Joe Armstrong
October 1999

It was interesting to read that Ron Dennis might consider the ten Alexander hypotheses 1 I compiled to be an example of good descriptive theory.2 However, I don't think any particular credit is due for not including the term primary control in them, because I feel the concept is nevertheless very much there, as are, I hope, most of the other concepts central to the Technique.

I submitted the hypotheses to Statnews and NASTAT News for possible intramural benefit in defining the Technique not, as Dennis suggests, because I assume that "AT theory need be"3 based on what Alexander himself claimed the Technique to be. My idea was, rather, that in defining the Technique for ourselves, we first try to come to a consensus within the profession on what each of its concepts actually is as Alexander described it in his writings. I think this needs to be done before we ever begin to consider how best to represent any aspect of the Technique at all to the public or to compose a thorough descriptive theory of it—for whatever purposes. And it seems that the most logical way to begin this intramural process would be to go through everything Alexander wrote and gather chronologically all the references to each concept. Then they could be examined and compared together very carefully so that we would have the fullest perspective of his own view of each of them. Then with such a compendium on hand to refer to readily, it would give the most reasonable (and fair) basis from which to go on to assess particular aspects of either the concepts or the terms that signify them in light of any possible need to restate, reformulate, or dispense with any or all parts of them—for instance, if further research should prove any of them invalid.




Making such a compendium might seem a daunting task and one that could take quite some time. Clearly, it would need someone who is very current with Alexander's books (Jean Fischer, perhaps?), or maybe a number of people working together; but I suggest this approach especially because, as Ron Dennis points out in writing about the concept of and the term primary control alone,4 we find numerous diverging interpretations and interpolations by people writing on it who might not have considered Alexander's own statements about the Technique thoroughly enough first. They don't seem to have realized that Alexander was engaged in a life-long process of evolving or developing his thinking about both the concepts and the wording he was using to represent and explain them or that what appears in his later writings is sometimes altered to be more concise or complete than what he wrote about the concepts earlier.

Unfortunately, the most striking and concentrated result of Alexander's language development hasn't been available for a long time. I'm referring to his last published piece of writing - the "Preface to [the] New Edition" of the 1946 British edition of The Universal Constant in Living, which was first published in 1941.5 It contains not only some of Alexander's richest and most complete statements about the purpose and scope of the Technique in general but also a concise summation, in particular, of his main aim in teaching: to help people "improve their reaction to the stimulus of living."6 This phrase contrasts subtly, but significantly I think, even with his statements in the main body of the book written five or six years earlier where he spoke mainly in terms of people dealing with their reactions to the various stimuli of living. 7 The later wording, "Reaction to the stimulus of living," (italics added) seems to expand the idea in a way that could even include one's whole attitude to life. This preface was not included in either the Centerline or the recent IRDEAT editions (I assume because they are Dutton facsimiles and Dutton must not have published a 1946 American edition), but I understand that it will definitely appear in the new British edition due next year.

This developmental aspect of Alexander's writing is also particularly evident when it comes to examining some of his more extensive passages about the concept of primary control which some say, like Walter Carrington,8 replaces the expression "true and primary movement in each and every act" that first appeared in the 1907 "Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-education" and was also published as "Part III" of Man's Supreme Inheritance in 1910; while others, like Frank Pierce Jones,9 say primary control replaces the phrase "position of mechanical advantage" that appears in both MSI and CCCI. If we begin with Alexander's introduction of the term in The Use of the Self and then continue on through to looking at his elaborations on it in Universal Constant, we get a very clear idea of its evolution. For example, take the following passage from "The Golfer Who Cannot Keep his Eyes on the Ball" in The Use of the Self, where primary control is not really qualified as having both positive and negative possible manifestations:

I would refer my readers back to Chap. I where I described the experiments which led to my discovering that there is a primary control of the use of the self, which governs the working of all the mechanisms and so so renders the control of the complex human organism comparatively simple.

This primary control, called by the late Prof. Magnus of Utrecht the 'central control,' depends upon a certain use of the head and neck in relation to the use of the rest of the body.10

Now compare it with this passage from Chapter V of Universal Constant, "The Constant Influence of Manner of Use in Relation to Change," written nearly ten years later, which definitely indicates a negative aspect of the concept:

By steps more or less slow, according to the difficulties to be overcome, the pupil passes from the state of preventing the repetition of the wrong employment of the primary control of the general use in such acts as sitting or standing, to gaining those new experiences of use in which the proper relativity of the parts concerned is brought about.11 (Original italics. Underlines added.)

