Inhibition, the process of consciously not reacting, of withholding action, to a stimulus or stimuli, is one of the most fundamental concepts of the Alexander Technique. Frank P. Jones wrote:
F. M. said on many occasions that his technique rested on inhibition as its base. A pupil who understands the principle of inhibition can learn the Technique in a relatively short time, he said. Without it he will be learning something quite different.
Among the many descriptions and related terms in the Alexander Technique literature are: stopping, pausing, saying ‘no’, refusing to respond, restraining oneself, leaving yourself alone, not reacting, preventing, not giving consent, abstaining from action, non-doing, coming to quiet, coming to neutral, brain quiet, letting go, letting ‘it happen’, the right thing does itself.
History – General
The Latin root of inhibition includes the meanings to hold in, restrain, hinder, prevent. Older, ecclesiastical usage denoted to ‘forbid or prohibit.’ The concept of inhibition as a regulatory mechanism is commonplace and even older than the word which signifies and expresses it: Aristotle, for example, observed that a stronger activity of the soul arrests a weaker activity. The discovery of peripheral inhibition in 1845 and central inhibition in 1862 gave the term ‘inhibition’ precise, scientific meanings. The discovery of neurophysiological inhibition, along with excitation, explained the fundamental regulatory mechanism by which the organism obtains organization. ‘Inhibition’ evoked psychological as well as physiological explanations and became synonymous with ‘control’ in common usage. Victorian society espoused the values of moderation, restraint and self-control, and ‘inhibition’ provided the scientific rationale for the prevailing Christian and philosophical ideals of free will, the ability to exercise mental control and to choose between good and evil. Theories of inhibition were readily accepted because they re-expressed ideas and beliefs already embedded in the culture: for example, the idea that a higher power arrests or checks a lower power, as in the case of the repression of instincts by moral prohibitions. Will, self-restraint and self-control were considered the ultimate developments of mental health. Inhibition was the force which maintained a natural modesty and decent self-restraint in behaviour which otherwise would be selfish or inconsiderate. In 1894 a physician called this faculty ‘inhibitory power’ and named its absence ‘inhibitory insanity.’ In The Hygiene of Mind (1906) the author writes: ‘The highest aim of Mental Hygiene should be to increase the power of mental inhibition amongst all men and women. Control is the basis of all law and the cement of every social system among men and women, without which it would go to pieces.’ Hence ‘inhibition’ was a well-established and familiar term by the time Alexander adopted it; it first appeared in his writings in 1908.
F. M. Alexander on inhibition
Inhibition is necessary for a change in reaction, since nothing new can be achieved until the habitual conceptions and associated movements have been inhibited:
No real progress in the overcoming of faults can be made until the pupil consciously ceases to will or to do those things which he has been willing and doing in the past, and which have led him to commit the faults that are to be eradicated.
In order to establish successfully the latter (correct conception), we must first inhibit the former (incorrect conception), . . .
Alexander gives a specific sequence, inhibition preceding direction. For example:
The desire to stiffen the neck muscles should be inhibited as a preliminary . . .
He must also be taught to inhibit, and, finally, to eradicate these preconceived ideas and the mental order or series of orders which follow from them. Only then can he give the correct guiding orders as next described.
Whereas this would seem to indicate a distinct two-step process, there are also examples where inhibition is fused with the new conscious means-whereby of responding:
. . . in the application of my technique the process of inhibition – that is, the act of refusing to respond to the primary desire to gain an ‘end’ – becomes the act of responding (volitionary act) to the conscious reasoned desire to employ the means whereby that ‘end’ may be gained.
Including conception and the performance of a movement this could be a four-step process:
In the performance of any muscular action by conscious guidance and control there are four essential stages:
1. the conception of the movement required;
2. the inhibition of erroneous preconceived ideas which subconsciously suggest the manner in which the movement or series of movements should be performed;
3. the new and conscious mental orders which will set in motion the muscular mechanism essential to the correct performance of the action;
4. the movements (contractions and expansions) of the muscles which carry out the mental orders.
Inhibition is for example used in teaching, where a teacher is guiding the movement of, say, a pupil’s arm or the whole body, while the pupil attends to the inhibition:
These preconceptions and habits of thought, therefore, must be broken down, and since the reactions of mind on body and body on mind are so intimate, it is often necessary to break down these preconceptions of mind by performing muscular acts for the subject vicariously; that is to say, the instructor must move the parts in question while the subject attends to the inhibition of all muscular movements.
