A Nobel Prizewinner’s Perspective on the Alexander Technique

by Witold Fitz-Simon http://youtu.be/XXr-9kQZ0ow

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']http://www.acatnyc.org/main/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/After-crop1.jpg[/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. www.mindbodyandbeing.com[/author_info] [/author]