Somatics and general theory of learning

There is a strong intuition that somatics ought to have some significant philosophical and social implications that runs right through the somatic education literature. Somatics makes philosophical claims in challenging mind-body dichotomies and the mechanistic conception of the body; it often claims to provide a vehicle for social transformation; and it employs and brings forth concepts such as those of transformation, potency, and learning, that have implications in fields such as the philosophy of education and social theory. So it would be interesting to examine some of these claims, in particular, the relevance of somatic education to questions in philosophy.

There are several ways in which we can look at this but the most immediate and direct one addresses the psychological background of somatic education. In short, we would expect somatic education to have implications for philosophy and social theory if it implies or supports a particular sort of a psychological paradigm, in particular, if such a psychology is either novel or if it is at odds with the currently accepted models.

Some of the central concepts of somatic education have a philosophical air to them. Somatic education proposes a novel approach to learning. It claims to provide the framework for learning to learn. Somatic education claims to address the mind-body split in terms of the concept of the ‘soma’ or the ‘body-mind’, in other words, it claims to have the conceptual resources to do so and that working with the concepts of the soma it is able to solve problems that the mind-body paradigm is not. And somatic education deals with concepts of action and intentionality which have a prominent place in philosophical thought, raising the question whether these provide a radical departure or fit into an established philosophical paradigm.

One way of approaching these questions is to see somatic education as emerging from a pre-existing or at least emerging philosophical model, such that the philosophical implications or claims are in fact merely the further elaboration of a philosophical paradigm that was already in existence in some rudimentary form at the point of its initiation. The clue here is the role of Dewey and pragmatist thought at the initiation of somatic education. Looked at from this perspective it becomes clear that somatic education is in fact strongly located within these philosophical paradigms. The question then concerns the degree to which it provides some sort of a confirmation, support, and elaboration of these paradigms.

The promise of somatic education in terms of sustaining certain philosophical claims is that it provides the further elaboration of these claims, but perhaps more significantly, in that it provides an elaboration of the psychology underlying these claims, in other words, supports certain psychological models rather than others. That is, to a large extent its interest and significance lies in the extent to which it elaborates and articulates a psychology, in particular, a psychology of learning and of action. The fundamental question then is whether, in elaborating the concept of the ‘soma’ in a novel way, that is, in a way that allows us to transcend the mechanistic conceptions of the body, or even embodiment, somatic education has been able to provide the basis for the elaboration of novel ways of conceptualizing learning and intentionality.

Somatic education claims continuity from Alexander onward and this seems to be an important element of the tradition through Feldenkrais to modern elaborations such as Hanna Somatics. The significant contribution made by Alexander consists in the concepts of use, inhibition, means-whereby, faulty sensory perception, and primary control. The basic metaphor employed by Alexander seems to be that of the body as a tool which demands proper use, and this proper use is achieved by inhibition of habitual incorrect action and the employment of the correct or efficient means-whereby. The assumption of somatic education here is that the incorrect use of the body is incorrect when it consists of ‘end-gaining’, that is, the focus on the distal end and the lack of awareness of the proximal means-whereby where the distal aims are attained by means of efficient proximal action.

In somatic education the key to understanding the correct or an efficient use of the body lies in the concepts of sensory awareness, primary control, and projecting directions. Alexander identifies the head-neck relation as of primary significance in terms of organizing the body, and sees the problem of correct use as lying in a distorted awareness of this relation. The distorted use of the primary control is due to the startle reflex which becomes part of the individual’s self-image. The correction of this fault is to be achieved by means of an awareness and the inhibition whereby the incorrect action is replaced by correct and efficient one, correct use being re-established through awareness or sensory perception and inhibition and the projection of commands.

Now this basic model is largely retained and built upon in the somatic education paradigm, and its major contribution is seen in that it provides a novel and alternative model of education, that is, of learning. It is this claim to be providing an alternative or novel model of education that seems to be of primary philosophical interest, and this claim is reinforced by the support received by the Alexander Technique from John Dewey. It is therefore important to examine the scope and impact of the learning model that is being proposed within the somatic education framework. It seems that this task is rendered easier by the fact that the model is susceptible to a neuro-physiological reduction, that is, that is provides a reductive model, or at least the scope of such a reductive model, of learning.

