The Vault

The Research Contribution of Frank Pierce Jones

By Richard A. Brown

Like many of his contemporaries, Frank Jones discovered the Alexander Technique through the writings of Aldous Huxley. At the time he was an instructor in Classics at Brown University with degrees in English Literature and Classics from Stanford and the University of Wisconsin. He reports how he was suffering from disabling respiratory problems and fatigue when he was given his first lessons by A.R. Alexander. He was so impressed by the relief he experienced from his lessons that he eventually shifted the focus of his career to the study of the Alexander Technique.

There were really two career changes. First he qualified as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, then he shifted his area of academic specialization from Classics to science and spent the remainder of his career researching the Alexander Technique and the psychological and physiological principles underlying it. To qualify as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, he took several years of private lessons and a three year teacher training course, begun under F.M. Alexander and completed under A.R. Alexander, in 1944.

In his decision to retrain as a scientist in order to do research on the Alexander Technique, Frank Jones was given support by some of his colleagues in academia. Harold Schlosberg and J. McVicker Hunt, two well known psychologists on the faculty at Brown University, helped by introducing him to other scientists and providing technical guidance. Also, while teaching in Philadelphia, he had met a physiologist named Grayson McCouch who had conducted research on postural reflexes. Through these connections he was able to establish contacts at Tufts University and Harvard Medical School in order to begin retraining as a scientist. In 1949 he began to work with John Kennedy, an experimental psychologist at Tufts University who was conducting research on electromyography. At around the same time he began sitting in on classes at Harvard Medical School, where he studied anatomy under Don Fawcett and physiology under Paul Chatfield.

Why would a successful teacher of Classics choose to change his career to become a researcher in psychology and physiology? According to Jones, his meeting with John Dewey, in 1947, had an important influence on the decision. Dewey was very supportive of Alexander's work and had argued that it was "scientific in the strictest sense of the word." He stated that the experience of a lesson was like a "laboratory experimental demonstration" and that Alexander's work embodied the essential features of the scientific method. In spite of Dewey's endorsement of the scientific nature of this work, he was scoffed at by colleagues for following this "cult." In response to these criticisms, Dewey wrote several essays attempting to differentiate Alexander from the "miracle mongers" who boasted of specific cures and developed large cult followings, but had no mechanism to account for the cures. Dewey saw Alexander's ideas of inhibition and conscious control as preferable alternatives to the techniques of faith healers whose patients mindlessly responded to the stimulus of suggestion with unquestioning acceptance like passive puppets. Dewey felt frustrated that the Alexander Technique had not been formulated in terms acceptable to the scientific community, and felt it was important for someone to conduct an experimental investigation. At one point he attempted to get Alexander to collaborate with some researchers, but Alexander was not ready to cooperate at that time. So Frank Jones found himself in the position of being the man to carry out that task.

Another factor which brought the need for a scientific investigation to a head was the libel trial in South Africa. Alexander sued the editors of a journal called Manpower for publishing an article entitled "Quackery vs. Physical Education." This article portrayed the Alexander Technique as a form of faith healing which played upon the gullibility of its followers. At the trial, expert testimony was heard from several scientists, including several Nobel Prize winners. No one was able to disprove the validity of the Technique, however, and Alexander won his case. Even though Alexander won, the trial was another illustration of the need for experimental research to document the validity of Alexander's work. Jones's first efforts in his new calling as a researcher were the electromyographic studies he conducted in the lab of John Kennedy at Tufts. Supported by gifts from pupils, he used EMG to study the effects of the Alexander Technique on neck muscle activity. He also collaborated with Kennedy on a study of the startle pattern. This study, which became his first published experiment, demonstrated the primary role of neck muscles in the startle response.

Meanwhile, back at Harvard, he began negotiations toward running a study at the Massachusetts General Hospital. In 1952, through a pupil who was a student at Harvard, he met Dr. Arlie Bock, director of the Harvard Health Service and Dr. Stanley Cobb of the Massachusetts General Hospital. Stanley Cobb presented him with a list of 18 hypotheses worth investigating on the topic of posture and muscle tone and suggested that he might enlist the support of Dr. Denny-Brown. Jones decided that the topic of posture and aging would be of most interest and plans for the study were moving forward.

