Reply to Ron Dennis' article "Primary Control and the Crisis in Alexander Technique Theory"

by David Langstroth

I would like to start by saying that I believe Ron Dennis has justified the use of the term "crisis". However, it is apparent from his article that the crisis lies, not in "Alexander Technique theory", but in the failure of many well educated and trained members of the Alexander community to understand it. Ron Dennis gives us a list of quotes on the primary control from various people, some well known and some more obscure, which reveal more about their idiosyncratic ideas than about any aspect of "Alexander Technique theory".

The issue is really a lot simpler than Ron makes it out to be. The Alexander Technique is based on the observation that maintaining a certain relationship between head, neck, torso and limbs establishes a standard of general co-ordination which is beneficial for functioning and manner of reaction. It is how Alexander solved his vocal problems, and improved his general health. It is what he taught to his pupils in Australia, and later in London and America.

Now, contrary to Ron's article, I do not believe that this is compromised in any way because Alexander coined the term "Primary Control" to describe this phenomenon later in his career. The fact is that from the very beginning he taught pupils to maintain this relationship of parts, and the results justified him in doing so. My own experience confirms it. When I maintain this relationship of parts in activity, I experience an improvement in co-ordination which affects a variety of particular symptoms.

Ron talks about the embarassing position of having to explain a neural mechanism that has no evident basis in empirical research. What neural mechanism is he talking about? Alexander never described the primary control as a neural mechanism. If Ron has the idea that he has to defend some notion of a neural mechanism then I well understand his embarassment. The primary control is defined by Alexander (who, after all coined the term) in the following way:

"I discovered that a certain use of the head in relation to the neck, and of the head and neck in relation to the torso and other parts of the organism, if consciously and continuously employed, ensures, as was shown in my own case, the establishment of a manner of use of the self as a whole which provides the best conditions for raising the standard of the functioning of the various mechanisms, organs, and systems. I found that in practice this use of the parts, beginning with the use of the head in relation to the neck, constituted a primary control of the mechanisms as a whole, involving control in process right through the organism, and that when I interfered with the employment of the primary control of my manner of use this was always associated with a lowering of the standard of my general functioning."

So all this worry about the absence of a neural mechanism, or some sort of little black box that the anatomists have never been able to find, is unnecessary. Anyone who describes the primary control in this way ought simply to be corrected.

Ron claims to have looked at a fair amount of movement science literature since 1984 and has never found anything to indicate the primary control. Perhaps Ron has been looking for the wrong thing (a neural mechanism?), or perhaps he has not looked as extensively as he thinks he has. I will make a few suggestions.

In 1989 the second International Union of Physiological Sciences Conference was held at Fontainebleu near Paris. There, a satellite symposium met to specifically consider head movement control. It resulted in the joint publication of 115 technical papers under title The Head-Neck Sensory Motor System (Berthoz et al, 1992). Running throughout these papers is the recognition of the primary importance of the head and neck to the behaviour of the whole animal. In the preface the editors state,

"The need for a thorough analysis of all aspects of head movement control is all the more important because head movements are a core element of orienting behavior involving a number of interactive sensory and motor systems." (Berthoz et al, 1992, p.xv)

The following are a few excerpts from these papers. In a paper on head position and posture in new-born infants Jouen (1992) describes both how neck reflexes affect the limbs, and how breathing is modified by posture. Bland and Boushey (1992) describe the cervical (neck) spine as being the most complicated articular system in the body. What is most interesting is their report that either awake or in sleep the neck moves over 600 times an hour. No other part of the musculoskeletal system is in such constan motion. This discovery makes sense in the light of Alexander’s discovery of its primary role in the co-ordination of activity. Benson and Brown (1992), Wilson (1992) and Pompeiano (1992) all contributed papers confirming the role of proprioceptors in the neck in controlling posture. Pompeiano described this process as a complex co-ordination of excitation and inhibition. Taylor (1992) pointed out the loss of motor co-ordination that results from the disruption of the activity of the neck in postural reflexes, similar to Alexander’s concept of interfering with the primary control. She goes on to emphasise how the perception of the relationship between head and body is vital for successful interaction with the environment. Gurfinkel et al (1992) asserted that in man the neck reflexes were likely controlled by some higher structure of the central nervous system than they were in animals, and suggested that a system of internal representation played a part in the correct working of these reflexes. This supports the idea that conscious cognitive processes, such as directions, would be effective in controlling this relationship of parts. Straube et al (1992) and Zangemeister et al (1992) asserted, like Alexander 100 years previously, that pulling the head back and down increased postural instability and interfered with the smooth co-ordination of walking. Brown (1992) linked imbalance arising from the neck with conditions of tension, irritability, vertigo, loss of concentration, headache, numbness and poor memory.

This is by no means an extensive list of research, but should illustrate that there is a scientific recognition of the primary importance of the head and neck in controlling animal (including human) behaviour.

Ron recounts a question he put to Chris Stevens about how to explain the primary control to a neurologist. Chris Stevens was reputedly unable to answer. Well, this anecdote, interesting as it might be, hardly constitutes a crisis. The question he put to Chris Stevens is in fact rather an odd one. For the description of the primary control is the same whether you are describing it to a neurologist or a milkman. However, it was probably interpreted by Stevens as meaning, "What is the underlying neural mechanism?" Here we come back again to that persistent fallacy that this is about a neural mechanism (Who started this anyway?). The maintenance of a certain relationship of parts, starting with the head and the neck obviously involves neurology (like any other action), but where does the assumption come from that this implies a dedicated neural mechanism?