Conceptually it is not clear what it is that is particularly unique about Alexander Technique itself for it to have such far reaching implications as to provide a wholly new or radical approach to education. It provides the basic rudiments of such a novel approach which however needed to be worked out later on, a task undertaken by Feldenkrais and his followers in the elaboration of the concept of the Soma and of education as they are implicit in the Alexander technique. It is not so much the technique as therapy dealing with certain bodily ailments traced to poor posture that is of interest, but rather the more general claim to have discovered a more general pedagogy and learning paradigm that is of main philosophical interest.

The initial question is how we move from the dealing with a particular set of ‘somatic’ ailments to a general pedagogy, theory of learning, and indeed, a general theory of action. Such a move is by no means obvious or inevitable. The larger claim is explicitly reiterated and elaborated by Feldenkrais in the claim that the somatic method or technique provides the means of learning to learn, and in general, teaches not so much correct action as potent action, a term which seems to carry heavier significance than simply efficient action, although it is clearly derived from it, that is, potency originates in the more modest concept of efficiency which is then elaborated and given more weight in the concept of potent action.

At this point it might be said that it was part of the general climate of the times to assign wider social, political, and philosophical significance to therapies, in particular, psychoanalysis, and somatic education was from the start in contention as the most effective means of dealing with ailments of modernity. It was Reich, it seems who insisted that it is the body tension that gives the mental contents their emotional significance, and that therefore established the body as the locus of treatment for emotional and sexual problems. This paved the way for somatic education to claim that it provides the means for dealing with emotional problems.

But somatics insists on being a form of education and only secondarily is it a form of therapy if at all. In providing the means of efficient and effective action somatic education claims to provide a model for learning, and thereby for coping with a complex and difficult reality, in particular, for coping with emotionally difficult situations such as sexual intercourse. It provides a general model of coping by insisting that correct posture or as Feldenkrais terms it, acture is necessary for successfully coping with difficult situations, which also implies for learning. While we notice body tension and poor co-ordination only when we have a sore-back or lose our voice, these are actually more widely spread symptoms of a more general malaise, lack of potency, spontaneity, and the ability to learn, that is due to excessive tension and stiffness that characterizes modern society.

So the modest claims of efficient action that initially is deployed in the service of a better use of the body as an instrument, thus avoiding ailments such as the loss of voice, is not reinterpreted in terms of the more general concept of potent action that has wider implications. Potent action is efficient and mono-motivated, but it implies the ability to deal with the world in a flexible and spontaneous way that is not available to the tense individual lacking awareness of his postural sets. The ability to re-organize one’s postural sets and action patterns through awareness is therefore seen as essential to the ability to respond to new situations in new and effective ways, in other words, to cope and to learn. One learns to learn by learning to re-organize one’s action sets and through a fine control of one’s posture or acture.

Central to this model is the development of the concept of the soma, or the body conceived not merely as a machine, and from a third-person perspective, but rather conceived in functional terms, as a process, and that includes a first-person perspective. The standard conception of the body is mechanistic in that it conceives of the body as essentially static, but this is a conception of the body that responds to stimuli in predictable and determinate ways. The somatic conception brings in the element of first-person awareness that allows for action to be flexible, spontaneous, and therefore potent. The idea of potency here means something like responding to the particular, unique, current situation in a way that is not determined by previous responses, but that adapts the possibilities of action through fine control and awareness, in novel, flexible and adaptive ways.

The idea is that it is the first-person perspective, the individual’s awareness of the body ‘from the inside’ as it were, and the conception of the body or the soma in non-deterministic functional terms as a process, that makes the essential difference. Including the first person perspective and conceiving of the body functionally in terms of the distribution or pattern of tensions within a whole organism, allows for the possibility of novel adaptation and spontaneity. Learning to learn means learning to response spontaneously and in novel ways that is not determined by prior action habits that, within the impotent individual, and encoded in tension patterns in stiff musculature controlled by the ‘lower’ brain centers, and thus that are not accessible to voluntary awareness.

So what is of fundamental importance to the model is the conception of the soma in terms of the body-mind relationship and the functional conception of the body or the soma in terms of tension patterns. The body is no loner conceived of as a machine that is or needs to be controlled by the mind. The mind-body model is not analysed in terms of the functional disconnection of action control from cortical centers of motor control and volition due to the loss of sensory awareness, now analysed in terms of the concept of Sensory Motor Amnesia.