When these plans fell through, his study found its niche at the Institute for Applied Experimental Psychology at Tufts University. He later commented that it was fortunate that psychology, rather than medicine, provided the context for his studies. He could have taken a clinical approach and presented case studies illustrating the benefits of the Alexander Technique. The problem with this approach is that it does not demonstrate a cause and effect relationship between the Technique and any beneficial results. Any positive results could be attributed to placebo effects. Accumulating a large number of case histories in the form of a sample survey is open to the same criticism. Only the experimental approach enables researchers to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship. So Tufts was an appropriate site for his investigation.

In 1954, with the results of his electromyographic study and his published articles, he was able to approach the Carnegie Corporation for a grant to study the role of postural reflexes in human behavior. He deliberately chose to downplay the Alexander Technique, as such, in favor of the physiological and psychological principles believed to underlie it. He received grants from the Carnegie Corporation (1954-1956) and later on from the United States Public Health Service (1956-1964; 1966-1967) to study "Kinesthesis and the Postural Reflexes."

The culmination of his work probably came in the mid-1960's when he wrote several important review articles. One of them was based on a presentation he gave International Journal of Neurology. A second major review article appeared in the Psychological Review, one of the main journals of the American Psychological Association.

After submitting the article to the Psychological Review, Frank Jones received comments from the editor and from the anonymous consultants who reviewed the manuscript. One of the consultants commented on the "vast significance" of the work, stating that:

"In some ways it is as revolutionary as psychoanalysis with the added advantage of being objectively measurable and based on fundamental physiological mechanisms that can be recorded."

The editor furthermore suggested that he change the orientation of the article to make it less physiological with less elaboration on muscles and to emphasize the principles of inhibition and set. This was done and the title was changed to: "A method for changing stereotyped response patterns by the inhibition of certain postural sets." He was thus able to get both the principles of inhibition and set into the title.

Theoretical Background

I shall now discuss the research of Frank Jones in terms of three topics: the theoretical background; the studies defining the poise of the head; and the studies describing the quality of movement. An important theoretical idea that influenced Frank Jones early on in his thinking about the Alexander Technique, was that a plausible mechanism to account for some of Alexander's findings existed in the form of the postural reflexes. Alexander's discoveries had actually preceded the demonstrations of Rudolf Magnus that in animal preparations there was a causal relationship between changes in the poise of the head and muscle tone in the limbs. Simply defined, a reflex is a simple, unlearned, response to a stimulus, based on a direct connection in the nervous system between some kind of receptor, which takes in the stimulus from the outer world, and an effector, which makes the response.

In the case of postural reflexes, there are two kinds. First there are the reflexes that tell the organism "Which way is up." These are the 'righting reflexes' which respond to the stimulus of gravity by orienting the head to become upright in the gravitational field. Then there are the reflexes, for which the orientation of the head provides the stimulus, and muscle tone in the limbs is the response. These are the 'tonic reflexes.' Magnus called them the 'attitudinal reflexes,' because the poise of the head fixed an attitude on the body.

Both of these kinds of postural reflexes can be demonstrated when a cat is held upside down and dropped. The first thing that happens is that the cat moves its head so that it is in an upright relationship to gravity. Finally, after the head is oriented, the body will follow and the cat will land on its feet.

In the symmetric tonic head-neck reflexes when the head is flexed back, the knees will buckle. A similar buckling of the legs can be seen in an infant whose neck has been scrunched down. This is called the Landau Reflex. In the startle reflex, the stimulus is a loud noise, or some other fear producing stimulus, and the response is for the head to be pulled in and for the legs to buckle.

To analyze the startle response Jones used anatomical markers on the side of the head and the back of the neck, and the marker on the sternal notch. These showed that when the subject heard a loud noise, the first thing that happens is that the head pulls forward and the chest collapses. Markers on the legs showed the buckling of the knees. The electromyographic recording showed activity in the neck muscles. There were contractions in the sternomastoid muscle, which goes from the mastoid bone behind the ear to the sternum, or breast bone, and also in the trapezius muscle in the back of the neck. Frank Jones once wrote a paper entitled "Startle as a paradigm of malposture" in which he hypothesized that the stooped posture of old age might be the cumulative effect of many years of postural responses to stressful situations.

