Stimulus and response

F. M. Alexander regards the organism as receiving stimuli to which it is capable of responding.

Generally, a stimulus is a object or an event which has the potential to evoke a response from an organism. A stimulus may be from within the organism (a feeling, a thought) or from without (touch, sound, etc.)

There are subtle differences in definitions between different branches of psychology, but Alexander was only interested in the general idea for practical purposes.

F. M. Alexander

Alexander uses the ‘stimulus-response’ model to illustrate the psychophysical unity of the organism, in CCC:

First, for every form of psycho-physical activity there must be a stimulus. In considering the response to this stimulus, I would remind my readers that I do not separate ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ operations (manifestations) in my conception of the manner (‘means-whereby’) of the functioning of the human organism. For how can we prove that the response to any stimulus is wholly ‘physical’ or wholly ‘mental’?[1]

And in UoS:

Human activity is primarily a process of reacting unceasingly to stimuli received from within or without the self. The first breath taken by a newly born child is a reaction to a stimulus to the respiratory centre, and the child remains a living organism only so long as it is capable of receiving stimuli and of reacting to them. No human being can receive a stimulus except through the sensory mechanisms, and supposing one could prevent the sensory mechanisms from receiving a stimulus, no reaction would be possible and therefore no further activity. Life itself would then cease.

When once it is recognized that every act is a re-action to a stimulus received through the sensory mechanisms, no act can be described as wholly ‘mental’ or wholly ‘physical’.[2]

How the organism is being used and how it is functioning at the point of receiving the stimulus determines how the organism will respond:

Now psycho-physical activity is simply the response to some stimulus (or stimuli) received through the channel of the senses, of hearing, for instance, of sight, touch, feeling, etc., and the nature of the resulting conception and of the response, or psycho-physical reaction, will be determined by the standard of psycho-physical functioning present. It then follows that the process of conception, like all other forms of psycho-physical activity, is a process the course of which is determined by our psycho-physical condition at the time when the particular stimulus (or stimuli) is received.[3]

The importance of being able to refuse to respond to a stimulus (or stimuli) is central to the Alexander Technique, as he wrote in UCL:

My technique is based on inhibition, the inhibition of undesirable, unwanted responses to stimuli, and hence it is primarily a technique for the development of the control of human reaction.[4]


The reader will now see that the technique is based upon the inhibition of the habitual wrong use – i.e., the refusal to react to a stimulus in the usual way – and that the principle of prevention is strictly adhered to from the beginning.[5]

And, famously, he is quoted for having said while teaching:

You come to learn to inhibit and to direct your activity. You learn, first, to inhibit the habitual reaction to certain classes of stimuli, and second, to direct yourself consciously in such a way as to affect certain muscular pulls, which processes bring about a new reaction to these stimuli. Boiled down, it all comes to inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus.[6]

UoS provides case histories (the golfer, the stutterer) which illustrates how Alexander would use the concepts of stimulus and response in his teaching.


Alexander also used the term ‘reaction’ as an alternative to ‘response’, frequently talking about the ‘manner of reaction’, i.e. how the organism is responding. For example in UCL:

The reason is that the way of employing oneself in activity is a matter of the manner of reaction, and the influence of this on the subject being observed is not taken into account by the student of physiology, for reaction means much more than muscle activity in any attempt to discover what constitutes a ‘normal working of the postural mechanisms’.[7]


‘A ring at the door’ by Dorothea Wallis uses the situation of responding to a doorbell to argue that the sound of the doorbell alone is not all there is to the stimulus; stimulus has to been seen in context. And that inhibition does not mean instantly conquering responses like fear and tension, but acknowledging their existence without letting them dominate.[8]

The concepts of stimulus and response are used loosely in the Alexander Technique literature, generally without any detailed discussion of meaning and implication (apart from ‘A ring at the door’).

The 2013 F. M. Alexander Memorial lecture, titled ‘Stimulus and response’, has not been published.

For a selection of F. M. Alexander quotations on stimulus, see the Mouritz Key Concepts Library.

See also Self, Conditioning.


[1] Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (Mouritz, 2004, London) p. 20.
[2] The Use of the Self by F. Matthias Alexander (Methuen, 1932, London) pp. 42-43.
[3] Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (Mouritz, 2004, London) p. 22.
[4] The Universal Constant in Living by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2000, London), p. 86-87.
[5] The Universal Constant in Living by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2000, London), pp. 81–82.
[6] ‘Teaching Aphorisms’ in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 1995, London), p. 204.
[7] The Universal Constant in Living by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2000, London), p. 104.
[8] ‘A ring at the door’ by Dorothea Wallis in The Alexander Journal no. 1 edited by Edward H. Owen (STAT, 1962), pp. 23-26. Also published as ‘Hide or Seek’ in More Talk of Alexander edited by Dr Wilfred Barlow (Mouritz, 2005 [1978]), pp. 144–48.