COMPANION

Scientific explanations of the Alexander Technique

The literature on possible physiological and other mechanisms involved in the workings of the Alexander Technique over the years.

Andrew Murdoch

‘The function of the sub-occipital muscles’ by Dr. A. Murdoch argues that influence of the head determines every attitude of the body, especially on the influence of the sub-occipital muscles on head balance. It quotes from Modern Problems in Neurology (1928) by Dr B. Kinnear Wilson which states that ‘with each displacement of the head a given attitude of the whole body is determined, and it follows that for each voluntary movement the body finds itself in such a position as to enable the appropriate contraction of the muscles to be attained at the moment of production of that voluntary movement.’[1]

Wilfred Barlow

Dr Wilfred Barlow makes references to some of the factors involved in the workings of the Alexander Technique in several of his papers, but a summary can be found in his The Alexander Principle by Wilfred Barlow (Gollancz, 1973). His main thesis appears to be that the Technique works ‘by learning voluntarily to lengthen muscles until they achieve a better resting length’.[2] He refers to feedback-systems of the muscle spindles, stating they are important for inducing a lengthening of contracted muscles after activity. He also considers the role of thinking, using the example of EMG recordings of thinking of an activity compared with actually doing the activity, and, psychologically, the importance of our body construct.

Frank P. Jones et al.

‘Psychophysical reeducation and the postural reflexes’[3] by F. P. Jones (1953) sets out the hypothesis that Alexander’s work has its physiological foundation in postural reflexes, particular those investigated by Magnus. Jones writes: ‘It has not been experimentally proved that Alexander discovered the same reflex mechanism that Magnus explored in animals. Nevertheless, the empirical evidence for believing it is very strong.’[4]

‘A method for changing stereotyped response patterns by the inhibition of certain postural sets’ by F. P. Jones (1965) is a summary report of his research including references to stretch reflexes, head-neck reflexes, the startle pattern, for the purpose of explaining how the Alexander Technique might work. He proposes that releasing the head from its habitual attitude facilitates an antigravity response.[5]

‘An experimental study of the Alexander Technique’ by F. P. Jones (1971) is a summary of Jones’ research, including previously unpublished data on ‘magnitude estimation’, a method for judging the effort involved in maintaining an erect posture. He presents the hypothesis that the Alexander Technique restores a natural functioning of the postural reflexes.[6]

Christopher Stevens

In his book, Towards a Physiology of the F. M. Alexander Technique,[7] which draws on a number of studies, the workings of neck reflexes, stretch reflexes, and musculature, Stevens suggests that the Technique works ‘perhaps by facilitating righting reflexes’. And that ‘Learning to allow postural reflexes to operate advantageously during movement may be a component of lessons in the Alexander Technique.’[8] He goes on to suggest that ‘It is possible that the Alexander Technique involves reflexes and other response patterns not previously recognised . . .’[9]

Tristan Roberts

Tris Roberts only wrote one general article for Alexander Technique teachers but his books Neurophysiology of Postural Mechanisms,[10] and Understanding Balance[11] provided inspiration for a postural reflex-based understanding of the Technique for a number of teachers.

  • ‘Balance and gravity’ by Tris Roberts explains some basic physics of balancing, standing, sitting, on horseback, hopping, moving, and on antipatory pre-emptive actions. It does not directly offer an explanation for the workings of the Alexander Technique.[12]

Kathleen Ballard

Kathleen Ballard regards postural reflexes as relevant for understanding the workings of the Alexander Technique.

  • ‘The Alexander Technique and postural reflexes’ by Kathleen Ballard. With reference to T. D. M. Roberts’ work on postural mechanism, Ballard discusses in particular the activation of muscle spindles when there is weight on the feet.[13]
  • ‘The nature and behaviour of postural support systems and improvement of their performance by a rational approach – The Alexander Technique’ by Kathleen Ballard.[14]
  • ‘Postural reflexes’ by Hariklia Gounari reports on a workshop by Kathleen Ballard.[15]

David Garlick

David Garlick proposed in his ‘The Garlick report’ reasons for suggesting that ‘when we stop interfering with our anti-gravity reflexes, by inhibiting unnecessary contractions, then lengthening will occur.’[16]

Tim Cacciatore et al.

