The Vault

Movement In Context 

By Patrick D. Wall FRS, DM, FRCP 


I am moved because as a complete outsider, I am invited by the leading exponents of the Alexander Principle to comment on this hugely intriguing phenomenon. It is clear that, in Alexander's terms, use and functioning relate to muscles, movement and posture. Naturally, I respond to this invitation by trying to put the Alexander Principle in context with other phenomena.

What other phenomena? You have invited a scientist-physician.

Wilfred Barlow quotes with evident glee in his book, The Alexander Principle, from Burnet who says "The contribution of laboratory science to Medicine has virtually come to an end". Since Barlow says that most readers of his book will know this to be true, I, as a scientist, had better be careful. If he means that some science atomises functioning structures down to such tiny components that the properties of these quantal units are no longer necessarily relevant to the function of the whole, I would have to agree with him and will avoid doing so.

In fact, I will avoid discussing all those muscles, spindles and servo-feedbacks to which he devotes so much attention since I believe they are irrelevant units with respect to the Alexander Principle he supports. For relevant science, I would rather turn to Tinbergen who fractionated movement to create ethology and devoted his Nobel laureate acceptance speech in praise of Alexander. To do this, I wish to examine two types of fantastically skilled behaviour which can be repeatedly observed over and over. One is the action of a gun dog and the other is the movement of the four men, pitcher, batter, catcher and umpire who participate in the few seconds of a baseball pitch.


1. Arousal-Alerting

On a whispered command, the gun dog quits his private doggy business and stands up. In this alerted posture, there are multiple random repeated movements with continual head turning looking back at the master. The muscles are trembling and the dog is panting. If you were to look inside such a dog, you would find the heart rate accelerating, the body temperature going up, the blood glucose rising, gut movement ceasing and so on. The whole animal is in a state of prediction for what will happen in the future. There is no immediate present purpose for all this activity, only a possible future purpose. The so called 'normal' homeostatically controlled state of the body has been deliberately thrown away on a guess about what the future will hold.

These are not reflex responses to stimuli. If you were to hand a veterinarian the readings of the clinical state of such a dog; heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, hormone levels etc., he would certainly declare the animal to be in a grossly pathological state. He is correct in the sense that this integrated overall body state is inappropriate for a standing dog who is not going anywhere. My reason for describing this state and the subsequent stages of movement is to emphasize that while there may be occasions where response follows stimulus and input leads to throughput which leads to output, here is an occasion where output preceeds input. The smart bird does not wait for snow flakes to trigger its winter migration. It predicts by measuring day length that if it hangs around there will be snow flakes. 

Of course, I do not mean that these animals are making cognitive calculations. My only point is that elaborate integrated movement is not necessarily triggered by the stimulus for which that movement is appropriate. It is set off by the expectation that demand may appear and the body will be ready for it and will then be in a responding mode with no latency delay. The animal now gets a second command.


2. Exploration 

The animal launches itself along the indicated axis and begins to weave back and forth to cover a triangular area on either side of the axis. What exactly is this movement? The animal has been trained to seek large birds on the ground. It has a large doggy repertoire of possible behaviours but, in this state, it is an obsessively monopolized bird seeker. 

There is good reason to believe that the sensory nervous system is reorganized into a special detector in this state. The entire mass of olfactory, visual and auditory information which is streaming into the brain passes over an immensely subtle tuned filter set for bird detection. Other information is completely ignored. The fleas are still biting. A rival dog crosses our dog's search pattern and is totally ignored. The dog is still hungry. A gruesome example is that the animal streaks through a barbed wire fence and continues with a long bleeding gash in its side. Hunters attribute this behaviour to toughness, galantry and loyalty because they do not realize that dogs and humans can be so goal oriented that they can select the sensory world within which they live without cognitive moral discussion or decision. 

With the sensory filters set but with no stimulus, what determines the movement pattern? The obvious answer is the detection range of the sense organs. The well camouflaged birds have heard the dogs coming and have frozen into absolute stillness because the dog's sensory threshold is much higher for a stationary bird than for a moving one. Therefore the dog scans the ground with regular sweeps which he has learnt will bring him within detection range if there is a bird present. 

The reason for my description is that we are observing elaborate skilled behaviour with no stimulus. It is true that it could be called goal seeking but that term implies that there is a goal in sight. Here there is no such distant sighting and frequently there is no goal and only the master's recall signal interrupts the behaviour. If however those yearning tuned filters are suddenly occupied by the right concatenation of sense data, there is an abrupt change in the animal's motor pattern.


