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Part 1: Neuroplasticity and the Alexander Technique

by Vanessa Justice (RIAT Trainee)

  

The Alexander Technique, with its emphasis on the human ability to learn and change, can be further understood through a consideration of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is a broad term used by neuroscience to describe the ability of the brain to change in response to experience, and has recently become a buzzword in the realm of self-help and motivational speaking. Though Alexander Technique instructors with scientific training, such as Glenna Batson, DPT, and Rajal Cohen, Ph.D., have sparked excellent conversation about neuroplasticity and its implications for the technique, the topic has much to be explored and articulated. This article, Part 1 in a series about neuroplasticity and Alexander Technique, aims to stimulate dialogue about the technique in light of current scientific research on neuroplasticity. The series will explore how the implications of neuroplasticity might underpin and elucidate unique aspects of the Alexander Technique, such as the ideas of “the means-whereby,” “direction,” and “conscious control.”

”Just 50 years ago, the idea that the adult brain could change in any way was heretical” (Costandi 1). The discovery that the brain is actually changing all the time in response to our thoughts, actions, behaviors, and interactions with the world signaled a paradigm shift, and allows for expanded notions of human potential and interaction, and for new methods of rehabilitation following brain injury. Neuroplasticity is a far-ranging topic with varying applications across the larger field of neuroscience, and fully defining it is beyond the scope of this article. Generally speaking, neuroplastic changes of the brain occur in adaptation to the environment and from the demands placed on it, and can be positive (such as increased neural density and better myelination) or negative (such as the maladaptations of the brain involved in chronic pain, repetitive strain injury, and addiction)(148).

Research on neuroplasticity upholds the old axiom, “Use it or lose it.” For example, studies show that learning a second language is associated with increased neural density and other anatomical changes in the brain (Costandi 88). However, these changes are reversible when a person stops practicing the second language (88). The Alexander Technique, with its emphasis on the “means-whereby” or how we do what we do in relation to our postural support, breathing, and movement, develops expanded awareness of how one coordinates oneself. Perhaps focusing on the “how” of achieving a goal rather than focusing on the goal itself places emphasis where it needs to be for maximum, long-term neural changes. The means-whereby, with its ongoing commitment to process, suggests that we never simply “get it.” Both AT and the research on neuroplasticity suggest that we should avoid being complacently satisfied with past success: “Aging…appears to happen faster in the brain if people ‘rest on their laurels’…(Batson 4)”. In harmony with Alexander’s idea of the means-whereby, the health of the brain is partially determined by “how we interact with the world” (2).

Learning is the hallmark of positive neuroplasticity; learning new skills and strategies perpetuates healthy and resilient plasticity in the brain. Not only did Alexander stress the importance of learning, he provided a technique by which one can optimize learning, in consideration of habit and environment. Just as neuroplasticity implies the importance of lifelong learning, Alexander contended, “…we never reach the point when we may be said to finish learning” (Alexander 201).

Even visualization and thinking changes the brain. For example, brain scans of novice pianists who had practiced visualizing a new fingering pattern on the piano showed that their brain’s sensorimotor map representing the hand “expanded commensurately” (Batson 3). This research suggests that the thinking involved in Alexander Technique, such as giving mental “orders” for the head to go “forward and up” can itself create neural changes in the student.

The documentary based on Norman Droidge’s popular book, The Brain that Changes Itself, states, “Just thinking will change your brain. What that ultimately means is that one needs to be careful with what one thinks.” F.M. Alexander seemed to have discovered a similar truth 90 years ago when he adamantly asked for humankind to become more conscious–especially in how they use themselves in the activities of living. Perhaps one of the most fundamentally important implications of both neuroplasticity and the Alexander Technique is the realization that we have choice in how we engage with ourselves and the world, and our choices will help to guide the formation (or deterioration) of our brain and compose who we are:

“The paradox is this: The same plasticity that allows us to change our brains and produce more flexible behaviors is also the source of many of our most rigid ones. All people start out with plastic potential. Some of us, as we grow and develop, enhance that flexibility. For others the spontaneity, creativity, and unpredictability of childhood gives way to a routinized existence that repeats the same behavior and turns us into rigid caricatures of ourselves” (The Brain that Changes Itself, 2008).

The above quotation is strikingly similar to Alexander’s words in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, first published in 1923:

People “become mere automatons, repeating day by day the same round of psycho-physical activities, and gradually limiting themselves, more and more…deterioration and stagnation is being gradually cultivated…This is, indeed, monotony in its most harmful form…we have ceased to grow” (Alexander 199-200).

Both Alexander Technique and neuroplasticity reveal a certain level of personal responsibility in how we use and organize ourselves as a determination for whether the brain continues to grow and develop. Alexander emphasized creating the conditions for this continual growth: “All our efforts in the way of education should be to create the conditions in which growth will continue through life, conditions in which the stagnation which accompanies fixed habits will be impossible” (199). The creation of such conditions toward the prevention of stagnation occurs through conscious choice. Alexander emphasized choice in both the prevention of habit (“inhibition”), and the actualization of positive change. He suggested that we consciously choose what not to do as much as what to do. “Alexander’s work is all about learning to make conscious choices, in order to direct and organise our psychophysical responses to situations, with awareness of the way we use ourselves whilst doing so” (King, hilaryking.net).

