Mon. Jan 24th, 2022

Alfred Monapert, writer of The Supreme Philosophy of Man, wrote, “Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving, but doesn’t make any progress.” Someone must have had some major issues with his rocking horse as a child. Perhaps the embittered Monapert was half right. Motion may not be progress, but rocking motion may be key to our progress as it clears our minds for thought. The Swiss Center for Affective Sciences reports that research at the University of Geneva has discovered some shocking ties between brain activity and this particular form of motion. For instance, napping in a hammock can achieve fuller rest than in a bed. This is significant because one in three adults experiences at least one symptom of insomnia. Far from the sign of mental challenge we often interpret it to be, rocking really rocks. Engaging in rocking motion while performing simple daily tasks, such as falling asleep or reading, can positively affect each and every one of us. In order to gain a new appreciation for how rocking can move us in the right direction, let us begin by exploring the current stereotype of rocking motion; next, we will dip into what research has recently revealed about rocking before; finally, we will raise our attention to the applications of the results. Let us swing back to the first noted observations of rocking motion.

Rocking motion was first recorded in Egyptian schools where the students, who sat cross-legged on mats on the floor, would recite passages of the sacred Qur’an while swaying in unison. These practices seemed bizarre to 19th century European travelers. Men from a “modernized” culture who were accustomed to sitting at desks and reading from textbooks viewed this as a savage practice. Gregory Starrett recalls that Alfred Milner, under-secretary for finance in Egypt during the British-Occupation, criticized the ritual. Describing it as “an anti-educational process,” he claimed that Egyptian students were memorizing material, not learning it. Yet Sigmund Freud contracted the idea that tying motion with thought in order to recall information was an indication of mental illness.

Fast-forwarding, “body rocking” is a behavioral trait that appears in today’s medical dictionaries as a common symptom of autism, mental retardation, and psychological illness. It has since become a stereotypical indicator; people typically assume that a person participating in a body-rocking movement while sitting is mentally or psychologically challenged.

On a more positive note, rocking motion has also been coupled with helping to induce sleep in restless infants for centuries in the belief that the movement mimics the slight rocking felt by a fetus in a mother’s womb. It apparently works. In the Aug.15, 2009 issue, Associated Newspapers Limited of London published that infants under the age of six months were able to fall asleep 90 percent faster when sleeping on a rocking cot.

Now sway that thought towards sleep-deprived adults. Michael Mulethaler and Sophie Schwartz, neuroscientists at the University of Geneva, mapped the brain waves of adults during a mid-day nap. One half of the volunteers slept on a stable bed, the other half on a slightly oscillating bed. The brain waves that were mapped showed some notable differences, but first let us discuss what these waves represent.

The first stage of sleep is called the N1 stage, commonly referred to as “light sleep,” which is followed by a much deeper sleep in the N2 stage. The brain activity of the N2 sleep stage is significantly lower than the N1 stage, producing occasional bursts of rapid waves. Located at the center of the brain is the amygdala, an almond-shaped area that plays part in controlling the senses and states of emotion. Mulethaler and Schwartz imply that participants experienced a relaxed feeling during the rocking motion due to vestibular connections with the amygdala. Rocking enlarges the natural brain waves of those napping while in the N2 phase, achieving 50 percent more brain activity during their rest.

The duration of each participant’s nap period, rocking and stationary, did not show any significant difference. Both nap periods averaged about 45 minutes. What was significant was the amount of time that nappers spent in their stages of sleep. It took the non-rockers one full minute longer to fall into stage N1 sleep, and just under 20 minutes to reach N2 sleep- the deep sleep stage. Those who slept on slightly rocking beds fell asleep four minutes faster and transitioned into N2 sleep after only 11 minutes total.
These findings have really rocked the boat in terms of stereotypical responses to body swaying, escalating attention to an entire field that was once at a sit-still.

I would like to raise your attention to how rocking motion has recently been applied in medical research. A slight swaying motion while asleep helps the body achieve a deeper sleep mode and requires less amount of time at rest. It is also followed by a quicker recovery, so when the rocking sleeper wakes up he or she feels more alert. In the Aug. 2007 edition of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, Dr. Thomas Roth, director of research at the Henry Ford Sleep Disorders and Research Center, estimates that 30 percent of adults admit to suffering from one or more symptoms of insomnia. Engaging in rocking motion to get to sleep and stay asleep can serve as an alternative to a pharmaceutical remedy for such individuals. Perhaps this is the reason why four mattress manufacturers have already initiated contact with the neuroscientists from the University of Geneva.

Moreover, the waves that were mapped during rockers’ N2 phase of sleep have in the past been correlated with an active memory: These brain waves show an increased ability to recall recent events. Nancy Shrute, reporter for the National Public Radio health blog, notes that these same brain waves have also been recognized as signs of brain plasticity. This is the brain’s ability to rewire itself, or recognize neural pathways based on new experiences, an ability that would be phenomenal in post-stroke recovery therapy. Even the back and forth rocking motion produced by sitting in a rocking chair has proven worthy in its ability to reduce post-surgery discomfort. Post-surgery patients, interviewed by Dr. Massey in the 2010 issue of Journal of Applied Nursing Research, were to rock for a total of 60 minutes per day after their surgery. Those who engaged in the rocking described having alleviated symptoms and also required less pain medicine than those who did not rock.

When Alfred Monapert derided his rocking horse experience, he was clearly underestimating the ride. With all of these amazing new studies being conducted in the past years, it seems that Freud and his fellow 19th century Europeans were more than a little hasty in their criticism of Egyptian “savage rocking.” Rocking is stereotypically viewed
today as the trait of a person suffering from a mental or psychological illness when in fact, it is a motion that we all can mentally, psychologically, and physically benefit from. The intrinsic value of the rocking motion is anything but basic; it can serve as a resolution to sleep deprivation, as well as replace pharmaceutical attempts, improve people’s ability to recall information, and even serve as a therapeutic treatment for numerous physical disabilities. Perhaps we have all graduated from the days of playing on rocking horses, most of us unscathed, but the pleasure we derived from those rides to nowhere operate at a level that is much deeper than mere child’s play.

Kelly Ratka is a West Chester University student majoring in communication studies with a minor in journalism. She can be reached at

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