Ideomotor Action, Part 4: Conscious Action and Inhibition Revisited

In our last several posts, we have looked at ideomotor action, which is the process by which an idea is carried out in the form of a motor act. Most of the time, a need arises, a corresponding idea pops into our head, and we carry out an action, all rather unthinkingly with the two elements—idea and motor act—taking place as a continuous pathway. We’ve discussed how this is an essential aspect of our work because, if we are using ourselves in a harmful way, this harmful pattern will come into play as part of the continuous pathway that links idea to motor act. To stop this harmful pattern from occurring, the student must entirely refrain from performing the act of which pulling back the head is part.

But how do we do this? One might think that, given all we’ve learned, the solution is simply to ask him to inhibit—that is, to refrain from responding to the idea of standing (this is the inhibition part), think through how he wants to perform the action, and then do it in the new way. In practice it does not work out as neatly as this for the simple reason that, at a fundamental level, the student cant stop. Despite his efforts, the student will be unable to control his response because he will be subconsciously preoccupied by the idea of what he knows he is about to do.

Part of the problem here, as we saw in the last post, is that when we perform actions harmfully, as most of us do, we not only perform the action badly in the physical sense; we also exhibit some element of loss of control. When we perform actions badly over time, there is a breakdown of inhibitory control so that we are less able to stop, less calm and reasoned in our actions, and increasingly less able to change this harmful pattern, which becomes ingrained and linked with an imbalanced working of the nervous system. When this happens, the student simply cannot stop, no matter how much they try.

How then do we address this problem? The answer is that we have to restore the working of the psychophysical system first, and in particular, the postural reflexes (in the AT community, this is referred to as the “primary control”), before any attempt at inhibition will be successful. This is because the loss of inhibitory control is connected with the wrong use of the postural system, which is foundational to the balanced performance of actions and the balanced working of the nervous system. When we restore this system, we re-establish an improved working of the ideomotor pathway and quiet down the nervous system, which in turn restores a more balanced mental state, the ability to act calmly, and inhibitory control.

Where then does inhibition fit in with the learning process as a practical principle in this work? Normally we speak about inhibition in terms of not responding to the stimulus, and since the stimulus is right there at the beginning of the harmful act, it would seem that inhibition should be the first problem for a student to tackle. Conceptually, this is true. One of the first things you must do with a new student is explain that, if they pull their head back every time they sit in a chair, the only way they can prevent the pulling back of the head will be to refrain from sitting in the chair. Explaining this will help a student accept that they cannot do the act correctly, and give up any attempt to try. Only then can the next step take place.

But this first step in a student’s educational process must be followed by a deeper level of change. It is not until we have had time to work with the student, given them a chance to calm down, and restored the condition of their psychophysical system, that they will be able to inhibit—in other words, the change in conditions brings about a positive change in reaction. The student will be more calm and will be able, under controlled circumstances, to apply the means-whereby principle more thoughtfully to the performance of actions.

This change will lead to a third stage in which the student can apply inhibition at a new and more conscious level. At this more advanced stage, the student is not only able to inhibit but can actually apply it where it matters most: in everyday, voluntary acts. When this is carried out successfully, the student is not only applying inhibition as a principle but able to perform activities more consciously—a step that represents, to use Alexander’s words, “a plane to be reached rather than a method of reaching it.”

As we can see from this scenario, ideomotor action is essential to an understanding of how the organism functions in action and, in this context, gives new meaning to the problem of inhibition. We speak about inhibition as the principle of stopping, which we recognize as being essential in learning to use ourselves more consciously. But in and of itself, inhibition can do little more than enable us to apply basic principles of body mechanics to movement. To fundamentally address the problem of instinctive use, the “primary control”—and the ability to inhibit—must be restored and then applied to the process of reacting unconsciously to stimuli. It is in this context that inhibition takes on its full meaning.