A doctor's explanation

In the 1980s, an Australian doctor named David Garlick, working at the University of New South Wales, studied the physiological phenomena that lie behind the effectiveness of the Alexander Technique. In the following text, the passages in bold type are taken from his book "The Lost Sixth Sense".

The "sixth sense" referred to by Garlick is kinaesthesia: the sense of limb and body position and movement. (Proprioception is another word used to describe being aware of one's body in relation to its surroundings.)

"There is evidence that this sixth sense has become 'lost', or suppressed, in our modern civilisation. (...) our minds become occupied with so many inputs and outputs to do with the outside world that signals from the body are suppressed or 'gated out' before reaching consciousness."

How can we allow this to happen? Surely we have to be aware of our surroundings in order to accomplish our daily tasks? The answer is that we develop patterns of movement on which we rely in our everyday life, so that we don't have to think about how to maintain or change our position and can concentrate on doing the job in hand, whether it is operating high-precision equipment, brushing our hair or walking down the street.

When we decide to carry out a frequently repeated action, our brain reacts as if it were a computer that has been set to launch a program on receiving a certain input. The pattern, stored deep in the brain, is recalled for use and the desired action takes place without any further attention on our part.

"The brain understandably has to reduce the information it has to handle so that it can be ready for new information. For a wide variety of acquired or learned postures and movements, the brain has centres at sub-cortical and therefore subconscious levels where programs are laid down. So, for one's characteristic postures in sitting and standing, sub-cortical programs can be used. (...) one can get by without the sixth sense of muscle and limb position."

Unfortunately, if we cease to be aware of feedback from our bodies, we are unable to 'update' our programs when they are no longer appropriate. As time goes on, if our perception is impaired by faulty sensory mechanisms, we may develop habits that involve using the wrong muscles, or over-contracting the right ones. Our body is no longer correctly aligned, and a disproportionate effort is required not only for moving but even for sitting or standing still.

"Poor muscle function arises from suppressing or gating out sensory input and relying on inadequate programs."

So how can we ‘rewrite’ the programs that determine our movements? Can we be taught which muscles to use and how to use them?

Alas, it is not as simple as that. If we were able to learn correct patterns simply by using our intellectual ability, in the way that we memorise poetry, this would still not solve the problem, because the programs in question are launched by parts of the brain which are brought into play unconsciously. (Research indicates that the cerebellum and basal ganglia are involved).

What we need to do is first to reawaken our ‘sixth sense’, so that we have an accurate perception of feedback from our bodies, and then to allow our unconscious brains to write the programs for us. By using the Alexander Technique, we can learn to stop, or ‘inhibit’, our customary reaction to a stimulus and let nature do the rest.

"It is a matter of 'allowing' the process to happen since it involves sub-cortical, and therefore subconscious processes."

Muscle fibres
Muscles are made up of two kinds of fibres, known as red and white. Red fibres are aerobic, i.e. utilise oxygen, and are designed to be non-fatiguable. White fibres are larger and stronger but subject to fatigue, as they produce lactic acid which builds up in the muscle and eventually causes cramps. The former are used for sitting, standing and gentle activity, such as walking slowly. The latter are utilized for more strenuous exertion over short periods of time: running to catch a bus, lifting a heavy weight, practising a sport.

"For the average person with inappropriate muscle function, some muscles may be over-contracted hence bringing into play fatiguable white fibres; other muscles such as the back muscles may be under-used and the red postural fibres are not used adequately and may be atrophied."

If we habitually adopt an inappropriate sitting position, slumping or sliding down in our seat, the red fibres in our back muscles will become under-used and tend to lose their characteristic ‘non-fatiguability’. It will then require a great effort in order to sit or stand properly. The Alexander Technique can help to restore natural tone and function to atrophied muscle fibres.