sensory system

What Would It Take To Get You To Change Your Mind?


They say life is all about change. We are told we need to embrace change, that change is the only constant in life. The clichés go on ad nauseum.

Yet we also hear praises for being steady as a rock, being able to stay the course, and for being consistent and reliable.

Is there any wonder why people have conflicts with each other with two seemingly opposing ideas being held as the thing one should do?

All this highlights the fact that there are times for change and times for stability in our lives. What is really needed by everyone is the ability to use either skill well. Yes, skills.

Creating and adapting to change and being stable are skills.

Which means there should be a means to practice and refine the components of each skill easily, without having our whole life on the line, so that when we need them we can put most of our energy into figuring out what to do, not how to do it.  It is analogous to training for a sport.

You don’t practice by playing a full game against a serious opponent each day. Instead, you look at what are the little things you need to be able to do like throwing, running, jumping, turning etc. so that when you do play a game you can do any of these things well should you need to. You get the equipment of your mind and body capable of doing these things so you can focus on the novel decisions you have to make, like whom to throw to, and not be trying to learn how to jump up, grab the ball and land with your feet in position to throw when it is time to do it.


So how can we practice the skills for change and stability? After all, these are mental constructs, not movements, aren’t they?


Consider this – volitional movement requires thinking, so changing your movement requires changing your thinking. Stability in movement requires continuous, consistent neural activity to maintain the stability. All gross movement requires an interchange of movement and stability, and the amounts and areas change as you move.

This means we can practice and enhance our skills of change and stability with conscious movement training. Even better, by doing so we are also practicing the skills that underlie the ability to change our minds. 


Try some experiments – just for a day, lift your coffee cup with the non-usual hand, put your belt on in the other way around your body, or stop and look up at the sky or ceiling randomly.

In each case you have to think about what you are doing - and think differently than usual - or else you would do the usual thing. Just as importantly you will feel something novel, a small but different sensory experience. You may even be surprised at how it feels, yet after a few times it may still feel odd but you won’t be surprised by the fact that it feels odd. (This is a big component of self-defense training, if you know how it feels to hit someone or to fall to the floor you won’t be surprised and lose your focus on your attacker when it comes time to actually do these things for your protection.)

Now try some stability experiments – when you bring your fork or cup to your mouth do not move your head forward to meet it, bring the food or drink all the way to your mouth with your hand. Or keep your feet planted on the floor and don’t move them at all when you adjust your position in a chair. Again, you had to think differently and feel something unusual.

The point of all this is that you have been able to practice the experience of change and stability without having to make some life changing alteration. You can practice a manageable bit that lets you see how it feels, practice how to fire the neurons, and how you deal with this kind of learning. You are practicing how to jump, catch the ball and plant your feet without having the fly ball come at you in the ninth inning of the championship game.


It has always seemed odd to me how this principle of practicing the real-life mental skills of being able to create and modify change and stability is integral to many movement practices but almost never spoken about. I have studied many disciplines such as karate, Tai Chi, yoga, dance, and multiple sports, and they all talk about change in movement or large life terms but never about how what you are doing is learning how to change your mind.

Change your mind.

That is what is happening when you consciously work on changing your movement: you have to change your higher-level neural activity to activate and control the movement pattern. You are using new neural pathways in the same brain that gives rise to your mind and so you are literally changing your mind.   The caveat is that you have to be doing this consciously because consciousness, while a small part of our neural activity, is the thing that makes the decisions for change and stability. The beauty of this is that you can go back to using the old pathways if you want to but now you have more options and you are keeping the cellular machinery that creates new neural connections in running order so it is easily available if you want to make some other new connections.  


There are some approaches that would seem to address this changing your mind principle, such as the many mindfulness training programs that are in vogue lately. My experience, however, is that they seem to focus on the conscious, higher neural side and slight the movement side of the equation. These are not bad programs, but for me, they don’t seem to understand that actual movement changes the brain.

The Alexander Technique clearly addresses both sides of this, something F.M. Alexander emphasized in his books and writings.

 It focuses on having people learn how to make small changes in the little things they do throughout the day with an eye to making those movements more effective and efficient. In the process people learn how to practice changing how they think and how that changes their interaction with the world around them.

The Feldenkrais method similarly combines conscious awareness of movement and movement change which results in changes in how people think and act. It differs from the Alexander Technique by being more scripted and programmatic in its practice generally but it combines both our thinking and our movement simultaneously to address both parts of the equation.

The bottom line is that you can run an amazing amount of entertaining experiments with your thinking and movement all in the privacy of your own mind and body without any risk or long-term commitments (you can always go back to putting your belt on the usual way.) You also will be increasing your ability to be stable when you choose to and to change when you choose to. You will be improving your ability to change your mind and thereby give yourself more options in how to deal with the world.  

So, raise a toast to your ability to change your mind (other hand, please) and see what comes of being more facile at being who you choose to be.


Scientific Inquiry and Movement Education: What Do You Know and How Do You Know It?

In science, two questions are asked all the time, “What do you know?” and “How do you know it?”. Together these two questions are really at the heart of figuring out anything from sub-atomic particles to what restaurant to eat at. It has been my experience, however, that people frequently are confident about what they know without asking how they know it, often to their detriment.

If Michele, your favorite foodie, tells you a place is awful and Tony, who thinks cockroaches are great dinner company, tells you the same place is great, where are you eating tonight and why?

My field is movement education and it often happens that people think they know how they are moving and what they are doing with their bodies as they go through the day - after all, rarely do we intentionally harm ourselves. But here they are in my office with musculoskeletal injuries caused by how they used their bodies. Arthritic knees and shoulders, strained necks and low backs, unable to take a deep breath.  So how does that happen?


It happens because we are taught that what we “feel” is correct and accurate, but the reality is that the sensory data your mind gets is just a fraction of what is available. In short, we fail to ask how we know that what we feel is accurate or complete.  

The sensory system reports in a tremendous amount of information on the world around us, far too much to attend to at one time, so we have to edit it before it even gets to our consciousness. To do this, we make assumptions on what data should come from the sensors and set the system to send an alarm to our consciousness only if the data varies too far from expectations. We can vary those expectations as needed. For example, if I stuck your buttocks with a needle you would jump away from it. But if you had pneumonia and expected a shot of penicillin you would reset the alarm state and stay still (mostly still, anyway) when you got stuck. If you got stuck again five minutes later you would jump again because you did not expect it.

We assume that if no alarms go off all is okay in the body, and this works well enough a lot of the time. But when was the last time you really looked at the assumptions you make about your movement?

 Walk across the room a few times and think about what you are doing. You get from one place to another and don’t fall down or get injured so you know you can walk just fine.

Now ask the next question – How do you know you walk “just fine”? How do you know you are not straining your back or knees excessively or your coordination makes you use a lot more energy than you have to? What information and assumptions are you using to decide your walking is not damaging your frame over the long run?

This is not a pleasant exercise to do for most of us because asking how we know things reveals what we don’t know. But that is precisely why it is the critical question in scientific inquiries, so researchers can figure out the truth about how the world works.

Taking the time to ask “What do I know?” and “How do I know it?” is a powerful way to make yourself smarter and healthier, all in the comfort of your own body.