  • ‘Interference of posture on movement’ by Tim Cacciatore[17] summarises his paper ‘Neuromechanical interference of posture on movement: evidence from Alexander technique teachers rising from a chair’[18]. It concludes that the study 1. provides strong evidence that untrained adults cannot mimic AT teachers’ smooth sit-to-stand coordination, 2. provides a plausible mechanism whereby leg and trunk stiffness explain the abrupt coordination of untrained adults just before lift-off, 3. suggests that the AT affects movement coordination through postural stiffness, and 4. provides basic evidence that the postural system can interfere with movement coordination.

Ian Loram et al.

‘Proactive selective inhibition targeted at the neck muscles: This proximal constraint facilitates learning and regulates global control’ by Ian D. Loram, et al. [19] studied violinists performing unskilled and skilled manual tasks, while providing ultrasound feedback of the neck muscles with instruction to minimise neck muscle change during task performance. ‘Analysis of ultrasound, kinematic, electromyographic and electrodermal recordings showed that proactive inhibition targeted at neck muscles had an indirect global effect reducing the cost of movement, reducing complex involuntary, task-irrelevant movement patterns and improving balance.’[20] It concluded that ‘voluntary regulation of the neck muscles has a global regulatory benefit. Specifically, proactive-selective inhibition of the neck muscles inhibits unnecessary anticipatory, transient and sustained out-put, improves global balance and reduces cost.’[21]

This paper was presentend at a seminar which was reported in two articles:

  • ‘Scientific evidence for the primary control’ by Christine Rapley reports on a seminar presented by Ian Loram, Alison Loram, Brain Bate and Pink Burnicle, on their paper ‘Proactive selective inhibition targeted at the neck muscles: This proximal constraint facilitates learning and regulates global control’.[22]
  • ‘A welcome investigation’ by Peter Ribeaux concludes that the paper ‘Proactive selective inhibition targeted at the neck muscles: This proximal constraint facilitates learning and regulates global control’ confirms three hypotheses: 1. Neck muscle movement can be regulated voluntarily while maintaining task performance. 2. There is a causal relationship between voluntary regulation of neck muscles and global control of movement. 3. Proactive-selective inhibition targeted at the neck muscles reduces the cost of movement.[23]

Rajal G. Cohen, et al.

‘Neck posture is influenced by anticipation of stepping’ by Rajal G. Cohen, et al. is a study where habitual head forward posture was measured in 45 young adults standing quietly and when they anticipated walking to place a tray: also in conditions requiring that they bend low or balance an object on the tray. The neck angle relative to torso increased when participants anticipated movement, particularly for more difficult movements. Inhibitory control was measured using a Go/No-Go task, Stroop task, and Mindful Attention Awareness Scale. False alarms on the Go/No-Go task correlated with a more extended head relative to the neck and with shortening of the neck when anticipating movement. It was concluded that maintaining neutral posture may require inhibition of an impulse to put the head forward of the body when anticipating target-directed movement.[24]

