Thursday, 6 December 2007

Changing the habits of a lifetime

Last week, I read an article in the 01 December issue of New Scientist about the subconscious mind. The article described a four-part model of the conscious and subconscious control systems of the mind, developed by Peter Dayan, Nathaniel Daw and Yael Niv of University College London.

It made me reconsider my understanding of subconscious habit that forms part of the AT philosophy.

Dayan's model describes four systems of the mind, each with a different controller.

  1. the subconscious PAVLOVIAN controller
  2. the subconscious HABITUAL controller
  3. the conscious EPISODIC controller
  4. the conscious GOAL-DIRECTED controler
The pavlovian controller, described as "the brain's autopilot" performs reflex behaviours: primitive reflexes that we are born with and conditioned reflexes as demostrated by Pavlov's experimental dogs which, on the sound of a bell, were subconsciously conditioned to salivate in anticipation of food.

The pavlovian controller differs from the habitual controller inasmuch as habits are consciously learned and rehearsed until they become second nature.

When we respond to stimuli using conscious control, our resulting behaviour depends on the amount of information we have available on which we can make rational choices. In the case of incomplete information, our episodic controller recommends responses based on our experience of previous, similar situations. In an ideal situation, we focus our goal-directed controller on a well-defined problem and respond to it rationally in order to optimise our choice.

Contemporary experiments in neuroscience are revealing an increasingly important role that the subconscious mind plays in our day-to-day activities. The brain's capacity for conscious processing is a limited resource that needs to be rationed. The subconscious therefore monitors all sensory input - below your awareness - and decides which stimuli are worthy of being assigned to conscious processing.

Once the goal-directed controller has been assigned to a routine task, it aims to consign future responses to similar tasks to subconscious, habitual processing (or at least to the episodic controller) thus freeing itself to perform other tasks.

You can see this in action when we learn a new skill such as typing or driving a car. Eventually, the execution of that skill becomes an unthinking subconscious activity.

So, how does this relate to our classic understanding of the wokings of the body, as described by Mr. Alexander in his books - such as "Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual"? This is the question that I'm still evaluating, but here are my first thoughts.

Alexander spoke at length about the "evil" of subconscious habit and how it leads us to mis-use our body with undue tension. His technique for correcting this requires us to:
  • identify wrong subconscious habits (misuse)
  • inhibit the impulses that drive them
  • substitute different, consciously controlled (directed) means of using the body
  • repeat until the new use replaces the old habits

When a new pupil starts to learn AT, they arrive at their first lesson with their own unique pattern of use (or misuse). The teacher invites them to perform a routine task such as sitting in a chair - something which in most people is an unthinking, habitual process. Almost invariably, the teacher will observe that they are performing the task wrongly - for example by shortening in the back of the neck, pulling down at the front or pulling in with the knees and flopping into the chair.

The teacher then asks the pupil to repeat the task but this time, uses her/his hands to help direct the pupil "up" whilst sitting "down". For the pupil, this represents new sensory input that contradicts their habitual controller's understanding of the sitting process. Instantly, the task is reassigned. The episodic controller may switch-in and try to apply a previously learned behaviour to the task. For example, they might sit in the chair as if they were trying to balance a book on their head. A different pattern of use is observed although it bears little relation to the freely released, upwardly directed motion that the teacher had intended.

The teacher then explains the principle of sitting and repeats the exercise using modified hands to direct it. Eventually, the pupil breaks free of the episodic controller and assigns the goal-directed controller to the task. This is where the teacher may explain the "means whereby" (end-gaining) principle. The act of sitting is analysed in detail.

The next few attempts are awkward and unnatural, albeit that the pupil starts to direct upwards, while thinking about their knees ...etc. Too much goal-directed processing actually gets in the way of the act of sitting!

Now comes the part where this newly acquired skill needs to be reassigned as an habitual process. The pupil is instructed to continue to adopt the new method of sitting in their day-to-day life when there is no teacher to direct and correct them. It is ONLY by working on himself that the pupil will be able to learn to trust the new pattern of use enough to allow it to be handled subconsciously.

Of course, this improved way of sitting will be added to the pupil's library of episodic responses and it will start to emerge in his other activities.

As AT lessons progress, the teacher will take the pupil through a variety of other activities - such as walking, climbing stairs, stooping, lifting an object etc. Each new activity will be associated with new thinking and eventually - with the commitment of the pupil - the "thinking in activity" will become part of his non-thinking subconscious control system.

Returning to the starting point where the pupil is directed for the first time to sit in a new way: rarely, instead of directing the processing of the new stimulus to the conscious controllers, a pupil may respond with a reflex reaction. Their "startle reflex" may cause them to stiffen because they preceive that they are about to fall backwards.

This inappropriate triggering of a primitive reflex is an area of study that is about 40 years old. It's not a subject that I claim any expertise in, but is well understood by reflex therapists who have developed techniques to help the sufferer develop a more mature reponse. I think this body of knowledge will eventually become part of the curriculum for trainee AT teachers. Maybe this new model of conscious and subconscious processing will help to define its place in AT practice?

I invite you to comment on this blog.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! It's a huge job you're trying to elucidate in one measly blog post. I'd love to see more development on this idea from you - more than merely what most people can tolerate in the length of one blog post. This is a topic concept (combining neuroscience with A.T.) that could benefit from being revisited by both of us!
    For instance, my approach here was to spend much more time on the brain science concept, show logical possibilities, and then choose only one principle of A.T. (procedural inhibiting in this case) that gives the reader something they can do now to prove its effectiveness.