The process of inhibition is also used in learning not to rely on feelings or kinaesthesia for guidance.
Inhibition as volition
Walter Carrington in the entry for 22 March in his 1946 diary wrote:
He [F. M. Alexander] made some remarks about his use of the term ‘inhibition’. It had caused anxiety among many of his friends due to the extreme prejudice against it. Dewey undertook a long railway journey specially to warn him about it. What everybody had overlooked was that inhibition is a form of volition.
Inhibition vs. passivity
Alexander was clear that the process of inhibition does not involve passivity:
It is a curious anomaly that acceptance of the theory and practice of non-doing should be comparatively easy in attempts to help the self in external activities, but so difficult in similar attempts connected with internal activities. Such help involves a form of non-doing which must not be confused with passivity, and which is fundamental because it prevents the self from doing itself harm by misdirection of energy and uncontrolled reaction; it is an act of inhibition which comes into play when, for instance, in response to a given stimulus, we refuse to give consent to certain activity, and thus prevent ourselves from sending those messages which would ordinarily bring about the habitual reaction resulting in the ‘doing’ within the self of what we no longer wish to ‘do.’
The amount of inhibition is also discussed: too much inhibition may lead to a passivity or laxness of the organism. Irene Tasker referred to this in her 1967 lecture:
I learned much from a few lessons I had with F.M. shortly after my return [in 1944]. He found I had been exaggerating the non-doing to the extent of not permitting the right doing to go through . . . Inhibition as such I realized from these lessons could be as harmful as any other over-emphasis. ‘the other extreme of too hasty reaction’ F. M. went on ‘is drift’. . . . To keep the delicate balance between refusing consent to wrong doing and giving consent to the new doing seems to me the never-ending task for us all, . . .
Alexander’s origin of inhibition
In the chapter, ‘Evolution of a technique’ in UoS Alexander first considers the idea of inhibition.
When I came to consider the significance of this last point [misdirection as a result of a decision to use his voice], it occurred to me that if, when the stimulus came to me to use my voice, I could inhibit the misdirection associated with the wrong habitual use of my head and neck, I should be stopping off at its source my unsatisfactory reaction to the idea of reciting, which expressed itself in pulling back the head, depressing the larynx, and sucking in breath.
Alexander’s inhibition vs. Freud’s ‘inhibitions’
Sigmund Freud, and consequently many following psychotherapists, used the words ‘inhibition’ and ‘inhibitions’ to indicate an unhealthy unconscious suppression of emotions and desires. In his The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) he equated inhibition with the basic mechanism which produces repression. Although Freud generally used the term ‘inhibition’ as much as his contemporaries did in relation to common psychological experiences, it soon became equated with his concept of the pathological repression of thoughts and desires. The sometimes confusing terminology may have arisen from failing to make a distinction between the process (‘inhibition’) and the possible product of the process (‘inhibitions’). In psychology ‘inhibition’ has been (and is) used in a plethora of ways; a main usage indicating a voluntary or involuntary restraint or check that prevents the direct expression of an instinctive impulse. However, the colloquial meaning associated with psychotherapy is an inner, subconscious hindrance or impediment to conduct or activity. 
Alexander was clear that his concept of inhibition, being conscious and voluntary, was very different from Freudian inhibition. In his lecture, ‘An Unrecognized Principle in Human Behaviour’, Alexander clearly distinguished between his usage and the, by then, popular usage of psychotherapy: ‘Many people would take exception to the word ‘inhibition,’ but this inhibition is not the inhibition that we usually hear of. …it is not an inhibition associated with suppression,’. Alexander also disassociated his use of ‘inhibition’ from all implications of suppression in CCC, part II, chapter 4.
Lulie Westfeldt confirms this approach:
Alexander used the words inhibit and inhibition in the physiological sense, not in the Freudian sense. The inhibitory is that function of the brain which says ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the idea of a given activity. ‘Inhibition, as we do it,’ he once said to his students, ‘is not suppression but volition. It enables us to do what we have decided we want to do.’
Charles Sherrington on inhibition
In The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (1906) Sherrington writes:
Inhibition is a phenomenon in which an agent such as in other cases excites or increase an action going on, in this case stops or diminishes the action going on . . . There is no evidence that inhibition of a tissue is ever accompanied by the slightest damage to the tissue: on the contrary, it seems to predispose the tissue to a greater functional activity thereafter.
