Self Delusion and the Martian Test


Have you ever been asked by a novice to explain something that you know or have done for so many years that it has become second nature? How did you do? Did the novice understand your explanation?

Sometimes we can become blinded to the complexity of an activity because we are so familiar with it. The classic example is driving a car. This is a complex task when you are learning, but the complexity quickly fades into the background as you notch up the hours behind the wheel. And as a fairly experienced driver, I know how easy it is to become not just deluded about the difficulty of the task, but more dangerously, about my own skill and prowess on the road.

But it isn’t just complex activities like driving that suffer from the ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ syndrome. We can be deluded about even the simplest of activities. Most of us get to the point where we are pretty much deluded (and this is FM’s word) about what we are doing with our bodies, and how we are doing it. We think we are doing the bicep curl like the instructor; we are actually throwing our chest forward and raising our shoulders. We think we are sitting upright; we are actually rotating our pelvis backwards and hunching our shoulders. We think we are flexing at the hips; in reality our hips are little troubled and our spines do the work.

It sounds like a problem of lack of awareness, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. If anatomy authors Depopoulos and Ibernagl are right, there’s no point trying to work on our awareness (improving our sensitivity). Our bodies are brilliant at picking up information from nerves and sending it to the brain. The difficulty comes in how the information is prioritised. So FM was remarkably accurate when he said in 1910

We must admit not only that there is a failure to register accurately in the sensory appreciation, but also that the fault is unrecorded in the conscious mind. And it is for this reason that the pupil must be given a new and correct guiding and controlling centre.*


Talk to a Martian 

FM sees the solution to this whole sorry mess as being to improve our ability to conceive of an activity and carry it out as we conceived it. So here are my tips for beginning along this road.

  • Don’t assume. We think that because we have walked or sat or stood since toddlerhood, we know how it is done. What if we really don’t know exactly how to do these simplest of activities?
  • Get some knowledge. Look at anatomy books. Watch other people and see how they do things. Look at yourself in the mirror. Arm yourself with knowledge and observation.
  • The Martian test. Try to explain the act of sitting as if you were teaching the activity to a Martian who had never done it before. What would the Martian need to know?

Our deluded sense of ourselves feeds on our assumptions, our lack of knowledge, and our belief that we ‘know’ how to do an activity. Fight these beliefs, and you’re a long way down the path to FM’s new “guiding and controlling centre.”

What will you say to the Martian?

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.59.
** Photo from stock.xchng 

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.