Then, further on, in the section called Normality and Complexity of Chapter VI, on "Physiology and Physiologists," Alexander states even more explicitly that primary control can have either a beneficial or a detrimental potential effect on the working of the postural mechanisms (which is also more in keeping with the dual nature of most of his other concepts like "the influence ['for good or ill'] of use upon functioning,"12 "subconscious vs. conscious guidance and control,"13 "end-gaining vs. means whereby,"14 etc.):

This [a knowledge of the normal as well as the abnormal working of the postural mechanisms] demands a recognition of the existence of a central (primary) control which influences indirectly the manner of the working of the postural mechanisms both in the person enjoying satisfactory use as well as in those who do not. This influence varies for good or ill according to the trustworthiness or otherwise of the motor-sensory controlling and co-ordinating functioning of the mechanisms in all activity. Unfortunately, the influence of misdirection of the central (primary) control upon the working of the psycho-physical mechanisms has not been recognized, and therefore there has not been due recognition of the harmful influence of this misdirection upon the working of the mechanisms responsible for the normal position at a given time of the head in relation to the neck, and of the head and neck in relation to the torso, etc., upon which the integrated (normal) working of the postural mechanisms depends. 15 (Underlines added.)

In recent years it seems that more and more people writing and speaking about primary control consider that the concept applies only to the positive manifestation and not to the negative manifestation as well. (Two exceptions are: Walter Carrington, who also charmingly characterizes the whole spectrum of its working as, "for better or worse; for richer or poorer; in sickness and in health!"16; and Patrick Mcdonald, who says "Our Primary Controls are always with us, good, bad, or indifferent.)" 17  And furthermore, the one-sided view of primary control seems often to go hand in hand with the tendency to reify the concept, as well as with the tendency to think of it in terms of a particular neural mechanism that might be located in some specific anatomical place. But if Alexander's more complete expression of the concept of primary control from positive to negative is taken fully into account, it opens up a much greater possibility for both the concept and the term to be kept away from reification and from our being put in what Ron Dennis calls, "the untenable position of having to explain a neural mechanism that has no evident basis in empirical research."18




The fuller view of primary control also allows for the possibility of drawing much more significantly on Frank Jones' studies of the startle pattern 19 as an example of such "evident basis in empirical research" because these studies show not only what appears to be quite a negative effect on the postural mechanisms produced by a sudden, subconscious reaction, but also that it has a clear sequential manifestation, beginning with a stiffening of the neck and a pulling back of the head, and proceeding on into a shortening and narrowing of the torso, limbs, and total stature. This is, of course, pretty much the exact opposite of Alexander's concept of a "normal employment of the central (primary) control," 20 which he claimed must begin by directing the neck to be free, the head forward and up, the back/torso to lengthen and widen, the knees forward and away so that a lengthening of the whole stature can take place and be maintained—in "reaction to the stimulus of living."

Even more dramatic than the still photographs and EMG readings in these published startle pattern studies is a slow motion film study of it Jones made of a dozen or so subjects, one after the other, reacting to a surprise gunshot. The very same pattern of head displacement, etc. in each person is astoundingly unmistakable. Why those engaged in research on the Technique have not drawn on these studies as possible examples of an "abnormal" representation of the (subconscious) employment of the concept of primary control, I don't really understand—unless it is because their own view of primary control is only of its positive aspect. I would think that these days the technology and equipment available to study such activity is so much more sophisticated that the whole phenomenon of reaction could be clarified even further, perhaps also leading to a demonstration of the improved, normal (or maybe even an ideal ?) end of the positive/negative spectrum of primary control that Alexander claimed to be able to elicit in people with the use of his hands while also teaching them how to direct and maintain it for themselves through the processes of conscious inhibiting and directing.

However, before that kind of study could be very productive, it seems that the full nature of the postural mechanisms themselves would have to be established much more particularly with regard to the question of whether or not, in fact, there can be an "integrated (normal)" and an "unintegrated (abnormal)" working of them. As far as I've been able to find out, postural research still doesn't even identify very specifically what the postural mechanisms are in terms of actual muscular components whose activity might be observed and measured by a method similar to the EMG recording used in the startle pattern studies.

