Ideomotor Action, Part 2

Last week, we talked about ideomotor action, where the term came from, and its relationship to habit. Neuroscience has proven that this link between thought and action does exist, and that it’s the reason why we don’t have to think through the minutia of physical activity. The idea to “throw the ball” is linked with a series of motor acts that include how your fingers wrap around the ball, the twist of your arm, when you let go, how much force you use, etc, so that you need only to decide where to aim and how far to throw. But many of those coordinated acts were learned and embedded with habits that are unique to the individual and which are now inextricably linked to the original idea.

As we discovered in that post, teachers of Alexander’s work observe and can demonstrate this ideomotor response easily. But how do we know that this reaction isn’t some other type of response? Perhaps the student is anxious, trying to please the teacher by doing what he suspects the teacher actually wants of him. Perhaps he is afraid that if he doesn’t perform the action himself and let’s the teacher move him, he’ll lose his balance. Many suspect that this reaction is a startle response of some kind. How do we know that this is truly ideomotor action at work, subconsciously bringing our ideas into life and seemingly without our consent?

We can answer the question if we look more deeply at this student-teacher interaction. To quote The Undivided Self, “Let’s say that I tell Richard I would like to raise his arm and that I want him to do nothing, so that if I were to lift his arm and drop it, it would fall by his side. Again, at the moment I begin to raise his arm… Even if I remind him to do nothing, he continues to make precisely the same movement in response to my action. In this case, the action is too trivial to produce anxiety, and yet the pattern of tension comes into play automatically and he moves without even realizing he is doing so. Even more important, he seems each time to tense himself in anticipation of what I am about to do, and all because he seems preoccupied with the idea of what I am about to do… Richard’s actions are determined not by a blind reaction, nor by his conscious intention, but by the association he has made of a movement”.

In this example, the student tenses up as he is touched on the arm, before the movement even begins. Dr. Dimon later describes a two-step experiment. He first suggests the idea of moving the student’s torso forward in the chair and NOT standing him up, in which case the student moves forward only as much as was suggested. Next, Dimon suggests that he will stand the student up out of the chair, but instead of actually doing that, he attempts only to move the student’s torso forward the very same distance as last time. When he does this, the student jumps out of the chair and away from his hands, performing the suggested idea. In both instances, the student is asked and reminded not to help in any way. This test demonstrates clearly that this student is responding to a particular idea and has little control over that response.

“This explains why Richard is making this unwanted action, and why it occurs against his will. If he were simply reacting because of physical tension or anxiety, [or because he was startled,] his actions wouldn’t so accurately reflect what he knows I am about to do. But that is not the case. He unconsciously makes precisely the action I have suggested to him. This indicates that Richard is not simply doing something because of a physical tension [or startle] pattern. Rather, he is unconsciously anticipating, or second-guessing, what I am about to do; and that mental fact explains why the tension pattern comes into play and why he performs that particular action…the student becomes mentally fixated and is dominated by the idea at a subconscious level”.

This demonstrates that when students perform actions unconsciously or harmfully, these are in fact examples of ideomotor actions at work. We react, we tighten up, we have a lack of control not simply because we are anxious or reacting emotionally. It is a total response pattern in which tension or anxiety occurs in the service of an entire action that has been conceived by the student.