Say It Ain’t So!

An interesting story in the news: human monogamy may have arisen to protect infants from being killed by male rivals. True or not, there’s a dark vein in there. After all, natural selection isn’t “for” anything. Evolution is just the outcome of successful ways of propagating genes. That means that monogamy just happens to be useful for the survival of the young ‘uns.

But think of this: it also means that the primates who kill babies don’t have any reason to do so. They do it just because. Sound familiar?

Human DNA — The Case for Copyright

The debate on patenting human genes went through some interesting rounds in the last years of the 20th century. In the links below, I took the position that entire genomes could be copyrighted rather than individual genes patented. As the issue would then become one of copying, this view might, even in hindsight, help clarify a weakness in the Myriad ruling: the triviality of generating cDNA. Anyway, it was also fun to think through…

More on personal naming


Last week, I posted about pronouncing one’s personal name while giving the directions. I’ve been continuing this practice since then and finding it to be quite rewarding. As they say in show biz, “It’s got legs!” So I thought I would relate some of what I’ve been learning and also make an appeal.

In my previous post, I called the personal name the master stimulus, and this makes more and more sense the more I explore it. (In fact, it seems to be both a stimulus and an action, since it involves jaws and oral cavity and so on but also triggers other use.) Usually, in AT, we consider an action at hand, inhibit it, then give the directions iteratively for every part of the action. But I’ve always had a funny feeling about the “parts” of an action, because they seem to be infinitely divisible. Like Zeno’s runner in the famous thought experiment, dividing an action can be pursued forever, making the goal impossible to reach. This is quite interesting in relation to the studies of Nikolai Bernstein. Some of you may know his work well, others not so much. For some reason, I had never even heard of him until a few days ago.

Working in Soviet-era Russia, Bernstein studied motion from a scientific point of view. Like many thinkers of his era, he was interested in empirical evidence about the human body when involved in a task. What he discovered was that the body has many, many more ways of accomplishing a task than it needs. So how, he asked, does the central nervous system choose a path? One proposed solution was that humans will fix some small part of the body when first learning a task and then gradually allow more freedom in that part. This looks a lot like Frank Pierce Jones’s idea of a “set.”

Of course, Bernstein probably had no access to AT, but this discovery of his, called the degrees of freedom problem, bears upon the very problem of parts that I bring up. When we follow our habitual use, it allows us to consider a small number of choices. But when we practice AT, those parts decompose into an infinite, or nearly infinite number of choices. As a matter of mathematics, when we use the “flank maneuver” (that is, consider whether to proceed with the original action intended or to undertake an entirely new one), we may be essentially “switching around” the parts of the motion in novel ways — because we can never possibly find every part, much less inhibit it.

My idea is this: by pronouncing your name as a stimulus/action, you’re able to address all of the habitual parts for any motion, because the parts were learned in the first place through the stimulus of hearing or thinking your name. This means that you do not have to consider any intended action first. You can consider your name first — and then an action. Or rather, saying your name is an intended action that can always come first (softly if need be!), and it will always be related to any imminent proposed specific action. If your pronounce your name while giving the directions, you do not have to decompose any intended action into parts, except for the action of pronouncing your name. This greatly reduces the number of possible incremental motions you might make.

There is also a surprise consequence (at least it was a surprise to me). Having a stimulus/action that it is always at your disposal opens up the means-whereby outside an intended action. I came at the realization like this: I can say my name without considering first what other action I might be about to perform. So… I don’t have to predetermine an end at all, not even one that I can subsequently inhibit. I find this prospect quite liberating, because at any given time, I’m never sure how to formulate what my next kinesthetic goal actually is. By the time I have an end in mind, something has usually already happened, and I have to start all over again.

My appeal, then, is to the collective wisdom of the AT community. The idea of saying one’s personal name while directing is so stunningly simple, I feel surely someone must have explored it in depth before me. A few of you responded that you have used the personal name to some limited degree. But the community is large and my survey sample comes from only one post. While I’m ready to give this procedure some sort of name of its own, the last thing I would want to do is be accused of cribbing from someone else. So again, have any of you employed this procedure in a concerted way, or do you know of anyone who has?

