‘Conditioning’ here refers to the process by which a subject comes to associate a desired behavior with a previously unrelated stimulus, also known as ‘classical’ or ‘Pavlov’ conditioning.

The word ‘condition’ in the sense of causing to be in a certain condition, shape or influence is used throughout F. M. Alexander’s books but Pavlov’s ‘conditioning’ is only referred to in UoS.

John Dewey, in his introduction to UoS in 1932, writes:

The school of Pavlov has made current the idea of the conditioned reflex. Mr Alexander’s work extends and corrects the idea. It proves that there are certain basic, central organic habits and attitudes which condition every act we perform, every use we make of ourselves. Hence a conditioned reflex is not just a matter of an arbitrarily established connection, such as that between the sound of a bell and the eating-reaction in a dog, but goes back to central conditions within the organism itself. This discovery corrects the ordinary conception of the conditioned reflex. The latter as usually understood renders an individual a passive puppet to be played upon by external manipulations. The discovery of a central control which conditions all other reactions brings the conditioning factor under conscious direction and enables the individual through his own coordinated activities to take possession of his own potentialities. It converts the fact of conditioned reflexes from a principle of external enslavement into a means of vital freedom.[1]

Alexander, in UoS, writes:

. . . my experience has shewn that in cases where the knowledge of how to direct the primary control has led to a change for the better in the manner of the use of the mechanisms throughout the organism, the results of this ‘conditioning’ can safely be left to take their own form.[2]

It is not clear whether this refers to Pavlov conditioning, or the normal English usage of the term. The confusion then continues with Alexander quoting Dr. A. Murdoch:

Mr. Alexander has built up the theory on which he has based his practice from the observation of the movements of the body as a whole, and he has made use of lost or unused associated involuntary reflexes with a rare insight, and by recreating them into new conditioned reflexes he has laid the foundation for a new outlook on disease and its diagnosis and treatment.[3]

And Alexander again:

Indeed, my continued experience convinces me that unless the building-up of a conscious direction of use, in association with an improving standard of sensory appreciation of that use, is made the primary consideration of all those who, in different spheres, are dealing with the problem of the control of human re-action, we are not likely to develop a method for meeting the problem of the control of conscious, or, as it is sometimes called, ‘conditioned’ behaviour.[4]

Walter Carrington, in his 1946 diary, relates a story told by F. M. Alexander:

FM then went on to tell how Spicer had called him up after reading the first reports of Pavlov’s work and said, ‘Here is a man who has done something years ahead of your work. I must see you at once to give you all the particulars about it.’ FM said, ‘If that is so I must hear about it at once so that I can go to him and work with him.’ After dinner Spicer started to read out and explain the report on Pavlov and FM began to laugh, saying, ‘Why that is what we have been doing with circus animals for years.’[5]

First generation teachers

Patrick Macdonald wrote a letter published in The Literary Guide, 1947, in which he writes that ‘Mr F. Matthias Alexander has shown us that reflex behaviour even of the involuntary muscles can be changed indirectly and can be made indirectly subject to our thinking processes.’ And he quotes the paragraph by John Dewey above.[6]

Dr Wilfred Barlow in 1952 suggested a form of conditioning is involved in learning the Alexander Technique:

Konorski (1948), the most prominent worker in this field at present, has described a second type of conditioned reflex: the ‘Konorski Type 2 reflex’, as it is known. His description of it is: ‘If we subject to a conditioning procedure of the first type [the classical Pavlov type] a compound of stimuli consisting of an exteroceptive and proprioceptive stimulus, in which the proprioceptive stimulus constitutes an indispensable complement to the conditioned compound, then the exteroceptive stimulus begins to evoke the movement generating the proprioceptive stimulus.’ This sounds a little involved, but what it amounts to is that if you associate a given degree of muscle tension (and its associated feeling) with an external stimulus, in time this given tensional balance is produced by the external stimulus alone. In the experiment which I have carried out this principle was employed. The other novel aspect of the approach was that I used a verbal stimulus as the exteroceptive stimulus, first in the form of a vocalized word of command, and eventually as a subvocalized command given by the subject. This procedure has been used and described by Hudgins (1933) in a different context, notably in the conditioning of pupillary contractions, and it was first employed in connection with the re-education of tensional balance by Alexander (1932).[7]

