Mental flexibility: why you should try change even when you’re doing well

Can mental flexibility become as good as this lion stretching?

Sometimes when I work with new students (or even experienced ones), they come to the point of asking me: why make change? Why can’t I stay as I am? It’s a great question, and worth unpacking. Especially if things are going okay, why make changes? Why not carry on with the thing that works?

Back to the Great Madeleine Disaster of 2019

Last week I told you the story of the Great Madeleine Disaster of 2019, in which I made a gloriously disastrous attempt at baking using a new recipe instead of my usual one. I was using it to make a very important point about the importance of experimentation and failure if you want to improve.

But the observant and questioning among you may have wondered why I was trying the new recipe at all. Why risk wasting ingredients and time on something untried when I have a perfectly good recipe that I know works well?

It’s a great question, and I touched briefly on part of my answer last week. I wrote:

I firmly believe that if we are to truly learn from Alexander’s work, we must also take on board his example with regard to the role of experimentation and failure in improvement. Quite simply, you can’t improve without changing, and in order to change you have to allow for the possibility of failure. [1]

Put simply, if you want to improve, you have to do something different. If you do something different, you risk it not working. But if it doesn’t work, you have lots of lovely information to sift through. You can evaluate what happened, and learn from it. You can even compare the different process to your old one, and look at the differences to see what you can learn. All of this is valuable.

Why make change? To maintain mental flexibility.

There’s another reason, though, why I tried the new madeleine recipe. It comes down to the nature of habit. If I make the same recipe every time, I get to know it really well. I come to know it so well, in fact, that after a time I no longer need the method in front of me. I go to my kitchen, pull out the ingredients and the tin, and get baking. Pretty soon I can make the recipe without really paying attention to what I’m doing. I can listen to an audiobook, or be doing some writing as I bake.

But if I reach that point, if I’ve allowed the baking to become habitual, am I enjoying it? Am I even really ‘in the room’? And will I get bored of that particular recipe, but go on making it anyway, just because it’s what I know best?

When any activity gets to that point, we have allowed it to become a habit of thought and body. We have made it an automatic behaviour. If we reach that point, FM Alexander says that we have effectively reduced our capacity for mental flexibility and versatility:

We must always remember that the vast majority of human beings live very narrow lives, doing the same thing and thinking the same thoughts day by day, and it is this very fact that makes it so necessary that we should acquire conscious control of the mental and physical powers as a whole, for we otherwise run the risk of losing that versatility which is such an essential factor in their development.[2]

Mental flexibility requires practice

According to Alexander, if we want to maintain flexibility of mind we have to practise using it. This is no different to flexibility in the muscles: if we want physical flexibility, we have to work on it regularly. What better way to work on flexibility than to find places in daily life where we can try new things? I regularly try new recipes not just because I want to find the best ones, but because I want to enhance my versatility as a baker and as a thinker. By refusing to narrow my life to a relatively narrow range of activities and thoughts, I make the choice to use my mental powers in new ways. I choose to bake different things because if I practise flexibility in the small things, I’ll have the skills ready when a big life challenge comes up.

Alexander was very clear about mental flexibility: as with physical flexibility, you use it or you lose it. You also will never know the joy one can find in extending one’s comfort zone.

In concluding this brief note on mental habits I turn my attention particularly to the many who say, “I am quite content as I am.” To them I say, firstly, if you are content to be the slave of habits instead of master of your own mind and body, you can never have realised the wonderful inheritance which is yours by right of the fact that you were born a reasoning, intelligent man or woman.[3]

So do some mental flexibility training! Get out there, and try something new. It could be the making of you.

[1] https://activateyou.com/2019/08/experimentation-and-failure-in-improvement/

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT NY 1997, p. 65.

[3] ibid., p.67f.

Image: Yathin S Krishnappa [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

3 Tips to spot and avoid self-deception with Alexander Technique

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.