Whatever happened to reflexes? Much Alexander literature has used references to “postural reflexes” as explanations for how the Technique works. FM himself refers in his books and the transcripts of public lectures to the work of Rudolph Magnus on head and neck reflexes as “proof” of his work. And Frank Pierce Jones book Freedom of Choice makes much use of head/neck reflexes in its section on explaining the AT scientifically. However, these explanations do not stand up very well to in-depth scrutiny.
Magnus was experimenting on “decerebrate” cats and other animals; in other words the upper parts of their brains had been rendered non-functional. In this situation very visible responses were apparent to changes in the attitudes of the head and neck. These are the tonic neck and labyrinthine reflexes which alter flexor or extensor muscle tone in the limbs in very specific ways. Detailed accounts of this can be found in more recent literature, for example in the two books by Dr. Tristram Roberts: The Neurophysiology of Postural Mechanisms and Understanding Balance. Dr. Roberts gives examples of how these reflexes match up with common movement patterns in 4-legged creatures such as cats and horses, the horse’s head and neck lifted up preparatory to jumping a fence, for example, preparing the limbs for the powerful push-off from the hind legs. Magnus himself gives the following example with cats:
“A cat which sees some food lying on the ground flexes the head in the ventral direction, and this causes the fore-limbs to relax so that the snout is moved towards the food; but if a piece of meat be held high up in the air the optic stimulus causes dorsiflexion of the head. This evokes strong extension of the fore-limbs without marked extension of the hind-limbs. The body of the animal is not only focused on the meat, but is also brought into a position which is optimum for the springing reflex, so that by a strong sudden simultaneous extension of the hind-limbs the animal can reach the meat.”
In 4-legged creatures these tonic reflexes do seem to play a significant role in adult movement, perhaps because the animal’s neck and head is out in front of its points of support from the 4 limbs, and the fact that all its movements are oriented in the direction of its head and spine. Human movement, however, is more complex. Our spines point upwards even as we move forwards and we do not need to get our mouth to things to eat, drink, or explore since we have hands to interact with the world. So these kinds of tonic neck and head reflexes, while sometimes apparent in human infants in the first months of life, quickly disappear as they become integrated into more flexible responses. They are therefore part of a group of reflexes collectively known as “primitive reflexes” which are an indication of serious problems if they persist in infants or re-appear later in life.
Other reflexes studied by Magnus include righting reflexes (also known as righting reactions) and positive support reactions, which appear from 3 to 8 months or so in the infant’s life, after the “primitive reflexes” have been integrated with more flexible movement patterns. These seem to be important building blocks helping the child develop towards full upright posture. It’s as if they give a starting point so the child is not left to rely on pure trial and error in a vacuum, so to speak. The righting reactions allow the infant to regain normal upright orientation of its head, and of its head and body in relation to each other, after any movement that displaces it. The positive support reactions are part of the process of establishing enough tone in the extensor muscles of the limbs and trunk for the child to support itself (at birth there is a predominance of flexor tone). But these reflexes or reactions are also gradually subsumed into more flexible balance and postural responses often labeled “equilibrium reactions” (or “responses”). The shift in terminology from reflexes to reactions and responses corresponds to a shift from the stereotyped stimulus-response of a reflex to the highly adaptable, context-dependent behavior that we demonstrate as normal upright humans. In recent years it has become apparent to researchers studying this subject that reflexes, which require an external stimulus to evoke the predetermined response, cannot fully account for the coordination of posture and movement. Here is a quote from one of the key figures in this development, Viktor Gurfinkel, from his 1994 paper The Mechanisms of Postural Regulation in Man:
“However, the main problems of postural regulation turn out to be much greater than just the maintenance of the body in an invariable position in space. They include the adaptation of posture to the anticipated movement and maintenance of balance during locomotion and other forms of movement. But even the simple maintenance of vertical posture cannot be reduced to a set of local stretch reflexes. Even if it assumed that this mechanism is the main one in maintaining the given joint angles, many questions remain unconsidered:
- What mechanisms set and form the initial posture that serves as a reference for the correcting mechanisms?
- How do movements requiring changes of initial posture or accompanying its disturbances proceed against the background of these stabilizing mechanisms?
- In what way is the coordination of the numerous posture-correcting reflex chains achieved in a multi-element system?
“Finally, to regulate the position of the body relative to the vertical the nervous system must have its internal representation.
“Such a wide spectrum of postural regulation tasks can hardly be accomplished by a simple control system based exclusively on reflex reactions. In the last two decades concepts have appeared on postural ‘synergies’, ‘strategies’, and ‘central programs’ in which a significant role in postural regulation is assigned to the work of central mechanisms (see Massion Movement, posture and equilibrium: interaction and coordination, 1991).”
In the next post in this series I will attempt to look at how these new ideas of internal representation (also known as “body schema”), synergies, strategies, and central programs actually fit very well with some key features of the Alexander Technique, enhancing its value as an educational process.
The existence of righting and positive support reactions as starting points in the development of upright posture does, however, point to an important aspect of general coordination. Jean Massion refers to this in a paper called Postural Control Systems in Developmental Perspective (1998, p. 469) where he notes that in the first few years of life the development of balance and movement coordination in children is very much “top down,” i.e. oriented around the balance of the head which, in small children is a greater proportion of the body weight than it is in an adult. At around the age of seven, a new strategy appears, organizing balance more from the “bottom up,” i.e. oriented around the balance of the whole body on its base of support, and these two strategies need to be integrated. Indeed in teaching and practicing the Alexander Technique we are continually dealing with the conscious direction of the head and neck (“top down”) and integrating that with the stimulation of anti-gravity tone through the legs and spine which comes from the contact of feet on the ground or seat on a chair etc. (‘bottom up’).
This is the essence of chair work: coordinating the neck muscles to support the head, the back muscles to support the trunk, and the leg muscles in their dual role of both supporting the body from the ground up and enabling us to move about the world. And the most efficient strategy for this, or the most efficient synergy of postural support with movement, is when the supportive tone maintains the full, resilient length of the spine without locking the head into the top of the spine and without compromising the breathing by gripping the torso in such a way that ribs and diaphragm are restricted, particularly in the back and sides. Which could be re-phrased as “Neck free, head forward and up, back lengthening and widening.”
For further reading, along with the Gurfinkel and Massion papers already quoted, have a look at the following.
Dr. Tim Cacciatore’s paper Science and the Alexander Technique in Direction Journal vol. 2 issue 10.
Jean Massion et al Why and How are Posture and Movement Coordinated? 2004.
Alain Berthoz The Brain’s Sense of Movement, Harvard University Press 2000, esp. chapter 11.