Functional Cognition

The Use of The Self, FM Alexander's 3rd book published in 1932. It's a pithy title, but is it accurate or useful?


Do we actually use ourselves? Is using yourself End-gaining the Means-Whereby?!


There are good arguments that in play/dance that we do use ourselves. But do we in everyday functional activities? Does a fish solely use it's tail or the water? Does a bird use its wings or the air? Where's the context, what's a window without a wall? We need to redefine the Self to include the environment.


Fundamentally we use our environment. Looking to find use within is meaningless, there's no such thing as functioning without an environment to function in. The environment provides everything you need to function, it's your support system. For a dolphin to swim ...


The intention, the thinking that guides you isn't your Self, but your environment. Your Self does provide a feedback loop, but not the intention. Let the environment guide you into good use. You don't move because you have arms and legs, but because you have space to move in, a planet to interact with, air to move. For me, functioning is a unity of self and environment. Self-environment Unity. Your use could be defined as the quality of your engagement with the environment. 


hand wielding a hammer
do you use your Self, the hammer, or the wider environment?

For this reason I don't consider Primary Control (the relationship between the head and neck), "head forward and up", to be primary, it's not a first principle. It's derived from evolutionary steps to use the environment, the upward thrust of the ground reaction force, of gravity. It's a by-product, which is why the phrase is to LET the head go forward and up.


Personally I find engaging with the nature of gravity as a first principal leads to a whole person experience that includes head forward and up. Whereas thinking head forward and up has a tendency to localise the intention,especially in new students of AT. Admittedly it's the first part of a longer phrase that includes "to let the back lengthen and widen", and Alexander recommended thinking of these directions "one after another and altogether", but ultimately it's an abstraction derived from something more fundamental.

"You can’t change the course of nature by co-ordinating yourself." - FM Alexander 

I think most bodywork, and for the sake of simplicity I'll include the Alexander Technique in that (yes, I know we prefer not to as a profession), makes the mistake of looking to improve functioning by looking inwards. It's like trying to teach someone to swim without mentioning the water and the nature of buoyancy. Just do this with this joint, and that with that joint, completely ineffective.


How did this come about? Ego. The thinking that got us into this mess is being employed to get us back out of it. Madness! 


By looking outwards and engaging with the support the environment offers we can truly non-do "good use". Yes, we can still classically (within AT terminology) "think up" as that coordinates well with what the environment is offering. The intention is still outwards. That's where good co-ordination starts, having your thinking in alignment with environmental reality.


This isn't a wholesale criticism of the Alexander Technique, but a recontextualising. The observations Alexander made about human behaviour still stand. They were good observations. This is as much about me understanding my own place in the world, and finding a pedagogical basis for passing that on.

"When an investigation comes to be made, it will be found that every single thing we are doing in the Work is exactly what is being done in nature where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously." - FM Alexander

The idea of self-environment unity first caught my attention with work of psychologist James J. Gibson. He proposed the idea, and the term affordances; that is, what the environment provides or furnishes the individual. His work was primarily on the psychology of vision, but it's only a short step to consider it in psycho-physical terms. The phrase ecological psychology was coined to describe his work, why not ecological psycho-physicality for the Alexander Technique? (Other than its a bit of a mouthful). Another way of saying it is, you are the environment. 

"The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. ... It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment." - James J. Gibson

In personal conversation with colleagues these ideas seem to be readily accepted, and widely supported even if they're not considered canon. For this reason I don't live in fear of being excommunicated. Alexander always said his work was one in progress throughout his life which implies, at least to me, the evolution of the Technique is ongoing. It would be a great disservice to his work to fossilise it in amber in 1955 at his death. Viewing AT in terms of Self-environment Unity, in my opinion, is the evolution it needs.


There's an area of neurological research into psycho-physicality called Embodied Cognition, and to jump on the mindfulness bandwagon (and explain AT in simple and casual terms to lay people) I've been known to call it Embodied Mindfulness. It would be more accurate, and set itself apart, to think of AT as Functional Mindfulness, or Functional Cognition.

"The sensitive nervous system is part of the external world. And the external world is an event in the nervous system. The inside of the box is outside the box, and the outside is inside. I mean, you know, it seems to flip flop perpetually." - Alan Watts

Write a comment

Comments: 2
  • #1

    Haynes (Tuesday, 30 April 2024 23:18)

    Very thoughtful and interesting perspective. I remember “affordances” entering my frame of reference from some years back, but not sure it really landed. This is a very intriguing reminder.

    Many folks these days seem to have very limited interoception, though — so turning the awareness toward their limited but innate ability to sense a directionality within themselves can awaken this complementary ability to understand to what extent they are allowing (or restricting) their natural ability to let their interaction with their environment organize them in action. Hmmm, if that makes sense. Thanks for making me ponder this a bit!

  • #2

    Claire Rechnitzer (Wednesday, 01 May 2024 14:17)

    Well written and insightful.