Rudolf Magnus (1873–1927), German Professor of Pharmacology and researcher on the physiology of posture. Magnus’ experiments, carried out on the guinea-pig, rabbit, cat, dog and monkey, investigated in particular: 1) reflex standing; 2) normal distribution of tone; 3) attitude; and 4) righting function. These studies were carried out on decerebrated animals. His findings were summarized in his book, Körperstellung (1924). It was published in English in 1987.
The term ‘central control’ was used in England to refer to Magnus’ discovery of the location of various postural reflexes in the brainstem, between the upper cervical cord and the most anterior part of the mesencephalon (mid-brain). Magnus’ term, ‘zentraler Körperstellungsapparat’ (literally: ‘central body posture apparatus,’) has also been translated as ‘central nervous apparatus,’ ‘central mechanism,’ ‘body posture apparatus’ and ‘nerve centres in the brain stem.’ Although the centre would exclude the macular otoliths, the semicircular canals and the proprioceptors, Magnus contended that it co-ordinated the sensory input from all these sources and that the centre itself was responsible for postural muscular tone – ‘the normal distribution of tonus.’
There are several issues of confusion in the Alexander literature concerning the applicability of Magnus’ discovery to physiological explanations of the workings of the Technique.
Magnus himself, in lectures he gave in England in 1925 and 1926, suggested the applicability of his findings to normal human adults, children and animals, and may therefore have contributed to the confusion around this issue. In his ‘On some results of studies in the physiology of posture’ he said:
Neck righting reflexes are very active in man. In children they have been studied by Landau, who showed that babies in the prone position usually bring the head by dorsiflexion into the normal position, and this is followed by strong lordosis of the vertebral column with extension of the limbs. Passive ventroflexion of the head causes disappearance of the lordosis so that the whole body becomes ventrally concave. Schaltenbrand published photographs of babies in which rotation of the head causes the body to roll from the supine into the lateral position, a reflex which, according to Zingerle, can be demonstrated in many patients. Text-book photographs of gymnasts give ample evidence of the presence of similar neck righting reflexes in normal adults.
He also used the example of high-speed photographs of a golf swing which, he writes in ‘Animal Posture’, shows ‘sometimes postures in agreement with the laws of attitudinal activity of the brain-stem centres’.
And he stated that ‘Many masterpieces of painting or sculpture representing human beings are consistent with the laws of attitudinal reflexes.’
Confusion between primary control and central control
The discovery of Rudolf Magus of a central control for postural mechanism have been used by Alexander and others as scientific proof of Alexander’s concept of the primary control. The first reference to Magnus by F. M. Alexander appears in his 1925 lecture, ‘An unrecognized principle’. Unlike later on, here he does not claim that Magnus’ discoveries provide scientific proof.
Regarding the central control: in the technique I am using, it will interest you to know that during the last fifteen years, Magnus has worked to explain the scientific significance – as has been brought to our notice recently by Sir Charles Sherrington – in connection with that very control which I have been using for twenty-five years. The direction of the head and neck being of primary importance, he found, as I found, that if we get the right direction from this primary control, the control of the rest of the organism is a simple matter.
Confusion starts, however, when in UoS Alexander equates primary control with Magnus’ central control.
This primary control, called by the late Professor Magnus of Utrecht the ‘central control’ . . .
John Dewey, in his introduction to UoS, makes the same mistake:
Magnus proved by means of what may be called external evidence the existence of a central control in the organism. But Mr. Alexander’s technique gave a direct and intimate confirmation in personal experience of the fact of central control long before Magnus carried on his investigations.
Alexander and others then go on to refer to Magnus, either as corroboration of Alexander’s discovery of a primary control, or as proof.
