Integrating what? Bodies? Or reflexes and intentions?

Another orphaned page on my site, that I thought I’d integrate, so to speak, into the blog.

Body and Mature BehaviorA fellow practitioner suggested to me reading Chapter 7 of Body and Mature Behavior alongside the lesson AY217, On the side, the sternum becoming flexible, while we were discussing it on Feldyforum (Feldenkrais practitioners’ mailing list). It’s a delightful lens for this lesson. Many ways over.

First he starts that chapter talking about creating stability between the chest and pelvis as a precondition of any action — “the stability of the whole body relative to the ground should be increased in the plane in which work is to be done.”

So I’m happy just to take that sentence and do the whole lesson again, filling in commentary for myself around that.

When this point was raised, we had been analyzing this lesson in terms of where we go into extension, flexion, side-bending, rotation. The reference movement is extension in rotation. Then we sidebend and flex in rotation. Then we extend further. Then we flex in a less extreme rotation. Then we come back to the extension and rotation of the reference movement. All well and good.

But this comment all by itself transforms all that flexion and extension and sidebending: we see it along the axis of an imaginary standing body working in a plane, and ask about the creation of stability in that plane. When I lift my head in all these configurations, I am still lifting my head in a plane along this axis (while the sagittal plane of the spine itself is twisted and folded–can one describe it that way?). This takes us from the “manipulation” (internal organization of the movement–see Vary the lesson: orientation, manipulation, timing) to the person acting in gravity.

But that’s not the best of it. The rest of the chapter…too much detail for me to assimilate, and too many images of animals being tortured on this nice Saturday morning. But a broad outline I see goes like this (I lose not just details but main themes in summarizing, but what I get is enough to learn something, so here it is)…

He surveys many layers of reflexes and other mechanisms relating to keeping the head upright (for the human, along the tight central axis–certainly the theme of this lesson)…from spinal reflex, to brain stem activity (which itself only gives chronic contraction of extensors), to inner ear (balance), to proprioceptive feedback from neck muscles twisted and bent, to external sensory information of pressure against the surface, to orientation around the teleceptors. To summarize that list (hierarchy?):

  1. spinal reflex (e.g. withdrawal of limb from heat)
  2. brainstem reflexes (antigravity–standing upright–chronic extensor contraction, without moderation from higher brain activity)
  3. vestibular/inner ear (the information that feeds the reflexes (or the preference?) to take head to vertical, be able to survey the environment with the eyes, etc)
  4. tonic neck reflexes (among other things, if not moderated, turning head to a given side results in extension of that limb; also, information from the twisted neck passes the news along to bring the rest of the body to support the head and undo its twist, to bring the pelvis under, therefore again freeing the head/neck for these purposes of perceiving and relating to the environment…)
  5. reflexes relating to exteroceptive sensations–the rabbit that doesn’t right itself though vestibular reflexes (its inner ear having been tortured in some way) will right itself just because of how it feels the floor.
  6. then the conscious control–a monkey without all that can right its head if it is focussed on something with its eyes…and a human by looking, by decision…

After reading this, I think of the position of this lesson less as a “constraint” and more as a freedom–the freedom of humans to be in any position (not a preferred posture to which we return by reflex like the bunny in the youtube below) and lift the head to the horizon as organized by the teleceptors
and our conscious intention.

(This is an important point in itself. “Amongst ourselves” as practitioners we talk of positions in the lessons as “constraints”. You hear that language a lot on the Open ATM Project. I tend not to use it while teaching–it gives the wrong feeling. Yes, the position invites and even compels a certain organization of the movement, and finding and exploiting such positions is part of the genius of the method. But call it a “constraint” and the students will start acting constrained, rather than freed. You can go through this lesson and think about how the “constraint” makes you do certain particular things along the spine. Or you can think that we are exploiting the enormous freedom of the human skeleton to do all this.)

But back to motor control and reflexes. With this list in mind, now the lesson is just one gigantic complicated mess of layers of neurological control. As Moshe says, something has to determine, from that mass of input, what actual action will take place. This is integration.