Other writings

  • ‘The role of reflexes in normal human movement’ by Ronald Dennis describes and compares the physiologists T. A. Easton and T. D. M. Roberts on the role of reflexes. Easton’s statement (in 1972) that reflexes ‘may very probably underlie all or most volitional movements in man . . .’ is contrasted with Roberts’ statement (in 1982) that ‘The role of the reflexes [in motor control] may be seen as that of prompts in the early learning of how best to deal with adverse changes in the environment. As the nervous system matures, the superior timing of the newly acquired “anticipatory pre-emptive actions” has the consequence that the conditions for eliciting pure reflex responses are seldom allowed to arise.’[25]
  • ‘Measurement science and the Alexander Technique’ by Neil Roberts on using MRI to study the AT and to measure its effects, for example changes in brain MRI when having directed hands on the head.[26]
  • Neurodynamics by Theodore Dimon Jr. explains the workings of the Technique in terms of a positing the existence of a ‘postural neuromuscular reflex system’, a ‘central organizing principle in movement’,[27] which works by the triggering of stretch reflexes which brings about tonus and hence postural support.[28]
  • ‘Alexander Technique phenomena’ by Patrick Johnson considers the language used to describe the Technique, on the importance of separating observation from explanation, separating scientific explanation from what is useful pedagogically, and avoiding jargon.[29]
  • ‘Science catches up: Alexander Technique principles and 21st century research’ by Rajal G. Cohen considers some classical concepts of the Technique, such as mechanical advantage, direction, inhibition, primary control, endgaining, faulty sensory appreciation, from a scientific viewpoint, relating what explanations and descriptions scientific research can propose for each concept.[30]
  • ‘Potential Mechanisms of the Alexander Technique: Toward a Comprehensive Neurophysiological Model’ by Timothy W. Cacciatore, et al. brings together published research in suggesting the most comprehensive proposal to date for the underlying physiological mechanisms of the Alexander Technique. The authors propose that the core changes brought about by Alexander Technique training are improvements in the adaptivity and distribution of postural tone, along with changes in body schema, and that these changes underlie many of the reported benefits. They suggest that the Technique alters tone and body schema via spatial attention and executive processes, which in turn affect low-level motor elements. To engage these pathways, the Technique strategically engages attention, intention, and inhibition, along with haptic communication. The uniqueness of the approach comes from the way these elements are woven together.[31]
  • ‘The science of inhibition and end-gaining’ by Patrick Johnson describes how the words inhibition and end-gaining are broadly used by teachers of the Technique today, how scientists are describing executive inhibition and some assoicated executive functions, and describes some recent scientific experiments that involve inhibition and end-gaining.[32]

See also The science of the Alexander Technique, Rudolf Magnus’ research, George Coghill’s research, Wilfred Barlow’s research, Frank P. Jones’ research, David Garlick’s research, Christopher Stevens’ research, Tim Cacciatore’s research.

