lørdag 6. oktober 2018

Conscious Inhibition

This article is written primarily for teachers of the Alexander Technique. It is a translated and rewritten version of the blog post Bevisst inhibisjon. The article discusses key concepts of the Alexander Technique presented in the article Beyond Posture from the Congress Papers from the 10th International Congress of the F.M. Alexander Technique in Limerick, Ireland. 

Inhibition – the ability to refrain from responding to an impulse is often said to be the most fundamental principle of the Alexander Technique. Some time ago I read an article by an experienced Alexander Technique teacher who said that conscious inhibition was not possible. He wrote:
'In our Alexander world, a lot of time and space is devoted to the idea that we need to inhibit our reactions and choose a better alternative. I suggest that it is impossible to choose to inhibit. By this I mean that we are in fact not capable of actively inhibiting our reactions to anything. Inhibition is not under our conscious volition. What actually happens in reality is that when a stimulus impacts on our organism, we either react to the stimulus, or not. There is simply no time to choose. Our neurological make-up does not offer this kind of option. Neural reactions take milliseconds, and the conscious brain can in no way intercede' (Kingsley 2016, p. 79).
Does he have a point? Yes and no.

Emotional reactions
What Kingsley describes applies to all forms of immediate sensory perceptions and emotional reactions. But the Alexander Technique is not about avoiding sensory perceptions or feelings. Alexander Technique is about unlearning unnecessary habitual reactions. Perception and emotions are necessary.

Alexander says in one of his "aphorisms":
'You come to learn to inhibit and to direct your activity. You learn, first, to inhibit the habitual reaction to certain classes of stimuli, and second, to direct yourself consciously in such a way as to affect certain muscular pulls, which processes bring about a new reaction to these stimuli' (Alexander 2000 p.72 ).
Alexander writes "certain classes of stimuli", not every stimulus. If we stopped reacting to stimuli, we would cease to be:

Human activity is primarily a process of reacting unceasingly to stimuli received from within or without the self. The first breath taken by a newly born child is a reaction to a stimulus to the respiratory centre, and the child remains a living organism only so long as it is capable of receiving stimuli and of reacting to them. No human being can receive a stimulus except through the sensory mechanisms, and supposing one could prevent the sensory mechanisms from receiving a stimulus, no reaction would be possible, and therefore no further activity. Life itself would then cease (Alexander 1985).

Most of what goes on in terms of reactions are beyond our direct control, and so it must be. If we for instance try to control our emotional reactions directly, we will create problems for ourselves. A musician about to go on stage, feeling increasingly nervous, will make things worse if he or she tries "not to be nervous." However, we can affect perception and feelings indirectly.

Indirect control
Alexander writes that the process of "inhibition" and "direction" creates "a new reaction to these stimuli." Our use of ourselves affects the bodily and mental state which in turn provides the prerequisites for how we react, including emotionally.

Kingsley is to some degree in line with Alexander. In his article he writes: 
'Essentially, our response to a stimulus is conditioned by our psychophysical state at the receipt of the stimulus ...' (Kingsley p. 79).
 He suggests regarding inhibition as a state or resource:
'It is a capacity for non-reaction in the face of life – the ability to keep engaged rather than becoming overwhelmed by 'emotional gusts'. And this resource, rather like a muscle in the brain, can become stronger and more easily available as a result of practice and discipline' (ibid).
 Further on he writes: 
'In other words, improving our use is essentially our growing ability not to react to stimuli both from without and from within the organism' (ibid p. 82).
Kingsley describes inhibition as an attribute that can be developed, but which only operates subconsciously. What then about Alexander's 'conscious control'?

Conscious control
One of Alexander's books is titled: "Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual." Kingsley writes about conscious control:
'Alexander did indicate that conscious control of the physical machinery and the parts involved was indeed a method for attaining physical perfection. When we follow this idea, we engage in self-reflection and try to become conscious of how we perform our actions. But this can only lead to self-consciousness and over-control – the dreaded [Alexan]droid!' (Kingsley p. 83).
The problem of self-consciousness and over-control is very relevant. But Kingsley uses misunderstood and misapplied Alexander Technique as an example. His argument thus becomes a straw man argument. Increased awareness about our actions are possible, and we have the ability to make conscious choices, although the scope is much narrower than we often like to think.

(Kingsley is correct that Alexander at one point claimed that physical perfection was possible. But I doubt that the average Alexander Teacher agrees with this, or sees it as an end in itself).

If the phone rings, you can not choose not to hear it. You can not avoid the neurological and physiological reactions that are the direct results of the sound. You can't avoid the possible emotional reactions to the phone ringing, especially if you're expecting an unpleasant call. But you will be fully capable of choosing whether to answer the call or not.

Some people may react immediately and habitually to the sound of the phone, ending up holding the phone to the ear without any awareness of what happened. In such a case it will be necessary to change the conditions so that it is possible to bring the manner of reaction within the field of awareness.

In any case it will be easier to choose not to react if you already have seen this as a possibility. Kingsley claims this is the only possibility: 'It is more accurate to suggest that when things work well, inhibition needs to be present before the receipt of a stimulus.' (ibid p. 79).