The rabbit reflexes he describes on p. 61 are here on youtube…

The rabbit doesn’t quite cooperate with extending the forelimbs (maybe they aren’t isolating the movement in the neck enough?). And they don’t quite seem to have success getting it to lie on the side with pressure from both sides.

Now, having read this chapter, particularly this sentence (p. 62)…

“When the head has been righted and the body held in a lateral position, the neck is twisted. [I.e. the position of 217.] The proprioceptive nerve organs in the neck muscles, joints and tendons are stimulated and the thorax rights itself so as to untwist the head. The twist is now displaced to the lumbar joints, and the pelvis is righted as well by the proprioceptive stimulation arising from the lumbar region.”

“We see here the neck and lumbar-righting reflexes acting so that the body stands properly and follows the movements of the head.”

…I go back to the lesson and find it a symphony of actions addressing the lumbar spine and pelvis (as he suggests in 1a it will–“you will see that it does something very good to the whole body, to the pelvis and to the hips, and not just to the chest”)!

And I find the position of 3 and 4 (where you place the top leg above and in front of lower leg on floor) not so much something that undoes the twist and backs off the challenge, making it easier, but something that inhibits passing the extension down the spine to the lumbar joints and pelvis, actually something that makes it more challenging. It primes me to make that connection when I go back to having the top leg resting on the bottom. (This is a common technique we use: lifting your head is easier if the pelvis helps. Rather than telling you that directly, we take the pelvis help away and then give it back: voila, you discover it yourself.)

So the lesson plays not “just” on the biomechanical, but on the neurological connections…

The “popping” of the head to turn further when we turn the sternum by our fingers (5b and 7) shows us the purpose of this neurological connection that passes the twist down the spine to undo the neck: the freedom of the head and neck is regained.

Somehow now this all feels like a preparation to use the arm to turn further and lift the head in 8c and 9a….until the twist is passed down the spine and the lumbar spine (hips) are involved, the arm/shoulders aren’t free to help the head go further into this twist/extension.

And then in 10, we push the sternum down and flatten the ribcage…we moderate the attitudinal interference with righting the head, the anxiety pattern of contracted abdominal muscles.

The whole conversation had started with analyzing the lesson as the acts of a play. So to sum the lesson up that way, here it is:

So now I’m experiencing the acts and scenes of 217 as all about addressing the abdominals/lumbar spine (the flexibility of the sternum is not only relative to the spine, as important as that is, but relative to the pelvis) of the person who wants to lift their head to the vertical around their axis, to see and be free.

So Act I Scene 1 gives the challenge (1 & 2). Can you look back over your shoulder and bring your head into the vertical, while lying on your side? The hidden key (the neurological relation to the pelvis, as the proprioceptive input from the neck’s twist makes you want to bring your pelvis underneath/undo the twist from below) is in the background.

Act II Scene 1 (3 & 4): Completely remove the hidden key from the scene (the pelvis fixed with the top leg on the floor in front: the reflex is more or less blocked now). We haven’t given up the attempt at the challenge, but is now more in the wilderness than ever. Because being in the wilderness creates the opportunity for the realization of what is truly essential.

Scene 2 (5 & 6/7): The opposite organization: to lift the head to look to the extended arm, is a big abdominal organization and differentiation. Big differentiation because the obliques that would pull the trunk in one direction must completely stop (to let the sternum slide away) and the other obliques must completely work (to lift the head to look towards the outstretched hand). Here addressing the “attitudinal” layer: the chronic misuse of the abdominals. Having discovered the essential, we make use of it for something completely different, and clarify and differentiate. This is lateral flexion, not in the big sidebending sense (after all, the instruction is to take the ear to the shoulder, not to take the whole shoulder girdle to the side, and sidebend the ribcage, as we will see in 218), but in the sense of lengthening the muscles on one side of the abdomen while using the others–but in flexion in a twist, not in side-bending.

Scene 3 (8 & 9): Returning to the challenge, and now helping with the hand–the greater turning of the shoulders and the sternum sliding up related directly to letting the abdomen protrude.