References

[1] ‘The function of the sub-occipital muscles’ by Dr. A. Murdoch. Paper read 1936, published by the author as a booklet in 1937. Also in A Means To An End – Articles and Letters on the Alexander Technique 1909–1955 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2015), pp. 251–64.
[2] The Alexander Principle by Wilfred Barlow (Gollancz, 1973), p. 55, see also p. 57.
[3] ‘Psychophysical reeducation and the postural reflexes’ by F. P. Jones in Collected Writings on the Alexander Technique by Frank P. Jones. Edited by Theodore Dimon Jr. (Alexander Technique Archives, Inc., 1998), pp. 55–63.
[4] ‘Psychophysical reeducation and the postural reflexes’ by F. P. Jones in Collected Writings on the Alexander Technique by Frank P. Jones. Edited by Theodore Dimon Jr. (Alexander Technique Archives, Inc., 1998), p. 60.
[5] ‘A method for changing stereotyped response patterns by the inhibition of certain postural sets’ by F. P. Jones in Psychological Review vol. 72, 1965, pp. 196–214. Also in Collected Writings on the Alexander Technique by Frank P. Jones. Edited by Theodore Dimon Jr. (Alexander Technique Archives, Inc., 1998), pp. 249–76.
[6] ‘An experimental study of the Alexander Technique’ by F. P. Jones in Stud. Med. vol. 35, 2 April 1971, pp. 699–702. Also in Collected Writings on the Alexander Technique by Frank P. Jones. Edited by Theodore Dimon Jr. (Alexander Technique Archives, Inc., 1998), pp. 329–37.
[7] Towards a Physiology of the F. M. Alexander Technique by Christopher Stevens (Author, 1995).
[8] Towards a Physiology of the F. M. Alexander Technique by Christopher Stevens (Author, 1995), p. 99.
[9] Towards a Physiology of the F. M. Alexander Technique by Christopher Stevens (Author, 1995), p. 100.
[10] Neurophysiology of Postural Mechanisms by T. D. M. Roberts (Butterworths, 1967, 1978).
[11] Understanding Balance by Tristan D. M. Roberts (Chapman & Hall, 1995).
[12] ‘Balance and gravity’ by Tris Roberts in Direction vol. 2, no. 1 edited by Jeremy Chance (Fyncot Pty Ltd., 1993), pp. 21–27.
[13] ‘The Alexander Technique and postural reflexes’ by Kathleen Ballard in The Congress Papers 1988: Towards Unity edited by Jeremy Chance (Direction, 1994), pp. 35–39. Also in Direction vol. 1, no. 5 edited by Jeremy Chance (Fyncot Pty Ltd., 1989), pp. 171–74.
[14] ‘The nature and behaviour of postural support systems and improvement of their performance by a rational approach – The Alexander Technique’ by Kathleen Ballard in Performing Arts Medicine News vol. 3 no. 2 (BAPAM, September 1995), pp. 41–47.
[15] ‘Postural reflexes’ by Hariklia Gounari in STATNews vol. 4, no. 10 edited by Malcolm Williamson (STAT, September 1994), pp. 14–15.
[16] ‘The Garlick report’ by David Garlick in Direction vol. 2, no. 1 edited by Jeremy Chance (Fyncot Pty Ltd., 1993), p. 6.
[17] ‘Interference of posture on movement’ by Tim Cacciatore in STATNews vol. 8, no. 7 edited by Jamie McDowell (STAT, September 2014), pp. 17–18.
[18] ‘Neuromechanical interference of posture on movement: evidence from Alexander technique teachers rising from a chair’ by T. W. Cacciatore, O. S. Mian, A. Peters, B. L. Day in Journal of Neurophysiology vol. 112, no. 3, pp. 719–29 (1 August 2014).
[19] ‘Proactive selective inhibition targeted at the neck muscles: This proximal constraint facilitates learning and regulates global control’ by Ian D. Loram, Brian Bate, Pete Harding, Ryan Cunningham, Alison Loram in IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering volume 25, issue 4, April 2017, p. 357–69.
[20] ‘Proactive selective inhibition targeted at the neck muscles: This proximal constraint facilitates learning and regulates global control’ by Ian D. Loram, Brian Bate, Pete Harding, Ryan Cunningham, Alison Loram in IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering volume 25, issue 4, April 2017, pp. 357.
[21] ‘Proactive selective inhibition targeted at the neck muscles: This proximal constraint facilitates learning and regulates global control’ by Ian D. Loram, Brian Bate, Pete Harding, Ryan Cunningham, Alison Loram in IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering volume 25, issue 4, April 2017, pp. 368.
[22] ‘Scientific evidence for the primary control’ by Christine Rapley in STATNews vol. 9, no. 9 edited by Jamie McDowell (STAT, January 2018), pp. 12–14.
[23] ‘A welcome investigation’ by Peter Ribeaux in STATNews vol. 9, no. 9 edited by Jamie McDowell (STAT, January 2018), pp. 14–15.
[24] ‘Neck posture is influenced by anticipation of stepping’ by Rajal G. Cohen, Jason L. Baera, Anita Vasavada in Human Movement Science, vol. 64, (April 2019), pp. 108–122.
[25] ‘The role of reflexes in normal human movement’ by Ronald Dennis in The Alexander Review vol. 4, no. 1 (Centerline Press, 1990), pp. 64–72. Also in Alexander Revisited – Contemplation & Criticism 1979-2014 by Ron Dennis (Alexander Technique of Atlanta, 2014), p. 185.
[26] ‘Measurement science and the Alexander Technique’ by Neil Roberts in Conference Papers – 6th International Conference for Alexander teachers working in Music Institutions edited by Malcolm Williamson (Malcolm Williamson, 2006), pp. 44–49.
[27] Neurodynamics by Theodore Dimon Jr. (North Atlantic Books, 2015), p. 3.
[28] Neurodynamics by Theodore Dimon Jr. (North Atlantic Books, 2015).
[29] ‘Alexander Technique phenomena’ by Patrick Johnson in The Alexander Journal no. 27 edited by Paul Marsh and Jamie McDowell (STAT, 2019), pp. 33–38.
[30] ‘Science catches up: Alexander Technique principles and 21st century research’ by Rajal G. Cohen in The Congress Papers 2018, Advancing Global Perspectives edited by Paul Marsh (STAT Books, 2019), pp. 15–33.
[31] ‘Potential Mechanisms of the Alexander Technique: Toward a Comprehensive Neurophysiological Model’ by Timothy W. Cacciatore, Patrick M. Johnson, and Rajal G. Cohen in Kinesiology Review (Ahead of Print), August 2020, https://doi.org/10.1123/kr.2020-0026
[32] ‘The science of inhibition and end-gaining’ by Patrick Johnson in The Alexander Journal no. 28 edited by Paul Marsh and Jamie McDowell (STAT, 2021), pp. 40–56.
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