Horns Growing On Young People's Skulls?

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Last week several students and colleagues sent me a link to this Washington Post article. It describes a 2018 publication that notes approx 40% of youth between the ages of 18-30 years old (within the study sample) developed a horn like projection on the back of their skulls just above the neck.

The study suggests that extra bone growth on the back of the skull happened to deal with an increased downwards pull from muscles that attach to the head; those associated with our postural support system. The study goes on to suggest that this excessive muscular pull by the muscles attached to the back of the head may be due to poor posture (particularly when using the phone). So the media say, phone use in young people equals horn growing on their skulls. So what’s the deal?

It’s long been known that bone can positively (and negatively) adapt/grow to the way it is used. I remember my neuro-anatomy lab instructor showing me a skull with a large ‘horn’ on the back of a skull and explaining how this skull came from a particularly powerful and strong person - as seen by the larger protuberance/ ‘horn’ due to the extra muscular pull on the back of his head.

That said, this study makes a big jump and suggests that the ‘horn’ in it’s sample population is due to poor posture (and phone use in particular). To be clear, this suggestion is based on only a couple of studies, and both have several significant methodological limitations to them. So despite what the media suggests, I wouldn’t set up your surgical appointment to have your horn removed quite yet.

Still, regardless of the study limitations and media sensationalizing this, I found the research to be a creative and socially interesting way of framing a study - one with the possibility to generate constructive conversation about the connection between the way we use ourselves, our postures, and the possible effects this has on us. Hopefully it gets people thinking, and a few others taking action to better their health and lives.

Below are a few Alexander Technique related concepts that came up in conversation with my students about this article.

The head, neck, and torso are connected

In the Alexander Technique students learn to develop an awareness of their individual patterns of habitual musculo-skeletal use; paying particular attention to release of unwanted head, neck, and spinal muscle tension (BMJ, 2009). An excess pull of the muscles on the back of the head occurs in many of our habitual movements (not just using the phone poorly) and is connected to how we use ourselves as a whole (not least the head and neck). As Alexander students learn to prevent the excess pulling down while as they do their activities (including using their phones), a broad range of positive changes seem to show up - such as reorganized muscle tonus throughout the entire body, increased ease in movement and poise, and improved posture to name a few.

Thus, when looking for a change in how your head or neck are organized look for the connections between all three - the head, neck, and torso are connected.

Use connects to function, connects to shape

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A key principle of the Alexander Technique is that ‘how you use yourself affects how you function’. What students begin to notice as they apply the Alexander Technique to their lives is that their function has an effect on the shape of their physical body and mental states.

This small study attempts to make a connection between using the phone in a slumped manner and an excess pull of the muscles in the back of the head - in it’s own creative way it tries to highlight the idea that how we use ourselves affects our overall shape. The key takeaway from an Alexander perceptive is that how you move and posture yourself everyday may be one factor that shapes your body, which is constantly adapting to how you use it - making itself more open and dynamic, or more rigid, collapsed, or inflexible.

Like gravity, this ongoing process of our organism adapting to how we use it is a constant force- from the moment we are born until our last breath, we continue to adapt and change from how we use ourselves as we engage in the world around us. One hour of exercise (although extremely important) simply can’t compete with 23 hours a day of using yourself in a horrible, or graceful and dynamic way.

Pulling down and feeling down are connected

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Another key idea here is that these youth (at least in the sample) are literally pulling themselves down more that other generations. Because the Alexander Technique is a psycho-physical practice it suggests that physical and mental aspects are directly connected in every action we make - and this includes tensions and states of embodiment. That a physical ‘pulling down’ it’s mental counterpart of ‘being down’ takes the findings beyond the physical implications, suggesting that a significant portion of this generation may actually (physically and thus mentally) be more ‘down’ than previous generations. That poor posture can have broad negative implications on musculoskeletal health with subsequent broad effects on mental health, and thus society at large, is a fascinating and scary idea traced back for generations (not to mentioned echoed by F.M. Alexander himself in the early 1900s). Still, these links aren’t perfectly linear - humans are incredibly resilient and adaptable - so much needs to be learned here to really help people live better lives. Regardless, viewing physical and mental aspects as a unified expression of your own self in action is a healthy way to enhance your self-awareness and to live a more embodied life.

How we connect to the world around us

At this point many people with a mistaken idea of what good posture is imagine that everyone should then be ‘fixing’ or ‘holding’ themselves upright, stiffly walking around. But to students of the Alexander Technique and other educational and movement practices along similar lines, it’s obvious that wouldn’t work. That it would only be the opposite side of the coin of pulling downwards; that of ‘bracing’ upwards. If the ‘perfect posture’ strategy worked then everyone would already have perfect posture. But it’s doesn’t work.

Instead, the idea would be that people can learn to not ‘pull themselves down’ (or pull themselves down less), so that the inherent postural supports that evolved to easily and gracefully support us upright can be there for us. To learn how to let ourselves ‘go UP’, to allow ourselves to move and act in our lives with more ease, upwards direction (less pulling down), and the subsequent physical-mental benefits associated with this quality of engaging in the world in a fuller, more open expression of ourselves.

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Increased daily awareness can become an integrated part of the daily life. A re-education of how we use ourselves in activity can become an on-going process towards self-mastery that improves how we function in everyday life.  With its focus on application in activity, the Alexander Technique provides a unique paradigm with specific tools to help joint efforts to cultivate this growing awareness and ability.

Ultimately, self-responsibility lies with each of us. People will continue to use hand-held devices, and one approach is learn how to use our phones, tablets, and devices in a way that simultaneously improves our posture and enhances our ability to modify and adapt ourselves to meet developing technology and a rapidly changing world in a healthier way.