Ideomotor Action

In our last post, we talked a bit about inhibition, which we defined as refusing to consent to the idea of doing something. In this post, we’ll talk about ideomotor action and look at the deep connection between mind and body as it relates to inhibition. Much of this post is excerpted from Ted Dimon’s book on neurodynamics, with some new, interspersed thoughts and examples.

“…Let’s say that I tell a student that I will raise his arm with my hand and that I do not want him to help me in any way–that is, to leave his arm hanging by his side so that, when I raise it, he does not tighten his shoulder muscles and does not activate any unnecessary tension in the arm. When I then lift his arm, he will inevitably ‘help’ by actually raising his arm for me, performing the action unconsciously and with his usual strain, even though he has agreed not to. This happens not because he has chosen to perform the action voluntarily, or because he blindly reacted, but because I suggested an idea to him that sparked an unconscious motor reaction whereby he lifted the arm with the unnecessary shoulder and arm tension.”

Why is muscular activity connected with ideas, as we read above, and why does it operate at a level of which we are largely unaware? When we perform an action such as picking something up or walking to the telephone, we don’t simply decide to do the movement, whereupon the body, in obedience to the command, carries out the decision. The idea of the act and the muscular activity necessary to its execution form a continuous pathway, so that the ideational activity and the motor act, for all intents and purposes, form a complete and unified pathway.

This pathway, however, is not mainly conscious. When we perform an action, we may consciously choose to do that action, but this deliberate choice to act is an exception to the rule. Most of our actions occur as the result of mental associations that occur subconsciously, just as most of the muscular activity involved in actions is reflexive and automatic. We have the subjective sense that, when we perform actions, we have chosen them, but on the whole muscular actions occur habitually and routinely as part of an overall process that operates, as in animals, at an instinctive or subconscious level.

The process by which we have an idea and that idea issues in a motor act–which William James, borrowing from an earlier physiologist, called ideomotor action–expresses very well the notion that motor acts do not issue from an overseeing will but are part of a complex psychophysical process. When James first elaborated this concept, the notion that action was somehow mysteriously controlled by an overseeing will was prevalent. The mind–or at least the higher parts of human behavior, such as consciousness and free will–seemed to be operated by “spirit-stuff”, which seemed to possess the special power of dictating how action took place. William James, who was trying to place psychology on a scientific footing, argued that there was no such spirit-stuff, no mysterious “will” that could tell the body what to do. Actions, he said, were the result of ideas that issued into motor acts, and deliberation–the process by which we think about and arrive at a conscious decision to do something–was simply a more complicated case of this normal process.

ideomotor action WJ image

Today, we take William James’s view–whose ideas foreshadowed much of modern neuroscience, and who was one of its earliest exponents–for granted. The notion of an overseeing will survives, perhaps, in the form of the belief that the pre-frontal cortex, with its executive functions, can command and oversee decision-making. But it is now clear that acts issue from ideas, the two elements operating as part of a total system. It is also increasingly clear that most of the processes involved in action are unconscious–the operation of stretch reflexes, the integration of sensory and motor impulses, the complex computations taking place higher up in the brain. The tennis player who is about to hit a ball, the pianist who negotiates a difficult passage, the child playing basketball–each is able to perform these complex actions without thinking about how; each activity is mediated in very complex ways by processes set in motion simply by the intention to put the ball cross court, to express a particular emotion in the music, or to sink the ball in the net. Thinking about the actual steps involved in each act, in fact, would interfere with the execution of the act, which is exactly why the nervous system is designed in such a way that we have only to intend for something to happen, and the various steps involved in carrying out our wish take care of themselves, while we consciously focus on the specific elements that require our immediate attention, such as where to place our feet or what kind of sound we want to make.

To come back to the problem raised in our last post, what this means is that the act of sitting in a chair will always include neck tension, because that tension is linked to our idea of the action itself. If we want to learn not to tense our neck muscles when we sit down, we need to inhibit not the neck tension, but the entire act of which the neck tension is a part. Once we inhibit that stimulus to react, we can conceive of a new action that does not include that habitual tension (hence, the usefulness of procedures such as the monkey position), and instead make a conscious decision to choose the new action. The moment we revert back to the notion of sitting, we call on our engrained habitual use. This is why the problem of inhibition is so intimately linked with mind and body: the problem isn’t just bodily tension but the psychophysical functioning whole.