Part 1: Neuroplasticity and the Alexander Technique
by Vanessa Justice
The Alexander Technique, with its emphasis on the human ability to learn and change, can be further understood through a consideration of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is a broad term used by neuroscience to describe the ability of the brain to change in response to experience, and has recently become a buzzword in the realm of self-help and motivational speaking. Though Alexander Technique instructors with scientific training, such as Glenna Batson, DPT, and Rajal Cohen, Ph.D., have sparked excellent conversation about neuroplasticity and its implications for the technique, the topic has much to be explored and articulated. This article, Part 1 in a series about neuroplasticity and Alexander Technique, aims to stimulate dialogue about the technique in light of current scientific research on neuroplasticity. The series will explore how the implications of neuroplasticity might underpin and elucidate unique aspects of the Alexander Technique, such as the ideas of “the means-whereby,” “direction,” and “conscious control.”
”Just 50 years ago, the idea that the adult brain could change in any way was heretical” (Costandi 1). The discovery that the brain is actually changing all the time in response to our thoughts, actions, behaviors, and interactions with the world signaled a paradigm shift, and allows for expanded notions of human potential and interaction, and for new methods of rehabilitation following brain injury. Neuroplasticity is a far-ranging topic with varying applications across the larger field of neuroscience, and fully defining it is beyond the scope of this article. Generally speaking, neuroplastic changes of the brain occur in adaptation to the environment and from the demands placed on it, and can be positive (such as increased neural density and better myelination) or negative (such as the maladaptations of the brain involved in chronic pain, repetitive strain injury, and addiction)(148).
Research on neuroplasticity upholds the old axiom, “Use it or lose it.” For example, studies show that learning a second language is associated with increased neural density and other anatomical changes in the brain (Costandi 88). However, these changes are reversible when a person stops practicing the second language (88). The Alexander Technique, with its emphasis on the “means-whereby” or how we do what we do in relation to our postural support, breathing, and movement, develops expanded awareness of how one coordinates oneself. Perhaps focusing on the “how” of achieving a goal rather than focusing on the goal itself places emphasis where it needs to be for maximum, long-term neural changes. The means-whereby, with its ongoing commitment to process, suggests that we never simply “get it.” Both AT and the research on neuroplasticity suggest that we should avoid being complacently satisfied with past success: “Aging…appears to happen faster in the brain if people ‘rest on their laurels’…(Batson 4)”. In harmony with Alexander’s idea of the means-whereby, the health of the brain is partially determined by “how we interact with the world” (2).
Learning is the hallmark of positive neuroplasticity; learning new skills and strategies perpetuates healthy and resilient plasticity in the brain. Not only did Alexander stress the importance of learning, he provided a technique by which one can optimize learning, in consideration of habit and environment. Just as neuroplasticity implies the importance of lifelong learning, Alexander contended, “…we never reach the point when we may be said to finish learning” (Alexander 201).
Even visualization and thinking changes the brain. For example, brain scans of novice pianists who had practiced visualizing a new fingering pattern on the piano showed that their brain’s sensorimotor map representing the hand “expanded commensurately” (Batson 3). This research suggests that the thinking involved in Alexander Technique, such as giving mental “orders” for the head to go “forward and up” can itself create neural changes in the student.
The documentary based on Norman Droidge’s popular book, The Brain that Changes Itself, states, “Just thinking will change your brain. What that ultimately means is that one needs to be careful with what one thinks.” F.M. Alexander seemed to have discovered a similar truth 90 years ago when he adamantly asked for humankind to become more conscious–especially in how they use themselves in the activities of living. Perhaps one of the most fundamentally important implications of both neuroplasticity and the Alexander Technique is the realization that we have choice in how we engage with ourselves and the world, and our choices will help to guide the formation (or deterioration) of our brain and compose who we are:
“The paradox is this: The same plasticity that allows us to change our brains and produce more flexible behaviors is also the source of many of our most rigid ones. All people start out with plastic potential. Some of us, as we grow and develop, enhance that flexibility. For others the spontaneity, creativity, and unpredictability of childhood gives way to a routinized existence that repeats the same behavior and turns us into rigid caricatures of ourselves” (The Brain that Changes Itself, 2008).
The above quotation is strikingly similar to Alexander’s words in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, first published in 1923:
People “become mere automatons, repeating day by day the same round of psycho-physical activities, and gradually limiting themselves, more and more…deterioration and stagnation is being gradually cultivated…This is, indeed, monotony in its most harmful form…we have ceased to grow” (Alexander 199-200).
Both Alexander Technique and neuroplasticity reveal a certain level of personal responsibility in how we use and organize ourselves as a determination for whether the brain continues to grow and develop. Alexander emphasized creating the conditionsfor this continual growth: “All our efforts in the way of education should be to create the conditions in which growth will continue through life, conditions in which the stagnation which accompanies fixed habits will be impossible” (199). The creation of such conditions toward the prevention of stagnation occurs through conscious choice. Alexander emphasized choice in both the prevention of habit (“inhibition”), and the actualization of positive change. He suggested that we consciously choose what not to do as much as what to do. “Alexander’s work is all about learning to make conscious choices, in order to direct and organise our psychophysical responses to situations, with awareness of the way we use ourselves whilst doing so” (King, hilaryking.net).
Of course, in the Alexander Technique, it is through the skilled hands and/or verbal guidance of an instructor that one acquires the prerequisite understanding of what one actually does out of habit, and how to consciously allow for new possibilities in being and functioning. In order to fully exercise choice, one must experience other options, other ways-of-being, that may be foreign or unimagined. A freer, non-fixed way-of-being gradually appears as one of the possibilities that can be chosen.
Alexander Technique promotes healthy, ongoing learning (and, therefore, positive neuroplasticity) while disrupting routine and rigidly patterned forms of living (habit) that can negatively impact the brain. “Without a doubt, Alexander Technique lessons change both brain and behaviour” (Batson 4).
Keep an eye out for the next installment of “Neuroplasticity and Alexander Technique.”
Alexander, F Matthias. Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. Mouritz, 2004.
Batson, Glenna. Neuroplasticity 101. Batson 2009, 2015. alexanderstudies.org. Accessed 21 March 2017.
The Brain that Changes Itself (documentary). Directed by Mike Sheerin. Written by Norman Doidge and Mike Sheerin. 90th Parallel Productions, 2008.
Costandi, Moheb. Neuroplasticity. The MIT Press, 2016.
King, Hilary. hilaryking.net. Accessed 21 March 2017.