Implicit here is the conception of the soma in terms of a cybernetic model of the sensory-motor feedback system that involves the voluntary motor system together with the postural-gravitational system. The cybernetic conception here is system-theoretic in that it conceives of the cybernetic model in terms of a self-correcting oscillating system (cf., the pendulum) whereby the feedback loop tends to correct action towards maximum efficiency, and therefore potency. Problem solving and adaptation is located neither in the body, nor in the mind, but rather in the somatic system of sensory-motor integration through the development of awareness of the patterns of muscular tension. The somatic perspective therefore demands a first-person perspective as an element in the whole action or adaptive response producing system. There is a systemic unity between volition and action, so that we are dealing with an integrated action producing system.

Now, the concepts of faulty sense perception (distorted self-image, sensory-motor amnesia), inhibition and means-whereby (awareness through movement, functional integration), primary control in the head-neck relation (tension release), and use (gravity, soma), taken together might suggest a therapeutic model. The fundamental difference between the therapeutic and the educational model is elaborated in terms of the distinction between the third and a first person perspective. The therapeutic model implies that something is done to the patient, whereas the educational model is meant to imply that the change is not something that happens to me but something that happens through my own action. Education can be organized along the lines of the therapeutic model, but this is precisely what is being rejected. What lies at the back of the somatic paradigm, and what is of central philosophical interest, is a general theory of learning and education, of how learning happens in a non-therapeutic sense. This is the contribution that pragmatist theory of education brings to somatics and where they crucially interact, in a first-person conception of education.

A third person perspective on behavioural change or adaptation means that something happens to me. It does not entail the active participation of the subject, a change that happens of which the agent does not actively participate through an increased awareness. There is no increase in the functioning of the primary control in relation to the volitional centers. Habit formation can take place without a broadening of awareness and the integration of conscious volition with the mechanisms of primary control of the soma. The body becomes objectified and viewed from a third person, objective point of view, without the expansion of spontaneity and possibility. The achievement of a first person awareness in learning implies the sort of special form of learning that is set out in the somatic paradigm and that connects with pragmatist theory. It is this general theory of learning the rudiments of which are found in pragmatist psychology and that is significantly elaborated within the somatic paradigm that is of central philosophical significance.

To say that this is a general theory of learning means that it is not a domain specific form of learning, but rather that what is proposed is a theory of the general mechanisms underlying all learning. Such a theory proposes that all learning is somatic in nature. It contracts both, non-cognitive theories of learning that focus on embodiment and purely practical forms of learning, as well as cognitivist theories of learning that see all learning in cognitive and linguistic terms. It claims that all significant learning involves the functional integration of awareness (cognition and volition) on the one hand, and the somatic systems of control on the other. The soma is in effect conceived as the integration of awareness and primary control, and therefore involves the body-mind system that includes both, the first and the third person perspective.

So this seems to be the fundamental contribution of the somatic paradigm, namely, the elaboration of the model whereby learning is not something that happens to someone, but rather that involves the active participation of the individual in the learning. The individual must exercise control over the motor system, but then there must be feedback from the system, and the expansion of awareness or functional integration with the motor system. Learning is neither something that happens purely at the level of cognition nor of embodiment, but in the domain of the interaction of the body-mind.

Learning is the functional integration through increased awareness of the possibilities of movement. Those behavioural theories of learning that derive from animal studies see only those aspects of learning that involve the sub-cortical regions of the brain that do not involve volition and awareness but that happen to the organism in the course of practical interaction with the environment. Cognitive theories on the other hand focus on the conscious mind that then controls the body from a third person perspective, as an objective mechanism with limited set of dispositions. The possibility of projecting directions is not seen to fundamentally transform the system, whereas in the somatic paradigm it fundamentally does so by transforming both, the self-image and sensory perception of the body, but also by transforming perception in general.

So the important insight here is that practical engagement transforms perception and reality only when it engages consciousness and volition, and when it involves the expansion of awareness, and all significant learning can happen only with the participation of the individual him or herself. It is not merely that somatic practice is a form of education or learning, rather than therapy, that is defined in terms of the functional integration of action and awareness, but rather that somatic education really provides the paradigm for education in general, that is, that in fact all education and significant learning is a somatic process of functional integration. It implies a kind of a value judgement with respect to the other forms of learning, namely, behavioural adaptation on the one hand, and cognitive control on the other. The fundamental claim here is that somatic education is not domain specific, that does not represent a form of learning in a particular domain, but that it proposes to elaborate a theory of how learning works in general, and this is something that requires further elaboration as to its wider implications.