Have you ever had the experience of looking in a mirror, and being slightly shocked by what you see? Are your shoulders more rounded than you thought? Or perhaps you thought you were standing straight, but now you have caught yourself unawares, and can see the funny things you do with your neck or hips?
If so, you have direct experience of something that Alexander Technique teachers often talk about – our ‘unreliable sensory appreciation’. Or, to put it simply, sometimes we aren’t really doing what we think we are doing.
And there are sound physiological reasons why this happens. According to anatomy authors Depopoulos and Ibernagl, one billion bits of information enters our brain’s ‘switchboard’, the thalamus, every second. But of these billion bits of information, only about 100 will be passed on to the higher brain centres.*
That’s a pretty big data loss. So the brain has to prioritise what it junks. Obviously, it is going to keep information necessary for survival – food, water, breath. So what will it junk?
- The big category is anything that is constant or unchanging. If it doesn’t change much, the brain is less likely to notice it.
- Similarly, if we have set up beliefs or mental filters against certain information (or favouring certain information), we will change what we notice. Psychologist Richard Wiseman played on this with his writing and videos based on the famous’gorilla’ experiment.
This means that in a sense you are looking for shadows – you are looking out of the corner of your eye for the danger of the unchanging, the lure of the unchallenged assumption. It is here, in the activities and beliefs that lie uncontested, that we are more likely to be harbouring unhelpful beliefs leading to unhelpful muscular tension.
FM Alexander gives a brilliant example of this in his second book, where a student who has come to him for help with stuttering has improved to such an extent that FM asks the student to take the protocols used in the lessons and apply them to speaking outside of class. The student immediately said in his old stutter, “Oh! I couldn’t do that; everyone would notice me!” FM says that the student had reached
such a stage of defective sensory appreciation and self-hypnotic indulgence that his whole outlook was topsy-turvy. He no longer saw things as they were, and was out of communication with his reasoning, where his consciousness of his defects was concerned.**
Three ways to bring about change
- Watch. Keep an eye out for reflections in shop windows, or photos taken of you unawares. These give valuable information that you can use to reason your way out of the unhelpful stuff you are doing,
- Look. At anatomy websites, apps or books. I think everyone should have some basic understanding of how the body is put together, so that they have the information to use it better if they wish. There are some great iPad apps out there, and great books. Contact me if you want some recommendations.
- Listen. To friends, giving you feedback. To your Alexander Technique teacher. To Alexander Technique podcasts. Gain information. Challenge your assumptions.
Have you ever found you weren’t doing what you thought you were? How did you solve the disconnect? Tell me in the comments.
* quoted in Donald Weed, Human Movement: Structure and Function, 2004, p.56.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, pp.302-3.