Act III: Scene 1 (10): Cleaning up the attitudinal layer and coming closer to the heart, the centre, the axis: going with the pattern by sliding the sternum down. This addresses more the rectus abdominus, it gets more central: we do both sides in one “step,” just turning the legs from one side to the other. A lateral flex/twist that is closer to the midline than in Act II.

By “attitudinal layer,” I mean the body pattern of contracting the flexors, related to anxiety. See Anxiety as fear of falling.

Scene 2 (10 c & 11) And return to the challenge. Now you really are able to “strain the back” to lift the head with the abdomen coming forward. The hidden key is clear and available.

Another option for learning: perhaps at the beginning, one has no flexibility in the ribs and completely over-recruits the lumbar spine to lift the head, via this reflex. The lesson will also work for that person, creating many new possibilities in the ribcage to distribute the movement all along the spine.

On the recommendation of beginning on the back and bringing the head to vertical

This bit of discussion is an orphaned page on my website, so I thought I’d move it into the blog.

In Chapter 13 of The Potent Self (“The means at our disposal”) and a similar passage in Body and Mature Behaviour (in the chapter “Tonic adjustment”), Moshe discusses the question: how do we effect change in deeply held patterns of action? The deep unity of body and mind seems an impediment to change, from an empiricist perspective: I can only think what I have already experienced, and so cannot even imagine the change I have to make.

But this paradox is dissolved by “active learning.” By “forming new patterns of body configuration” we create new experiences; as we integrate the relevant sensory perception and muscular activity, we create new possibilities for action, and ones that (because they are learned experientially and not intellectually, body up and not head down) are readily available in real-world, real-time action. This is unlike the conscious creation of new habits: if I repeat a new pattern (“draw shoulder blade back and down as I lift arm”) by conscious rehearsal, I lose the action when I cannot talk myself through it. (Or I do succeed in making it subconscious, but it becomes an entirely “stupid” subconscious habit, invoked at the slightest stimulus, whether I want it or not.)

This process Moshe is proposing can shift those habits that are subconscious in the sense of being so omnipresent that we are unaware of them: for example, the habit of clenching the jaw that we don’t even feel until it stops. And it can also change habits that are subconscious in the sense that they belong to our vegetative functions: for example, the way the bronchi contract spasmodically for an asthmatic. For the latter, a more indirect approach is necessary.

But here is a barrier: in order to usefully derive new sensations from these new body configurations created by the lesson, the person must start as far as possible from their habitual self-use. And this is especially true of that ground of action in the world that is the state of the extensors–the postural muscles that keep us upright (sitting, standing) as we act.

So lowering the effort of the extensors is an essential first step to the work. We do this by doing so much of our work lying down. But we can also start with certain lessons that address directly and mitigate the chronic contraction of the neck and lumbar spine extensors. In these two passages of his books, he describes the simple act of lying on your back, knees bent and feet standing, arms alongside, and head lifted to the vertical. The engagement of the flexors will (by inhibition of antagonist muscles) lengthen the extensors of the neck and lumbar regions. In the books he describes the process in detail (pp. 120-126 of Body and Mature Behaviour, and Pp. 135-144 of The Potent self, if you have the books or can see these pages on Google Books).

I was a little puzzled in reading these because there is no ATM quite like this. But on further reflection, I do see that the training program I took placed a strong emphasis in the first two weeks on similar lessons, though lifting the head with the help of the arms–but progressing, as the description of “The Potent Self” passage recommends, to rolling up to sit through the sagittal plane.

So what does this have to do with AY 177 Making the spine flexible and integrating it? Moshe notes in these two books that if you have problems in the neck or are too contracted in the extensors, you will not be able to bring your head to the vertical and use your spine properly to support your head, so you will suffer instead of feeling relief through this.

So 177 seems to me a very ingenious mild form of what is recommended in The Potent Self and Body and Mature Behaviour. These passages emphasize using the flexor muscles as antigravity muscles (reversing the roles of the neck flexors and extensors); without going all the way to using the flexors to hold the head upright, we turn face down and use the flexors to lift the spine and draw the head along the floor, also an anti-gravitational use of the flexors.