While the startle response is traditionally elicited by a sudden loud noise, similar patterns may be observed in response to the stresses of musical performance, public speaking, asthma attacks, or physical pain. In all of these situations there is a tendency to pull back (retroflex) the head, shortening the neck. This may make the chin jut out and create folds of skin behind the neck. A contrasting pattern of balance and poise can be observed in triumphant athletes making a victory salute.

The foregoing illustrations have shown, first of all, that there are cause and effect reflex mechanisms, by which disturbances in the poise of the head result in a collapse in muscle tone in the limbs, and secondly, that similar patterns of postural collapse can be observed in many familiar stressful situations. Much of the research of Frank Jones was directed at showing a causal relationship between disturbances in the poise of the head and changes in the quality of movement, as a mechanism underlying the Alexander Technique. To conduct this research he had to solve two problems. First he had to define the poise of the head in a manner which was precise and reproducible. Secondly he had to develop measuring techniques to describe the quality of movement with similar precision. This is important because the task of a researcher is to describe his methods in a manner which is so explicit that they can be reproduced by another who simply reads the manuscript.

Defining The Poise of the Head

In defining the poise of the head, Jones made use of anatomical markers to compare subjects' responses to instructions to sit in their "most comfortable posture" and at the "greatest sitting height." He called these responses their "postural images."

He used these two habitual postures for comparison with the results of the Alexander Technique. To do this he asked the subjects to resume the habitual relaxed posture, and he then guided them into an upright posture using the principles of the Alexander Technique. In his papers he referred to this as the "experimental posture." It is important to make the disclaimer that he did not mean by this that the Alexander Technique resulted in a specific posture. Once when Psychology Today published an article referring to the Alexander Technique as a method of using suggestion to improve posture, he was tempted to write them about how Alexander had cautioned him never to use the term 'Posture' when talking about the technique. Alexander maintained that the Technique had more to do with how we respond to stimuli. As Jones put it, you really have to add movement to get the concept of "use" or posture as a function of time. Thus the Alexander Technique produced not just an alternative posture, but an alternative to posture, in the sense of a fixed position.

In one study, Jones made a comparison of the sense of effort corresponding to the three postural images. He asked subjects to assume their habitual relaxed posture and to define the amount of effort required to maintain this position as having a magnitude of 10. He then asked them to judge the magnitude of effort to maintain the habitual erect posture. Invariably they reported that this required an increased effort. When they were asked to judge the amount of effort in the 'experimental posture' they reported that no more effort was required. In fact, in most cases, the experimental procedure of the Alexander Technique enabled subjects to maintain an upright posture with less effort than required for what they had considered to be their 'most comfortable' posture.

Why do people think that upright posture should require so much effort? One answer may be that their image of upright posture is the military posture. This posture, which is said to date back to the time of Frederick the Great of Prussia, can only be maintained with considerable muscular effort. It is no wonder that the idea of erect posture recalls memories of rigid authority figures moralistically admonishing us to "Stand up straight!"

Using the Alexander Technique, Jones was able to guide subjects in moving from a slumped to an erect posture, while preventing the head from pulling down and back, thereby allowing it to 'go forward and up.' Using electromyography, for an objective measure of the activity of the neck muscles, he was able to show that even though there was more activity in the neck muscles when subjects sat up at their 'greatest sitting height,' subjects were able to sit up in the 'experimental posture' with little or no neck muscle activity.

Jones was thus able to show, using objective measures (EMG), as well as subjective measures (magnitude estimation), that it was possible to sit upright with little or no effort, following an adjustment in the poise of the head. To clarify the precise nature of this change in the poise of the head he used anatomical landmarks.

To indicate the position of the body he used a marker on the seventh cervical vertebra, at the base of the neck and another on the sternal notch, at the top of the breast bone. He indicated head position with a marker on the side of the head, which he placed on a line between base of the eye socket (the orbit) and a point on the ear called the tragion. This line is used by physical anthropologists and is known as the Frankfort plane. Using these markers he was able to define angles measuring the tilt of the head, and the forward thrust of the head.

In addition to the studies using these surface markers he was able through connections at the Tufts Dental School to conduct a study on twenty dental students using X-ray photography. He did this in collaboration with an orthodontist, Philip Gilley, who was studying malocclusion.

Here, he found that in the habitual relaxed posture, the students would hold their heads down a little. But when he asked them to sit up straight, they would tilt their heads back, bringing the center of gravity of the head closer to the support of the spine. Then, using the principles of the Alexander Technique, Jones was able to use his hands to help prevent the student from pulling the head back and out of balance.