In a later paper, ‘Anxiety and Muscle Tension’ (1955) Barlow again refers to the ‘Konorski Type 2 reflex’ but moderates this by referring to Thorpe who argued that it should not be called a conditioned reflex since it represents a different kind of plasticity. Barlow: ‘Nevertheless, whether one terms them conditioned reflexes or not, this type of plasticity is shown by the nervous system, and can be employed as a basis of re-education.’[8] This paper was included – a little edited – in his 1978 book, More Talk of Alexander.[9]

Walter Carrington recalled later in the interview by Seán Carey:

. . .  the water was muddied some years ago by Wilfred Barlow in his paper ‘Anxiety and Muscle Tension’, where it’s suggested that learning the Technique is a conditioning process. I can remember FM reading the paper and saying, ‘Well, that’s nonsense!’ He couldn’t have rejected it more positively.[10]

F. P. Jones also rejected that any conditioning is involved in learning the Technique:

The Technique is not a conditioned response – in classical conditioning you are linking a new, unspecific stimulus (the sound of the bell) to an old, well-established stimulus–response complex (sight of food > salivation), with the result that the new stimulus elicits the old response without the intervention of the old stimulus. I don’t see how this model can apply to learning the Alexander Technique.

In visual perception, the image comes first: after it is discriminated, it is named. In teaching the Alexander Technique, the same sequence must be followed – Barlow reverses it. Another objection to Barlow’s procedure is that there is no way of learning what part of the experience is conditioned to the words used. Something happens as a result of the manipulation – the experience is associated with the pupil’s order – how does the pupil transfer this association to activity which he initiates?[11]

As conditioning went out of favour as an explanation for human learning and behaviour in the 1960s and 1970s, there have been no further references to conditioning.


[1] ‘Introduction’ by John Dewey in The Use of the Self by F. Matthias Alexander (Methuen, 1939), pp. xviii–xix.
[2] The Use of the Self by F. Matthias Alexander (Methuen, 1939), p. 41.
[3] The Use of the Self by F. Matthias Alexander (Methuen, 1939), pp. 40–41, footnote, quoting Dr. A. Murdoch, of Bexhill-on-Sea, 6 March 1928.
[4] The Use of the Self by F. Matthias Alexander (Methuen, 1939), p. 42.
[5] Diary entry for 1st November 1946 in A Time to Remember by Walter H. M. Carrington (The Sheildrake Press, 1996), p. 58.
[6] ‘Conditioned Reflexes’ by Patrick Macdonald in The Literary Guide, May 1947, quoted in The Alexander Technique As I See It by Patrick Macdonald (Mouritz, 2015), pp. 102–103.
[7] ‘Postural Homeostasis’, paper read at the Annual Meeting of the British Association of Physical Medicine on April 26, 1952. Published in Annals of Physical Medicine vol. 1, no. 3, July 1952. Also in Postural Homeostasis by Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2014), pp. 79–80.
[8] ‘Anxiety and Muscle Tension’ by Dr Wilfred Barlow in Modern Trends in Psychosomatic Medicine vol. 1 (Butterworth, 1955). Also in Postural Homeostasis by Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2014), p. 121.
[9] More Talk of Alexander edited by Dr Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2005 [1978]), p. 97.
[10] Explaining the Alexander Technique by Walter Carrington, Seán Carey, (Mouritz, 2004), p. 132.
[11] Freedom to Change [Body Awareness in Action] by Frank Pierce Jones (Mouritz, 1997 [1976]), p. 202.