Alexander mentions Magnus in letters, lectures and in UCL.  Macleod Yearsley refers to it in 1925. Peter Macdonald in 1926. Dr A. Murdoch in 1928. Patrick Macdonald in 1939. Mungo Douglas in 1932, and 1935. In 1950, after the South African Libel Case, which contained criticisms by scientists of using Magnus as evidence for the Technique, Mungo Douglas admitted he may inadvertently have misled Alexander by providing an inaccurate translation of passages from Körperstellung:
. . . I was at least one person who gave him ‘a second-hand account, of them’ inasmuch as I provided him with a translation from the original German in which Magnus wrote his book Körperstellung, and gave him what I considered to be the meaning of passages on p. 619. I understood these passages as the anatomical foundations of a central integrating apparatus, its manner of operation, and its place of operation in the operation of the cerebro-spinal, sensory motor, and muscular mechanisms of the animal as a whole within the range of animals on which Magnus had experimented. I can claim no expert standing as a German scholar and may have been responsible for laying Mr Alexander open to a charge that he relied upon a person who was not competent to guide him.
Walter Carrington’s article on Magnus and Alexander from 1950 (but not published until 1994), concludes that primary control and central control are not synonymous:
Thus, Mr Alexander’s term ‘primary control’ describes something far more extensive than Magnus’ ‘central apparatus’, for it embraces all the postural activity of the organism, not only the ‘brain-stem’ mechanism but also the higher centres of the brain, and in particular, the cortical centres which Magnus did not investigate. . . . Therefore, it may be said that ‘central control’ and ‘primary control’ are not identical, but the one forms an integral part of the other.
Frank P. Jones, writing in 1971, endorses the view that ‘the reflex response of the organism to gravity (the postural reflexes) is a fundamental feedback which integrates other reflex systems’. And in his Freedom to Change he refers to the stretch reflex, to the righting and attitudinal reflexes as part of the explanation for the mechanism of the Technique.
The first published criticism appeared in the editorial of the South African journal, Manpower, in 1944:
Since all this nonsense [Magnus’s central control being proof of Alexander’s primary control] is liberally repeated by Alexander’s followers, it is high time to state that Magnus has never described or claimed anything which bears even a faint similarity to what Alexander has alleged.
Otto Magnus, in his biography of Rudolf Magnus, comments drily on using Magnus’ findings as justification for ‘certain types of physiotherapy’ (a reference to the Alexander Technique):
For instance, it remains questionable whether there is any justification for their application to the usefulness of certain types of physiotherapy.
Later references to Magnus in the Alexander Technique literature
There are sporadic references to Magnus’s research as corroborating the existence of a primary control or supporting the view that the ‘head leads, and the body follows’ or of supporting the view that the postural reflexes influence normal posture. For example in Freedom in Thought and Action by Tasha Miller and David Langstroth in 2007:
Magnus found that the use of the head was primary in animal behaviour. The head leads and the body follows. It is important to note that although Magnus’ ‘central apparatus’ functions autonomically in the brain stem, it is under the influence of the relationship of the head, neck, and torso, a relationship over which we humans can at least exert some conscious control. And although Magnus . . . worked with animals, he clearly expressed his opinion that much of his work had a bearing on man.
And in Neurodynamics by Theodore Dimon Jr. in 2015:
Remember, however, that we have tonic reflexes to provide postural support and stability of body parts in relation to movement, which is where the head/trunk relationship comes in. Rudolf Magnus . . . studied postural reflexes in rabbits and cats in exhaustive detail and found that body posture is organized essentially by the relation of the head to the trunk.
Other references include
- The Resurrection of the Body by Edward Maisel.
- Body Learning by Michael Gelb.
- Alexander Technique by Chris Stevens.
- The Alexander Technique Workbook by Richard Brennan.
- The Alexander Technique – A Practical Introduction by Richard Brennan.
- The Complete Illustrated Guide to the Alexander Technique by Glynn Macdonald.
Overview of the history
‘A history of Magnus in the Alexander Technique’ by Jean M. O. Fischer covers why Magnus was adopted by Alexander as evidence for primary control and the subsequent and continued referencing by some teachers to Magnus for a reflex model of the Technique.
The appropriate relevance of Magnus’s discoveries to the Alexander Technique is not a settled issue. Some confusion persists, partly because of Alexander’s reference to central control in UoS, partly because of references in the Alexander Technique literature which are outdated scientifically, partly because of the ongoing discussion as to the role of postural (and other) reflexes in the work of the Technique.
See also Primary control, Rudolf Magnus.