Are there actually separate postural mechanisms that are distinct from movement mechanisms? Or are there, rather, only supportive (postural) functions that are distinct from movement functions of the same neuromuscular components? One prominent scientist I spoke with who specializes in postural research couldn't tell me the answer to the question when I contacted him to try to find out if the intercostal muscles, for instance, are considered part of the postural mechanims. All he could say was that, recently, he and his colleagues had come to the conclusion that "posture is basically a preparation for movement." (Which, of course, is exactly what Coghill wrote back in 1941 in his "Appreciation" to Universal Constant. 21)

Tristan Roberts, in his 1967 book Neurophysiology of the Postural Mechanisms, speaks mainly of the "antigravity muscles," saying, "this expression is intended to signify all those skeletal muscles in the body which are put on the stretch by the action of gravity [presumably when we are in an upright orientation]. In particular, [but apparently not exclusively] this includes the extensors of the limbs and neck." 22 Then later he also says, "The effector organs in the reflexes of balance are the antigravity muscles of the neck, limbs, and trunk." 23

Professor Roberts also states, at the beginning of his recent book Understanding Balance, something that seems quite significant for us, ". . . the traditional accounts [stemming from Sherrington and Magnus] of how the body [sic] achieves and maintains its upright posture appear to leave a good deal to be desired." 24 And a little further on he says, ". . . we must reject the idea that the upright posture is maintained by some automatic regulating mechanism, and there will be little profit in searching for the components of such a mechanism. Nevertheless it is clearly true that animals and men do regulate their posture to the extent that we can readily recognise a 'normal' posture and distinguish it from an 'abnormal' one. . . .The essence of balancing behaviour consists of the appropriate organization of the forces developed between the body [sic] and its supports [presumably the surfaces one is in contact with]. The traditional simple scheme has a great many things wrong with it. This book sets out to explore the situation in some detail." 25 But he doesn't seem to use the term "postural mechanisms" much, if anywhere, at all in the actual text. However, he does speak of a "supporting reaction" of the limbs "that occurs on contact with the potential supporting surface" in the chapter called "Staying Upright."26 And he says there is also the possibility of an interaction between stretch reflexes, and "that a stretch applied to one muscle enhances the stretch-sensitivity of synergic muscles. This load-sharing effect can be seen not only in other muscles acting at the same joint, but also in muscles that cooperate by acting at adjacent joints. For example, ankle extensors may be affected by stretching knee-joint extensors and vice versa." 27 But that's in an animal that has had both cerebral hemispheres removed. (I understand from Walter Carrington that he has been giving Alexander lessons to Professor Roberts lately, and I think we should look forward with greatest interest to the result of their association.)

Actually, Alexander very clearly stated his concern with the nature of the working of the postural mechanisms and, in doing so, even seemed to be formally challenging scientists to examine them more thoroughly in the above mentioned Normality and Complexity section of Chapter VI on "Physiology and Physiologists" in Universal Constant. He begins by quoting a letter from an "eminent professor of physiology" 28 to a medical friend:

The underlying basis in anatomy and physiology is a complex business, and personally I am not able to offer a criticism of the theory of the normal working of the postural mechanisms. 29 (Original italics.)
Then Alexander goes on to attribute this "significant admission" on the physiologist's part to the fact that "their method of experimentation . . . has been based upon the principle of separation . . . that for their purpose they must separate the human psycho-physical organism into parts . . . prevent[ing] them from recognising the importance of trying to gain a knowledge of the normal as well as the abnormal working of the postural mechanisms." 30 (Original italics.) He concludes the critique by saying:
Furthermore in this whole matter of the employment of the central (primary) control, the work done by the anatomists and physiologists has not been comprehensive enough to enable them to gain the practical experience necessary for deciding:

1. when the central control of the postural mechanisms is working normally or abnormally so that they could estimate the influence of this control upon the postural mechanisms,

2. what constitutes a normal or abnormal employment of the central (primary) control relative to an integrated use of the psycho-physical mechanisms as a whole, and consequently,