A Simple Addition to the Directions

I’m a lifelong student of AT rather than a certified teacher, but I’ve recently come across a variation on the directions that is interesting enough that I’d like to share it.

One thing that has always interested me about the primary control is that it’s a constant. No matter what I’m doing, I can always return to it. In this respect, it’s similar to Descartes’s famous maxim: I think, therefore I am. No matter what Descartes doubted, he could always find certitude in that.

It’s also interesting that, while AT involves language, none of the actual procedures are designed to be spoken aloud. Granted, Alexander wanted to remain neutral about the activity at hand, and that speaking is rightly considered an activity. Even so, some part of my brain won’t let go of the possibility of expressed language based on the same principles as AT. Are there any ways of formalizing words, sounds, or signs in general that use the same principles that Alexander developed, but on a social level?

I won’t say I’ve been exhaustive in my research. For a while, I was extending the whispered “ah” into a voiced “ma,” on the hunch that we all have a mother who somehow encompasses the world for us. This was pretty disappointing. I was surprised at how easily this famous word could be emptied of its emotional charge. Trying to suppose otherwise felt like an exercise in make-believe. Then I hit upon the idea of using a word that’s written all over my habitual use: my given name.

Specifically, I started pronouncing my first name while giving myself the directions. Unlike the suggested procedure for the whispered “ah,” I haven’t come up with a set of limitations for speaking what, in my case, is a single syllable. This is because I’m not really introducing new use so much as aggravating a stimulus that’s implicated in every habit I have. Call it the master stimulus. I can always return to it– for as long as I can practice anyway.

So far, the effect is quite encouraging. My middle back widened like crazy on the first day of trying it out, before I had even gotten past the head/neck relation. I also experienced an unfamiliar sense of well-being, as if I’d been unburdened of a list of complaints I didn’t even know I had – this, from someone accustomed to feeling the lightening that comes from AT. Maybe this is because my name is tied up with so much more than any one activity I might be entertaining.

There may also be a connection to social interactions not normally made through AT. I’m used to hearing my name come from somewhere outside myself, with Lord knows what kind of startle complex kicking in before I’m aware of it. If, on the other hand, I say my name while I’m directing, I can already be inhibiting when someone else calls my name, and thereby pre-empt a bout of habitual use.

Of course, it wouldn’t do to be walking around bellowing one’s own name to the air. Fortunately, the degree of voicing seems to be adaptable to the situation. I find I can say it under my breath, in a full voice, or even just think it “along with” the directions, and the effect seems to be much the same — the “all at once” jumps ahead of the “one after the other.” I should mention that this addition to the technique also seems to return feeling to parts of my nervous system in a way I usually associate with aesthetics – that hair-on-the-back-of your-neck feeling.

Has anyone else out there tried this or anything similar?




Normally, my posts on this site have been directed toward readers in philosophical circles. Having recently learned of Robert Rickover’s excellent blog on the Alexander Technique, I’d like change things up a little and engage the AT crowd on the subject of psycho-physical unity.

My view may well prove controversial: after many years of practicing AT, I’ve come to the conclusion that the mind simply cannot be unified well enough to merit speaking of its unity with the body. I quite agree that every physical use has its counterpart in the mind. Where I part ways with orthodoxy is on the matter of how many minds there are.

The philosophical figure most closely associated with the Alexander Technique is the pragmatist John Dewey. Like Alexander himself, Dewey left no doubt that he stressed the unity of mind and body, and like a good philosopher, he defended his view against possible objections. In his 1928 lecture “Preoccupation with the Disconnected,” to take one of countless examples, Dewey responds to the objection that our bodies digest food without our awareness by pointing out the tendency of people to eat in groups. His argument here suggests a kind of irresistible attraction between mind and body. But this only shows that we can pair a conscious activity with a non-conscious one. While socializing during meals might well aid digestion, the enzymes happily continue to elude our awareness. The question is the same whenever we arrive at a certain biological threshold: What is it that knows what to do?

