A “pre” technique
When I was first around the Alexander world, in the early to mid 1970s, a description I sometimes heard was that the Alexander Technique is a “pre-technique.” In a way that relates to what I wrote in the first post of this series on Explaining the AT.” There I was talking about “general coordination” underlying and preceding all specific coordination for learned skills such as playing sports or musical instruments, or driving a car or using a computer keyboard. Similarly, the AT could be said to be a technique you employ before you embark on any task or skill: a pre-technique in that it’s concerned with how you get ready for action, how you get set.
Conveniently for us, it just so happens that a new concept has emerged in the scientific study of the neurophysiology of posture and movement, a concept called “central set.” Here’s a description of central set** from a book written for physical therapists; it follows a passage explaining that relying on feedback as we move and perform tasks is a relatively slow process, and therefore we also make use of anticipatory control:
“Anticipatory control is a process in which, in a known or commonly experienced situation (when the likely perturbations have been learned), signals for postural compensation and modification are sent before (in anticipation of) receipt of sensory information that the intervention is actually required. Anticipatory control occurs during most of our regular daily activities (e.g. writing and stepping), reducing movement execution times considerably and therefore increasing the efficiency of the task effected… Anticipatory control is effected by muscle synergies and these synergies are the same as those utilized by postural control feedback systems… Researchers have now confirmed that postural muscle synergies are preselected in advance of planned action when that action is serial, expected and/or practiced. The process of this central preselection is known as central set… The central set therefore reduces the risk of our over- or under-recruiting postural control-related muscles, thus increasing our postural efficiency.” (From Human Movement by Everett and Kell, 2010)
As you can see from that description, it is quite normal, and indeed desirable for efficient movement, that we employ our central set** for many familiar activities. It is part of what enables us to perform regular tasks in a relatively automated way thereby freeing our consciousness from having to be constantly preoccupied with the detail of every movement. But clearly from the above description we can see also that central set is based on our past experience, indeed it is probably an aspect of the body schema discussed in Post 3 of this series – the internal representation in the brain/nervous system of our body and all it’s movement potential, which again is at least partly built up from past experience. So here we are back with something close to F.M. Alexander’s “sensory appreciation” or “kinesthesia,” which is based on our habits (past experience) and can become faulty or “debauched.” Using the more modern terminology, our body schema and therefore our central set can become less than optimal as a guide to efficient general coordination, and therefore interfere also with specific coordination in performance skills.
Let’s try to make this more understandable by taking a concrete example of an everyday life situation: climbing stairs. Alexander experience alerts us to the fact that while walking along level ground towards the stairs we will already be making preliminary muscular adjustments preparatory to climbing the steps, and these adjustments will continue and perhaps increase during the act of going up each step. Now supposing our habitual pattern, built up from many years of accumulated experience, includes pulling the head and upper body down into the lower body and hips as we try to push ourselves up from each step with a strong effort from the legs. Looked at from the outside this is somewhat counterproductive as we are fighting against ourselves, pulling ourselves down even as we are trying to push ourselves up. But this kind of habit can become so familiar that we are no longer conscious that there is anything counterproductive about it or that there is any alternative.
Part of what is happening is that the head, neck and torso do need to be stabilised as we shift our balance and move from step to step. This is necessary and normal to ensure that we don’t wobble all over the place with each step. But it would be very desirable if this stabilisation could take place in a way that helped transfer the upthrust from the propelling foot and leg on up through the spine and head to maximise the intrinsic, firm, anti-gravity springiness of the whole body in this upward motion against gravity. In this way the spine, and all its associated supporting muscle and connective tissue, is optimally performing its functions as the central support structure of the whole body and the harmonious connector of body parts, smoothly transferring force from one part (in this case one foot and leg) through the entire body without wasting or inefficiently opposing this transmission of energy.
In Alexandrian terms, the action of putting one foot on a step and applying the necessary push to step up is something we have to “do”; we can choose to do it or not to do it and we can choose how quickly or forcefully to do it. The associated shifts of muscle tone throughout the rest of the body happen automatically, they are what would now be called “anticipatory postural adjustments” and “automatic postural responses” (collectively referred to as postural regulation or postural control) and are controlled by our habitual central set mediated by our body schema. In Alexander terms we do not “do” these postural adjustments, they do themselves. However we can influence them if we wish; in fact we are influencing them all the time with our expectations, thoughts, and intentions. The thought that I’m tired and have a heavy bag to carry will influence how my central set prepares me for the effort of climbing the stairs, and probably influence it negatively in increased effort translating into more pulling myself down to push up. On the other hand, I could say no to those thoughts (inhibition) and consciously decide (direction) that I’d really like my neck muscles to release upwards so they don’t drag my head down towards the steps, and consciously ask (direct) my back and trunk muscles, as they firm up to stabilise me during the movement, to do it in such a way that I’m lightening up through my spine and keeping my back open for free movement of my ribs for breathing. In other words neck free, head forward and up, back lengthening and widening.
So the directions are not something that I “do”; they are a means of consciously influencing automatic shifts in muscle tone throughout the body that precede and accompany all activity. If my past experiences have built up in me a central set that tends towards a predominant collapse of head towards trunk and some parts of the trunk into the low back and hips, and/or an overly rigid bracing of some other parts so that they are less available for movement if necessary (all of which compromises our natural anti-gravity springiness); then conscious inhibition and direction can help steer those automatic postural adjustments in a more efficient direction. Knowing that some shifts of muscle tone are inevitably going to take place as I climb the steps, and that preparations for that will already be happening as I approach the steps, I use conscious intention to ask for these tonal shifts not to drag me down and make the task harder but to take place in a way that lightens me up. I am helping to make better use of the potential springiness of my whole structure to make movement lighter and easier as my muscular energy becomes more coherent, everything working together to aid me in the direction I want to go in rather than fighting against myself. Referring back to Post 3 in this series, we can say that if I stop doing the wrong thing and ask instead for automatic adjustments and responses that will keep me closer to my natural resilient length and width, the responses that emerge will be more in harmony with the structure of my body.
In this one simple example we can find aspects of doing and non-doing, inhibition and direction, faulty sensory appreciation, the influence of thought or intention on coordination, and primary control in the sense that I am especially interested in the organisation of neck and back muscles that will be involved in stabilising and supporting my head and trunk. And we can see how all that fits beautifully with modern concepts such as anticipatory postural adjustments, central set, automatic postural responses, and body schema.
Suggestions for further reading:
Human Movement: An Introductory Text, by Tony Everett and Clare kell, Churchill Livingstone, 2010.
Improvement in Automatic Postural Coordination Following Alexander Technique Lessons in a Person With Low Back Pain, by Cacciatore TW, Horak FB, Henry SM. Physical Therapy, Volume 85, Number 6. June 2005, page 565.
**Since writing this in 2011 the term “central set” has become less common in the scientific literature about postural control and motor control. This is partly due to a concern that the term can easily be misinterpreted as suggesting one particular “mechanism” rather than a collection of activities. The feedforward and feedback processes described in the quote from the Human Movement book do indeed happen and are aspects of the likely interplay between body schema and postural tone, it’s simply that they are now less likely to be named as “central set.” (Added July 2020)