Ideomotor Action, Part 3

Our recent post on ideomotor action has inspired a few questions on the emotional aspects of use, and the ways in which ideomotor action affects the psychophysical system as a functional whole. In particular, we were asked whether emotions have an effect on our physical responses as conveyed through ideomotor acts, and if there are broader repercussions than were described previously. The past two blog posts explain that ideomotor acts translate ideas into action via a single neural pathway that is unconscious and cannot be easily broken. This connection isn’t emotional in nature, but rather a function of automatic neuromuscular processes. However, emotions can and do greatly impact the condition and functioning of the system. To be sure, anxiety and other emotions will excite the nervous system in a variety of ways, most often by creating a state of hyperactivity that heightens our reactivity to stimuli. This condition intensifies the ideomotor response, making the associated behaviors more readily apparent to those of us who teach this work.

For example, if I, as a teacher, raise a student’s arm and ask her not to help me, the neuromuscular circuit connecting idea to action often compels the student to engage her arm and help me. The student will grip in the forearm and move her arm in space along with my hand simply because the idea has been suggested to her. If, however, the student is anxious because we don’t know each other well, or emotional due to a personal exchange that occurred earlier in the day, her psychophysical system might be in an over-reactive state and, as a result, her arm may positively jump out of my hand and into the air. The ideomotor response and the neuromuscular pathway is the same, but the level, or decibel, of the reaction in response to the stimulus is magnified.

An intense emotional state can excite any system, regardless of the quality of general use, into hyperactivity temporarily. It doesn’t necessarily follow that we are functioning optimally when our systems are not overwhelmed by emotional states. In fact, if levels of hyperactivity are sustained over long periods – consciously or unconsciously – it can ossify ideomotor pathways and “trap” the person within a larger condition of heightened reactivity. The resulting behaviors can be detrimental to the coordination and balance of the psychophysical system, further entrenching rigid habits of poor use. This cyclical pattern has established a condition of hyperactivity as the “new norm” of human conduct. Many of us live in states of hyperactivity and are completely unaware of the erosive impact that our daily use and behavior has on us. The prominence of stress-related psychophysical medical conditions such as anxiety disorders is, therefore, unsurprising.

The consequences of a disturbed psychophysical state can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. The impact this state has on our lives is much broader than its interference with the way in which we perform basic motor actions, like how we move an arm or sit in a chair. It’s important to note that, while all of the following examples (adapted from The Undivided Self) are common with a psychophysical imbalance, they can also be linked with other emotional or psychological disorders and that each case must be assessed individually.

 In one example, we might see a person who has an apparently calm demeanor and is not reactive at all, but who is ‘pulled down’ and seemingly weighted down by extreme muscular tension throughout his body. In another example, we might see someone who is truly emotionally disturbed, anxious at all times, prone to panic attacks, and hyper-reactive to stimuli. While the manifested psychoemotional symptoms are very different, both cases will share a condition of physical deterioration, resulting in the loss of motor control and coordination. There will be added tension and strain in the system that can result in physical (back, neck, hip, e.g.) problems and, in some cases, a decrease in muscle strength and the overall loss of health and vitality.  

 Another consequence might be an inability to sit still and a jitteriness that many of us have experienced to some extent—imagine that friend who can’t stop bouncing his knee under the table when you’re out at a restaurant. This sort of response is born out of the habits of rushing  and excessive multi-tasking, and can develop into a situation where the person is unable to stay focused on a single idea or task and seems generally distracted and agitated at all times. This inattentive state makes it very difficult to hear and process new ideas, and has a concrete and enduring effect on a person’s mental state.

 In contrast to the extreme multi-taskers, a similar mental preoccupation can result from a hyper focused state, which is often connected to highly intellectualized work. Lawyers, writers, computer programmers and scientists, for instance, who exercise cognitive faculties in excess, can become disconnected from their environments and their physical selves. This psychophysical imbalance results in a different kind of distractedness, where the person is constantly lost in thought.

We often see many of these hyperactive states resulting in a compulsiveness in speech.We have surely all witnessed individuals who compulsively interrupt or cut other people off in conversation. They are likely unaware of this behavior and unable to stop doing it, due to the same ideomotor response mechanisms.  Years of compulsive speaking, aside from affecting social interactions, can create tension and malcoordination in the muscles of the neck, back and torso, impair breathing and have an effect on posture overall. 

Finally, many of these reactive states can lead to health-deteriorating conditions like insomnia. Neuromuscular activity that is associated with chronically over-active mental processes such as writing can persist even during periods of rest. Insomnia often results from the brain’s inability to stop performing an earlier action and quiet down, and, in this sense, is an imbalance of the psychophysical state. As Dr. Dimon explains in The Undivided Self, “Common to all of these manifestations is a disintegration of the ideomotor pathway, and each individual manifestation reflects how we react to different types of activities.”