Using anatomical landmarks Jones was able to show differences in the three postures in a precise and objective fashion. Two major findings appeared. First, the position of the center of gravity of the head, which roughly corresponds to an anatomical landmark in the skull called Selia Turcica (Latin for 'Turkish Saddle'—a bony structure which holds the pituitary gland) was found to differ in the three postures. In the "experimental posture" it was closer to the second cervical vertebra, indicating that the center of gravity was forward of the support of the spine. The second finding was that there was a greater distance between the first two vertebrae in the experimental posture.

In his book Human Evolution, Bernard Campbell, an anthropologist, made the same point that Jones did. He showed that the center of gravity of the head is in front of the support of the spine. The weight of the head thus counterbalances the ligaments and muscles in the neck to cause a lengthening of the spine, or as Patrick Macdonald refers to it, an "upthrust of the spine." In a sense this might be an anatomical mechanism underlying what Alexander called the primary control. Clearly these tension forces originating at the back of the skull have important consequences for muscle tone in the spine. They provide the experience that the body is a resilient, balanced system, "suspended from above," rather than a dead weight collapsed in a heap, held up from below. The effect of enhanced muscle tone extends to the muscles of respiration and locomotion, leading to a kinesthetic experience of lightness and well-being, that is the hallmark of the Alexander Technique. So in addition to describing the precise nature of these changes in the head-neck and trunk, the research of Frank Jones looked at beneficial consequences of this for the quality of movement.

Describing the Quality of Movement

Using the techniques of experimental psychology, Frank Jones was able to describe improvements in the quality of movement in an objective fashion. One of the most striking consequences of the Alexander Technique is the change in the experience of movement, the kinesthetic experience. The adjective check list is a method used by psychologists to convert subjective experience to a verbal report, which can be recorded in statistical fashion. With the help of Harold Schlosberg, he made up a list of adjectives for use in studying the experience of movement.

Jones used this adjective check list in a study of a group of students in a speech class given a series of 20 lessons. They described the movements as "higher" and reported that they were kinesthetically "lighter," "easier," "smoother," and less "jerky." They gave mixed reports on whether they were moving "faster" or "slower."

In order to get something more than just the subjective experience of movement, Jones needed to look at the actual physical movement pattern, using the methods of physics. He borrowed a technique which had been developed by a French physiologist named Marey.

Marey placed reflecting markers on a model who was dressed in black. He had a special camera with a rotating shutter (the Marey wheel) so that he could get multiple exposures on one piece of film. This method is still used to analyze the gait cycle, for it clearly shows when the foot lifts off the ground, when the leg swings forward, and when the heel strikes the ground. Jones borrowed this technique and updated it with the strobe light developed by Professor Edgerton of M.I.T.

Jones used Edgerton's stroboscopic photography technique to analyze movement in subjects with reflecting tape markers on the head, trunk, and limbs. He was able to compare the patterns of a subject walking in both his habitual fashion, and with the guidance of the experimenter's hand maintaining the poise of the head.

The habitual movement had a noticeable up and down, bouncing quality. In contrast, the guided movement had a smoother quality. Remember that one of the words that the subjects used to describe the experimental movement was "smoother." Another adjective was "higher," and the subject literally was higher, in terms of the height of the markers on the head. So the multiple image photographs demonstrated objectively the physical movement qualities associated with the kinesthetic experience.

The movement pattern which was given the most extensive study was the movement of rising from a seated position, the sit-to-stand movement. The subject in the habitual movement pattern typically pulls the head back and then jackknifes forward, momentarily slowing down before accelerating upward. The subject guided by the experimenter showed a much straighter trajectory. This may also solve the riddle of why subjects called the experimental movements both "slower" and "faster" on the adjective check list. In the habitual movement the anatomical markers on the head are further apart, indicating that the subject is moving faster. Nevertheless it takes more time to complete the movement because the trajectory is less direct. In a manner which is perhaps reminiscent of the story of the tortoise and the hare, the smooth, direct, continuous, and moderately paced movement of the experimental condition is superior to the jerky, indirect, discontinuous habitual movement.