If you would like to continue with this theme, as recommended by the books, Check out Rolling to Sit, Part 1, Rolling to Sit, Part 2, and Pelvis and Neck.

Meanwhile, stay tuned, and I’ll attempt a blow-by-blow analysis of 177.

How intelligent is behaviourist learning?

If you read my (annual? are they that frequent?) posts on this blog, you know that I puzzle about the extent to which Moshe is a behaviourist, and the extent to which I think this is or isn’t an adequate approach to a) human learning and b) the kind of learning we do in Feldenkrais.

It so happens that in the other 9/10ths of my life teaching bioethics, I also have an open bucket in the back of my head that is the question set: “what presuppositions and blindspots might there be in stories about learning as routinization, which are common in the critical thinking literature in medicine; and what are the prospects and pitfalls for extending these accounts of critical thinking to critical thinking about ethical and social issues in medicine?”

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, here is an overview of philosophical perspectives on behaviourism:

The New York Times Magazine has an article this weekend: How Companies Learn Your Secrets. It’s an interesting read for many reasons, but specifically related to behaviourism and learning, I was struck by its summary of the history of thinking about habit formation.

It first tells a story of rat learning. When I was reading the story about rat learning, I was imagining very active and curious rats, with creative strategies for approaching situations that contain unknowns, and with definite goals and interests. A more limited set, certainly, than humans (food, presumably some companionship at least with other rats…). They ‘generate hypotheses,’ try out going this, that and the other way in search of the chocolate. Gradually, and intelligently, they discard things that don’t work, and focus in on, repeat, perhaps even refine, and extend things that do work. Sounds like active, intelligent, goal-direction learning to me. And on such an account of learning, imagine how much richer and more complex the process would be if carried out by creatures with a broader range of goals, an ability to share strategies for innovation and gather feedback socially, and so on (like humans).

The author returns a few paragraphs below to parse the outcome of that history. The story now is: What we know is that people repeat behaviours more if they are rewarded for doing so. This is how habits are formed. In this summary, all of the sudden, it matters only minimally what the person wants or is trying to do. It matters minimally that the person has to be active and creative in generating options for how to achieve what they want. It matters minimally that the person has to have any kind of refined awareness of the world and of themselves in order to gather the right lessons in the feedback loop.

These struck me as radically different views of the process of learning. From another perspective, are they just two descriptions, at two different levels, of the “same” phenomena? Certainly, the latter focuses on the “steady state” after learning has taken place, when behaviour has been routinized. But the fact that we gravitate to the image (part metaphor, part deployment of what we understand goes on in myelination) that pathways are laid down and then strengthened, rather than the understanding that options are generated, tested, and then selectively discarded (which is what the neuroimaging studies may be metaphorically deployed to suggest), construes it as a rote process that could well be externally imposed, rather than an internal, creative, and intelligent process of negotiating self and world.

Lost the theme

Sigh. This is why I tell you drupal (the Content Management System on which this site is built) isn’t for amateurs. My theme stopped working after a security upgrade. I don’t know if I’ll take the time to retrieve my historical colours.

Which side?

Sometimes a lesson is entirely on one side. If it alternates sides, there is still a choice that has been made to start on one side or the other.

One principle at work in this is to start where the person is at, and explore what they already do best: we typically start with the side that has an easier time with whatever it is we’re exploring–movement, transmission of force, connection, etc.

But the choice of side in ATM has to be for everyone at once; even in choosing for the individual, there may be a tendency or pattern that individuals share with others.

In “The Elusive Obvious,” Moshe writes about this (pp. 75-77). The general theme of these pages seems to be how he independently and through his own work with people discovered things that others only discovered through large scientific research programs. These passages always involve a lot of name dropping. Very endearing.

He describes how, early in his use of ATM and FI during WW II, he would work exclusively on one side, in order to create a large contrast in feeling between the two sides, and therefore a situation in which a person would learn from him or herself, comparing the sensation of the sides and transferring the learning from the side that was active during the lesson to the side that had been passive. This discovery somehow anticipated, he thinks (as Bronowski explained to him), how the use of stochastic strategies in foraging (in evolutionary theory), requires an internal feeling/preference for the optimal. A quick google doesn’t immediately bring me to any connection between random walk theory and internal preferences, so I don’t know whether that idea Bronowski explained to Feldenkrais is still current.