Of course, in the Alexander Technique, it is through the skilled hands and/or verbal guidance of an instructor that one acquires the prerequisite understanding of what one actually does out of habit, and how to consciously allow for new possibilities in being and functioning. In order to fully exercise choice, one must experience other options, other ways-of-being, that may be foreign or unimagined. A freer, non-fixed way-of-being gradually appears as one of the possibilities that can be chosen.

Alexander Technique promotes healthy, ongoing learning (and, therefore, positive neuroplasticity) while disrupting routine and rigidly patterned forms of living (habit) that can negatively impact the brain. “Without a doubt, Alexander Technique lessons change both brain and behaviour” (Batson 4).

Keep an eye out for the next installment of “Neuroplasticity and Alexander Technique.” Please email justicedance@gmail.com with comments/suggestions!

Alexander, F Matthias. Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. Mouritz, 2004.

Batson, Glenna. Neuroplasticity 101. Batson 2009, 2015. alexanderstudies.org. Accessed 21     March 2017.

The Brain that Changes Itself (documentary). Directed by Mike Sheerin. Written by Norman Doidge and Mike Sheerin. 90th Parallel Productions, 2008.

Costandi, Moheb. Neuroplasticity. The MIT Press, 2016.

King, Hilary. hilaryking.net. Accessed 21 March 2017.


Other blogs of note:

Redefining Posture – Ariel Carson (m.AmSAT) is a RIAT faculty member who explores the Alexander Technique through a sometimes sociopolitical, heartfelt, and often comic lens. Read her hip, insightful blog here.

Alexander Technique London – Adrian Farrell is a London based teacher and Huffington Post contributor, whose instructional YouTube videos offer a multimedia approach to exploring the Alexander Technique. Read his imaginative, educational blog here.

AlexanderTechConsulting – Brett Hershey (m.AmSAT) is the founder of AlexanderTechConsulting, which brings the AT into workplaces and helps train employees in healthier physical work habits. Read his smart, compelling blog here.

Alexander Teaching Studio – Lauren Hill (m.AmSAT) is a Minnesota based teacher whose blog helps you pay attention to your posture in a fun, manageable way. Read her enlightening, useful blog  here.

Mark Josefsberg (m.AmSAT) is a former professional musician whose blog includes highly accessible tips for using the Technique to enhance your daily life. Read his practical, informative blog here.

Part 2: Neuroplasticity and the Alexander Technique
AT, Attention and Neuroplasticity

by Vanessa Justice

“Change your behavior, change your brain,” stated Dr. Rajal Cohen, Ph.D., during a recent lecture given for the RIAT community. In her lecture entitled “Clarifying the Scientific Foundations of the Alexander Technique,” (May 23 2017) Dr. Cohen underscored neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change in response to experience. As discussed in Part 1 of this series, the brain is tremendously adaptive throughout the human lifespan, and choices of lifestyle and behavior impact brain connections and density. Norman Doidge, M.D., has written extensively on neuroplasticity and states, “The idea that the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity (emphasis added) is…the most important alteration in our view of the brain since we first sketched out its basic anatomy . . .” (Doidge, 2007). The Alexander Technique, with its emphasis on “thinking-in-activity” and the cultivation of attention supports the neuroplastic potential of human beings.

Not only do behaviors influence physiological changes of the brain, but laboratory research is revealing that thoughts and the very act of paying attention influence the brain. According to Dr. Cohen, the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is released in circumstances when one is noticing something or paying attention. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter needed for brain cells to transmit information to each other. It promotes neuroplasticity and learning, and is widely distributed through the brain (basal forebrain, wikipedia.org). Acetylcholine “plays a vital role in the top-down control of attentional orienting and stimulus discrimination” (Klinkenburg, et al). Interestingly, a lab study demonstrated that rats that engage in a task requiring sustained attention experienced a dramatic increase in acetylcholine production, theoretically sparking neuroplastic changes (Arnold, et al). Though explaining the biochemical processes involved in attention and neuroplasticity is beyond the scope of this article, it is succinctly described by Dr. Cohen: “Attention is a mechanism for making changes.”

What seems immediately important, therefore, is how we pay attention. If the very act of attending to something sparks neuroplastic changes, it appears significant to not only cultivate one’s ability to pay attention, but to learn to pay attention in a way that is whole, dynamic and sustained. F.M. Alexander developed a form of mindful attention as it pertains to how one uses oneself in activity; he used the term means-whereby to describe this practice. When staying with the means-whereby, one’s attention remains in the present moment and stays engaged in the process, without over-focusing on the desired goal, and therefore not sacrificing the means for the end (end-gaining). The sustained, calm attention that characterizes the means-whereby seems likely to create optimal conditions for the production of acetylcholine and positive neuroplastic changes.

