Could the Alexander Technique Have Prevented The Great Recession?

American_union_bankBy Karen G. Krueger

"If we understand how a person's body influences risk taking, we can learn how to better manage risk takers. We can also recognize that mistakes governments have made have contributed to massive risk taking."

These striking assertions are from a recent opinion piece in the New York Times (Sunday Week in Review, June 8, 2014) by John Coates, a research fellow at Cambridge and a former derivatives trader at Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank.

I was particularly pleased to see this mainstream media piece acknowledge the unity of mind and body:

"Many neuroscientists now believe our brain is designed primarily to plan and execute movement."

"We do not process information as a computer does, dispassionately; we react to it physically."

These statements, and the neuroscience that underpins them, confirm my own experiences in learning and teaching the Alexander Technique. A century ago, F.M. Alexander used observation, reasoning and experimentation to examine and change his own stress response, and then to teach others to do the same.

The stress response that prompted Alexander's inquiry was a form of performance anxiety: he was an actor plagued by chronic hoarseness when on stage. Coates is interested in the responses of traders and investors to financial uncertainty. Unlike Alexander, Coates does not deal (at least in this article) with the possibility that individuals could change how they react to stress. Rather, he recommends that financial regulators use an understanding of human beings' automatic physical responses to novelty and uncertainty to manipulate the behavior of other players in the financial system.

Coates emphasizes the hormonal changes of the stress response: adrenaline, cortisone testosterone and dopamine all make an appearance. He also describes the related changes in heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. Oddly, he doesn't mention the most obvious physical reaction to stress: tense muscles in the neck, shoulders and back. You don't need a functional MRI or a blood test to detect that reaction to stress!

Like all Alexander Technique teachers, I work with my students on noticing how their neuromuscular systems react to stimuli of all kinds, and using Alexander's simple process of thoughtful practice to change those reactions that interefere with efficient, healthy functioning of body and mind. My students usually begin with straightforward goals: they want to learn to sit, stand and move with better posture and less tension, so that their necks, backs or arms will stop hurting. In the process, they discover that learning to change their physical habits has broader beneficial effects, including a greater capacity to choose to remain calm and thoughtful in situations that previously provoked anxiety.

So I couldn't help wondering as I read Coates' piece what would happen if a critical mass of individual participants in the financial system were to take Alexander Technique lessons. Imagine whole trading desks of traders who were able, in the face of financial panic, to stop tensing their necks, calm down their breathing, and take time to think about how to respond. Could they avoid being swept up into the mass unreasoned reactions that Coates describes, and minimize the damage to their own health in the process?

If you are a day trader who would like to stop allowing your hormones to drive your decisions—or just an average stressed-out New Yorker who would like to feel more in control of your life—find out more about the Alexander Technique:

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]KAREN G. KREUGER became a teacher of the Alexander Technique after 25 years of practicing law at two major New York law firms, receiving her teaching certificate from the American Center for the Alexander Technique in December 2010. Her students include lawyers, business executives, IT professionals and others interested in living with greater ease and skill. Find her at her website: [/author_info] [/author]


A Nobel Prizewinner’s Perspective on the Alexander Technique

by Witold Fitz-Simon

Nobel Prize winner Nikolaas Tinbergen was so impressed with the work of F. M. Alexander that he devoted almost ten minutes of his Nobel lecture to the Alexander Technique. Tinbergen won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1973 for his “discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns.” Tinbergen, and his fellow prizewinners Karl Lorenz and Konrad von Frisch, performed studies on fish, insects and birds to observe genetically programmed patterns of behavior. They studied what the origins of these behaviors were, how they developed, and what stimulated them to be triggered. Tinbergen’s work had a profound effect in the field of behavioral sciences as a whole.

Tinbergen’s Four Questions

Tinbergen is famous for developing four essential questions that must be asked about any form of behavior in animals, human or otherwise, if the behavior is to be fully understood:

    1. Causation: What causes the behavioral response to be triggered? How is that changed by what the individual or organism might have learned for itself? What are the different mechanisms that come into play as part of the behavioral response?
    2. Development: How does the response change over time as the individual or organism ages?
    3. Function: What impact does the behavior have on the individual or organism?
    4. Evolution: How does the behavior compare in other species? Why might the behavior have evolved in the way it did rather than in some other way.

Watching and Wondering

In his speech, Tinbergen discusses how his time-honored process of “watching and wandering,” as he calls it, can be applied to the relief of human suffering, especially the suffering caused by stress. In the first part of his speech, he looks at Early Childhood Autism. His second example of an application of modern ethological methods (ethology is the term given to behavioral studies) is F. M. Alexander and the Alexander Technique. He praises Alexander for using these methods fifty years before they had become widespread in the scientific community:

"This story, of perceptiveness, of intelligence, and of persistence, shown by a man without medical training, is one of the true epics of medical research and practice.”

The Kinesthetic Feedback Report

One interesting scientific discovery Tinbergen talks about in his lecture (he skips over it in the above video, but you can find it in the written text here on page 12) is the way in which the brain uses the kinesthetic, or “feeling,” sense and how that can cause us trouble:

“There are many strong indications that, at various levels of integration, from single muscle units up to complex behavior, the correct performance of many movements is continually checked by the brain. It does this by comparing a feedback report, that says ‘orders carried out,’ with the feedback expectation for which, with the initiation of each movement, the brain has been alerted. Only when the expected feedback and the actual feedback match does the brain stop sending out commands for corrective action… But what Alexander has discovered beyond this is that a lifelong mis-use of the body-muscles (such as caused by, for instance, too much sitting and too little walking) can make the entire system go wrong. As a consequence, reports that ‘all is correct’ are received by the brain (or perhaps interpreted as correct) when in fact all is very wrong. A person can ‘feel at ease’ e.g. when slouching in front of the television set, when in fact he is grossly abusing his body.”

    • Tinbergen’s entire speech can be seen here.
    • You can download a PDF of his speech here. The section on the Alexander Technique begins on page 10.
    • To read more about Tinbergen, you can find his Wikipedia page here
    • To read more about Tinbergen’s “Four Questions,” you can find the Wikipedia page here.
    • To read more about the kinesthetic feedback report, you can find a Wikipedia page on “efferent copies,” the scientific term for the potentially faulty kinesthetic model that the brain stores and uses as a reference for what “feels right,” here.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]WITOLD FITZ-SIMON has been a student of the Alexander Technique since 2007. He is certified to teach the Technique as a graduate of the American Center for the Alexander Technique’s 1,600-hour, three year training program. A student of yoga since 1993 and a teacher of yoga since 2000, Witold combines his extensive knowledge of the body and its use into intelligent and practical instruction designed to help his students free themselves of ineffective and damaging habits of body, mind and being.[/author_info] [/author]