The Psychology of Everyday Action (Ideomotor Action, Part 5)

In Frank Pierce Jones’s paper*, “Startle as a Paradigm of Malposture,” he explains: If a subject is startled by a loud noise, the response will be not unlike what happens when someone gets out of a chair: the head retracts, the shoulders are raised, the back shortens, and so on. In this context, as Jones noted in his paper, the startle pattern can be seen a kind of paradigm of the postural distortions that happen due to misuse over time.

While Jones is correct, we’ve seen in previous posts that when someone jumps reactively out of the chair, they are not simply being startled into standing but are performing a complete motor act in response to an idea—in other words, they are not only reacting to a stimulus but performing a larger action. These larger, everyday actions become so reactive and automatic that they come more and more to resemble purely reflex responses, but they are nothing of the sort. Startle responses belong to a more instinctive and primitive class of nervous responses, while these reactions are indeed still voluntary, despite how reactive and automatic they seem. 

When we learn to inhibit, we are of course learning to calm down so that this tendency to react in a startled way is diminished. But we aren’t just learning not to startle; we are exercising an increase of control over the instinctive force of habit as it operates in normal, voluntary behavior. This is why, when Alexander spoke about human reaction, he was speaking in the broadest sense of voluntary action as a form of reaction to stimuli. When we inhibit, we aren’t inhibiting specific tension, specific movements, or even the startle response but the entirety of our voluntary behavior.

When Alexander addressed his harmful vocal use, he first identified his own specific tensions and reactions, and then later realized that these were all linked with larger voluntary actions (ideomotor acts) that were performed in an instinctive and harmful way. To overcome this, he had to do more than address the specific tensions and reactions; he had to instead address the larger instinctive activity that he associated with reciting. As he put it, he had to “take the control of the use of the mechanisms … from the instinctive on to the conscious plane.” In identifying the instinctive nature of action, in insisting on the need to raise the entire process of behavior to a more conscious level, Alexander did nothing less than identify a fundamental part of our human psychology—our everyday behavior—and the possibility of raising this behavior to a more conscious level.

This is why ideomotor action is so central to our work, and to why we must understand inhibition, not simply as a way of stopping but as a way of addressing the entire neural and motor pathway that generates a response to stimuli as it takes place in normal, everyday action. This is also why psychophysical education may seem like bodywork but is very definitely not bodywork. Like other actors and voice professionals before him, Alexander studied movement and breathing. But his discovery of the primary control, and the difficulties he encountered in preventing his harmful manner of use, led him into the much broader region of volition and action, placing his work not in the field of movement and tension, but squarely in psychology—in this case, the psychology of everyday action. This is different from the psychology of the unconscious mind– Jung’s “boiling cauldron”, for example– and may seem mundane in contrast. On the contrary, the study of every day action will confront you with the unconscious and instinctive nature of your own thinking and action, and can lead to profound insights into the nature of consciousness. This work is not just a way of overcoming harmful physical tensions but a hidden path to much loftier heights. 

We may deal with physical tensions every day, but these tensions are only the observable part of the much larger field of voluntary action, which in turn is an essential part of human behavior and psychology. Learning to inhibit opens the way to raising the process of activity to a more conscious level; this work, and the discipline associated with it, will one day take its place as a fundamental part of our understanding of human psychology and education.

We’ll have much more to say on this topic in our upcoming series on psychophysical education, which will appear in the fall. Stay tuned!

*from Frank Pierce Jones: Collecting Writings on the Alexander Technique, available from the Dimon Institute and Mouritz Press.