3. Orientation 

The dog freezes into a rigid statuesque posture. The animal's nose points directly at the location of the bird. The pupils of the eyes are dilated and the optical axis of both eyes lines up on the apparent point from which the sight, sound, smell of the bird originates. The legs are fixed with intense contraction of agonists and antagonists in a posture from which a leap forward can be initiated. The tail points in a straight line. This strange state is not only seen in trained gun dogs but in all the cat family, in herons and in any number of hunting animals. It is a transition point. They have found the general location of a target and then they optimize the direction of their sense organs and hold still in order to collect the final details from the target under the best possible conditions. 

I have described three different types of activity; arousal, exploration and orientation. They are grossly different but they have one aspect in common. They are designed to generate a stimulus. Only after completion of these three phases, the stimulus may generate a response which is appetitive. Only at this stage, the ordinary discussion of a stimulus-response relationship may become relevant. I have described the three stages of gun dog behaviour not because I have any liking for what I consider abhorrent but because it is all too easily observed in any country district and because I wish to consider the possibility that these three phases which are so obviously separated in the dogs may be a common component of our everyday behaviour. 

Now I wish to turn to humans frozen in the third stage; intense orientation. I have chosen baseball players because they are carefully selected for a very skilled activity and exactly repeat over and over the same action with tiny variations. The reader may choose any number of other similar situations in other types of skilled activity. The four people involved in a baseball pitch are oriented onto an invisible window in space in front of the batter and their attention is rivetted. The pitcher has to throw the ball through the window, the batter has to hit it, the catcher has to collect it if the batter misses and the umpire has to decide if it went through the window.


4. Displacement Activity: Ritual Behaviour 

Immediately before each pitch, an individual pitcher chews and touches the peak of his cap. The batter crosses himself and spits. (This is the only place in the Western World where one can still observe the old fashioned skill of a well aimed gob of spit). The batter now at the plate slowly waves the bat behind his head. The catcher opens and closes his face mask. The umpire wipes his nose with the back of his right hand. For every pitch, the sequence is exactly repeated. 

These movements are utterly irrelevant to the action and reaction which is about to happen. Tinbergen invented the phrase 'displacement activity.' Herring gulls turn aside from a stand off battle and pluck pieces of grass in a movement characteristic of collecting material for nest building. When an animal is frustrated in the completion of one form of behaviour, it substitutes another item in its repertoire even though the action has nothing to do with the situation. During the learning of a skilled act, some intermediate stages may be accidentally incorporated and remain repeated even though they play no part in the consummation of the act. Human behaviour repeatedly shows this form of movement. The embarrassed man who wishes to change the subject putts an invisible golf ball into a non-existent hole with an invisible putter. Anger and frustration particularly bring out these movements or postures. Generations of men went through army training in which the most dangerous thing they did was grenade throwing. For the rest of their lives, they pull out the non-existent pin with a hooked index finger and throw nothing with the other hand. Human movement and posture is full of these irrelevant components particulary when it is skilled. The associated movements merge on one side with frankly symbolic ritualistic gestures and on the other with the universal words and phrases of body language.


5. Purposive Movement 

Finally the pitcher throws the ball! We see in slow motion that three components of the movement follow in sequence. The head and eyes orient precisely on the part of the window at which he is aiming. Next the body and legs move into the posture of the launching platform and finally the arm anchored to the launching platform accelerates forward and the ball leaves the fingers. This one single movement is worth millions and millions of dollars.

It is too expensive to permit the usual mythical popular explanations or even the pseudo-scientific hocum about muscle spindles and servo-controls. The trajectory is even more skilled than is obvious since the pitcher can curve the ball's course by spinning the ball and controls the curve by the speed of spin and by the position of the seam with respect to the spinning axis. The complete plan for the precise sequence of muscle contractions is present before any movement is initiated. It is pre-programmed.

We can illustrate the evidence for this in a simple situation of a skilled movement. A violinist is drawing the bow across one string and slides his/her finger down the string from one note to another as fast as possible. This act involves no more than flexing the arm from one position to another. Could it be that the violinist is listening to the continuous note and controlling the muscles to halt when the correct note is being played? It is possible that the correct end position is known by looking to see where the finger is. It is also possible that the violinist senses the angle of the joints or the length of the muscles. It is possible that all methods are being used simultaneously. That is exactly what a learning amateur does as skill is building. However a medium skilled violinist let alone a gypsy fiddler can do this so fast and so accurately that there is simply no time for this sensory feedback to operate.