But then, Moshe says, he gradually discovered that some things could be learned more easily on one side, and some on the other. This difference is not obvious: one wouldn’t notice it until many years in the work. He describes this as his independent discovery of brain lateralization.

Fine differentiation is learned more easily on the right side (hence left hemisphere), and he connects this to the idea that all “learned purely human activities” are left-hemisphere activities.

The left side (hence right hemisphere) can be used in a different strategy–to “build up” the movement and its mental representation, Moshe says. And lists of lateralized function may place spatial manipulation in the right hemisphere.

The left side (right hemisphere) learns more quickly and efficiently from the right–I guess that it grasps the “gestalt” from the right and hence learns in a more holistic way the function that was learned more analytically on the right. It learns “greater fluency and ease”, which he connects specifically to how hard the first side worked to learn, but my sense is that he means also that, however “hard” each side works, the point is that they work differently. The eighth lesson in the book ATM discusses and demonstrates this idea (and indeed works on the right side first, and then the left side in imagination).

I’ve not paid attention much in the past when people talk about brain lateralization in relation to what we’re doing in Feldenkrais, partly because the very idea of localization in the brain is still so much in development, and subject to fundamental puzzles–and the lateralization area is subject to “just so” stories (a phrase usually used when talking about how evolutionary theory can make up a story to explain things whose real sources lie in social assumptions and biases). Simplified popularizations proliferate.

Even if I were to integrate more thinking about lateralization into how I think about the work, I am dubious about how Moshe layers his idea of “learned purely human activities” onto the science. I would assume that non-human animals are accomplishing things with their left hemispheres, and that there is distinctly human learning involving the right hemisphere (pragmatics, context, prosody–these are things the Wikipedia article assigns, with much hedging, to the right hemisphere). I’m agnostic at the moment about Moshe’s broader story about handedness/specialization of function by side/lateralization being distinctly human and essential for language.

I’m used to thinking about a distinction between standing / extension / transmission of force / balance (usually left side) and folding / fine manipulation (usually right side). This passage inspires me to think more about quality of movement and learning on each side, beyond the more narrow functions I’ve just described.

Dominant leg

A significant proportion of google hits on my site come from people looking to find out which is the dominant leg.

How people write and think about the dominant leg is fascinating. At one end, there’s a lot of “common sense” that is nonsense. Like the article summary on this website–your top google hit for “dominant leg.” At the other end, there’s recent scientific frameworks and data that are quite consistent with ideas that, for Feldenkrais practitioners, are as “common sense” as the idea that, in standing, one’s head is generally above one’s feet.

People’s “dominant leg” as the literature defines it is usually their right leg. It’s not related to left and right handedness. It’s also not their dominant leg for the reasons you think it is.

All over the web, people say “you take longer steps with your right leg, because it’s your stronger leg.” No one who thinks about movement or senses what goes on in themselves could think such a thing.

Is the strength of the right leg showing itself in how high you lift your knee? How wide an angle you can make as you open your knee joint to set foot on the ground again? As you step forward? Is that how you walk? Poppycock. The foot you step forward onto is the foot that’s in the air as you generate your step! What does its strength have to do with anything? If you step farther with your right leg, it would have to do with your left leg specializing in pushing off–in carrying force and transmitting it along the long axis of the leg, into a body that is accustomed to organizing itself around that secure balance and straight-forward push-off.

In Feldenkrais, we become extremely familiar through day-in day-out observation and practice with the way that we specialize: one leg, usually the left, for balance, and one leg, usually the right, for fine manipulation. That generally translates along the whole side of the body to a higher tonicity in the extensors (muscles opening the joints against gravity) on the left, and higher tonicity in the flexors (muscles of folding the joints) on the right.

This is our Feldenkraisian classification of flexors and extensors, by the way; I don’t think it’s the same as how the rest of the world thinks of it. Generally, one says flexors close joints and extensors open them. Not sure how that all spells out. I’ll think about that another day.

