Neuroplasticity
and Principles of the Feldenkrais Method

Cliff Smyth, MS

In his 2015 book, Dr Norman Doidge devotes two chapters to the Feldenkrais Method. He provides a useful list of 11 Core Principles of the Method, as he understands it. Here is a quick review of the first two.

1. The mind programs the functioning of the brain.

In 1949, well ahead of the contemporary discussions of neural plasticity, Feldenkrais put forth the idea that the developing mind shapes our use of our neural capacities. That is, how we have come to think in language and images, what and how we perceive and attend to things, our preferences... begin to direct how our brain and nervous system works.

Feldenkrais wrote, "The mind gradually develops and begins to program the functioning of the brain. My way of looking at the mind and body involves a subtle method of 'rewiring' the structure of the whole human being to be functionally well integrated, which means being able to do what the individual wants. Each individual has the choice to wire himself in a special way" (Feldenkrais cited in Doidge, 2015, p. 159)

2. A brain cannot think without motor function.

Feldenkrais believed in the unity of "the mind and the body" Feldenkrais' use of imagined movements is one way we see is application of this principle. The bodily changes with emotion are another example. Doidge writes, "People may believe they can have a pure thought, but in a deeply relaxed state, Feldenkrais pointed out, they will observe every thought leads to a change in their muscles" (Doidge, 2015, p. 170)

3. Awareness of movement is the key to improving movement.

Doidge writes, "The sensory system, [as] Feldenkrais pointed out, is intimately related to the movement system, not separate from it. Sensation's purpose is to orient, guide, help, control, coordinate, and assess the success of a movement." Improvement in our action does not always have to be conscious - in fact much of the learning in Feldenkrais lessons is not. However, experience with the Feldenkrais Method, now backed up by research into neuroplasticity, shows "that long-term neuroplastic change occurs most readily when a person or an animal pays close attention while learning" (Doidge, 2015, 170).

4. Differentiation - making the smallest possible sensory distinctions between movements - builds brain maps.

As infants we don't have very clear neural maps of our body parts and their relationships, and spend a lot of time sticking our fingers into our mouths in various combinations, wriggling our toes, kicking our legs, and other experimentation that builds more detailed maps; a process of differentiation. With injury our sense of our body and its body parts can become distorted or diminished. Doidge writes, "By making finely tuned - differentiated - movements of these parts and paying close attention while doing so, people experience them subjectively as becoming larger; they take up more of their mental maps, and that can lead to more refined brain maps". (Doidge, 2015, 171).

5. Differentiation is easiest when the stimulus is the smallest.

Differentiation is the ability to notice differences in our experience - differences that can make a difference. This applies to the perception of light, sound, smell, and temperature - as well as muscular effort. This is known as the Fechner-Weber law or principle of perception - that the smaller the stimulus, the easier it is to sense differences. Developing finer and finer distinctions in sensation of muscular activity and movement allows the body to be represented in finer detail in the neuronal 'maps' in the nervous system. This might lead to sensory changes - such as the area involved feeling larger or lighter, for example, as well as allow for smoother and easier movements.

The pattern of each movement is created in the nervous system at, or before, the beginning of each movement. Feldenkrais and Doidge theorized that the nervous system can make use of the new, detailed sense of the body arising from the small movements to make the whole movement pattern easier. Doidge notes, "Many movement problems arise because areas of the body are not well represented in the brain maps". (Doidge, 2015, 172).

6. Slowness of movement is the key to awareness, and awareness is the key to learning.

On the level of the nervous system, it seems that very rapid movements, such as those made by musicians, can sometimes lead to two or more movements becoming overlapped or "fused" in the firing in the nervous system, leading to a loss of coordination of the hands and fingers - sometimes in a condition known as Focal Dystonia of the Hand (FDh). The neural "maps" for "different fingers are now 'dedifferentiated'". It is likely that rapid computer work or over practiced movements in sports (such as golf) can lead to similar phenomena - which can also be associated with pain.

Principle #6 offers a way to approach these kinds of difficulties. Awareness is a key to learning: "slower movement leads to more subtle observation and map differentiation, so that more change is possible". This allows the mover to observe himself or herself more easily - becoming more aware of the qualities of their movement. In Awareness Through Movement lessons the process of self-observation while moving is necessary to experiment with how we are moving, to change the qualities of the movement, and to be aware of the difference between one movement and the next - one of the reasons we ask you to pause between movements and start each movement afresh. (Doidge, 2015, 173).

7. Reduce the effort whenever possible.  Doidge suggests that our slogan should be 'if strain, no gain' rather than 'no pain, no gain'.  Feldenkrais proposed that compulsive effort leads to movement that is carried out on automatic, uses more effort and physical energy than is necessary, increases muscular tightness in parts of the body not even associated with the movement, and risks pain and injury.  In addition, the more force we use the less sensitivity we have to the how we are doing any movement - inhibiting our ability to sense ourselves more accurately in action. (Doidge, 2015, 173).

8. Errors are essential, and there is no right way to move, only better ways

Doidge cites Feldenkrais' idea that striving to do everything correctly can inhibit the possibility of learning from the natural variation that occurs in our performance from 'errors'. As we sometimes say in Feldenkrais classes, 'if it is worth doing it is worth doing badly'.  In Awareness Through Movement lessons we use a number of strategies to generate the kind of variation that leads to learning: going slowly, breaking movement patterns into parts, reversing movements, and introducing novel movements that we would not normally do in everyday life.  We all have different bodies with different abilities and histories; Feldenkrais lessons aim to create the conditions for learning from 'errors- as well as from what feels good.  In these conditions, your nervous system can begin to identify and reproduce the new movement options that are best for you. (Doidge, 2015, 174).

[Note: the final 3 principles will be covered in the next Newsletter of the Feldenkrais Center for Movement & Awareness, then added here. Cliff Smyth, January 2017).

Reference

Norman Doidge, 2015, The brain's way of healing. New York, NY: Viking.