The superiority of the guided movement was confirmed in two validation studies. One study compared the movements of students who were selected by their physical education teachers as being well coordinated, versus poorly coordinated. Another study compared patients with neurological diseases with normal controls. In both cases, healthier or more coordinated subjects moved more like the guided subjects than their neurologically impaired or uncoordinated counterparts.

The movements of walking or getting out of a chair are relatively easy to analyze because they have simple trajectories. A complicated movement such as the standing broad jump requires another technique because the movement may double back on itself.

To make it easier to analyze complex movements, Frank Jones developed a technique for color coding multiple image photographs. He got the idea while watching a dance review in which colored lights were used to bring different dancers into focus. He developed a special photographic apparatus which had a rotating wheel with five colored filters. As each filter went in front of the lens, the strobe light would flash and he would get another image on the film. An example of a color-coded multiple-image photograph was used on the cover of his book Body Awareness in Action.

Life magazine regularly published photographs from Professor Edgerton's M.I.T. lab, and when they contacted him to ask him what was new, he referred them to Frank Jones. A photographer from Life came to Tufts to use the apparatus and took a few photographs including one which appeared in the February 17, 1958 issue.

The Technique of multiple image photography made it possible to record posture in a way which went beyond a static position in space. Adding the fourth dimension of time to the image revealed posture as part of a pattern of movement, such as walking or rising from a seated position. This technique furthermore showed the superiority, over habitual movements, of movements guided by a teacher of the Alexander Technique. What interested Jones, however, was studying how movements were emitted as conscious and voluntary acts. To study this it was important to go to the very instant the movement was initiated, the point in time when intention was translated into action. He theorized that the stimulus to move was often accompanied by a postural response in the head, neck, and trunk region which markedly altered the quality of the movement. He called this postural response the "postural set." The postural set could be recorded as activity in neck muscles, as a change in the poise of the head, or as a shift in weight. To record the latter, he used a device for recording weight as a function of time, the strain gauge force platform.

The force platform recorded movement patterns from the point of initiation of the movement, as shifts in weight on the feet or on the seat. The shifts in weight are recorded as tracings on a polygraph. In the habitual movement from sitting to standing, the method shows a preliminary shift in weight. This shift is accompanied by a large muscular response, recorded with the electromyograph. In the guided movement, the force platform shows no preliminary shift in weight and a much smaller response of the muscles.

While most of Frank Jones's research on the benefits of the Alexander Technique focused on the quality of movement, he was also interested in documenting beneficial effects on other functions such as breathing and voice quality. One of his last published studies looked at voice quality in a singer. He found that when he made recordings of a singer with habitual and adjusted poise of the head, he was able to contrast the sound using a scientific technique known as sound spectroscopy, or the voice print technique.

Voice prints comparing the resonance of the voice in the two conditions show objectively the presence of more overtones when the singer has her head poised in a balanced way, as opposed to her habitual posture. It is also possible to see an indication of the sound of gasping for air between phases of the song. That disappears in the adjusted condition.


To summarize, Frank Jones began his research program with the encouragement of colleagues like John Dewey, Greyson McCouch, Harold Schlosberg, and J. McVicker Hunt. These eminent scientists were convinced that Alexander had made an important discovery but were frustrated by their inability to formulate the Alexander Technique in a scientifically meaningful fashion. Frank Jones was able to answer this calling by first of all defining the poise of the head and secondly describing the quality of movement in ways which were precise, objective and measurable.

Many of his writings addressed the much broader question of the relevance of the Alexander Technique to the control of habits. The issue of habit and change was a central theme in the 1965 Psychological Review article, but in its broader sense it was a challenging experimental question that he was never able to address directly in his research. The idea that the Alexander Technique was a way of attaining freedom from stereotyped habits was a constant theme in his teaching however (see the article by Lester "Tommy" Thompson in these papers). He argued that the same principle of inhibition that freed his subjects from the limitations of their habitual movement patterns could generalize to free one from the limitations of other stereotyped habit patterns. His goal was thus nothing less than extending the range to which free will could operate in directing one's conduct.


Based on a paper presented at the First International Congress of Teachers of the F. M. Alexander Technique, Stony Brook New York. An illustrated version of this paper was published by Centerline Press, Long Beach, CA, USA, 90815 in 1988.


Richard A. Brown, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in Psychology at Tufts University. He received his Ph.D. in Psychology in 1977 from Tufts University, where he conducted thesis and dissertation research on the Alexander Technique.

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