I’m reading a chapter of Body and Mature Behaviour, Moshe’s most scientific book, originally published by Routledge in 1949, reviewed at the time in the NEJM and the Quarterly Review of Biology.
I’m working through the chapter on Pavlovian conditioning (Chapter 6). It might seem that the process of conditioning a dog’s salivation is far from the kind of learning we do in Feldenkrais. Feldenkrais is about developing the capacity for a creative and attuned response to our environment, manifesting more clearly our intention, with elements of spontaneity and problem-solving, right? So what’s the path from reductionist behaviourism to what we do?
There’s a lot of thinking about this in what follows. This may invoke entirely different kinds of sleepiness in you. If you want to cut to the chase, get to the point, and experience a small epiphany about the relationship between doing Feldenkrais classes and feeling sleepy, click here.
In this chapter, Feldenkrais characterizes a reflex as a global response to a particular stimulus. He gives a familiar description of human perception and action from the behaviourists of his era: we experience an enormous range of sensory input, and respond to just a small select range of the stimuli we experience, and do so with only a limited range of reactions (cue the Quine, all you philosophers who inexplicably think he’s a brilliant and elegant writer, so would like to see his formulation of the point quoted here).
I’ve never bought this line–we have millions of nerve endings, and they fire or don’t fire, which already shrinks that supposedly rich input to a very thin gruel–unless the behaviourist is presupposing a great deal of what s/he claims to do without. If we think the stimuli coming in are infinitely rich (booming buzzing confusion, or vast array of heat and cold, hard and soft, smooth and rough, light and dark…much less anything richer than that), it’s because we presuppose a great deal of active synthesizing–or the whole actual richness of the world–or both. No matter–suffice to say that the world is full of lots of things, static and dynamic, and we react to a limited range of events around us, and each reaction, from some perspective or another, is one from a limited set of possible reactions, and a reaction of the whole person–or brain, or nervous system (three things, let’s leave it loose for now).
The idea that our range of our reactions is limited in comparison to the input is another one that only takes you as far as it takes you, by the way. What do you have to presuppose about human interests such that all instances of salivating are one and the same stereotyped reaction, and not a bunch of different individual instances, each as subtly differentiated from the others as from anything else, on a long continuum? How do you look at the immense range of things human beings do in reaction and relation to the world (music, art, dancing, painting, drawing, sculpture, science, worship, gossip, building, etc.) and claim that in comparison to the infinity of the world, the repertoire of human responses is limited? That’s not to say that assuming a limited set of responses (conditioned by the limited set of interests in the world that we presuppose–usually those relating to our understanding of biological function) is invalid, but transparency in our theorizing is a nice attribute.
This is something I don’t usually do, by the way–I take Feldenkrais experientially almost all the time, and don’t bother with applying philosophical analysis to his behaviourist and libertarian/individualist philosophy. You can get so much out of Feldenkrais without worrying about this. But then here’s the position I find myself in when I do engage more critically: since I reject his reductionism and his individualism, it looks to some like I present a stripped down version of the Method, one that is less ambitious in scope than what he claims for it. He claims it as a complete psychology. But he does so on the basis of a particular account of human psychology: a behaviourist one. So here I am, working inconclusively through my thoughts on this.
He wants to take the Pavlovian idea of conditioning existing responses to link them with new stimuli (from the food to the bell) as a model for learning in general, although on the face of it, there is a large gap between how unconditioned reflexes (blinking at the flash of a bright light, salivating on the sight/smell/taste of food) are harnessed as learned responses to new stimuli, and the development of voluntary action–which is where most of human learning and psychology lie. But for Feldenkrais this basic idea (of the conditioned response of the whole organism triggered by a single element in the environment) is his account of immature function, neuroticism, and general human eccentricity. It’s the place where his behaviourist psychology meets the more humanistic/new-age psychological idea that the wrong or neurotic or less than ideally productive response to a situation occurs because there’s some element in the situation that reminds us of e.g. some long-ago trauma, or our family of origin.
