The ability of a falling cat to turn, from whatever starting position, to land on its feet has been used in the Alexander Technique by some teachers to illustrate 1) the righting reflex existing in most mammals and some other animals, and, in some cases 2) the ‘head leads and the body follows’ principle.
(The righting reflex corrects the orientation of the body when it is taken out of its normal upright position. See R. Magnus’ Work. Today the reason for the cat turning in the air is referred to as the ‘air righting reflex’.)
The existence of the righting reflex, as well as other postural reflexes, has been used as proof of or at least evidence for a primary control. Today opinions differ as to whether the workings of the primary control are influenced by the righting reflex or other postural reflexes.
History – General
Several scientists investigated the cat turning phenomenon in the second half of the 19th century, among them James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), and Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904). Marey used chronophotography (which captures movement in several frames of print) to propose an explanation. There are many scientific papers on the cat turning phenomenon since the 1850s.
The accepted scientific explanation of the turning came in 1969. ‘A dynamical explanation of the falling cat phenomenon’ models the cat as a pair of cylinders (the front and back halves of the cat) capable of changing their relative orientations because of the cat’s flexible backbone and non-functional collar-bone. In other words, the spine undergoes a number of bending forwards and backwards and turnings, in order to achieve a turning of the whole body. This does not alter the fact that the cat looks down and turns its head as well. But the turning of head and neck is not, as presently understood, the cause of the turning of the body.
Experiments continue on this subject. A 1984 study on kittens blinded since birth shows that the development in the blinded kittens is the same as in normal kittens with vision: the skill is mature by 33 days. The result (as well as comparison with other studies the authors write) confirm that the air righting reflex is primarily a vestibular controlled reaction.
‘Photographs of a tumbling cat,’ by Étienne-Jules Marey, 1894.
History – Magnus
Rudolf Magnus (1873-1927) published a paper on cat turning in 1922, ‘Wie sich die fallende Katze in der Luft umdreht’ [How the falling cat turns around in the air]. He also wrote on it in Körperstellung [Body Posture], following his theory that the head leads and the body follows:
These labyrinth positioning reflexes acting on the head play a decisive role during free fall. If cats, rabbits or monkeys are held freely in the air, with their backs facing down, and then are released to fall down, they will as is well known turn in the air and land correctly on their feet. This reaction comes with extraordinary speed and security. The reaction is bound to the labyrinths being intact. It could be shown that the intact cat as well as the thalamus cat and the intact monkey were unable to turn around in the air after a double extirpation of the labyrinths. They flop to the ground like a sack, either onto their backs or sides and are no longer able to turn in the air in such a way that that they arrive correctly with their extremities first. The reaction is also absent in a decerebrate animal with intact labyrinths. This makes it plausible that the mid-brain is necessary for the reaction. This becomes a certainty through the observation that the thalamus animal does still possess the ability to turn, as observations on a thalamus cat of Dusser de Barenne showed. As the labyrinths as well as the mid-brain are necessary for the reflex, it is plausible to conclude that this is the action of the labyrinth positioning reflexes acting on the head. That this is really the case follows from studying the cinematographic recordings. Already Marey took serial photographs of cats and rabbits. These show that the reaction is induced by a turning of the head. One can see this also clearly in a series of cinematographic recordings I took of falling cats [see image below].
After detailing his experiments Magnus concludes:
The reaction in free fall is therefore the labyrinth positioning reflex acting on the head, which causes the head to be turned against the normal position. Then the neck positioning reflex follows, which causes the body to follow the head, first with the thorax, then with the pelvis. A screw-like movement of the animal in space, which is initiated by the head, is the result.
Some supporters of F. M. Alexander, like Dr Mungo Douglas, knew and had read (at least parts of) Körperstellung, regarding the ‘central control’. It is not known whether they, or Alexander, paid particular attention to the section on cat turning.
Cat falling pictures from Magnus’ experiments.
History – Alexander Technique
The first Alexander Technique teacher to use the cat turning illustration was F. P. Jones in a 1957 paper. He refers to Magnus’ righting reflex when describing the cat turning experiment:
The righting reflexes take over when the animal is ready to return to the normal upright posture. They can be seen in operation if a cat is held on its back in the air and then dropped. The instant it is let go it begins to right itself. The head turns first. As it does, tensions in the neck, back, and limbs are progressively altered. The body is twisted around, and the cat lands on its feet in the normal upright posture.
For a later generation it was popularised by an illustration of cat turning in the second edition of Body Learning by Michael Gelb in 1987. A drawing of a cat turning is featured in the 2015 Neurodynamics by Theodore Dimon Jr.
Some teachers used it as illustration of the ‘head leads and the body follows’ principle, because the cats eyes move first, then the head, then the body.
See also R. Magnus’s Work, Primary Control.