Literature Review: Movement-based Embodied Cognitive Practices and Belief-systems

Introduction

Mindfulness is a widely practiced technique with innumerous variations that has its origins in various major belief systems around the world. While attention to bodily sensations has been mainly studied in seated meditation and mindfulness practices within contemplative science, Movement-based Embodied Cognitive Practices (MECPs) like Yoga, Qigong, and Tai Chi also emphasize interoceptive, proprioceptive, and kinesthetic awareness. These awareness practices are also essential to the effectiveness of modern somatic education/therapeutic techniques like the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method (Posadzki, 2009; Schmalzl et al., 2014).

Almost all cultures around the globe have their own versions of contemplative movement systems. These systems include shamanistic dances, Christian liturgical gestures, Eastern spiritual practices, and modern Western somatic practices. However, the first hurdle in studying these systems is creating a classification system that accurately reflects the systems and is suitable for scientific investigation. Yoga, Qi gong, and Tai Chi are forms of mindfulness embedded with a rich history of traditional belief systems. Studying these practices can present challenges for Western scientists due to their non-dualistic view of the mind and body (Schmalzl et al., 2014).

It is not necessary to follow any religion or philosophy to practice mindfulness, especially modern derivatives which are mostly devoid of overt metaphysical assumptions. At the same time, mindfulness and its variants seem to have the ability to alter your perceptions and assessment of reality, at least in relation to one’s “self” and therefore might influence/reveal basic metaphysical assumptions about the nature of being. The potential for this to occur not as a result of acceptance of a new ideology, but merely from interoceptive, proprioceptive, and kinesthetic awareness (paying attention to one’s self), is fascinating.

Research

In recent years, cognitive neuroscience has shifted its focus from viewing the mind as separate from the body and solely computational, to a more embodied and situated view of the mind. This new perspective, which aligns closely with traditional belief systems associated with mindfulness, suggests that mental functions cannot be fully understood without considering the physical body and environment in which they occur. MECPs are rooted in concepts of embodiment, movement, and contemplation, primarily through the enactive approach to cognition. Consciously initiated movement, as opposed to externally evoked or purely passively imposed motion, is intrinsic to the sense of agency and aids in the development of the sense of self. MECPs are typically described as ‘holistic’ and have an intrinsic worldview that is non-deterministic and often non-dualistic. In MECPs, conscious volition is presupposed, and the mind-body is seen as one (Schmalzl et al., 2014).

The false dichotomy of physical and nonphysical, mind and body, pervades medicine and causes many problems in conceptualization of disease, particularly with regards to so-called ‘mental illness’ (Mehta, 2011). Psychological disorders are associated with a wide variety of distortions of time perception, the practice of mindfulness may be effective by virtue of its effect on our relationship with time (Adshead, 2013). Multiple randomized trials have been conducted on mindfulness-based interventions for psychosis. Additionally, there have been various trials on interventions that include mindfulness exercises such as acceptance and commitment therapy and compassion-focused therapy (Böge, 2021).

Today MECPs are often practiced exclusively as part of exercise and general health remines. Remarkably, these variations of mindfulness have the potential to make a significant impact on people’s lives by decreasing stress, pain, anxiety, depression, blood pressure, and cortisol levels, as well as increased energy, sleep quality, immune function, awareness, clarity, calmness, and happiness (Martin, 2018).

The Alexander Technique (AT) is a secular MECP that teaches individuals to identify, understand, and modify habits that affect their movement and posture. AT can also be described as a phenomenological study of the interaction between one’s biology and psychology. AT practice observes and modulates the relationship between volitional cognitive behavior, somatosensory awareness, and regulation of muscle activity in postural support and movement. It is typically taught in one-on-one sessions, where the teacher uses gentle physical touch and verbal instruction to convey the principles and skills of the technique. The AT takes a holistic approach, considering the mind and body as indivisible (Kinsey et al., 2021).

Research on the AT generally has focused on three main areas: biomechanical changes associated with learning the technique, its effects on musicians’ performance quality and anxiety, and health outcomes related to specific conditions such as chronic pain and Parkinson’s symptoms. While most studies have focused on physical outcomes such as pain reduction, balance improvement, and changes in gait and posture, some have also reported psychological benefits such as increased relaxation and confidence (Kinsey et al., 2021).

Kinsey et al. (2021) reviewed the literature for psychological benefits and found that, “AT lessons may provide a significant way to improve mental wellbeing and increase agency,” adding, “Further work should seek to widen its application beyond the traditionally perceived areas of movement, posture, and pain.” The authors cited effects such as changes in mood, sense of self, cognitive processes, confidence, and emotion and explored how these outcomes are generated. While acknowledging the interconnectedness of physical and psychological processes, the review adopted a dualist approach to distinguish between physical and non-physical outcomes pointing to the inherent difficulties in studying mind-body practices (Kinsey et al., 2021).

