Psychophysical Education (2): Definition & Background

In the first part of this series on psychophysical education, we saw that psychophysical does not refer to the interaction between mental and physical factors, nor the overall effect a practice may have on one’s general attitude and outlook. Many methods influence the psychophysical whole (as when you exercise and it improves your mental and emotional state), but they do not address the working of the organism as a psychophysical whole, and so do not fully reflect the depth of meaning of this term.

To make sense of what psychophysical means, let’s begin by saying you have a problem with your shoulder and you are able to bring about improved conditions associated with the improved working of that shoulder. Assuming the problem is not medical, you could do this with knowledge of how the muscular system works as a whole and how to restore length, ease, and tone to shortened and overworked muscles. These improvements will help you to perform actions more efficiently, with greater ease, and to pay attention to both what you are doing and how you are going about doing it. Yet even when you’ve achieved all this, you will find, as we all do, that the same problem tends to come back, over and over.

This happens because improvements made in the body—even when these are quite profound and give one a great deal of relief, and even when you try to maintain the improvements in action—is only half the battle. The other half involves the recognition that the problem will continue to recur in activity because of our unconscious way of doing things. This unconscious way of doing things represents an entirely different problem, a kind of deeper issue that we tend to miss and can often overlook for years until we finally realize that being kinesthetically aware of how the system works in action is neither the final step in our work, nor the most essential step.

The reason why we must mention this right at the start is because, in framing what this work is about, we have to be careful not to define it in physical terms that oversimplify what is in fact a profound problem. To my knowledge, the first person to make sense of this concept was F. Matthias Alexander, who suffered from vocal problems and made a detailed study of his vocal habits. He discovered that, when he recited, he pulled his head back and shortened in stature, which affected the health of his voice. He worked on this problem for a period of at least two years and was able to improve the working of his voice. However, even with this success, he came upon a second and even more profound problem, which is that he was unable to maintain these improved conditions when he returned to reciting because his way of doing things was almost entirely unconscious—a fact that he states very clearly and unequivocally in all of his books and throughout his writings. As Alexander wrote, this “instinctive misdirection, leading to wrong habitual use of myself… came into play as the result of a decision to use my voice; this misdirection, in other words, was my instinctive response (reaction) to the stimulus to use my voice.” This discovery led Alexander to the conclusion that, even when he thought he was performing actions consciously, these actions were in fact largely unconscious and instinctive because they came into play as “the result of a decision to use his voice” that was part of an instinctive process.

It may sound somewhat contradictory to say that a voluntary action is unconscious, since by definition when we decide to do something, we have made a conscious choice. But as we saw in the recent posts on ideomotor action, even our conscious actions are mostly unconscious in nature for two reasons:

  • when we do something, the idea that triggers the motor act usually occurs subconsciously, or below the level of our conscious awareness. When we need to write a letter, we don’t consciously think “open the drawer now, pick up the pen now,” even though we are clearly choosing to do these things voluntarily;
  • the act itself is carried out quite unthinkingly and automatically. When we have decided to make a cup of coffee, we don’t think through how the details of the act are carried out—how we pick up the pot, how to grasp the mug, and so on. All these things happen unconsciously through habits that have been developed over our lifetime, as habitual motor acts that take place in response to the idea, or intention, to achieve the desired result.

Put simply, then, the term “psychophysical” refers to the fact that any motor act, even when we have made a conscious and deliberate choice to act, takes place not as a voluntary movement but as a motor reaction to our idea or intention. As a result, actions that appear voluntary are in fact instinctive and habitual so that even when we’ve consciously learned to perform an action in a new way, the old habit, and any related physical problem, will return. To solve this problem, Alexander realized that he must not only establish the correct conditions of “use” and try to maintain them throughout the performance of an act. He must also recognize the unconscious and instinctive nature of his actions and, by subjecting these to a process of stopping, learn to raise the way he performed actions to a more conscious level—a process he described as “conscious control.”

To get at the true nature of this problem, we must take into account something new in our understanding of human behavior and psychology, something we have not yet articulated adequately, which is why this subject has yet to be incorporated into our knowledge of child development and educational practice in general. We’ll talk about why this is so important in the next post.