Tongue Bowl Reflex (History and Definitions)

By Pam Marshalla

Q: I have been reading some of your material, and I am wondering if you can tell me where the term “Tongue Bowl Reflex” comes from?

I made up the term Tongue Bowl Reflex and Tongue Bowl Response.  In the 1970’s, the term “tongue bowl” was floating around among therapists who were involved in feeding, dysphagia, and oral-motor.  I knew that the tongue bowl was a reflex from various readings I was doing, and I realized that no one had named it.  So I named it.

I began using the term Tongue Bowl Reflex in convention papers and seminar handouts in the 1970’s (e.g., Rosenwinkel et al, 1978).  Then I began to worry that I had no right to name a reflex, so I changed it to Tongue Bowl Response for all my writing in the 1980’s and 1990’s. (Rosenwinkel, 1983; Marshalla 1985; Marshalla, 1995; Marshalla, 2007).  But since then I have returned to using the term Tongue Bowl Reflex, and that term will be used in my next book (Marshalla, Unpublished).

The Tongue Bowl Reflex is a reflexive response to tactile stimulation applied down the midline of the anterior half of the tongue.  It also is seen during coughing and crying.  The TBR is thought to be a reflexive foundation of tip elevation, lateral margin elevation, and midline depression of the tongue.  This important reflex has been called by many names throughout history:

1886:  Spoon-shaped lingual configuration

“Wassilieff (1886) reported that touching or stroking a baby’s tongue elicits a spoon-shaped lingual configuration, characterized by an upraised ridge around its outer border…  This basic, reflexively elicited posture which plays an important role in sucking activities is also found in the infant’s cry posture.  Wassilieff reported that a similar posture could be elicited in adulthood by repeatedly touching, lightly stroking, or directing a stream of air across the tongue of the mature individual” (Fletcher, 1992, p. 10).

1912: Irritation which causes channeling

Scripture was one of the first to bring articulation therapy methods to the United States from Germany.  He did not use the term reflex in his writing, but he mentioned the tendency for the tongue to respond in specific ways when touched in certain ways.  He calls reflex stimulation the “irritation.”  For example, in his section about stimulating the tongue to form a central groove for /s/––  “The cure is often brought about by using a probe or a stick [to touch the middle of the tongue]; the irritation makes the patient narrow the channel” (Scripture, 1912, p. 134).

1937:  Tongue gutter

In a discussion about tongue configuration during infant sucking, the first great writers on the topic of infant feeding skills wrote about the tongue’s automatic guttering response–– “During sucking, the side of the tongue, which at first showed only slight curling about the nipple, gradually becomes better approximated until at 6 weeks the lower half of the nipple is well surrounded …  At 12 weeks … the tongue becomes active and gutters in a rhythmic manner” (Gessell and Ilg, 1937, p. 77).

1939:  Tongue grooving

Van Riper noticed that the tongue reflexively grooves during coughing, and he suggested that we use it in articulation therapy–– “Observe self in mirror and you will see that the tongue is grooved as you cough…   Produce the groove by merely getting set to cough” (Van Riper, 1939, p. 171).

1967: Median groove

In the text that accompanies Bosma’s schematic illustrations of the tongue during normal newborn barium swallow studies, he wrote about the reflex that caused the median groove of the tongue–– “In frame 40, the mandible and tongue are lowered, and the infant is in middle of swallow. Barium outlines the median groove of the tongue” (Bosma, 1967, p. 103).

1980:  Tongue’s take-in reflex

In his discussion of reflexes, Mysak discussed the way the tongue moves reflexively–– “[The tongue reflexes are] characterized by take-in, push-out, and lateralization movements.  Take-in movements [cupping/bowling] are associated with pleasant stimuli, push-out movements with noxious ones” (Mysak, 1980, p. 88).

1983: Cupped or bowl-shaped configuration

In their chart on the movement characteristics of the tongue during both suckling and sucking, Morris and Klein describe the tongue configuration as “Flat, thin, cupped or bowl-shaped” (Morris and Klein, 1983, p. 38).

1985:  Tongue Bowl Response (TBR)

I described the stimulation and response of this reflex to use during articulation therapy: “The TBR is defined as a flattening and flaring of the tongue with elevation of the tip and lateral margins, and simultaneous depression of the middle, which renders the tongue bowl-shaped” (Marshalla, 1985, p. 321-322).

1988: Bowl reflex

In describing their exercise called “Tongue Tapping,” Hanson and Barrett explain how to stimulate the tongue’s bowl reflex–– “The purpose of this exercise is to stimulate the involuntary reflex, similar to the grasp reflex, that depresses the middle portion of the tongue in response to a stimulus…  In almost all cases the bowl reflex is clearly evident by the time the patient returns for the next visit” (Hanson and Barrett, 1988, p. 278-279).

Coming Soon: Tongue Bowl Reflex

“Biologists say that the human body is comprised of a trunk and five limbs: two arms, two legs, and a head.  Each limb ends in a grasping mechanism designed to lay hold of the environment: the hands, the feet, and the tongue.  Each grasping mechanism contains within it a reflex designed to stimulate its most basic movement patterns: the palmer reflex, the plantar reflex, and the tongue bowl reflex” (Marshalla, unpublished manuscript).


0 thoughts on “Tongue Bowl Reflex (History and Definitions)”

  1. That was an AWESOME response! Thorough and practical. A couple days ago, I was teaching tongue cupping to a 37 year old status post tongue resection. After reading this, I have a few more ways to elicit the posture. Thanks!

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