Free Will has been defined in multiple, conflicting ways. According to Baumeister et al. (2010) it can be defined as a psychological capacity subsuming self-control, effortful choice, planning, and initiative. These capabilities are useful for making human social life and culture possible, but they depend on a limited resource and therefore often fall short of optimal levels. Religion may be helpful to individuals and society in part because it supports both the exercise of free will and the belief in it (Baumeister et al., 2010). MECPs may serve a similar function.

Interestingly, belief in free will was found to be associated with a conservative worldview, including such facets as authoritarianism, religiosity, punitiveness, and moralistic standards for judging self and others. The common element appears to be a strong sense of personal responsibility. However, there was evidence for distinct correlates of scientific and fatalistic determinism reinforces the need for treating them separately (Carey & Paulhus, 2013). Wisniewski et al. (2019) showed that people’s beliefs about free will are closely linked to their beliefs about dualism, with dualism being a stronger predictor of free will beliefs than other related concepts.

In a study by Caspar (2017), fatalistic determinism was positively correlated with religiosity of participants; suggesting that the more people are engaged in religious practices, the more they believe in fatalistic determinism and the inevitability of their future. This is consistent with the widespread view that people engaged in religious practices believe that their destiny depends on God’s will. It is therefore possible that people can intuitively reconcile free will with scientific determinism, but not with fatalistic determinism (Caspar, 2017).

Genetic/scientific determinism can be described as the attribution of the formation of traits to genes, where genes are ascribed more causal power than what scientific consensus suggests. Belief in genetic determinism is an educational problem because it contradicts scientific knowledge and is a societal problem because it has the potential to foster intolerant attitudes such as racism and prejudice against sexual orientation (Gericke et al., 2017).

According to Tarr (2008), looking at the Alexander Technique from an ethnographic perspective is fascinating because it is a bodily practice that is difficult to put into words. Although words may be used during Alexander lessons, they refer to bodily movements and sensations, making it a form of embodied knowledge. Ethnographers have only recently started to focus on the physical aspects of their subjects in their writing. Dance ethnographers have struggled with representing body movements and have used movement notation systems like Rudolph von Laban’s, which require specialized knowledge to read and decode. There are also concerns about the accuracy of such representations in capturing the sense of movement. Additionally, it is crucial to consider the meaning of movement for those involved in it, which movement notation systems cannot provide (Tarr, 2008).

Tarr (2008) adapts some of Csordas’s ideas of cultural phenomenology, namely somatic modes of attention, to various concepts in the Alexander Technique. Csordas argued that somatic modes of attention are not innate or biological but are shaped by cultural factors. These modes of attention involve practices such as mental rehearsal of athletic movements, health consciousness and dietary practices, and dance. Identifying and understanding these modes can provide new insights into embodiment and interpersonal relationships. Alexander Technique lessons fit within this framework as a method of attending to and with bodies in the presence of a teacher and can be seen as an example of a culturally constituted somatic mode of attention. Tarr (2008) also discusses Bourdieu’s theory of “habitus” and how studying the Alexander Technique ethnographically can shed light on the processes of “understanding with the body.”

There have been multiple studies led by Dr. Rajal Cohen of the University of Idaho that quantitatively measured differences in axial tone, postural sway, postural uprightness, and step initiation; before and after verbal AT instruction among PD sufferers and healthy individuals (Cohen et al., 2015; Cohen et al., 2020). These findings support other evidence that ‘thinking’ (conscious autosuggestion, etc.) has distinct, measurable psychophysical outcomes. Changes in tone from AT-based instructions suggest that executive function can influence tone and body schema (Cohen et al., 2015; Cohen et al., 2020). This process may be related to what movement scientists call kinesthetic motor imagery, although such studies mostly examine the mental representation of overt movement rather than mental representations of desired postural states.

Further evidence of potential perceptual/belief effects of cultivating interoceptive and proprioceptive awareness comes from a systematic review of available literature on the AT and musicians by Klein et al. (2014). In most of these studies, AT was found to be effective in reducing performance anxiety. It is worth noting that other MECPs, such as yoga, have also been shown to positively influence performance anxiety in musicians (Klein et al., 2014; Schlinger, 2006). Additionally, a study of people with chronic lower back pain found significant differences before and after AT lessons in their constructs of intention, perceived risk, direct attitude, and behavioral beliefs providing more evidence of non-physical outcomes from AT lessons (Kamalikhah et al., 2016).

Discussion

There is an overarching theme in the relevant literature of mind-body unity (non-dualism) and the interconnectedness of physical and psychological processes. The focus on embodiment and the situated view of the mind is often discussed in the context of mindfulness practices and the AT. AT and MECPs generally emphasize the importance of conscious volition and the sense of agency that arises from it. Greater sense of agency after practice of MECPs is a theme in the literature that begs the question, “Does belief in free will arise from feelings of agency?”

Following from the first theme there is a theme of physical practices having effects on psychological state and vice versa. According to Sathyanarayana Rao (2009), “Perceptual shifts are the prerequisites for changing the belief and hence changing the biochemistry of our body favorably.” Ironically researchers inevitably adopt a dualistic approach to distinguishing between physical and non-physical outcomes, which is antithetical to the idea of mind-body unity is emphasized in MECPs in the first theme. Related to the prior theme is another prevalent one in the literature, namely the inadequacy of language to express the information/knowledge acquired by MECPs.