He doesn’t use the term ‘eccentricity’, by the way–he calls it ‘queerness’–long before queer theory or identity came along, of course, but it’s worth noting that this may all be heavily politically charged. Shall we start into a gender analysis of Moshe’s account of maturity vs. emotionality and human connection in community? Another day.
He has a neurological account of how this generalization only happens and/or matters when the situation is emotionally charged: if a stimulus and response are emotionally and relationally neutral, even if they are unpleasant or painful, nothing that distorts adjustment in the long run results. This is absolutely central to the debate in my head (and on Feldyforum) about more or less psychological interpretations of the Method, but I’m not going to focus on it right now. I’ll think about it some more another day.
Feldenkrais moves on in the chapter following this one (discussed here) to consider postural reflexes, which is a subset of human motor control and learning, and certainly a huge part of the Method–and in this chapter I’m now reading, one of the things he outlines is Pavlov’s toolbox for extinguishing or inhibiting habits, qua conditioning built on reflexes.
I think that the Method, like the Socratic one, needs to create a certain aporia in students–to rid us of our mistaken responses/ideas, so that new ones more intelligently attuned to intention and environment might emerge. So that’s how I’m reading this chapter–whether or not I buy the entire behaviourist and reductionist picture of human psychology, there is certainly a host of learning built on reflexes around managing ourselves in movement (as one of the four elements of action) in gravity, that Feldenkrais addresses, and in drawing on Pavlov, he’s developing an account of how to foster and inhibit particular responses to stimuli–particularly, how to inhibit. You can get a reasonable summary of these mechanisms on wikipedia’s article on (classical conditioning), or look up Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes itself on google books.
We’ll get to falling asleep in class soon. If you aren’t already asleep.
So in this chapter, Feldenkrais outlines how a conditioned response is set up, and how it is inhibited. There’s overlap here: a conditioned response is generalized and sloppy at first. The dog responds to any tone of bell, before figuring out which one is followed by food and refining his response to that particular one. I said ‘figuring out’, but this isn’t entirely about intellectual sloppiness: the excitement of neurons is messy in the brain, and all sorts of adjoining structures (not intellectually adjoining in the structure of ideas, but neurologically adjoining in the way that the genitals and toes happen to map next to one another in the sensory cortex etc.) get dragged into the action before the dog learns to inhibit the adjoining areas and have a more focussed response. So learning connections also involves differentiating and inhibiting (insert wisdom of the east, all action includes inaction, yin and yang, etc. here).
And how does unlearning a learned reaction happen? He talks about various mechanisms of inhibition. You can stop the dog salivating at the bell if you stop presenting the food after the bell. When you do that technique but with a trace reflex (a reflex that was conditioned with a long delay between stimulus and reward), you get the result that explains sleepiness in class.
(There’s a lot of other important discussion in this chapter about induction, and irradiation, and other mysteries of Feldenkrais, and I’m going to leave those to another day too.)
That’s all a long-winded way of getting to the topic so suggestively proposed in the title. What does this have to do with falling asleep in class?
Moshe talks about how, in learning a new habit a la Pavlov, the new habit is generalized first–the dog salivates at any pitch of bell it hears. But as the learning continues, the dog increasingly discriminates the details of the conditioned stimulus, and salivates only at the right pitch. And inhibition is the same, he says: when an animal is gradually inhibiting a response, particularly where that response is a trace reflex (relatively distant in time from the stimulus), there may be a stage of falling asleep, before the inhibition becomes more precise. The inhibition (like the excitation) is at first generalized–the whole system falls asleep–and later is more precise–the specific response that is being extinguished is inhibited.
So perhaps when a lesson is teaching you that you can (e.g.) lift your head without tightening your shoulders and neck and low back first to prepare, you may go through a stage when the inhibition you’re learning takes the form of a general drowsiness, or even sleep–before you refine that to the idea that it’s specifically your neck and shoulders and back extensors you can inhibit, when doing this particular action of raising your head.
Neat idea, I thought, when I read it!