By simply noticing, by simply bringing a curious attention to one’s self in activities (such as sitting and standing), a student of Alexander Technique discovers an ability to perceive subtle differences in mobility, pressure, muscle tone, and alignment that were previously seemingly imperceptible. By suggesting new, unfamiliar ways of perceiving and thinking about oneself in space and time, the teacher guides the student’s attention and intentions. (A teacher helps a student be more attentive to what they are doing, and gives feedback for understanding what not to do as new neuromuscular pathways and patterns arise.) The teacher models how to use perception and awareness in keener, more nuanced ways. With time, the faculties of attention and intention strengthen and refine.

Further, the technique reveals how a person interferes with a more balanced, whole-body neuromuscular pattern. These “interferences” (such as pulling the head back  and tightening the shoulders) are often brought to a student’s attention even while the student is asked to remain holistically aware of the self in the immediate environment. Alexander Technique is rare among the somatic practices to cultivate a mode of attention that simultaneously engages such “local” and “global” awareness. Also, the technique encourages an integration of “inner” and “outer” sensation and stimuli. (A teacher would normally not ask  students to close their eyes and feel their sensations, which occurs in other body-based practices.) Inner sensations are integrated in real-time with one’s sensory perceptions of the environment. Applying such a holistic awareness into one’s daily life strengthens the body-brain’s ability to perceive and attend to oneself and environment simultaneously, often leading to better mental-physical coordination and ease.

Alexander Technique follows a process of “inhibition” and “direction” to change ingrained habits. On a neurological level, a habit is intrinsically automatic because the neural connections associated with the habit/pattern have increased myelination and neural density. To avoid perpetuating a habit that one wants to change, one must first know that the habit exists–the habit must be noticed. After noticing a habit has occurred, or is about to occur, the next step is to pause (“inhibit”) momentarily as one directs a new pathway or pattern (“direction”). Essentially, “inhibition” and “direction” are modes of attending to oneself that can change neuromuscular pathways and encourage new possibilities. Again, the aim is to develop qualities of attention rather than “making” something happen.

In addition to the Alexander Technique’s emphasis on attention as the basis for inhibition, direction, use, and the means-whereby, the technique recruits many different aspects of the brain in a coordinated and multi-leveled way (Rajal, 2017). Because no part of the brain works in isolation, but through complex interactions and connections, a technique that holistically addresses and calls forth different areas of the body/brain helps to build dynamic neural connections. Alexander Technique combines different types of information including touch, verbal cues, kinesthetic imagery, and suggestions for how to attend to the reciprocal relationship between self and space. Multiple areas of the brain are involved and coordinated, including the somatosensation area (for visualizing movement), cerebellum (motor coordination), basal ganglia (planning for motor activities/action selection), and prefrontal cortex (executing movement and inhibiting undesired actions).

“Brain plasticity is a two-way street; it is just as easy to generate negative changes as it is to produce positive ones” (Merzenich, 2013). In our fast-paced world, Alexander Technique reminds us that giving attention is the seed for positive change. It can be a practice toward keeping not only the body but the brain, healthy and dynamically awake and responsive.

 

Works Cited

Acetylcholine. wikipedia.org. Accessed 22 Oct 2017.

Arnold, H.M, et al. “Differential cortical acetylcholine release in rats performing a sustained attention task versus behavioral control tasks that do not explicitly tax attention.” Neuroscience, vol 114, no. 2, Oct 2002, pp. 451-460.

Basal forebrain. wikipedia.org. Accessed 22 Oct 2017.

Cohen, Rajal. “Clarifying the Scientific Foundations of the Alexander Technique.“ Lecture, NYC, May 23 2017.

Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Penguin Books, 2007.

Klinkenburg I, et al. “Acetylcholine and Attention.” Behav Brain Res, 2011 Aug 10;221(2):430-42. Epub 2010 Nov 23.

Merzenich, Michael. Soft-wired. Parnassus Publishing, 2013.


The Posture Police – Lindsay Newitter (m.AmSAT) is a RIAT Affiliate member whose blog demystifies common myths about good posture: “Whatever you do, don’t stand up straight!” Read Lindsay’s fun, eye-opening blog here.

The Actor’s Secret – Betsy Polatin (m.AmSAT) is a Guest Teacher at RIAT and author of the book The Actor’s Secret: Techniques for Transforming Habitual Patterns and Improving Performance. Read her popular blog associated with the book here.

Body Intelligence – Imogen Ragone (m.AmSAT) is a Delaware based teacher whose blog helps people find ease, connection, and pleasure in the activities important to them . Read her intelligent, welcoming blog here.

Off the Mat Yoga Blog – Cecile Raynor (m.AmSAT) is a “Quality of Movement Expert” whose mission is to lead you on the road to feeling the best you can, on and off the yoga mat. Read her integrative, topical blog here.

Victoria Stanham is a mind and movement instructor whose blog draws on her experience with Pilates and Alexander. Read her inspiring tips on posture and wellness, updated every Friday here.

Wellness Blog – Eleanor Taylor (m.AmSAT) is  RIAT Affiliate member and classically trained soprano, whose blog explores how the daily micro applications of Alexander Technique are fundamental to our sense of overall wellness. Read her thoughtful, accessible blog here.

 

Contact Riverside Initiative for the Alexander Technique