References

Adshead. (2013). The time of our lives: Psychological disorders, time perception and the practice of mindfulness. European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling, 15(2), 139–150. https://doi.org/10.1080/13642537.2013.795337

Baumeister, R., Bauer, I. M., & Lloyd, S. A. (2010). Choice, Free Will, and Religion. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2(2), 67–82. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018455

Böge, K., Thomas, N., & Jacobsen, P. (2021). Is mindfulness for psychosis harmful? Deconstructing a myth. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 218(2), 71-72. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.2020.165

Carey, J. & Paulhus, D. L. (2013). Worldview Implications of Believing in Free Will and/or Determinism: Politics, Morality, and Punitiveness. Journal of Personality, 81(2), 130–141. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2012.00799.x

Caspar, E. A., Verdin, O., Rigoni, D., Cleeremans, A., & Klein, O. (2017). What Do You Believe In? French Translation of the FAD-Plus to Assess Beliefs in Free Will and Determinism and Their Relationship with Religious Practices and Personality Traits. Psychologica Belgica, 57(1), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.5334/pb.32

Cohen R., Gurfinkel, V. S., Kwak, E., Warden, A. C., & Horak, F. B. (2015). Lighten Up: Specific Postural Instructions Affect Axial Rigidity and Step Initiation in Patients With Parkinson’s Disease. Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair, 29(9), 878–888. https://doi.org/10.1177/1545968315570323

Cohen, Baer, J. L., Ravichandra, R., Kral, D., McGowan, C., & Cacciatore, T. W. (2020). Lighten Up! Postural Instructions Affect Static and Dynamic Balance in Healthy Older Adults. Innovation in Aging, 4(2), igz056–igz056. https://doi.org/10.1093/geroni/igz056

Gericke, N., Carver, R., Castéra, J., Evangelista, N., Marre, C., El-Hani, C., (2017) Exploring Relationships Among Belief in Genetic Determinism, Genetics Knowledge, and Social Factors. Sci & Educ 26, 1223–1259 https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-017-9950-y

Kamalikhah T., Morowatisharifabad M. Rezaei-Moghaddam F., Ghasemi M. Gholami-Fesharaki M. Goklani S. (2016) Alexander Technique Training Coupled With an Integrative Model of Behavioral Prediction in Teachers With Low Back Pain Iran Red Crescent Medical Journal doi: 10.5812/ircmj.31218

Kinsey D., Glover L., Wadephul F., How does the Alexander Technique lead to psychological and non-physical outcomes? A realist review, European Journal of Integrative Medicine, Volume 46, 2021, ISSN 1876-3820, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eujim.2021.101371

Martin, A.C. (2018). An Introduction to Mindfulness through Yoga, Tai Chi, and Meditation. International Journal of Health, Wellness & Society, 8(3), 11–20. https://doi.org/10.18848/2156-8960/CGP/v08i03/11-20

Mavilidi, M., Pesce, C., Benzing, V., Schmidt, M., Paas, F., Okely, A. D., & Vazou, S. (2022). Meta-analysis of movement-based interventions to aid academic and behavioral outcomes: A taxonomy of relevance and integration. Educational Research Review, 37, 100478–. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2022.100478

Mehta. (2011). Mind-body Dualism: A critique from a Health Perspective. Mens Sana Monographs, 9(1), 202–209. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-1229.77436

Nadelhoffer, Shepard, J., Nahmias, E., Sripada, C., & Ross, L. T. (2014). The free will inventory: Measuring beliefs about agency and responsibility. Consciousness and Cognition, 25, 27–41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2014.01.006

Posadzki P. (2009). Qi Gong exercises through the lens of the Alexander Technique: A conceptual congruence. European Journal of Integrative Medicine, 1(2), 87–92. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eujim.2009.04.001

Schlinger, Marcy (2006) Feldenkrais Method, Alexander Technique, and Yoga—Body Awareness Therapy in the Performing Arts Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Clinics V.17,4 P865-875

Tarr, J. (2008). Habit and conscious control: Ethnography and embodiment in the Alexander Technique. Ethnography, 9(4), 477–497. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24047911

Tarr, Jennifer (2011) Educating with the hands: working on the body/self in Alexander Technique Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 33 No. 2 ISSN 0141–9889, pp. 252–265 doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2010.01283.x

Schmalzl, L., Crane-Godreau, M., & Payne, P. (2014). Movement-based embodied contemplative practices: Definitions and paradigms. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00205

Sathyanarayana Rao, T. S., Asha, M. R., Jagannatha Rao, K. S., & Vasudevaraju, P. (2009). The biochemistry of belief. Indian journal of psychiatry, 51(4), 239–241. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.58285

Wisniewski, D., Deutschländer, R., & Haynes, J.-D. (2019). Free will beliefs are better predicted by dualism than determinism beliefs across different cultures. PloS One, 14(9), e0221617–e0221617. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0221617

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