At a certain point Ron diverges to consider the origins of the term "theory", and to explain the different types of theory. While this is very interesting, his academic preoccupation with the theory of theory is a bit of a dead end. For Ron has construed the relationship between theory and practice in the Alexander Technique completely back to front. And this in spite of the fact that in his very first sentence he reminds us that Alexander put practice before theory.

Let me explain this with a little digression of my own. Take the example of a new method of mine (entirely fictitious for the purposes of this posting). I will call it the Langstroth Technique. The Langstroth Technique is based on the idea that the colour blue has positive energies. This is my theory (please don't take this seriously, its only an example). Using my theory, I can devise a practice which involves shining blue lights on people. Now this is an instance in which theory comes before practice. The effectiveness of my practice depends entirely on the truth of my theory. If someone can show that I am wrong about the positive energies of blue light then the practice is rendered worthless. Many practices are in fact just like this, that is, based on assumptions or theories which themselves are not proven. The Alexander Technique however is the other way round. Alexander started by discovering something that works and then later coined a term to describe it. It is completely wrong of Ron to claim that the technique is founded on the concept of the primary control. In fact, the concept of the primary control is founded on the practice of the Technique.

Ron also attempts to support his argument by the claim that "Evolution of a Technique" was written many years after the events it describes, and that it is a natural tendency of the autobiographical writer to make things appear in retrospect much more simple and clear than they actually were at the time. Ron is probably right about this, and we have no way to really know how clear or fuzzy Alexander's thinking was at the time. Ron's worst case scenario might actually be true: Alexander might have actually figured out the thinking for all those events only years later. But whether he did or didn't is irrelevant. He found a practical procedure that worked. It doesn't really matter if he finally decided to call it the primary control some years later.

The final point I want to address in Ron's article is his quote from a letter written by Alexander to Frank Pierce Jones after 1940: "There really isn't a primary control as such. It becomes a something in the sphere of relativity." I'm sure I don't need to point out to Ron Dennis, with his academic qualifications, that a snippet removed from personal correspondence and quoted out of context is of questionable value in trying to support a particular point. We don't know from this what the understanding was between Alexander and Jones, or what particular interpretation we ought to put on it. It is just as likely that Alexander was refuting the idea that the primary control was some sort of anatomical entity (like a neural mechanism). He may have been asserting that it is about maintaining the relationship of parts in activity.

If I've gone on at some length and bored you all, you can wake up now, for I shall come to the main point. Alexander discovered that a certain relationship of parts, if maintained in activity has a co-ordinating influence on the organism as a whole. He eventually decided to call this the primary control. If this is shown not to be the case, then there is no Alexander Technique. Yet it can be tested by anyone, and so far the evidence is overwhelming that Alexander was right. He found it to be true, I find it to be true, and a great many others have found the same thing. It is a practical point not a theoretical one. It cannot be decided by the ebb and flow of the carefully constructed arguments of academics.

Dissent may be an interesting theoretical position, but let us be clear about the implications. If you do not agree, then when someone comes to you with a knee problem, for example, there is no reason to spend any time with the head and neck. Simply focus on the knee and work on it. Thus, you become a teacher of a collection of specific practices, not one general one. And in doing so, you might call yourself a coach, a physiotherapist, or some other title, but you will not be an Alexander Technique Teacher.

But maybe someone can satisfy my curiosity. Do Alexander Teachers who claim to disagree with the "concept of the primary control" still work with the head and neck? Or do they just work in specific ways with specific to try to solve specific problems?

As I said at the beginning the real crisis here is a muddle of understanding. This can probably be traced back to the way Alexander Teachers are trained, particularly to the lack of rigorous standards for training, either academic or practical. Here, I believe that Alexander did set a bad example, but that is another story for another time.

David Langstroth, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada


Bland, J. H. and Boushey, D. R. (1992) ‘The Cervical Spine, from Anatomy
and Physiology to Clinical Care’, in Berthoz, A., Vidal, P. P. and Graf, W.
(eds) (1992).

Benson, A. J. and Brown, S. F. (1992) ‘Perception of Liminal and
Supraliminal Whole- Body Angular Motion’, in Berthoz, A., Vidal, P. P. and
Graf, W. (eds) (1992).

Berthoz, A., Vidal, P. P. and Graf, W. (eds) (1992) The Head-Neck Sensory
Motor System, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Gurfinkel, V. S., Lebedev, M. A. and Levick, Y. S. (1992) ‘What about the
So-Called Neck Reflexes in Humans?’, in Berthoz, A., Vidal, P. P. and Graf,
W. (eds) (1992).

Jouen, F. (1992) ‘Head Position and Posture in Newborn Infants’, in
Berthoz, A., Vidal, P. P. and Graf, W. (eds) (1992).

Pompeiano, O. (1992) ‘Excitatory and Inhibitory Mechanisms Involved in the
Dynamic Control of Posture during the Cervicospinal Reflexes’, in Berthoz,
A., Vidal, P. P. and Graf, W. (eds) (1992).

Straube, A. Paulus, W. and Brandt, T. (1992) ‘Do Head Position and Active
Head Movements Influence Postural Stability?’, in Berthoz, A., Vidal, P. P.
and Graf, W. (eds) (1992).

Wilson, V. J. (1992) ‘ Physiologic Properties and Central Actions of Neck
Muscle Spindles’, in Berthoz, A., Vidal, P. P. and Graf, W. (eds) (1992).

Zangemeister, W. H., Bulgheroni, M. V. and Pedotti, A. (1992) ‘Differential
Influence of Vertical Head Posture During Walking’, in Berthoz, A., Vidal,
P. P. and Graf, W. (eds) (1992).

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