The Problem of Routine Habit & the Means-Whereby Principle
Excerpted from Dr. Theodore Dimon’s latest work, Neurodynamics: The Art of Mindfulness in Action, and edited by Tara Fenamore.
The field of Psychophysical Education is a practical response to the problem of habitual motor function in human beings. The foundational claim that mechanical habits of motor function represent a legitimate problem in human development warrants clarification. Our musculoskeletal system is programmed at a largely habitual level in response to our decision to act. This is as it should be, since it is the subconscious working of this system, operating in response to our intention as a necessary background for whatever we choose to do, that ensures the fluid and unthinking activity so essential to everyday life. Automatic processes of neuromuscular circuiting are integral to our functional design and ultimately exemplify the advantages of ideomotor action purely conceived. Consider how impossibly difficult it would be simply to raise an arm if we had to work out each and every muscular contraction involved in supporting the body as a whole. We would be virtually paralyzed and would not be able to carry out even the simplest action, which is why so much of what we do is unconscious, preprogrammed, and habitual. Processes of, what we call, “habit” formation, are built into the psychophysical designs of all species of animal that possess a functional nervous system. This adaptation secures the survival and advancement of, not only homo sapiens, but many other species of animal as well.
So what, then, is the “problem of habitual motor function” that demands remedial psychophysical intervention in humans? The efficient operation of habit becomes a liability when the action takes place through means that are harmful to the functional integrity of the psychophysical system. For example, if, to raise my arms overhead, I habitually shorten my lumbar spine and lift my rib cage forward and up, I am compromising the functional integrity of the back and interfering with the mechanics of breathing. Specific tensions or contractions are difficult to control because each one is part of a process that is almost entirely unthinking and stereotyped as part of a larger ideomotor act. This is where the process of stopping (‘inhibition’) becomes of paramount importance, where we must inhibit the impulse to act habitually and take time to think about how to approach an activity intelligently based on our knowledge of the system and how it works, breaking the activity down into discrete steps that are not associated with the finished act.
The ‘means-whereby principle’ of F.M. Alexander refers to the practice of breaking down a motor act into its constituent parts. It is both a theoretical and practical response to the problem of routine habit as the primary conductor of human action and conduct. The practice facilitates the student’s advancement from a subconscious to a conscious plane of control. It overrides rigid behavioral habits by replacing these with conscious attention to oneself in activity. The development of conscious attention invites the cultivation of flexible habits, or habits that are consciously programmed into the system by vital thought in order to intelligently regulate self-use.
There are at least three elements that make up the means-whereby principle. The first is the refusal to consent to performing a stereotyped motor act, also known as ‘inhibition’ (previous blog posts on the principle of ‘inhibition’ can be accessed here). The second element of the means-whereby principle is the process of directing (click here for previous posts on directing) the PNR (postural neuromuscular reflex) system to establish improved neuromuscular conditions. The third and final element is adjusting our conception of the act from its meditated end to the sequential steps or discrete motor acts that collectively consummate the activity. Forming a conception of the true act that is unencumbered by harmful habit and superfluous effort is thus an essential part of the means-whereby principle. By thinking clearly of the steps involved in performing the act, the student will be able to circumvent his old way of doing it and replace this with a more coordinated action.
A universal procedure within the Alexander Technique system of re-education is the ‘monkey position’ illustrated here. AT students and teachers use this position to practice the ‘means-whereby principle’ when transitioning from standing to sitting in a chair. The ‘monkey position’ gives us a structured way to break down the action of sitting into isolated steps or ‘directions.’ Thus, the act of sitting can be conceived in an entirely new way, without triggering our associated harmful habits. By thinking through the ‘directions’ of ‘monkey’ instead of thinking generally about sitting (or not consciously thinking at all but functioning on habitual automata), we put our end aside and attend to the means-whereby the end is achieved in a thoughtful, coordinated way.
Humans living in Westernized countries generally operate via a culturally entrenched paradigm of “what we do” as opposed to “how we do it”: “I am going to sit in the chair”; “I am going to write the paper; “I am going to pick up the fallen object.” Most of these actions aren’t initiated by structured thoughts as suggested by the sequence of examples. They are habitual reactions to impulses that are triggered by the dynamic field of environmental stimuli. We fulfill actions like sitting, writing, retrieving, and hundreds more in the course of any given day. We may attend to the accumulation of words on the page or the condition of the fallen object. Very rarely do we attend to ourselves as the instrument – or the do-er – of our daily actions. In fact, our attention is often drawn far away from ourselves and lost within the object or stimulus of our actions. We neglect to attend to our own conditions and the way in which we use ourselves to meet functional ends. The ‘means-whereby principle’ and its associated processes are intended to qualitatively direct attention to the way in which actions are performed. It represents a new mindset, or way of thinking, related to honoring the process by which actions are fulfilled and ends are met – and therefore, honoring our selves. On the practical level of psychophysical health, such an orientation to self-use opens a window for the observation of harmful behavioral habits and the discovery of more healthy, coordinated alternatives.
Our next post, written by Tara Fenamore, will take a more philosophical look at the means-whereby principle and ethics.
See “Neurodynamics…” chapter entitled Awareness and Conscious Control, pages 103-144 to learn more about ideomotor action and the ‘means whereby principle.’)
 Although habit formation and associated neuromuscular processes are present in all vertebrates, the problem of defective habit that results in psychophysical distortion appears to be most relevant to the human being. Dr. Theodore Dimon theorizes that the problem is intricately entangled in the human mammal’s higher level cortical faculties. These faculties constitute evolutionary adaptations that developed in reciprocity with the phenomenon of fully upright, bi-pedal posture.