by Vanessa Justice
“Change your behavior, change your brain,” stated Dr. Rajal Cohen, Ph.D., during a recent lecture given for the RIAT community. In her lecture entitled “Clarifying the Scientific Foundations of the Alexander Technique,” (May 23 2017) Dr. Cohen underscored neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change in response to experience. As discussed in Part 1 of this series, the brain is tremendously adaptive throughout the human lifespan, and choices of lifestyle and behavior impact brain connections and density. Norman Doidge, M.D., has written extensively on neuroplasticity and states, “The idea that the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity(emphasis added) is…the most important alteration in our view of the brain since we first sketched out its basic anatomy . . .” (Doidge, 2007). The Alexander Technique, with its emphasis on “thinking-in-activity” and the cultivation of attention supports the neuroplastic potential of human beings.
Not only do behaviors influence physiological changes of the brain, but laboratory research is revealing that thoughts and the very act of paying attention influence the brain. According to Dr. Cohen, the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is released in circumstances when one is noticing something or paying attention. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter needed for brain cells to transmit information to each other. It promotes neuroplasticity and learning, and is widely distributed through the brain (basal forebrain, wikipedia.org). Acetylcholine “plays a vital role in the top-down control of attentional orienting and stimulus discrimination” (Klinkenburg, et al). Interestingly, a lab study demonstrated that rats that engage in a task requiring sustained attention experienced a dramatic increase in acetylcholine production, theoretically sparking neuroplastic changes (Arnold, et al). Though explaining the biochemical processes involved in attention and neuroplasticity is beyond the scope of this article, it is succinctly described by Dr. Cohen: “Attention is a mechanism for making changes.”
What seems immediately important, therefore, is how we pay attention. If the very act of attending to something sparks neuroplastic changes, it appears significant to not only cultivate one’s ability to pay attention, but to learn to pay attention in a way that is whole, dynamic and sustained. F.M. Alexander developed a form of mindful attention as it pertains to how one uses oneself in activity; he used the term means-whereby to describe this practice. When staying with the means-whereby, one’s attention remains in the present moment and stays engaged in the process, without over-focusing on the desired goal, and therefore not sacrificing the means for the end (end-gaining). The sustained, calm attention that characterizes the means-whereby seems likely to create optimal conditions for the production of acetylcholine and positive neuroplastic changes.
By simply noticing, by simply bringing a curious attention to one’s self in activities (such as sitting and standing), a student of Alexander Technique discovers an ability to perceive subtle differences in mobility, pressure, muscle tone, and alignment that were previously seemingly imperceptible. By suggesting new, unfamiliar ways of perceiving and thinking about oneself in space and time, the teacher guides the student’s attention and intentions. (A teacher helps a student be more attentive to what they are doing, and gives feedback for understanding what not to do as new neuromuscular pathways and patterns arise.) The teacher models how to use perception and awareness in keener, more nuanced ways. With time, the faculties of attention and intention strengthen and refine.
Further, the technique reveals how a person interferes with a more balanced, whole-body neuromuscular pattern. These “interferences” (such as pulling the head back and tightening the shoulders) are often brought to a student’s attention even while the student is asked to remain holistically aware of the self in the immediate environment. Alexander Technique is rare among the somatic practices to cultivate a mode of attention that simultaneously engages such “local” and “global” awareness. Also, the technique encourages an integration of “inner” and “outer” sensation and stimuli. (A teacher would normally not ask students to close their eyes and feel their sensations, which occurs in other body-based practices.) Inner sensations are integrated in real-time with one’s sensory perceptions of the environment. Applying such a holistic awareness into one’s daily life strengthens the body-brain’s ability to perceive and attend to oneself and environment simultaneously, often leading to better mental-physical coordination and ease.
Alexander Technique follows a process of “inhibition” and “direction” to change ingrained habits. On a neurological level, a habit is intrinsically automatic because the neural connections associated with the habit/pattern have increased myelination and neural density. To avoid perpetuating a habit that one wants to change, one must first know that the habit exists–the habit must be noticed. After noticing a habit has occurred, or is about to occur, the next step is to pause (“inhibit”) momentarily as one directs a new pathway or pattern (“direction”). Essentially, “inhibition” and “direction” are modes of attending to oneself that can change neuromuscular pathways and encourage new possibilities. Again, the aim is to develop qualities of attention rather than “making” something happen.
In addition to the Alexander Technique’s emphasis on attention as the basis for inhibition, direction, use, and the means-whereby, the technique recruits many different aspects of the brain in a coordinated and multi-leveled way (Rajal, 2017). Because no part of the brain works in isolation, but through complex interactions and connections, a technique that holistically addresses and calls forth different areas of the body/brain helps to build dynamic neural connections. Alexander Technique combines different types of information including touch, verbal cues, kinestheticimagery, and suggestions for how to attend to the reciprocal relationship between self and space. Multiple areas of the brain are involved and coordinated, including the somatosensation area (for visualizing movement), cerebellum (motor coordination), basal ganglia (planning for motor activities/action selection), and prefrontal cortex (executing movement and inhibiting undesired actions).
“Brain plasticity is a two-way street; it is just as easy to generate negative changes as it is to produce positive ones” (Merzenich, 2013). In our fast-paced world, Alexander Technique reminds us that giving attention is the seed for positive change. It can be a practice toward keeping not only the body but the brain, healthy and dynamically awake and responsive.
Acetylcholine. wikipedia.org. Accessed 22 Oct 2017.
Arnold, H.M, et al. “Differential cortical acetylcholine release in rats performing a sustained attention task versus behavioral control tasks that do not explicitly tax attention.” Neuroscience, vol 114, no. 2, Oct 2002, pp. 451-460.
Basal forebrain. wikipedia.org. Accessed 22 Oct 2017.
Cohen, Rajal. “Clarifying the Scientific Foundations of the Alexander Technique.“ Lecture, NYC, May 23 2017.
Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Penguin Books, 2007.
Klinkenburg I, et al. “Acetylcholine and Attention.” Behav Brain Res, 2011 Aug 10;221(2):430-42. Epub 2010 Nov 23.
Merzenich, Michael. Soft-wired. Parnassus Publishing, 2013.