3. what constitutes normal or abnormal working of the postural mechanisms.
I have already pointed out that the opportunity for acquiring the knowledge implicit in the above is not given by orthodox medical training. Consequently, the body of knowledge hitherto known as physiology cannot be said to constitute a "clinical physiology of the human being." Physiology, it is true, does indicate the function of particular muscles, say of the inner or outer intercostal muscles, but it does not and cannot indicate the means whereby these muscles are operated relatively to the individual's use of his mechanisms as an indivisible unity, so as to ensure that integrated working of the organism which we always find associated with the standard of functioning present in a person in whom the way of employing the primary control is a constant influence for good. 31 (Underlines added. Original italics.)

Taking this entire statement into account then, I don't see why the concept of primary control, which is fairly straightforward here, should be difficult for scientists (or anyone else for that matter) to consider. As I said earlier, that was more or less what I was attempting to do in the ten hypotheses I compiled. I thought primary control was paraphrased essentially in numbers one and two:

1. That, in humans, there can be either an integrated (normal) or and unintegrated (abnormal) working of the postural mechanisms with regard to their supportive function in response to gravity at any given moment both in motion and at rest.

2. That the supportive function of the postural mechanisms in response to gravity is governed primarily by the use of the neck, head, torso, and limbs in sequential relation to each other.32

and further elaborated in number seven:

7. That with this skilled manual assistance and the appropriate verbal instruction from a teacher, people can gain the ability to recognize and inhibit any tensional responses that interfere with the integrated (normal) working of their postural mechanisms, and they can also learn to reliably facilitate and maintain the integration for themselves through specific ideo-kinetic directives given sequentially to the neck, head, torso, and limbs in response to any stimuli which tend to evoke automatic or habitual patterns of reaction. And these same ideo-kinetic directives can also serve to transform built-up, chronic patterns of tightness into a balanced condition of tonus which can best integrate with the supportive function of the postural mechanisms in relation to gravity from moment to moment.33 (Italics added.)

However, I would expect that a better writer than I could express these points much more accurately and simply.




Again referring to Coghill, while it might be that some of his own particular research findings have been superseded, his general statement as an experienced scientist that Alexander quotes in the introduction to Universal Constant seems very important to consider when looking at the value of descriptive or predictive theory in relation to any professional representations or promotional activities:

. . . as Professor G. E. Coghill writes in regard to the concept of the organism-as-a-whole: "It is a very different thing to state a theory and to demonstrate it as a fact. It is the demonstration that places the concept on a scientific foundation." He continues: "In my own case the concept came through the demonstration. I adopted the concept after I had the demonstration [from Alexader].' ("Psychological Controversy" in the Brooklyn Citizen, Brooklyn, N.Y., May 12, 1939.) 34

Presenting any aspect of the theory of the Technique to the public without being able to give the experience that demonstrates the concepts behind it—no matter how good the descriptive theory we compose might be—creates an even greater likelihood that the public or authorities will consider the Technique with skepticism. So the issue of whether or not those who claim to be able to teach the Technique (and train teachers of it) are fully able to demonstrate the theory by giving the experience of an "integrated (normal) working of the postural mechanisms" as distinct from an "unintegrated (abnormal)" working of them might amount to a professional crisis at least as serious as one that might be caused by ambiguities found in Alexander's terms or in the various interpretations of them—although there undoubtedly must be a relation between two such dilemmas.

I believe there are more and more people claiming to teach the Technique (and claiming to train teachers) who cannot really demonstrate the normal and abnormal working of the postural mechanisms (no doubt, in part, because they haven't yet experienced it or understood it well enough themselves) as it seems Alexander clearly could do when we see the film of him actually working on people, 35 just as I believe many of the teachers who trained with him could, and as some of the teachers they also trained can too. Merely being able to give people an experience of "kinesthetic lightness" or help them to achieve some changes in their general manner of use in activity, profound as it might sometimes seem to the student, often comes nowhere near the experience of an integrated (normal) working of the postural mechanisms that would lead them to an eventual embracing of a concept like primary control, as Coghill described he did with the concept of the organism-as-a-whole.

