Brief History of Early AT Research

The Alexander Technique is in the interesting position of having been practiced for over 125 years in a wide variety of educational and medical settings while a proper biological theory of the mechanisms underlying AT has only recently been proposed. This was also the case for many of the early psychotropic drugs that were discovered serendipitously with no clear explanation for their purported mechanisms of action. The mechanisms of AT are still not fully understood.

American education philosopher and Columbia Teachers College president, John Dewey, wrote introductions to three of Alexander’s books. During the first half of the 20th century, Teachers College faculty members and graduates shaped the fields of educational and psychological assessment, social studies education, urban education and the study of gifted children. Dewey, in How We Think (1910), summarized his ‘analysis of a complete act of thought;’ which became a classic and was adapted by science-textbook authors as a concise description of the scientific method. Incidentally, his introduction to Alexander’s The Use of the Self (1939), was the first to claim that Alexander’s development of AT followed the scientific method. Dewey saw the AT as tied to the discovery of the location of various postural reflexes in the brainstem by Rudolf Magnus, a German researcher on the physiology of posture.

Magnus’ discovery was used as scientific proof of Alexander’s concept of ‘primary control,’ a crudely defined neologism referring to the head-neck-back relationship and its implications for coordination and general wellbeing. The term ‘central control’ was used in England to refer to Magnus’ discovery of the location of postural reflexes in the brainstem. Magnus found this region co-ordinated sensory input and that it was responsible for postural muscular tone. Magnus’ experiments were never done on humans, however, Magnus suggested the applicability of his findings to humans. Because of early poor translation or intentionally liberal application of Magnus, there are several issues in AT literature concerning Magnus and explanations of the AT, however, Magnus is still referenced by some contemporary AT teachers; i.e. Neurodynamics (2015) by Columbia Professor, Dr. Theodore Dimon.

Between 1923 and 1951 the British Medical Journal published 30 articles and letters testifying to the AT’s efficacy. A letter published May 29th, 1937 was signed by 19 doctors and surgeons who reported that patients had greatly benefited from AT and urged the medical community to investigate, however it took another 70 years for AT research to be published in the BMJ. In 1939, three doctors published letters in the BMJ claiming anatomist and researcher Dr. George E. Coghill’s work on the embryonic behavior of the American newt, amblystoma, provided scientific confirmation of Alexander’s discoveries.

The similarity was drawn between Coghill and Alexander’s idea of Primary Control by a number of AT proponents in the medical field who were looking for a biological basis for the AT. Coghill in response, acknowledged Alexander’s work established the same principles in vertebrate behavior and subsequently wrote an appreciation section in Alexander’s fourth and final book: The Universal Constant in Living (1941). However, A scathing critique of the AT in 1944, ‘Quackery Versus Physical Education’ published in the South African Fitness Journal, Manpower, insisted that Coghill’s research did not provide any evidence in support of Alexander. It also referred to Alexander’s ‘followers’ as a ‘head balancing cult’ and put their ‘belief’ down to ‘group hystero-neurosis typical of a new faith.’ As a result, Alexander sued the journal for defamation in 1945. 

The article contained a section, ‘The misquoted Sherrington’ which claimed Alexander had mischaracterized Sir Charles Sherrington’s research as being supportive to his work. Sherrington had coined the term “proprioceptive” in 1893. By 1900 he had concluded that the cerebellum was the head ganglion of the proprioceptive system and he also later discovered the stretch reflex. Sherrington also coined the terms neuron and synapse; he shared the 1932 Nobel Prize in medicine with Edgar Douglas Adrian. Interestingly Sherrington wrote a letter of support to Alexander that helped him win the libel case in 1948. Slowly, teachers of the Alexander Technique started to view Coghill’s research as not relevant to the Technique, but Coghill was widely quoted until at least the 1970s.

In a related vein of research, Nikolass Tinbergen wrote The Study of Instinct in 1951, in which he questioned the roles of internal and external stimuli in controlling behavioral expression and expounded on innate behavioral reactions in animals and the adaptiveness and evolutionary aspects of those behaviors. Tinbergen, writing about Coghill in 1951, concluded: ‘It seems that one cannot “crystallize out” from a diffuse total response, and that a kind of additive type of integration may play a part too, perhaps especially in the higher levels.’ Tinbergen dedicated a large portion of his acceptance speech for the 1973 Nobel Prize in Medicine to the AT as an example of ‘the usefulness of an ethological approach to medicine.’ Tinbergen noted AT teacher’s ‘exceptionally sophisticated observation’ that can ‘alleviate an astonishing variety of somatic and mental illnesses.’ The speech heavily references the work of Dr. Wilfred Barlow, a rheumatologist who married Alexander’s niece, and is reproduced in later editions of Barlow’s book The Alexander Technique.

Dr. Barlow was the first AT teacher to conduct research into the Technique. Barlow was the only AT teacher who developed the idea of making a formal diagnosis of pupils. Recognizing that Coghill, and in relation the AT principle of ‘primary control’ where head-neck relationship was thought to positively affect the ‘total pattern,’ was over-emphasised, Barlow subsequently came to think AT effects are caused by separately learned components, rather than simply by a generalized total pattern. Between 1946-1959 Barlow conducted a number of “before and after” AT lessons studies where pupils would undress and stand against a grid so that any asymmetries or deviations would be easy to identify and record via photography. 

Tufts University professor Frank Pierce Jones did many experimental studies involving the AT between 1951 and 1972. Jones endorsed the AT adopted view of Magnus, that ‘the postural reflexes, the response of the organism to gravity is a fundamental feedback which integrates other reflex systems.’ In his book Freedom to Change he refers to the stretch reflex, the righting and attitudinal reflexes as part of the explanation for the mechanisms of the AT. Jones predominantly measured changes in posture and movement (mainly sit-to-stand behavior) using multiple image photography with markers on various parts of the subject’s body illuminated by flashes. A summary of these studies was published in Psychological Review in 1965 and the book Body Awareness in Action (1976) which was published posthumously.

A physiologist and medical research scientist at the University of New South Wales, Dr. David Garlick, made a preliminary survey of possible physiological explanations involved in the AT and laid the groundwork for current theories. He stressed that the awareness of inter-relationship of muscle and mental states (body schema) as one of the most important effects of the AT. Garlick’s research included various types of postural analysis, the majority of which were published in The Lost Sixth Sense (1990). The “sixth sense” in this context refers to underdevelopment and/or malfunctioning of kinaesthesia and proprioceptive senses. Garlick postulates that the AT mainly operates on these senses and the brain mechanisms related to them; he lists sensory nerve inputs from neck muscle spindles, Golgi tendon organs, skin and joint receptors, and different types of muscle fibers as physiological factors relevant to the AT.

Although the effectiveness of AT has been shown at the behavioral level, their effects on altering brain circuitry are still unclear. In his 1985 book, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks describes an extreme case of the loss of proprioception in the chapter, ‘On the Level.’  The patient discovers AT-like strategies of additional feedback (in this case affixing a spirit level to his glasses) coupled with the recruitment of cognitive mechanisms to help regulate what should be automatic, consciously adjusting his balance. In the chapter Sacks writes, “The awareness of relative position of trunk and limbs, derived from receptors in the joints and tendons – was only really defined (and named ‘proprioception’) in the 1890s; the complex mechanisms and controls by which our bodies are properly aligned and balanced in space – these have only been defined in our own century, and still hold many mysteries.”

References: Companion Articles: ‘Frank Pierce Jones’ ‘Wilfred Barlow’ ‘Wilfred Barlow’s research’ ‘Scientific explanations of the Alexander Technique’

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