Libet, intentional inhibition
Benjamin Libet’s 1983 and 1985 papers on the timing of the readiness potential in the brain, of a person’s conscious intention to act, and of a person’s ability to ‘veto’ a movement has been discussed among Alexander teachers since the mid-1980s. Libet’s work showed that between feeling ready to perform a voluntary activity (a readiness potential in the brain) and actually performing it (motor activity), there is a window of 100–200 ms in which people can consciously ‘veto’ (inhibit) the activity. This has been seen as an example of the conscious inhibition Alexander has argued for in his writings.
The first published report of Libet’s findings in the Alexander Technique literature was ‘Physiology and freedom’ by David Sheppard. It is a report of Dr Benjamin Libet’s lecture, ‘The role of conscious intention and conscious inhibition in producing a voluntary act’, to NASTAT’s annual general meeting in 1988. Libet also presented his findings at the Constructive Teaching Centre. Chris Stevens also wrote on Libet’s work.
Libet’s experiments have been reproduced, with variations, and scientific investigations into ‘intentional inhibition’ (conscious inhibition) continues.
Three elements of inhibition
Lulie Westfeldt considers inhibition consisting of three elements:
Alexander’s technique of inhibition, therefore, consists of three elements: (1) a continually renewed decision to inhibit or say ‘no’ to the idea of speaking; (2) continually renewed thoughts to activate the new head, neck and back pattern; (3) the breaking down of the act of speaking into its smallest steps and the focusing on each step separately as if it were the end.
Three aspects of inhibition
John Nicholls distinguishes between three ways in which people use the term ‘inhibition’.
Inhibition as a negative or as a positive
Some people consider either inhibition or the expression of inhibition (as in for example ‘saying no’), negative and suppressing.
Walter Carrington referred to this issue in an article: ‘On the one hand the concept of “not-to-do”, of “though shalt not”, can evoke negative emotional responses which confuse the issue. People prefer to be advised what to do.’
Martina Süss and Christine Weixler makes the point that we are teaching people to understand that ‘. . . a No to their habits never means a No to themselves.’
Paul Collins in 1986 argued that ‘inhibition, in the sense that Alexander uses the word, as confirmed by the saying I have quoted, is not a matter of saying “no”, which is divisive, but a great big “yes”, which implies unity. This “yes” carries with it all that is necessary for the action concerned and nothing that is contrary.’ Ulrich Funke in 1999 similarly prefers changing ‘no to’ to ‘yes to’. ‘“No” is not a negative’ by Rosemary Nott makes a similar point. Cathy Madden also argues for using ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’ in her chapter ‘Having a “yes” plan’. She writes: ‘The swiftness with which any thought involving a “no”, “not”, or “don’t” caused an actor to stiffen was remarkable.’
Direction and inhibition are generally seen as co-equal, counterbalancing each other. Some teachers favour one more than another, and some see inhibition as the most fundamental part. An argument runs that since the ‘right thing does itself’ (an Alexander quote), if you inhibit what is wrong, the organism will right itself. That is, the right direction is so much part of a natural good use that a conscious direction is not necessary. Another often used quote in this context is: ‘You are perfect as you are, except for what you are doing.’ The implication being that if the correct undoing (by means of inhibition) can take place, a correct direction will reassert itself without further conscious interference.
It is also debated whether one can have inhibition on its own, that is, without any specific stimulus to inhibit, a sort of ‘general inhibition’. The opposing view holds that inhibition needs a particular stimulus which one is conscious about and then is refraining to respond to. In teaching, any particular stimulus may cause the wrong reaction in the pupil, and therefore some teaching styles may seem to emphasise a ‘general’ inhibition; and some argue in this connection that you cannot inhibit a reaction to a stimulus; whether you react or not is predetermined before the onset of the stimulus.
It is also discussed whether inhibition is a direction, or part of a direction (as opposed to be a separate process from direction). See for example the interview with John Nicholls by Ruth Rootberg.
The Alexander Technique in Conversation by John Nicholls and Seán Carey contains a section on how John Nicholls teach inhibition.
‘What is inhibition?’ by Nicholas Brockbank argues that the recognition of how we interfere with the ‘right employment of the primary control’ is essential if we want to know how to avoid it.
For a selection of F. M. Alexander quotations on inhibition, see the Mouritz Key Concepts Library.
See also Prevention, Doing & Non-doing.