And part of this ability to demonstrate the integrated working of the postural mechanisms also includes the knowledge that it can often take a teacher a lot of time (sometimes months, even years) working not only with a person's "manner of use" 36 but also with his/her "conditions of use;" 37 and this distinction is another conceptual facet of the Technique that needs to be brought more into light for intramural examination, especially in comparing and evaluating all the various approaches to teaching and teacher training that dwell predominantly on either manner of use or conditions of use rather than working with both aspects more or less equally and concomitantly.




All this having been said, and considering the possibility of equally serious crises in both the theory and the practice of the Technique, it does seem that formulating good descriptive theory on it might provide a start in the direction of getting all people claiming to teach the Technique to evaluate more objectively and effectively what they think they have actually experienced and understood so far through lessons and/or training. And, perhaps, the attempt to restate, reformulate, or reject any of the concepts for the sake of the descriptive theory could start simply by trying to coax the terms that signify them more away from noun forms toward verbs, or even just gerund forms, that are at least somewhat harder to reify. "Inhibition," for instance, can easily be confined to "inhibiting" without much, if any, loss of its basic meaning.

It often seems to me that English itself, or at least our customary use of it, might be responsible for a good deal of our descriptive theory problem, particularly because of the tendency for scientists and philosophers to state concepts as nouns or in terminology that makes the concepts seem more like objects. I think particularly of Bruno Bettelheim's account 38 of the serious distortions of Freud's writings when they were translated for the English-speaking world. For instance, Freud's original german terms like, "das Ich" (the I) and "das Es" (the It) were turned into "the ego" and "the id" by his English translators in order to make his work seem to fit better into the behavioristic frame of reference of British and American science and medicine. However, "das Ich," for example, remained "le moi" and "el yo" in the French and Spanish translations and kept to Freud's original use of the term for naming our most immediate, emotional experience of being. To most of us, the expression "my ego" is hardly comparable to the experience of saying "I."

I also read recently that the Native American Wintu language of northern California does not have a word for "body" but only one for the whole person. There is no way that speakers could say, for instance, "I have a headache." They can only express the experience as "I headache."39 I wonder how primary control would be expressed in Wintu.

1 NASTAT News, No. 42, p. 20.
2 AmSAT News, No. 45, p.29.
3 Ibid.
4 I id., pp. 27-28.
5 Dutton, New York, 1941.
6 UCL, 1946, p.xxix..
7 UCL, 1941, pp. 115-116.
8 Explaining the Alexander Technique, Sheildrake Press, 1992, p.109.
9 Body Awareness in Action, Schocken, 1976, p.46.
10 US, Gollancz, 1985, p. 65.
11 UCL, 1941, p. 108.
12 Ibid., 1941, Chap. I.
13 MSI, Integral Press, 1910.
14 US, 1985.
15 UCL, 1941, pp. 140-141.
16 Explaining the Alexander Technique, p. 109.

17 On Giving Directions, Doing and Non-doing, Lecture to STAT, November 12, 1963, reprinted in F. M. Alexander and the Creative Advance of the Individual, George C. Bowden, London: L. N. Fowler, 1965, p. 182.

18 AmSAT News, No. 45, p. 28.
19 Psychological Review, 1965, Vol. 72, No.3: 196-214; Perceptual and Motor Skills,1964, 19, 21-22; Body Awareness in Action, 1976, pp.131-133.
20 UCL, 1941, p. 141.
21 Ibid., p. xxii.
22 Neurophysiology of the Postural Mechanisms, Plenum Press, New York, 1967, p. 216.
23 Ibid. p. 240.
24 Understanding Balance, Chapman and Hall, London, 1995, p. 1.
25 Ibid. p. 4.
26 Ibid.p. 118.
27 Ibid.
28 UCL, 1941, P. 139.
29 Ibid.
30 Ibid., p. 140.
31 Ibid. pp. 141-142.
32 NASTAT News, No. 42. p. 20.
33 Ibid., pp. 20-21.
34 UCL, p. xxxviii.
35 F.M. Alexander- Parts I, II & III. Statbooks Videocassette Tape, 1992.
36 US, p. 39; UCL, 1941, pp. 26-28.
37 Ibid.
38 "Freud and the Soul," The New Yorker, March 1, 1982, pp. 80-84.
39 Jamake Highwater, The Primal Mind, Harper & Row, New York, 1981, p. 73.

Created on ... September 12, 2000