There is a quite different way to show that these movements are pre-programmed and not sensory servo-feedback controlled. If as the finger is passing down the string, some unpleasant character were to reach over and jog the finger a bit farther than the violinist intended then a violinist operating on sensory feedback would be able to correct and end up in the right postion. If however the whole movement was pre-programmed, an unexpected jog would result in the finger ending up at the intended end point plus the length of the jog.

Unskilled slow players using sensory feedback correct the error. Skilled players do not and cannot correct the error. That is why the beginner is just as good or as bad on any violin they pick up while the skilled violinist has to re-learn some of the original skill even if a string is changed. Since skills are learned in a particular situation, the professional works hard to stabilize the situation with what may appear ritualistic irrelevancies; same shoes, same length finger nails, same handkerchief on the chin rest. They are not irrelevant since they form part of the sensory-motor start position on which the learned skilled motor sequence pattern operates.

Undoubtedly some professionals have many programmes which they can call on and some learn more rapidly than others. Some may play passably sitting down as well as standing up. I would venture the guess that the very charm of the duets between two master violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Jango Rheinhart comes from the pre-programmed ability of Menuhin to hit the right note while Rheinhart inserted some which he was searching for until he hit the note he wanted. The transition from goal oriented movement directed by sensory feedback to preprogrammed achievement of the same end result occupies much of our lives. Mao Tse Tung was obviously right that the longest journey begins with a single step but it is equally obvious that the thousandth step is very different from the first.



Alexander and those who follow him have clearly developed a deep understanding of abnormal ways of functioning. I am sure they have an intuitive feeling for different patterns and for how to guide use to function. I accept completely the factual report "I did this and that happened." I admire the humility and decency of the practitioners.

However, schemes, rationales and explanations are a quite different matter and may have nothing to do with the achievements. For that reason I have listed five different types of function which may be components of any apparently single function. I think it obvious that all five of these can be disordered and that it is highly unlikely that all the disorders respond optimally to a unified approach even though they might all be submerged by a unified approach. At 7:30 a.m. on July 5, 1916, thirteen divisions of British troops rose from their trenches to begin the Battle of the Somme. They were the "New Army" who had been moulded into a proud disciplined united force trained to walk in line, upright with a particular posture. By noon, 60,000 of them were dead or wounded. Use certainly affected functioning and the British Army and, for that matter, the British Empire was never the same again. 

While accepting completely the results of a unified principle, I am less happy with the theoretical background which does not even appear all that unified. It seems that Alexander would say that attitude is use. This dictum mirrors and replaces the James-Lange approach that attitude is emotion. While James-Lange has been largely discarded, it remains highly effective for some individuals in some circumstances.

For example, the person with a free floating anxiety neurosis is like the alerted dogs I described in phase one except that the future challenge for which they are so fully prepared does not exist. Some of these people know that they are anxious because they know they are sweating. If you treat the sweating, they become less anxious. That is great when it works but it does not always work.

Theories do not have to be universally true to be useful. This leads me to the most obvious fragmentation implicit in the Alexander theory which is the acceptance of Cartesian dualism of mind and body. Barlow writes:

"In spite of his old fashioned stimulus-response approach, Alexander was throughout insistant on psycho-physical relatedness."

I do not find that good enough. After chapters and books on body and mind, stimulus and response, it does not seem sufficient to add an after-thought addendum that, of course, as everyone knows, the mind affects the body. I see Alexander and his followers as pointing to us as wonderful unified functioning biological organisms who react rightly and wrongly as an integrated whole. I see in this corpus no necessity to begin or end with the intellectual artifice of a separate mind and body even if the two separated mythical entities are allowed to talk to each other on unspecified occasions.

Alexander in his time was undoubtedly a pioneer in emphasizing the relation of mind and body. As time passes, perhaps we should stress that mind and body are not just related but are rather two ways of looking at the same entity. 



Prof. P.D. Wall FRS, DM, FRCP received his medical degree from Oxford in 1948 and then taught and worked at Yale, the University of Chicago and MIT. He returned to University College London in 1967 where he set up a research group. In 1971 he set up a parallel research group at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His work relates to the pathophysiology of the somatosensory nervous system, particularly pain, and to plasticity of the adult sensory nervous system. For this work he has received a number of major international prizes and is a Fellow of the Royal Society.

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