In one sense, everything will hang on our definition of knowledge. We might invert the argument for intelligent design and wonder, not at that which made things so well, but at that which knows so well what needs to be done next — when the heart should beat and the skin cell should die.

In another sense, everything will hang on the meaning of “doing.” Neither Alexander nor Dewey, nor anyone at all for that matter, has been able to explain how language translates into actions. There is an explanatory gap between symbol and motion.

It’s certainly plausible that motions exhibiting some degree of organization involve knowledge. One inhibits and gives the directions, and there ensues a complex array of motions that we give the label “standing up.” To argue that this outcome is simply the result of good adaptive design doesn’t seem quite right. After all, we’re patently capable of standing up badly, using the very same design! Already we see the claim for unity falling apart. If my habitual mind is the consequence of adaptation, and standing up badly is a consequence of my habitual mind, then there must be separate adaptations for standing up well and standing up badly. So it seems that there must be two different adaptations operating within one body, which resist being merged into one. The premise of adaptive behavior, or habit, actually leads us to reject a holistic view of the self. So it’s not crazy to assert the existence of two minds in one body. In fact, it makes more sense than any other explanation.

In the analytic philosophy tradition, the puzzle presented by the “intelligence” of the reflexes is a variation on the problem of too many thinkers, or coincident entities. Analytic philosophers usually frame the problem with draconian scenarios involving brain transplants or severed body parts, but the upshot is the same: identity is not easily reduced to one per body. AT has this advantage to offer the current philosophical debate: it demonstrates empirically what writers such as Dean Zimmerman and Eric Olson have only been able to describe through thought experiments.  It might even be said to have solved the problem empirically. (Note that the problem of too many thinkers is not the same as the problem of dualism. It is possible, for example, to argue that two coincident entities are both entirely material.)

In promoting a thesis of coincident entities, I’m admittedly going against conventional AT wisdom, including the view taken by one of my Alexander teachers, Ted Dimon, who has written at length on the ability to achieve a total comprehension in the use of the self. Yet I don’t know of any Alexander teacher who would reject the assertion that the reflexes operate beyond our direct powers of reason. Nor do I know of any teacher who would deny that something resists the unimpeded response of the reflexes, as Alexander’s own lengthy ordeal in discovering the technique attests.

Of course, it could be argued that any split in our consciousness is a temporary phenomenon, or even an error brought on by incidental factors that are eventually solvable by the technique itself. I disagree with this view, simply because it doesn’t gibe with the technique as Alexander originally developed it. The directions, even if they extend to widening the back, even if they extend further than that, never arrive at the doing that gets done, nor are they designed to. The directions do not establish unity, but rather operate within strict limits that assume an unbreachable division between the primary control and any end for which I can give an account. The primary control, after all, cannot be an end in itself (or the procedure collapses), and the means-whereby initiated by its continual re-introduction is exactly what dissolves any ends to be gained. Yet I can still verify that an end has been achieved. As a result, I’m left with the realization that there is another way of thinking in which my body is involved that is constitutionally foreign to me.

To many, the possibility of a non-unified consciousness will be at least a little unsettling. To some, the proposal can only lead to incoherence, or even madness. What Alexander showed, however, is that one can start from an idealist position (in which the senses are deemed unreliable) and confirm that something outside the mind is reliably there. In this respect, my relation to another entity in my body need not be anxious, but can be founded instead on trust. Indeed, without the existence of two entities, it isn’t clear how the principle of trustworthiness can be made comprehensible.

Everything I’ve put forward here leaves the actual practice of AT intact. Someone might well ask, then, whether my thesis makes any difference. Does AT with coincident entities provide any benefit to a procedure that already works quite well? Before offering my own thoughts on the matter, I’d like to open the floor to others, some of whom will certainly have more experience and expertise than I. Who knows? Alexander himself wrote that the implications of his discoveries might not be fully understood for years. Maybe this line of inquiry will help shepherd those implications a little further along.