In other words, if the phone rings and you do not pick it up immediately, some kind of inhibition might already have taken place. Another explanation could be that the stimulus was not sufficient to elicit a reaction.

Although Kingsley says it is not possible to consciously inhibit the reaction to a stimuli, he still maintains that: 'The primary aim of the Technique is to evolve the capacity to not react to stimuli' (ibid, p. 83).

He refers somewhere else in the text to Alexander's statement that the Alexander Technique '... is primarily a technique for the development of the control of human reaction' (Alexander 2000).

I fundamentally agrees with this. But the stimulus-response model is not an adequate one for explaining the Alexander Technique, and here, I think, lies Kingsley's problem. He is trying to see the technique through a lens that is too narrow. Then he discards this lens and chooses one that is to wide and unfocused. Everything becomes a "state". Inhibition is a state, and so is "direction", and even "the primary control". There is no practical technique.

To understand the concept of conscious inhibition we have to look at the application of the Alexander Technique to real life. And life is movement. 

Ideo-motor process 
Scientific research shows us that when we choose to make a movement, our brain has already made the decision for us. Alexander was right that all we can do is to give consent. He explains it like this in The Use of the Self. 
'The result of the receipt of a stimulus to lift the arm is, as we all know, a “mental” conception of the act of lifting the arm, this conception being followed by another so-called “mental” process, that of giving or withholding consent to react to the stimulus to lift the arm. If this consent is withheld, the reaction which would result in a lifting of the arm is inhibited, and the arm is not lifted. If consent is given, the direction of the mechanisms required for the act of lifting the arm becomes operative, and messages are sent out which bring about the contraction of certain groups of muscles and the relaxation of others, and the arm is lifted.' (Alexander 1932/1985)
In his Aphorisms he puts it simply: 
'You ask me to lift that chair. If I give consent that is all I can do.' (Alexander 1995, Alexander 2000). 
 We can't claim that Alexander's explanation is scientifically accurate, but the point is that we have a choice. 

Most of the time, most of life consists of voluntary actions, movements that we can decide to do or not to do. You see the mug of tea on the table. You can pick it up, or you can decide not to. You hear the facebook notifications. You can check the updates, or decide not to. You see a book lying on the floor. You can pick it up, or decide not to. On this level, conscious inhibition is not at all impossible, although there are limits. 

The process from idea to action is mostly unconscious. During the process we only get a very tiny window of opportunity to veto the action. And when we succeed in refraining from reacting, some degree of reaction will in all probability already have taken place. Inhibition is probably never absolute and complete. Conscious inhibition is possible, but there are limitations, but this is precisely why conscious inhibition is so crucial. 

The ability to decide not to react depends on some degree of awareness in the moment. One can argue, as Kingsley, that this awareness in itself constitutes some form of inhibition. There is precedence for this. When working with applying the Alexander Technique to any activity it is useful to stop, return to "neutral", pause, take time to think before going into movement. This is an important aspect of making practical use of inhibition. But we don't get anywhere if we don't apply the skill of inhibition to the process of movement itself, in action. 

Although the possibility for conscious inhibition is limited, the opportunities are endless. Every minute of the day we make movements. Every minute of the day we are given the opportunity to decide not to react. How can it then be said that conscious inhibition is not possible?

The more we make use of this ability not to do, the better we get at it, not only in terms of an improved state or condition, but also as a skill. That is what the Alexander Technique is, not a state or condition, but a skill. 

Related blog posts (Norwegian only) 
Bevisst inhibisjon

Alexander, F M (1932, 1985). The Use of the Self - Its Conscious Direction in Relation to Diagnosis, Functioning and the Control of Reaction. Victor Gollancz.
Alexander, F M (1995): Articles and Lectures. Mouritz.
Alexander, F M (2000): Aphorisms. Mouritz.
Kingsley, Anthony (2016). Beyond Posture. In The Congress Papers - 10th International Congress of the F.M Alexander Technique. STATBooks. 

1 kommentar:

  1. Dear Halvard, what an interesting topic. I know the quoted teacher and have been pondering on this idea of the possibility to inhibit a reaction or not. All I can contribute is a little experiment I did when waiting for my practice student to arrive, during my training. I would lie on the table, give directions and wait for the bell to ring. I noticed, that if my mind drifted off, as it often does, I would invariably be surprised by the bell and react with habitual contractions. If I happened to be present at the moment of ringing, occupied with a flow of directions, this would reduce the reaction to the bell. Although I expect the bell to ring, I do not know exactly when it will do so. When I describe the messages I send to myself to inhibit and direct, I use language to do so and that is linear. Also, I suspect that when I return to awareness from mind-drifting, the messages themselves are given in a linear way. It starts slowly. In that case, I agree with Kingsley that I cannot catch the reaction in time. However, I think, hope and believe that with practice and in moments when I can keep a certain flow of directions and inhibition going, that the 'one after the other' becomes a little bit more 'and all together' which should have a more preventative effect on reactions to future stimuli. In that case, a flowing chain of directive thoughts could inhibit a habitual reaction, simply by being maintained or frequently refreshed. I am far from this perfect state of ongoing flow but even small moments when waiting for the bell to ring offer encouragement.