alexander technique in and around brighton
alexander technique articles
ethology and stress related disease
a tribute to the alexander technique
nico tinbergen frs
This article is the speech Professor Tinbergen delivered to the Nobel foundation In Stockholm 1973 as he received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
Many of us have been surprised at the unconventional decision
of The Nobel Foundation to award this year's prize for Physiology or
Medicine to three men who had until recently been regarded as "mere animal
watchers". Since at least Konrad Lorenz and I could not really be described
as physiologists, we must conclude that our scientia amabilis is
now being acknowledged as an integral part of the eminently practical
field of medicine.
Encouraged by a doctor in Sydney, he now became a kind of
missionary. He set out to teach first actors, then a variety of people
- how to restore the proper use of their musculature. Gradually he discovered
that he could in this way alleviate an astonishing variety of somatic
and mental illnesses. He also wrote extensively on the subject. And finally
taught a number of his pupils to become teachers in their turn, and to
achieve the same results with their patients. Whereas it has taken him
years to work out the technique and to apply it to his own body, a successful
course became a matter of months, with occasional refresher sessions
So from personal experience we can already confirm some of the seemingly fantastic claims made by Alexander and his followers, namely, that many types of under performance and even ailments, both mental and physical, can be alleviated, sometimes to a surprising extent, by teaching the body musculature to function differently. And although we have by no means finished our course, the evidence given and documented by Alexander and Barlow of beneficial effects on a variety of vital functions no longer sounds so astonishing to us. Their long list includes first of all what Barlow calls the " ragbag " of rheumatism, including various forms of arthritis, then respiratory troubles, and even potentially lethal asthma; following in their wake, circulation defects, which may lead to high blood pressure and also to some dangerous heart conditions; gastrointestinal disorders of many types; various gynecological conditions; sexual failures; migraines and depressive states that often lead to suicide; in short a very wide spectrum of diseases, both somatic and mental, that are not caused by identifiable parasites. Although no one would claim that the Alexander treatment is a cure-all in every case, there can be no doubt that it often does have profound and beneficial effects; and, I repeat once more, both in the mental and somatic sphere.
The importance of the treatment has been stressed by many prominent people, for instance, John Dewey, Aldous Huxley and perhaps more convincing to us, by scientists of renown, such as Coghill, Dart and the great neurophysiologist Sherrington. Yet, with few exceptions, the medical profession has largely ignored Alexander, perhaps under the impression that he was the center of some kind of cult, and also because the effects seemed difficult to explain. And this brings me to my next point. Once one knows that an empirically developed therapy has demonstrable effects, one likes to know how it could work - what its physiological explanation could be. And here some recent discoveries in the borderline field between neurophysiology and ethology can make some aspects of the Alexander therapy more understandable and more plausible than they could have been in Sherrington's time.
One of these discoveries concerns the key concept of reference. There are many strong indications that at various levels of integration, from single muscle units up to complex behavior, the correct performance of many movements is continuously checked by the brain. It does this by comparing a feedback report that says " orders carried out " with the feedback expectation for which, with the initiation of each movement, the brain has been altered. Only when the expected feedback and the actual feedback match does the brain stop sending out commands for corrective action. Already the discoverers of this principle, von Holst and Mittelstaedt, knew that the functioning of this complex mechanism could vary from moment to moment with the internal state of the subject - the " target value " or Sollwert of the expected feedback changes with the motor commands that are given. But what Alexander has discovered beyond this is that a lifelong misuse of the body muscles (such as caused by, for instance, too much sitting and too little walking) can make the entire system go wrong. As a consequence, reports that " all is correct " are received by the brain (or perhaps interpreted as correct) when in fact all is very wrong. A person can feel at ease, for example, when slouching in front of a television set, when in fact he is grossly abusing his body. I can show you only a few examples, but they will be familiar to all of you (plates 12 to 15 taken from The Alexander Principle).
It is still an open question exactly where in this complex mechanism the matching procedure goes wrong under the influence of consistent misuse. But the modern ethologist feels inclined, with Alexander and Barlow, to blame phenotypic rather than genetic causes for misuse. It is highly unlikely that in their very long evolutionary history of walking upright, the hominids have not had time to evolve the correct mechanisms for bipedal locomotion.
This conclusion receives support from the surprising, but indubitable fact that even after 40 to 50 years of obvious misuse one's body can (one might say) snap back into proper, and in many respects more healthy, use as a result of a short series of half hourly sessions. Proper stance and movement are obviously genetically old, environment resistant behaviors. Misuse, with all its psychosomatic, or rather somatopsychic, consequences must therefore be considered a result of modern living conditions of a culturally determined stress. I might add here that I am not merely thinking of too much sitting, but just as much of the cowed posture that one assumes when one feels that one is not quite up to one's work, when one feels insecure.
Second, it need not cause surprise that a mere gentle handling of body muscles can have such profound effects on both body and mind. The more that is being discovered about psychosomatic diseases, and in general about the extremely complex two way traffic between the brain and the rest of the body, the more obvious it has become that too rigid a distinction between the mind and body is of only limited use to medical science, in fact can be a hindrance to its advance. A third biologically interesting aspect of the Alexander therapy is that every session clearly demonstrates that the innumerable muscles of the body are continuously operating as an intricately linked web.
Whenever a gentle pressure is used to make a slight change in leg posture, the neck muscles react immediately. Conversely, when the therapist helps one release the neck muscles, it is amazing to see quite pronounced movements, for instance of the toes, even when one is lying on a couch.
In this short sketch, I can do no more than characterize, and recommend, the Alexander treatment as an extremely sophisticated form of rehabilitation, or rather of redeployment, of the entire muscular equipment, and through that of many other organs. Compared with this, many types of physiotherapy which are now in general use look surprisingly crude and restricted in their general effect, and sometimes even harmful to the rest of the body. What then is the upshot of these few brief remarks about the Alexander treatment? First of all they stress the importance for medical science of open-minded observation- of " watching and wondering ". This basic scientific method is still too often looked down on by those blinded by the glamour of apparatus, by the prestige of tests, and by the temptation to turn to drugs. But it is by using this old method of observation that the general misuse of the body can be seen in a new light; to a much larger extent than is now realized it could very well be due to modern stressful conditions.
But beyond this I feel that my excursion into the field of medical research has much wider implications. Medical science and practice meet with a growing sense of unease and lack of confidence from the side of the general public. The causes of this are complex, but at least in one respect the situation could be improved: a little more open-mindedness, a little more collaboration with other biological sciences, and a little more attention to the body as a whole and to the unity of body and mind could substantially enrich the field of medical research. I therefore appeal to our medical colleagues to recognize that the study of animals - in particular " plain " observation - can make useful contributions to human biology not only in the field of somatic malfunctioning, but also that of behavioral disturbances, and ultimately help us to understand what psychosocial stress is doing to us.
It is stress in the widest sense, the inadequacy of our adjustability, that will become perhaps the most important disruptive influence in our society. If I have today emphasized the applicability of animal behavior research I do not want to be misunderstood. As in all sciences, applications come in the wake of research motivated by sheer intellectual curiosity. What this occasion enables me to emphasize is that biologically oriented research into animal behavior, which has been done so far with very modest budgets, deserves encouragement, whatever the motivation and whatever the ultimate aims of the researcher. And we ethnologists must be prepared to respond to the challenge if and when it comes.
alexander technique in and around brighton