Paloma continues, “But there’s one important caveat: Trauma can always turn those reflexes back on, or keep them on. Birth trauma can happen and put the whole central nervous system in such a state that it’s going to retain those reflexes because it hasn’t felt safe. It doesn’t feel safe, ever. So it’s going to keep those on. Sometimes that will keep babies from doing the movement they need to do to integrate. But once you learn about this, you’re able to help the babies.”
“So what does that look like?” I ask. “Let’s keep using the Moro reflex because that’s one everybody knows – what does that look like when it’s not integrated in an adult?”
Dani chimes in this time, “On our website, we have all the behaviors associated with certain reflexes if they’re not integrated. Personally, my Moro was never integrated, and once I integrated it, I could tell the difference if it was lying totally dormant, and I could feel, if something happened, I could feel it come back on – which is usually flushing of the skin.”
“Oh my gosh, if I get really stressed, that happens to me all the time,” I say.
More signs of the Moro reflex not being integrated are road rage, being really shy, and feeling drained by fluorescent lights.
“Another sign is also having trouble with transition and change. The Moro makes you hyper-aware of everything going on in your environment, so a simple way people will compensate is by strict planning. But when anything deviates from what they were expecting, the Moro will turn on. Anything unexpected can be a life or death situation for the primitive brain in that moment,” says Paloma.
Dani goes on to explain life after such a reflex is integrated: “It’s drastic, it’s so tangible once you’re integrated. You're like, Huh, I totally didn’t freak out at my husband. I took a deep breath, and I didn’t even have to think about it. It just happened automatically. The best part about doing all of this is that everything just happens automatically.”
“That’s really incredible,” I say. “I feel as a mother, the thing I’m constantly battling with is that kids are designed to test you, and I am battling against myself minute by minute sometimes. It’s really encouraging to know that life doesn't have to be that way, and that it's automatic.”
Wrapping up the interview, my last question for Dani and Paloma was this: “So before this interview, I took your quiz, and my result was mediumly-messy. And I felt slightly ashamed, but also very seen. So what are some things that someone who is mediumly-messy could do?”
“Do the program,” says Paloma. “It’s max 20 minutes a day. At the beginning, it's six minutes. It’s very digestible. It’s really easy to get done. Or do it on your own! We’re not forcing you to buy our program. We have all our resources on our website, we have every single thing we do, online. We have all our exercises on our Instagram and our TikTok. If you want to go get the books, you can go do it on your own. Of course, our program makes it a little bit easier because we’ve spent a lot of time doing this, but ultimately, there are so many things you can do and they are simple.”
“What is one thing that someone who is struggling with anxiety can do today to help themselves?” I ask.
Dani replies, “The first thing we always recommend is this movement called a brain hookup, and it's just crossing your arms and legs while standing and putting your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Secondly, the best thing you can do to get yourself in the cortex is by asking questions. If you start feeling anxiety kicking in, you can ask yourself ‘What is actually true? What's a true statement about the situation I'm in right now?’ But it's hard to do when you're in that fight or flight.”
So there you have it. Babies need to move freely, not only for their physical development, but for their psychological development as well. It’s how the brain orders and organizes itself. If those movements don’t happen, it can cause the higher brain to compensate for the underdeveloped primitive brain. This compensation can cause mental disorders such as anxiety, bad handwriting, and insomnia. But it’s okay, there’s hope. Because according to Dani and Paloma, the experts that came before them, and the neuroscience you just learned, the brain is plastic. It can heal and redevelop and change. We’re not stuck in these patterns of dysfunction. There is a holistic path forward.
And for all the non-believers out there, Dani has this to say: “We get people on the internet that comment and say ‘You're crazy, you don't know what you’re talking about!’ But we've been seeing it happen before our eyes for 14 years. We know the brain can change. We have anecdotal evidence, we have members telling us their lives are different. Science is going to catch up.”
And they're right, the “science” will catch up. One day. But if the past three years have proven anything, we can't always wait on “the science” to tell us what to do and inform our common sense.
After my interview with Paloma and Dani, I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and their anecdotal results remind me of the scientific studies surrounding yoga. It's been proven that the practice makes for calmer, more grounded, more centered people. Interestingly, in yoga, you also spend a lot of time on the floor chasing precise alignments and optimal movement patterns. So, what if crawling is actually just an even shorter shortcut to a better you than yoga is? What if the science is actually already settled? What if it’s the creeping and crawling mechanics, the knees, hands, and bellies on the floor in yoga, that make yoga work?
I’d like to see a comparative analysis between the two, because I have a hunch I’m right, at least partially. But until “the science” catches up, we may just never know. At least not fully. All we have to go off is the combined decades of experience between these expert pioneers, their personal accounts, and the lives they’ve changed. And frankly, that’s enough for me.
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