Dr. Norman Doidge, Neuroplasticity & the Alexander Technique

Alexander Technique USA LLC
October 2018 Newsletter

Dr. Norman Doidge, Neuroplacticity & the Alexander Technique

by T Booth Harris

As an example of an AT student’s (not teacher) response to one of the science presenters, Booth (my husband) wrote a brief review regarding the stimulating presentation and work of Dr. Doidge. Booth originally came to the Alexander Technique (Michael and Lena Frederick) with a history of back pain. He is also a former banker, science and PE teacher at Ojai’s Oak Grove School and, though not an engineer, CEO of a specialized international civil engineering company:

Norman Doidge, M.D., Canadian psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and pioneering neuroplasticity popularizer, keynote-presented on 30 July, 2018 at the inspiring 11th International Alexander Technique (“AT” henceforward) Congress at Loyola University, Lake Shore Campus, in Chicago, IL, USA. Dr. Doidge, a student of the AT, commended its potential to engender neuroplastic change and/or healing, which, quoting Dr. Doidge, “…requires the active involvement of the whole person to change/heal”. Leveraging off his latest book The Brain’s Way of Healing (which had been preceded by his bestselling The Brain that Changes Itself), he compassionately showcased several riveting case histories of recovery from serious movement and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease and severe chronic pain.

Dr. Doidge, in his latest book, defines neuroplastic change (or “neuroplasticity”) as “…the property of the brain that enables it to change its own structure and functioning in response to activity and mental experience.” In a decade old National Post (Canada) article, he defined it as “…the property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and function in response to what it senses, what it does and even what it thinks and imagines.” (my italics).

The context of the AT is movement education. Primary operative concepts of AT practice are “use”, “habit” and “inhibition”. Dr. Doidge presented neuroplasticity at the Congress as dynamically, in an evolutionary/biological sense, fundamental to human learning (education). Humans adapt to the world by learning effective survival/social skills that can be, often automatically, applied/re-activated as required. In short, through experience of the world, habitual “learned” physical neural patterns (of movement, thinking, feeling, etc), typically ultimately unconscious, are formed, evolutionarily designed to economize energy/improve performance. Paradoxically and concomitantly, the more these patterns (or neural “tracks” as Dr. Doidge presented) are invoked/used (e.g., to improve performance) – the more resistance to neuroplastic change they present.

From an evolutionary perspective then, resistance represents a biological, adaptive balancing act: it conservatively (i.e.., “conserving” habit) safeguards the “learned” and simultaneously dampens “learning”. AT practitioners are skilled in recognizing poor, habitual body movement (“use”): from subtle gracelessness and “automatic” postural fixation to functional but maladaptive activity-purposed movement that may have developed into discomfort, pain, and even injury. An important element of the AT is to engender positive change by encouraging “inhibition”, i.e.., short-circuiting maladaptive “learned” patterns through the application of conscious intention (from Dr. Doidge’s latest book: “…intention…a subtle concept…is to focus the mind…to change the brain. What counts is the mental effort to change.” (Again, my italics). It’s within this conscious, intentional awareness space, supported by the AT teacher, that neuroplastic change may well be activated, and why Dr. Doidge’s controversial, compassionate work theoretically complements AT practice (and vice-versa).

Importantly, and as Alexander teachers know, Dr. Doidge’s case histories clearly indicate that neuroplastic change requires a kind of systematic psychophysical work, which can be exhausting, i.e.., wishful thinking falls far short. Overcoming neuroplastic resistance requires consistent positive intention to change, irrespective of the habituated sensation of the moment. Such change is rarely “comfortable”, i.e.., the “unknown”, as it were, can be unsettling. To successfully engage with the Alexander Technique therefore is a serious, whole person enterprise in which trust in the teacher (and one’s self!), patience, persistence and respect for the natural pace of change are required. The Alexander Technique benefits may be, as with Dr. Doidge’s cases, wonderful and life-changing, i.e.., as with successful psychotherapy, surely worth the price – but, similarly, very likely not without dedicated commitment to change.

T. Booth Harris
For Alexander Technique USA LLC Newsletter

 

For a PDF copy: NDoidge-Neuroplasticity-AT-TBH

Congress Notes

Alexander Technique USA LLC
Newsletter: October, 2018

Notes from the 11th International Alexander Technique Congress

The Congress provided a working vacation for my husband, Booth Harris, and me; he was an Event assistant and I a “senior teacher”. Our fifth story dorm room windows at Loyola University’s Lake Shore Campus were positioned directly over a rocky shoreline overlooking Lake Michigan. Though rarely in our room other than to sleep during the almost week-long Congress at Loyola, we were easily lulled into slumber on resilient dormitory twin beds by soothing summer lake breezes and gentle lapping waves.

