A Nobel Prize winner on Alexander Technique

Excerpted from Nikolaas Tinbergen's 1973 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

"We discovered that the therapy is based on exceptionally sophisticated observation, not only by means of vision but also to a surprising extent by using the sense of touch. It consists in essence of no more than a very gentle, first exploratory, and then corrective manipulation of the entire muscular system.

A sequence of tai chi moves
A sequence of tai chi moves.

This starts with the head and neck, then very soon the shoulders and chest are involved, and finally the pelvis, legs and feet, until the whole body is under scrutiny and treatment. As in our own observations of children, the therapist is continuously monitoring the body, and adjusting his procedure all the time. What is actually done varies from one patient to another, depending on what kind of mis-use the diagnostic exploration reveals. And naturally, it affects different people in different ways. But between the three of us, we already notice, with growing amazement, very striking improvements in such diverse things as high blood pressure, breathing, depth of sleep, overall cheerfulness and mental alertness, resilience against outside pressures, and also in such a refined skill as playing a stringed instrument.

So from personal experience we can already confirm some of the seemingly fantastic claims made by Alexander and his followers, namely that many types of under-performance and even ailments, both mental and physical, can be alleviated, sometimes to a surprising extent, by teaching the body musculature to function differently.

One of these new discoveries concerns the key-concept of ‘re-afference’. There are many strong indications that, at various levels of integration, from single muscle units up to complex behaviour, the correct performance of many movements is continuously 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. Already the discoverers of this principle, von Holst and Mittelstaedt, knew that the functioning of this complex mechanism could vary from moment to moment with the internal state of the subject-the ‘target value’ or Sollwert of the expected feedback changes with the motor commands that are given. 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.

Mis-use, with all its psychosomatic or rather: somato-psychic consequences, must therefore be considered a result of modern living conditions - of a culturally determined stress. I might add here that I am not merely thinking of too much sitting, but just as much of the ‘cowed’ posture that one assumes when one feels that one is not quite up to one’s work - when one feels insecure.

Secondly, it need not cause surprise that a mere gentle handling of body muscles can have such profound effects on both body and mind. The more that is being discovered about psychosomatic diseases, and in general about the extremely complex two-way traffic between the brain and the rest of the body, the more obvious it has become that too rigid a distinction between ‘mind’ and ‘body’ is of only limited use to medical science - in fact can be a hindrance to its advance.

A third biologically interesting aspect of the Alexander therapy is that every session clearly demonstrates that the innumerable muscles of the body are continuously operating as an intricately linked web. Whenever a gentle pressure is used to make a slight change in leg posture, the neck muscles react immediately. Conversely, when the therapist helps one to ‘release’ the neck muscles, it is amazing to see quite pronounced movements for instance of the toes, even when one is lying on a couch.

Read the full article here: nobelprize.org.../tinbergen-lecture.pdf