Get someone to photograph you lying flat on the floor; then draw a line along your nose and through the middle of your chin; continue down, and there’s the leg you like to stand on, and the other leg, probably lying out from the midline, and with the foot turned further out, is your “dominant” leg. And, by the way, are your fingers slightly more curled under on that side? Your knee or wrist slightly higher off the floor?

This stuff is in the research: google scholar it, and you see that bone mineral density is higher in the “non-dominant” leg, which specializes in balance and propulsion in walking; muscle mass is greater in the “dominant.” I haven’t seen this, but we’d predict that slow-twitch muscles fibers (postural) are more numerous on the “non-dominant” leg, and fast twitch on the “dominant”.

What I can’t do for you is confirm that people walk in circles in a way influenced by leg dominance when deprived of other sensory reference points. Someone finally tested this idea experimentally, and while we do walk in circles, and tighter ones that you’d expect, there is no consistent tendency to one direction or another. Jan Souman studied this. The graphics are lovely if you can see them (behind paywall?). Watch this NPR video from Robert Krulich, and listen to the interview with Jan Souman.

As a practitioner who thinks always of one leg, usually the left, as specializing in the fundamental job our legs have to do–accept our weight as we balance and move in gravity–I can’t convince myself to call that leg the “non-dominant” leg. But if you think that the main function of a leg is to kick a soccer ball, and the right leg has stronger muscles or better refined control with which to do that, then okay, call it dominant!

I like the way that Phil Wagner puts it on the Sparta Sport Science blog: “…the majority of studies support that your left leg is the side of choice for strength or balancing needs, whether it be the plant foot before kicking, the takeoff foot for jumping, or the front leg of a baseball swing to stop rotation. …Since this left leg is used for stability, the right leg supports more fine motor coordination, such as providing the right “touch” when striking a soccer ball. …There is no dominant leg, just preferred sequences and feet for your specific sport’s movements.”

On falling asleep in class

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.)

Cut to the chase: sleepiness in class

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!

Why lesson analysis?

The structure of the DIY ATM section of the website encourages you to try out Feldenkrais ATM lessons and to move very quickly into making them your own — trying out variations and relating them to different principles.

This is a good process, and yet there’s something more at work in a Feldenkrais ATM, beyond trying out variations on a theme. Those variations are in service of improving the integration of layers of reflex and conscious neuromuscular control into effective action, involving the whole person. So for my own study I’m working on getting deeper into Feldenkrais’s lessons and understanding the way their variations are structured around specific ideas about these layers of neurological control. The rotes of this process are below. Most of them are discussions of lessons posted or this site.

Pour ceux qui peuvent lire en français…

At , Yveline Cyazinski, a French psychoanalyst, philosopher (and poet), is engaged in a wonderful project of questioning Feldenkrais orthodoxy about the word (and analytic orthodoxy about the body). I often bemoan the Feldenkrais community’s opposition to an “analytic” approach because I believe thought and conceptualization have a role in learning and in the method–Yveline, if I understand it, is questioning the community’s opposition to an “analytic” approach in the sense that we deny that psychological, and linguistically-mediated, dynamics such as transference and countertransference play a role in the method–especially in Functional Integration.

In her first post on her blog, she writes:

Avec mes racines analytiques, et mon expérience en cours d’élève dans le champ de recherche empirique de l’éducation somatique de Feldenkrais, je voudrais montrer que l’opposition systématique entre une théorie analytique “dogmatique” excluant le corps, et une philosophie du corps excluant le langage, est une façon de résister à ce concept de “chair” défini par Merleau- Ponti….

Or, in my very poor translation: With my [psycho-]analytic roots, and my experience as a student in this form of empirical investigation that is Feldenkrais’s somatic education, I would like to demonstrate that the systematic opposition between a dogmatic analytic theory that excludes the body, and a philosophy of the body that excludes language, constitutes a way of resisting the concept of “flesh” defined by Merleau-Ponty…

My French is terribly rusty, so I may have misunderstood anything and everything, but I am giving it a try!