And what a terrific week it was.

Over 600 Alexander Technique (“AT”) teachers and teacher-trainees (and students) attended from all parts of the world. The theme was Advancing Global Perspectives: Making New Connections (Science, Performance Education). It was much more than simply a positive counterpoint to the domestic and global divisive turmoil that is so present in today’s “news”. The Congress was composed of daily full-audience presentations by noted (and excellent) speakers (both keynote and plenary), as well as continuous learning sessions, workshops (almost a hundred!), panel discussions (on Science, Performance, Education, Medicine, Diversity and more), ongoing work-exchange, and, of course, entertainment!

All of my experiences at this Congress, as a student and as a teacher, were stimulating, and engaging, providing superb learning opportunities at every turn.

The keynote speakers – David Hyde Pierce, Dr. Norman Doidge, Dr. Neil Shubin and Roshi Joan Halifax – were articulate, inspirational (each in their own way), all presented with depth of knowledge and understanding, with compassion and even humility – and wonderful appreciation of the AT.

For me, the most important takeaways came from the perspectives of the scientist-presenters, which included our own (AT teacher) Rajal Cohen, Ph.D., and, on the last day, Kevan Martin, Ph.D., as well as the above-mentioned keynote speakers. They all talked in different ways about the scientific importance of staying open to new discoveries and new evidence and the importance of adjusting conclusions accordingly. It’s clear that just as we AT teachers want scientists to be open to the AT, it is also vital for us to be open to new evidence and new discoveries. It’s most comfortable to become attached to what we know, to latch onto only the evidence that agrees with what we already believe to be true.

Other Highlights:

• Change may not be comfortable. Kevan Martin, Ph. D., concluding speaker at this AT Congress, started by quoting Dickens “…the best of times…the worst of times…the spring of hope…the winter of despair…” (Tale of Two Cities) and noting that, irrespective of how comfortable/un-comfortable the world around us may feel, personal change is vital, not just with regard to helping our students change, but with regard to ourselves as well.
• From Dr. Rajal Cohen’ plenary talk: “If the principles of the Alexander technique are true, then they must exist beyond the Alexander Technique. Furthermore, they should be objectively testable. Recent scientific advances in neuroscience, psychology, kinesiology, and other fields related to motor control provide intriguing insights into the working of the Alexander Technique. You can see her whole presentation at https://vimeo.com/284599464
• Did you know that there are at least 13 different systems involved in balance? In her workshop, Nancy Romita, Teacher Training Director of ATMidAtlantic, led enlightening explorations of 5 of these; vestibular, visual, tactile, proprioceptive and neuromuscular.
• From Dr. Shubin, we learned about the Tiktaalik, a transitional form, species, evolving from a fish to an amphibian. One of its most important features was its neck. “Fish have a situation where the head is physically attached to the shoulder. What we have in this creature, and you can see it in the skeleton, is that you have a head that is actually separate from the shoulder, meaning that it has a neck that can move the head around.” (bold face mine)

 

The following is taken from Joan Schirle, the Founding and Artistic Director of Dell’Arte International, a professional ensemble theatre and school of physical theatre. She was a Plenary Speaker at the Congress as well as a Continuous Learning Instructor. Due to Joan’s attendance at the Congress, she missed receiving in person The Association of Movement Theatre Educators (ATME) the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Try this:

  1. Hold a piece of paper tightly as not to drop it. Now check in with the rest of your body. Do you notice any gripping going on in other parts of your body? Your arms? Your face? Your neck? Any place else?
  2. Now reduce your grip by 25%, but still not dropping the piece of paper. What is that like? How does it feel? What parts of you changed?
  3. Reduce it by another 25% (50% less than you began), still not dropping the paper. Check in with your whole body again.
  4. Now keep reducing the grip in increments without dropping the paper. What is that like?
  5. From the lightest grip, increase it by 25%. Check in with your whole self. Increase it again by 25% (50% more than your lightest grip). Check in.
  6. Keep experimenting with changing the grip by loosening and increasing the intensity. This will help you to understand more about the nuance of balancing tension and effort in all activities.

American Heritage Chart

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This is a chart showing the lineage from F. M. Alexander, the creator of the Alexander Technique, to  the Alexander Teacher Training Courses in the United States.  I was trained at ACAT West by Frank Ottiwell and Giora Pinkas.  I am a founder and co-director of Alexander Training Institute of Los Angeles (ATI-LA).

 

 

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